Friday, January 20, 2017

The Failed Project of Civilization


Originally posted October 2016 on The TradArch Blog

Ruins of Tlos, ancient Lycia
This essay is really addressing ethical questions pertaining to the built environment, that's to say how society might organize itself architecturally: How ought we to live? What models help us best to flourish as human beings?

I observe that for many that question has been put to rest. The city is the best model for human flourishing and all energies should be directed to refining it. I don't take the aforementioned position as a given and contend that there may very well be value in revisiting the few basic structures of societal self organization, some ancient, others more recent. Brace yourself for the anecdotes, here they come!

The Ascetic - either the hermit or perhaps the solitary frontiersman who lives in near isolation, living off the land so to speak. The monastery creates a brotherhood of ascetics who though sharing certain tasks in common, reserve much time for isolation and quiet contemplation.

A pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee during my Aliyah

Alright, where to begin? Well, not at the beginning but in my twenties. For 7 years I took a vow of poverty and lived as an ascetic, my daily concerns being studies of linguistics, ethics and aesthetics. Particularly the latter being my personal interest, I could be rightly called an aesthetic ascetic as it were. As a young man I was relieved of the pressures of raising a family, acquiring debt, managing property, climbing a corporate ladder, building a business or otherwise establishing my turf in a commercial enterprise. Yes, there were rules and obligations; however, my experience of the monastic was that this conformist aspect of the life was light, just enough for cohesion of the brethren. I've never since had as much time to simply think and personally develop. As I'm always pressed to answer: how did you not have sex for 7 years? Don't know, couldn't do it now. Likewise reintegrating into the so-called "real" world of civilization was a bitch.

The Tribe - Nomadic by nature not 'cause they hate cha. Hunter gatherers and foragers are the oldest form of society and continue to persist, though to an ever shrinking degree, to the present day.

Civilization hates the tribe, plain and simple. As is well recorded, Europeans flooded the planet from the 15th thru 18th centuries, conducting an unrelenting pogrom of improvement. They encountered pre-existing cultures along the way: Islam, Incas, Chinese, Indian, etc. They didn't care for them much with their pagan and primitive ways but at least they could respect them at some level as proto-civilized, they had cities and rules of law after all. However, when they reached Africa, North America and Australia were they in for a shock: bloody tribes! These people lived and died leaving virtually no mark on the land. The human being living as an animal, how unbecoming. For the enlightened adherents of Cogito Ergo Sum, this just did not compute.

I was born in Manhattan, the heart of arguably the world's first megaregion stretching from Boston down to Washington DC. Nevertheless, I spent my summers at my family's property in Jamaica, W.I. Millbank was a little place deep in the tropical rain forest at the end of the road leading up from Kingston into the Blue Mountains. No phone, no electricity, no plumbing, no problem man. It was a village but retaining many characteristics of tribal life. One bathed in the river, cast nets for fish, caught rock shrimps too, foraged for produce and game in the bush as well as for medicinal leaves and roots. The local folk would go off into the jungle for days on end. Little use for money. No law, no codes and consequently no criminals. Your only responsibilities were to one another, simple and free. That way of life is over, like a fading dream. The 4G service there is better than Charleston. Millbank has been transformed into a distant, impoverished outpost of a civilization upon which its denizens now passively depend.

The Village - A sedentary development of the tribe. Familial groups who stay put by establishing agricultural and husbandry practices.

I recently returned from a traditional plasterer's gathering in the village of Llangors, Wales. Flying over the Welsh countryside en route to landing in Cardiff one can't help but notice the lovely plots of land set aside for cultivation and grazing, interspersed with forest as well as small villages connected by country lanes. Not at all unlike a neural network, you get the palpable feeling the fabric of this society is quite literally sentient and very much a thriving living organism.

Llangorse Lake

Hundisburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Similarly, I had the experience last summer of working in Hundisburg, literally "village of the hound", in the middle of nowhere Germany. Hundisburg was situated in a similar pattern of concentrated village development with adjoining agricultural lands and forest that had slowly accreted over millennia. As these villages would grow to a state of maturity, they would divide like a cell and form a new largely self sufficient familial group at a distance away no more than a two hour walk. And so around Hundisburg you have in a radial fan: Ackendorf, Rottmersleben, Nordgermersleben, Bebertal and Süplingen each with its own distinctive, if related character, culture and history. Modernity has pressed upon them all, imposing for good or ill the legal and transportation infrastructure of contemporary life. Nevertheless, I admired the persistence of the locals to live off the land, eat from their gardens and with the seasons, continue to make their own building materials then build according to their traditions, refuse credit cards and avoid even cash when possible in lieu of barter. For the kids, the next generation being English speakers as beneficiaries of a standardized education courtesy of the E.U., these are just nostalgic fetishes of their cute but backwards parents. They're all European now.

The City - Something altogether different from the village. The city is characterized by strict hierarchies, rules of law, property rights and division of labors. Most towns share these characteristics and can be classified as small cities.

The city is a rather recent phenomenon among human society, perhaps dating back at the most some eight to nine thousand years. For sure villages go back much further. However, as I've been enlightened by a colleague who is writing a book on city planning, a city is most definitely not an overgrown village. Ancient cities weren't grown at all, rather they were manufactured whole cloth with religious, legal and economic infrastructure accompanied by a rationalized plan that is to say an urban layout.

Who made these first cities? The best I can tell, tyrants. The city is possible because of institutionalized systems of coercion, by force of violence enforcing a culture of subjugation, dependence and passivity maintained in successive generations by indoctrination of rule of law and respect for authority. In a word slavery.

Rebellious Slave, Michelangelo
Admittedly there have been these intractable problems from the inception of the city but the case is continually made that the city is a worthwhile project after all. Look how much culture it has brought humanity. You don't get opera in a tribe or Michelangelo in a village. The highest of highs, such pinnacles of human achievement. Inspiring values worth almost any sacrifice...but from whom?

Democratic Athens struggled with this question. By Athenian democracy I mean property owning males, about 10%. Women, foreigners and slaves, you know the folks who actually did all of the work didn't count because after all work is demeaning, subhuman. A group of the citizens felt democracy was all wrong, the enfranchisement of 10% was already too broad. The unlearned it gave voice to interfered with the realization of the ideal polis where the good, the just and the beautiful were recognized as three expressions of a single guiding universal ideal. The beautiful city is a just city. A just city is a good city. A good city is a beautiful city.

If you are committed to the city project as your model of human flourishing I guess it's perfection is perhaps a reasonable quest; you're committed after all and that's the nature of commitment. However, from someone like myself who makes no such commitment, it reeks of Romanticism. No not the 19th century aesthetic movement but hearkening all the way back to Classical Greece & Rome: Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. When has the West or anyone else for that matter ever produced anything even approaching a good, just and beautiful city? Athens? Rome? Paris? London? New York? It's a delusion, a fantasy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the ideals of the good, just and beautiful as among the guiding lights for human flourishing. I just observe that the city has never been the appropriate societal vehicle for such development, rather an impediment.

The Megaregion - The absorption of cities into huge swaths of development, forming blocs that are in fierce economic competition with one another in a single global market.

Cities were horrible places for most people. Running them required armies that acquired and policed slaves, serfs or similar peasant rabble; the only "volunteers" being the most vulnerable and desperate outside populations who, otherwise facing starvation, were compelled to prostitute themselves as "metics" or indentured servants. Unsurprisingly, the city was the minority form of societal organization. Up until as late as 1800 less than 3% of the world's population lived in cities, although it must be admitted that the outstretched influence of the city was already vigorously on the rise. Today, over half the world's population lives in cities, a startling 75% in the West. Who doesn't physically live in the city, lives according to the prescriptions of the larger megaregion.

Chicagoland
The megaregion is the metastasis of the city, spreading everywhere like cancer. It is militarily intolerant of any independent form of societal self organization. Totalizing, the megaregion reaches out into the most far flung reaches of desert, tundra  and jungle, to the most isolated tribe and village, "civilizing" them, excising conformity and dependence by rule of law.

When I was a child I had a vision for world unity. I thought how wonderful it will be when everyone has electricity, everyone has a car, everyone speaks English...everyone becomes the same because they're just like me! I think I can be forgiven for that; it was the thinking of an undeveloped, immature child. As humanity faces impending ecological crisis, the depletion economies and nihilistic behavior of the megaregions are stamping out remaining solutions embedded in thousands of years of accumulated tradition, culture and language, literally humanity's collective ability to think, in favor of an imposed universality. The fact that megaregions such as Toronto, Dubai and Peking are converging in the ways they look and function is not evidence of progress, it's evidence of tremendous loss resulting from infantile thinking.

So the questions arise: Is this state of affairs inevitable? Is this human evolution, progress toward some yet undetermined end? Who's to say for sure, maybe it is. I have my biases but I'm not insisting that the tribe and village are better than the city. Personally though, I don't like having all my "evolutionary" eggs placed in the megaregional basket without my consent. Just as we make room for national parks, protected species, there may be some wisdom in making a place for other forms of human society, uncivilized as they may be. Civilization can afford this and the price our species may have to pay for not doing so might be too much to bear.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

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