City and Community
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Human beings are social creatures. The species Homo sapiens sapiens survived these past 150,000 years not by strength, stamina, or agility, but by the capacity for working together. People hunted together, as many predators do, while others gathered fruits and vegetables, but more importantly, the bounty of this was shared. Even more importantly, those who couldn't participate in these activities got to eat. Archaeological finds of Paleolithic humans show broken bones that have healed, in which the person lived long after the injury. This is the sign of the greatest human invention: community.
These early hunter-gatherer communities were often nomadic, but not always. Our view of them as such tends to be skewed by our observation of modern hunter-gatherers, who tend to live on more marginal land and therefore need to migrate to different hunting grounds to maintain a steady food supply. However, some places had plentiful supplies of food, particularly fishing communities and places with abundant fertile soil. Permanent or semi-permanent settlements may have formed in these places well before the Neolithic. Agriculture itself did not develop all at once, but gradually, as people gathering edible plants learned to leave the seeds behind when they picked them, or to take them home and replant them nearby.
The Neolithic village was a site of rich communal life. Farming was largely a collective affair. Houses were often built in a circular formation, with a center for communal activities. The firepit that held a central place in the Paleolithic developed into the hearth, which took on a religious significance. While life may have been simpler in many ways, people in this era achieved astounding feats of monumental architecture. Megalithic sites such as Stonehenge or Göbekli Tepe remain impressive feats of engineering with skillful craftsmanship.
There is little evidence of social stratification until about 8000 BCE with the domestication of large animals, and even then there are striking examples where egalitarianism remained in place long afterward. Especially notable is the settlement of Çatalhöyük, a proto-city where houses were stacked together and accessible only from the rooftop, allowing for easy communal defense. There is little differentiation in the size and quality of these houses. A similar situation presents itself in the early settlement of Jericho. Many of these proto-cities seem to have arisen out of a sense of mutual defense. The walls of these cities formed a kind of permeable membrane that fostered the good of the community inside while keeping out threats from without.
The term “civilization” comes from the Latin civilis, and is related to the term civis (citizen) and civitas (city). The history of civilization is therefore tightly bound to the history of the city. Early city-states had more stratified structures. Farmers in the countryside produced a surplus that fed a population of artisans, priests, and bureaucrats in the city. In return, the city walls provided protection when raiders came. The city walls became a kind of cell membrane. They organized everything within into a functional whole, while selectively making use of the surroundings.
The stratification of classes went with a stratification of buildings. The Neolithic village was a collection of residential dwellings, relatively undifferentiated from one another. In the city, new buildings were required for administrative and religious purposes. Residential dwellings also became stratified, with royalty and aristocracy enjoying majestic palaces complete with servant quarters for the help, and various grades of housing for other castes and classes.
The city is fundamentally an expression of values. Its planning enacts a set of priorities representing the priorities of its planners. The imperial capital was built practically in such a way as to administer the empire, as well as aesthetically to represent its glory. Empires would build cities within its territories designed with a street grid that made it easy to move troops and maintain order. In France, following the Revolution, cities were designed to put down rebellions. In New York, Robert Moses designed transportation systems in such a way as to segregate poor people of color from the more upscale parts of the city.
Yet while it could be designed for domination and repression, the city could also be designed for sharing power. The medieval commune was set up as a pact between the citizens for mutual defense. In the countryside, the castles of nobility provided defense to peasants and in exchange for a portion of what they produced. In the commune, by contrast, the city wall allowed for a more democratic form of defense in which ordinary citizens participated. The closing of the gate was a nightly ritual in which the city acted as a sanctuary for those inside.
These towns defied the Roman grid. The roads of such cities were built not for the passing of armies, but for the daily commerce of the people. Winding paths passed along the houses and workshops where people sold their wares to passers-by. Such conditions were meant to be lived in, not passed through. The roads were made for people, not traffic. If one visits these cities today, one can easily get lost in the maze of winding roads that split off in seemingly random directions. Yet for those who lived there, there was an organic order to this layout. It is an order built for its residents, not for visitors.
Houses were built in such a way as that one’s shop was on the ground floor, open to the traffic passing by, while sleeping quarters were upstairs. Such houses would often be stacked together in such a way that optimized insulation. Housing was for the people. The landlords were the feudal aristocracy out in the country, but in the commune they had no real power. Housing was a place to stay, not a speculative asset.
Guildhalls formed the economic center of such towns. They were the place where people would come together to discuss the town’s affairs, store goods, and perform public celebrations. Guilds also forged a connection with other towns. They provided trade networks and supply chains, and even defensive alliances. The power of the guilds often troubled the feudal aristocracy and members of the church, but they had to be wary about challenging them outright.
The communes of this age formed confederations with other towns and villages. Confederations such as the Hanseatic League and the Lombard League formed a formidable challenge to the power of such titans as the Holy Roman Empire. Confederation has a long history, including the ancient Greek confederation that faced the might of the Persian empire, as well as the Iroquois and Powhatan confederations, and the Zapatista and Rojava confederations today. Such organization has always been the greatest bulwark against the forces of empire.
Such towns were by no means perfectly egalitarian or democratic, but they did foster a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that would later inspire leftist intellectuals such as the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin. Mercantile Republics such as Florence developed from them, and would go on to have a great influence on the Renaissance. They give us an example of the vibrant life a city can foster when its citizens have an active part in its planning and administration.
In the modern city, we live in the shadow of industrialism. The Roman grid re-emerged in the Renaissance and became an ever more prominent feature of modernity. The modern city is built around commercial and industrial interests. Every road, every bus route, every tram line, is built around getting people to and from work and transporting supplies from one location to another.
Even as the conviviality of the medieval commune is lost, the modern city is more integrated than ever. Houses are no longer simply structures built up wherever there is space. They must connect to the electric grid, water and sewer systems, roadways, waste disposal systems, and several other utilities. Utilities have always played some part in cities, but the march of technology has led to an increasing variety of services that the municipality can and must deliver to its residents. New development therefore requires a good deal more public planning than was once necessary.
Water and power have always been two interpenetrating and overlapping forces in society. Human settlement has always followed the availability of water. The first towns were settled along river banks, which provided not only for crops and drinking water, but also transportation. Irrigation allowed expansion outward into places that did not naturally have enough water to sustain the population.
Water was also used for industrial purposes from an early age, notably in the forging and smelting of metal. Waterways also transported lumber and mined minerals. Later, the development of watermills allowed the natural flow of water to be used for milling, rolling, and hammering, powering industries such as lumber and textiles. Hydraulics were used heavily in the Industrial Revolution, including the heating of water to produce steam power, which came to define the age. Hydraulics are still widely used in the mining of minerals and the operation of industrial machinery. Influent and effluent continue to play a central role in countless industrial processes.
This combination of fire and water continues today with electric production. We tend to think of water as one utility and electricity as another. Dams have played a critical role in bringing electricity to rural areas, while power sources such as coal and nuclear that rely on the generation of heat use enormous amounts of water to cool their equipment, risking meltdowns if these cooling systems go awry. These power sources use more water than agriculture, not counting the water used to mine the minerals they consume. Electricity is then used to power a vast system of electrical pumps in the city’s water system.
A city is an ecosystem, and it must be wise in its use of resources. Drought and famine have killed off more than a few once mighty civilizations. There needs to be an elemental balance for a civilization to thrive in harmony with its environment. We must be mindful of throughput – the flow of resources into and out of our social and technological systems – to ensure the larger environment around us can sustain it.
While the traditional four elements have been scientifically displaced by the periodic table, they do provide a useful framework for understanding the balance that must be struck to maintain society. We have seen how water and fire get used to an overwhelming and unsustainable manner in our society. We overuse them to the neglect of the other two elements: earth and air. Earth is here understood as land in the economic sense of space in which to live as well as the environmental sense as soil fertility, minerals, and natural ecosystems. Air includes both the power of wind energy and the quality of the air we breathe.
To the greatest extent possible, we should take advantage of natural flows while interrupting them as little as possible. This is what soft energy paths such as wind and solar seek to do: the natural wind and the heat of the sun are used in ways that minimize the strain on the surrounding environment. Hydropower in the form of dams causes mass disruption in the ecosystem, but micro-hydro power can make use of natural waterways without significantly disturbing them, and even parts of our own water distribution systems, especially wastewater. The more distributed and scaled down these systems are, the less they throw the ecosystem out of balance, and the more fail-safe systems there are in case any one part goes out of commission.
This passive principle in which natural flows and processes are attended to and utilized with as little brute force as possible applies also to buildings and roads. The use of local resources for building materials cuts down on transportation costs and encourages a conservationist ethic toward one’s surroundings, encouraging that what is taken from the environment is replaced at a sustainable rate. The layout of development should reflect both the natural advantages of the location and social factors that emerge from patterns of settlement and the needs that arise from it.
Cities have always figured prominently in utopian schemes. In a sense, the city has its origins in utopian thought. Some of the first proto-cities were religious centers, serving ritual function to connect people to their deities. The earliest civilizations centered around a god-king, supported by a priesthood that read the signs in the sky to seek prosperity for the empire. In Egypt we have the Pharaoh as the one who brings order to the cosmos itself. In Mesoamerica, we see cities as sites of massive ritual sacrifice to appease the gods and bring harmony to the universe.
The Greek polis gives us the root form of what we today call “politics.” It was the site of all sorts of political experiments and visions about the ideal society. Athens and Sparta were both experiments in types of political order. On one side, we have the birthplace of democracy; on the other, a type of regimented military society. In Athens, we have a system in which the body politic takes shape as a society of equals ruling together, where public discourse shaped policy. The public in this system only included a minority of people who lived there, excluding women, slaves, and foreigners. Yet those included within it were peers, none better than another. As such, they chose leaders by lottery: they drew lots and whoever was chosen would exercise executive functions for limited periods of time. In Sparta, the body politic consisted of a warrior class, with another class of non-citizen residents, and a third class of slaves known as helots.
Plato created one of the first pieces of utopian literature with his Republic, which pictured the ideal polis. For him, the polis was the means through which people could strive toward the Form of the Good. He imagined the stratification of the ideal society into different classes, with Philosopher kings ruling with wisdom, followed by soldiers and auxiliaries, and a third class of commoners who, unlike the other two classes, are allowed to own property. Wary of the logic of the market, Plato saw how property provided one form of power that must be kept separate from political power. He sought a kind of meritocracy that would direct people toward the Good by overcoming the corrupting influence of financial and familial influence on the structure and exercise of power.
Aristotle analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government, including despotism, oligarchy, and democracy, seeing virtues and flaws in each, while discussing how each can degrade and give way to another. Throughout all these forms, however, he saw the polis at the center. He saw politics as following from ethics, and ethics as being ultimately directed toward the polis. Virtue, he saw, was directed toward living together with one another, which meant inhabiting the polis. Man, he said, is by nature a political animal.
The Roman grid arose as an ideal for the administration of the empire. Its perpendicular lines crossing one another to create segments of a city allowed them to plan these settlements from the ground up. Indeed, many such settlements began as military encampments, with buildings replacing tents as the camps transformed into permanent settlements. Such settlements were laid out with different quarters serving different functions in a total system whose ultimate goal was the upholding of imperial rule.
This central planning approach has pervaded any number of would-be utopias since then. The twentieth century saw numerous attempts to construct a “city of tomorrow” that takes an engineer’s eye to the problems of the city. Such social engineers often have a brilliant mind when it comes to accounting for throughput and environmental flows. They may seek to make completely self-sustaining settlements, such as Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, optimize the city for traffic flow, such as Brazil’s capital of Brasilia, or seek to “scientifically” plan cities such that technology does the work for us, as in the Technocracy movement and its offshoots such as the Venus Project.
What these schemes tend to leave out is the element of spontaneity. Or rather, they actively try to suppress the spontaneous elements of the city, attributing to them all the shortcomings of our current urban civilization. Perhaps this owes much to capitalist ideology claiming “spontaneity” as the virtue of the free market, with socialism as the ideology of central planning and coercion. Hayek spoke of a “spontaneous order” produced by market signals that could not be replicated through central planning because of all the tacit knowledge distributed throughout the population. Yet if Hayek’s criticism applies to state planners, it applies just as much to large concentrations of capital, whose economic prerogatives override the concerns of the community.
Today, developers will come into a city or community with a proposal for some project designed to bring in revenue. Residents may or may not get some say in the matter, but if so, it is a simple up or down vote. If they say no, they do not get a say in what gets built instead. It is assumed that whatever needs their community has will be met by the free market meeting their demand. Yet we see from phenomena such as “food deserts” that the needs of many communities – particularly those with less purchasing power – are not being met.
The best-paying jobs tend to be concentrated in the downtown area, while urban sprawl pushes people out to more and more marginal sites. People seeking gainful employment must take increasingly long commutes just to make ends meet. For many people, this means relying on public transportation, if it’s available. Even in municipalities with good public transportation, many jobs can only be accessed by car, creating a major barrier for those who can’t afford one.
Yet the separation of work and home is a relatively recent innovation brought about by the enclosure of the commons and the growth of industrialism. In the medieval commune, the home was the place of work. As the factory replaced the workshop, workers became a factor of production to be managed, rather than the subjects of production.
What is missing from the city, then, is not some overarching plan by some visionary who takes everything into account, nor a free market to meet demand for those who can afford to pay, but real autonomy for the people who live there. Yet simply voting up or down on a proposal for developments that do not fundamentally change power relations does not grant people the kind of autonomy they need.
Someone busy commuting to and from one or more full-time jobs just to make ends meet is not likely to have the time or energy to take an active role in planning and managing the community around them. It is difficult to manage when you are being managed. What is needed is more than just jobs, but a community of people with whom to produce and exchange goods and services.
A healthy community needs food, medicine, spaces for children to play, and underratedly, beauty. Transportation is also a need, but all too often, transportation is prioritized first so as to get people to places outside their community. A community is not a true community if it does not have these kinds of essential resources and services. It is just a storehouse for workers, serving the production needs of capital. Large roads and freeways tend to cut through communities rather than build them up. Even rail lines and other public transportation can prove problematic if they are prioritized over walkable spaces and close-knit communities.
Completely self-sufficient communities are neither realistic nor desirable, but they should be designed to meet their own needs as much as possible before looking to meet its needs elsewhere. Trade is good. Not all goods and services can realistically be produced in one place, and people’s lives may be enriched by a variety of goods available from elsewhere. However, communities can be flattened by trade and transportation, becoming little more than stops along the way from point A to point B. Communities must cultivate their own potential in order to fully benefit from connecting and engaging with other communities. This holds at all levels of community, from the immediate neighborhood to the city and municipality to all levels of organization. Only then can a “community of communities” flourish.
Building community must mean that members of the community are actively engaged. Yet most people barely even know their own community. Neighbors don’t know their neighbors. What time they don’t spend at work or at home is spent traveling outside their community to go shopping or pursuing some sort of entertainment or recreation. We are faced with a paradox: People do not come together because there is lack of community, but community cannot be built until people come together to build it.
Planning cannot be left solely in the hands of professionals. Their expertise will inevitably serve some interest other than that of the people living there. Lewis Mumford suggested an alternative: get the children involved. Surveying the community should be an integral part of education. Education currently serves the purpose of preparing people for jobs to serve the interests of capital accumulation. An alternative approach to education could focus on raising people to be contributing members of the community. The community survey could be tailored in an age-appropriate manner, where younger children learn simpler aspects of it, and as they advance, they become more and more capable of assessing the community’s needs and bringing them to the table for collective planning.
Collective planning already occurs in squatter communities throughout the world. Known derisively as "slums," these communities are built by some of the poorest people in the world, yet using what little resources they have, they have made functional communities with long-enduring structures and a bustling commercial life. Places like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro have created communities that have lasted for generations. Such communities in many ways resemble the self-built communes of the medieval era, and in spite of what they lack in access to utilities, they stand as a monument to human ingenuity. How much further could such creativity go if these communities had the full resources of the city available to them, to collaborate on the infrastructure and services needed to really make their communities thrive?
In the post-WWII era, home ownership became the driving motive of American life. It was said that “a man’s home is his castle.” Owning a home becomes a way to carve out one’s own piece of the world and be a lord and sovereign over one’s own piece of land. Over time, a home became a stepping stool toward a bigger home and greater luxury. People got mortgages on homes not for the home itself but for profit they hoped to make off it. Real estate became the path to wealth and status, even as real production was outsourced to other countries. The “McMansion” phenomenon became the ultimate reflection of this rat race, creating a simulacrum of real wealth and status commodified for public consumption.
Despite numerous tax incentives, home ownership remains out of reach for much of the population, who must rent instead. There is much to be said for apartments: many can have pleasant décor and great amenities like a pool, sauna, or gym that would be prohibitively costly to afford as a private homeowner. Collective living has an ancient pedigree, and there is much to be said for it. The problem is that renters are subject to rising rents that can price them out and force them to live elsewhere. Their living situation is not stable. The same increase in land values that brings profit for the homeowner can spell disaster for the renter.
Henry George sought to address this situation by a land value tax that would effectively turn everyone into renters. The homeowner and landlord would pay the state the same increment that the renter must pay to their landlord. In turn, this would encourage the development of more housing in high-demand areas, effectively easing the burden on land values overall and decreasing the increment that renters and homeowners alike would have to bear. It would minimize the “leapfrog effect” whereby development is scattered and land developed unevenly due to speculative withholding, and thereby cut down on urban sprawl.
The idea is to “light a fire” under the landlord’s feet and force them to develop. Yet there would still be a fire under the renter and homeowner’s feet, however diminished by the added development. It would still be the case that job loss, medical crisis, or major debt could force someone out of their home. The capitalist housing market is inherently one of precarity, and while the Georgist proposal may alleviate the burden, it does not change the fundamental logic of such an economy.
This was not the case for someone in the medieval commune. From the highest noble or master craftsman to the lowliest plebian, one’s home was one’s own. Housing had a collective character similar to that of the apartment dweller, but eviction was not a threat. The rent they paid was their participation in a greater community bound by a common civic pride. The speculative bubbles that infect the housing market in our own time were not known to them. The economy, very much one of commodity exchange on the market, was not characterized by the endless pursuit of growth and accumulation that characterizes the modern capitalist economy.
The efficient urban development that the Georgist proposal seeks to create can be achieved through community planning, using land value capture. But the goal should be to build toward an economy in which such measures are no longer necessary. The redistribution of rents can develop into a redistribution of labor, in which all contribute as they are able toward the well-being of the city, reviving a sense of the polis. From each according to their ability to each according to their need.
The experience of squatter communities shows that when people have security of tenure, they will continue to improve their communities. Multi-story houses are built to house new generations of residents. All this is done without the help of developers, architects, or planners. The knowledge to build communities is distributed throughout society, but is all too often inhibited by exclusionary zoning laws, property rights, and the pecuniary logic of the market.
This is not to say that markets should no longer have a place. Indeed, a bustling marketplace can be a thriving part of a city’s vitality, as the agora was for ancient Athens. But people’s well-being should not be dependent upon commercial success. The right to food, shelter, essential services, and a community that nourishes and uplifts should come prior to any income a person may earn for themselves.
The separation of work and home also factors into this. While some skyscrapers are high-rise apartments and hotels, many are devoted to office space. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has provided a golden opportunity to show how many jobs, particularly office jobs, can be done from home by telecommuting. That’s not even bringing in the question of how many of these jobs need to exist. David Graeber has spoken extensively about the phenomenon of what he calls “bullshit jobs,” which effectively have no societal benefit other than to pad the pockets of capital. He describes five types of such jobs. First is “flunkies” such as receptionists and administrative assistants who serve to make their superiors feel important. Then there are “goons” hired by corporations to fight the “goons” of other corporations, such as lobbyists, corporate lawyers, and telemarketers. Next are “duct tapers” who make temporary fixes to problems that could be solved permanently. Next are “box tickers” such as survey administrators and corporate compliance officers who create the illusion that something is being done when it is not. Then there are “taskmasters” such as middle management who manage and create busy work where none is needed.
None of these jobs had a relevant counterpart in the medieval commune, and there is no reason they should be needed in an economy run for the benefit of all. I therefore see no reason why all these high-rise office buildings could not be repurposed for residential use. Shops and storefronts can be integrated into the bottom floors of buildings and staffed by people who live on the floors above and in nearby houses. No one should have to commute more than walking distance to work.
With the power of capital toppled, people could have more say in the type of buildings they would like to build. More resources could be devoted to enjoyment, recreation, and leisure. For every billionaire who owns their own private pool, golf course, racetrack, art gallery, yacht, island, could we not devote some portion of such resources for public consumption instead? Our lives were meant to be spent in more than just toil. There is no reason we cannot produce enough for everyone’s needs and have plenty of time and resources left over for festivals and revelry. When the pursuit of endless accumulation ceases to be the basis of our economy, we can rediscover how to live lives of joy and comradery.
One underrated dimension of public life is the aesthetic. Beauty is often treated as a luxury – something one consumes privately. Beauty is said to be “in the eye of the beholder,” and therefore something to be left up to personal taste. It is true that beauty is not measurable – it is stubbornly qualitative in a way that, more than anything, defies quantification. It is also true that people have different aesthetic preferences. Yet while such preferences are subjective, they are not arbitrary. People can and do argue about the artistic merits of works of art, based on intersubjective criteria about what a work expresses, what feelings it evokes, and what statement it makes. One person may prefer jazz while another prefers heavy metal, but they can agree on the aesthetic content of each.
Beauty is a basic human need. Dreary and mundane surroundings can take a heavy toll on our psyche. People need more than just food and shelter. They need the experience of harmony and wonder. Natural beauty is one way in which this need is met. For those who can’t get away from the city, parks and gardens can help fill this need, as can the integration of plant life into the urban landscape. The rural village has no need for such green spaces – they are to be found all around. The city must plan such spaces and make them accessible to all. Such spaces provide much-needed relief from stress, and greatly contribute to the public’s mental health.
Architecture builds upon natural beauty with created beauty. Some of the first architectural marvels were megaliths made from surrounding stones. The techniques used to move such massive boulders continue to perplex us today. Temples and religious sites held a special importance, and one finds detailed carvings in early sites such as Gobekli Tepe. Religion and aesthetics have gone together for as long as we have evidence of either, from the ornate burials of the Paleolithic to the world’s great cathedrals, temples, synagogues, and mosques. The need for awe and wonder lies at the root of art and religion alike.
Pyramids and ziggurats were some of the first monumental buildings. They mimicked the majestic beauty of the mountains. Mountains have long held sacred value to religions throughout the world, from Olympus to Sinai to Kailash. They reach up to the heavens and conveyed their might, as the early pharaohs and kings sought to do. Modern skyscrapers convey a similar imposing aura. Scale has always played a profound role on the human psyche. From the mountains and oceans to the stars gazing down upon us, humans have always felt a sense of their finitude in the face of the immense vast wonders around them. To seek after that scale was none other than to storm the heavens and seek divinity for oneself. The tower of Babel offers us a timely reminder of the hubris in this endeavor.
The ruling classes have long enjoyed the finest surroundings and ostentatious dwellings. Their palaces, manors, and castles are sites of exquisite architecture. The luxurious decorations within are for theirs for their own enjoyment, and for conducting official business, but the estate itself becomes something for the public to admire. Their indulgence becomes a vicarious source of public enjoyment. We see this today with the nouveau-riche and their conspicuous consumption. In a way, there is a strange kind of populism to this conspicuous consumption: this kind of public indulgence is relatable to a public that would want to do the same things in their place. It is the traditional aristocracy and old money that hides their wealth away from public view, keeping a low profile while maintaining their vast estates.
The dwellings of common folk may not have the same grandeur as the great mansions and palaces of the rich and powerful, but they can be glorious in their own right. If one visits any number of pre-industrial villages, one can find avenues of brightly colored houses creating a lively atmosphere and a sense of communal vitality. Such homes are often tightly packed together, with a continuity of style that manifests a sense of local culture. There is grandeur not so much in any individual building but in the cohesiveness of the whole neighborhood, which exists as a community rather than simply an aggregate of homes.
What one finds in a modern urban environment is a mishmash of designs that stand on their own, with little connection to the buildings around them. To the extent that there is a continuity of form, it is a landscape of differently sized boxes with bland colors covered in windows. When an architect does design a creative and artistic building, it often clashes with its surroundings. Where there are not clashing styles, there is the dreary landscape of the “concrete jungle” and the manufactured malaise of suburbia.
This dreary landscape is taking a heavy psychic toll on us all. The boring, dull, soul-crushing landscape is the one in which we work and commute and shop in our daily lives. Billboards, identical corporate franchises, walls of glass and concrete all form a tax upon our mental well-being. They dull the imagination and limit our ability to function as anything more than cogs in this vast machine. If the architecture of our cities strives for “realism,” it is only because we have lost the imagination to picture a better reality.
This landscape of mediocrity and disharmony is less than a century old. Modern architecture’s origins were quite different and held great promise. The Victorian era saw various neoclassical revivals seeking to bring back some lost glory days, as if to compensate for the “satanic mills” that blackened the landscape with smoke and soot. Toward the turn of the century, a new style called Art Nouveau emerged. It sought to incorporate floral patterns and organic forms along with classical elements and ornate ornaments.
After the First World War, this gave way to Art Deco, a cosmopolitan style incorporating influences from sources as diverse as China, India, Persia, Egypt, and Central America. It became the first truly global architectural style, and became synonymous with the optimism of the time period. The first skyscrapers were built using this aesthetic, including such marvels as the Chrysler Tower and the Empire State Building. Art Deco and Art Nouveau together represent a path that modern architecture could have taken, but a set of orthodoxies developed that set it on quite a different course.
Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function,” meaning that building design should follow a practical form based on the function it is meant to serve. This was simply a practical matter in an age of skyscrapers and steel construction where the older layouts of buildings no longer seemed to apply, and a design principle was needed for new buildings going forward. Sullivan himself was no enemy of embellishment, and quite often added ornamental flourishes to his utilitarian designs.
Yet others combined this principle with that put forward by Adolf Loos in his essay “Ornament and Crime.” Loos was decrying the ornamental flourishes of the Vienna Secession, an Art Nouveau movement in his native Austria. He advanced a moralistic argument that ornament was a “crime” to architecture that made it subject to obsolescence, and decried it as “degenerate,” comparing it to the Papuan practice of tattooing. He argued that Western man must have the moral strength to resist such degeneracy and embrace an austere aesthetic with no need for flourish. That Loos died a convicted pedophile adds a certain irony to his racist argument about “degeneracy,” but the argument seems to have stuck with architects for the better part of a century.
Traditional architecture throughout the world has always followed a certain pattern language of complexity, harmony, and order. A building would exhibit patterns at different scales from smallest to largest, providing information to the eye from multiple different perspectives. The different scales would harmonize with one another in a fractal-like pattern, exhibiting scalar coherence. Life itself is built like this: our bodies have scalar coherence from mitochondria to cells to tissues to organs all the way up to our bodies themselves. Cultures that had no contact with one another developed their own architectural styles that exhibited this same order, not because they were consciously aware of this pattern, but because we are instinctively drawn to it. At smaller scales, the building materials themselves would sometimes provide the pattern, such as the wood of a log cabin. Christopher Alexander suggests there is a certain “quality without a name” exhibited by building that follow this pattern language closely. This quality cannot simply be planned, but emerges organically in a process of reciprocity between building and environment.
Modern architecture flouted these conventions. Designing using scale models, they would pay attention to the larger scale with little attention to smaller scales and almost no attention to intermediate scales. The result is mind-numbing, dull, and uninspiring, sometimes intentionally so. Architects who boast of “realism” fail to understand the biological instincts that made classical architecture from across the world so appealing. Postmodern architecture sought to reintroduce complexity and pattern, but did so without an understanding of this pattern language, creating structures that simply increase tension and anxiety.
In the medieval town, people built their own homes. The knowledge for doing so was widely distributed. A common pattern language was shared by all. Slum dwellers today do the same, often building one wall at a time as they are able to acquire the resources. The difference is that slum dwellers live at the fringes of society, in a precarious position in which they risk being evicted, whereas the medieval burghers had the support of their community. The communities they built in this way had a liveliness to them that has been lost in the modern age of planned landscapes. There was a pattern that persisted amid all the variation, and this combination of pattern and variation is what gave it this vitality.
Planned buildings such as cathedrals were also collective endeavors. The master builder had the overall design in mind, but all the pattern language was understood by all the builders involved. It was a pattern that involved the whole community for whom the building was intended. The master builder was part of the construction process itself, working onsite so that he could get a sense of the building's place and function in the community. Even with the overall layout in mind, the design itself was a process.
What connected these large projects with the homes that ordinary people built was that everyone shared a common pattern language. The specialization and professionalization of building has meant that architects have their own pattern language that is not only not shared with ordinary people, but that they jealously guard from one another, leading to a fracturing of aesthetics. Attempts to recreate a consistent order through building codes or mass-manufactured housing only make the problem worse, because they lack the connection to the lived experience of the community that a common pattern language brings about.
To bring back this pattern language, building must once again become a communal affair. For large-scale projects, architects must become part of the building process itself, and the pattern language must be shared among all the construction workers. Something like the guild system, in which the architect was the master builder, working with the other builders on-site, would greatly improve the life of buildings. An understanding of the harmony and scalar coherence at the heart of this pattern language must be revived. Yet the technical complexity needn’t be precisely understood as long as one pays attention to the instincts with which most people react to architecture anyway. The pattern needs to be understood only to recognize what we already know instinctively.
For smaller houses, building need not have an architect at all. Approximately one third of buildings in the world are built by their owners. This can be done, of course, with the help of one’s friends and neighbors. Squatter communities have been propped up throughout the world, and when given a chance to grow, they have developed from simple structures using scavenged materials into lively communities. Brazil’s favelas are a famous example. Many of these communities, derisively called “slums,” lack basic utilities such as electricity or plumbing, but this is because they tend to exist outside the law. If legal structures could change to accommodate them, so that utilities could work with the residents themselves, a thriving community much like the medieval commune could be reborn, albeit with modern amenities.
Buildings are not static: they are organic processes. The life of the building must be attended to so that they can emerge as structures that support life. The eyesores of modern architecture needn’t be demolished to make way for more beautiful buildings. Improvements can be made to bring new life to them. Carefully placed patterns of color and ornament can give them a new vibrancy. Murals can be painted on bare walls that imprint a sense of communal creativity upon them. All too often, architects are protective of their buildings. Ordinances make it costly to try and expand upon them or make these improvements. These barriers must be removed, and a communal project of improving the lived environment must be undertaken.
Beyond the hegemony of developers and the protectionism of NIMBYs lies the possibility of development for the people. Communal housing must be a collective project undertaken by the people seeking to live there. Instead of rationalistic planning, an organic growth can be realized if we only allow it to emerge. Authentic communal control means overcoming the aristocracy of homeowner associations and the authoritarianism of central planners so that the spontaneity of organic development can be allowed to thrive.
Healthy communities are not static, nor are they insular. They must function as ecosystems, seeking a dynamic equilibrium among its elements that can absorb and adapt to novel elements. There must also be solidarity between communities, and a willingness to help the stranger among us. A spirit of comradery and mutual aid must arise both within and between communities, creating higher levels of community.
We must also realize that community is not only geographically bound, but can span multiple overlapping networks. Ethnic, religious, professional, ideological, and lifestyle communities can span across the entire globe. Yet they are also embedded within the geographical communities they occupy. The local community must find a way to accommodate the variety of communities that comprise it. The modern nation-state has conditioned us to think in terms of fixed borders when we should be thinking more in terms of overlapping territories and networks.
One essential geographical community is the bioregion. Bioregions are territories of overlapping ecosystems to which human communities are connected, taking account of features like watersheds, soil, and terrain properties. Bioregions play a major role in the formation of culture. We often identify contiguous civilizations that had no political unity, but were unified culturally by their bioregion. The Sumerians, Mayans, and Greeks all had their own independent city-states that were frequently in conflict with one another, yet in occupying the same bioregion, they shared cultural elements with each other. European colonial powers have done lasting damage in Africa and the Middle East by drawing borders across these bioregional and cultural lines. The mountain tribe in one country will have more in common with the same tribe on the other side of the border than with the lowland tribe in their own country.
Bioregionalism is often confused by thinking in terms of national borders, which is precisely what it is critiquing. Bioregionalism draws us less toward the periphery and more toward the center. It is about attentiveness to local biological and cultural variety. It seeks cultivation and consumption of local crops native to the region, attention to local customs and culture, and sustainability with the surrounding environment.
The bioregional community is the base from which other community networks develop and flourish. In this internet age, it is often these rhizomatic non-local communities that predominate over our lives, and there is a great need for such communities, especially in times as alienating as our own. If we wish, however, to overcome this alienation, we must balance this with the local, the embodied, and learn once again to put down roots.
Settled in our roots, establishing strong communities, we can build solidarity with other communities, and create new kinds of community that span national boundaries, and transcend the power of any political power. From these rooted communities we can better reach out and build the branches that connect one community to another.
Confederation is an ancient political form predating the nation-state. It has historically constituted the primary bulwark against empire. Where empire is born of conquest, confederation is born of solidarity and cooperation. A confederation forms when people form their own solid community and unite with other communities to become stronger together. They trade with one another, provide mutual defense, and coordinate collective action.
In 1974, before the term “globalization” was popularized, Huey P. Newton spoke about how capitalism had already eroded national boundaries through the forces of economic neo-colonialism. It had created a state of “intercommunalism.” It would no longer suffice to be an “internationalist” because the nation-state was already in decay. It was rather a matter of deciding which kind of intercommunalism one sought. The empire of capital had created “reactionary intercommunalism,” and so it was the duty of radicals to create a “revolutionary intercommunalism.” Just as workers banding together to form unions could help counter the hegemonic power of capital at a smaller scale, so could revolutionary communities from different regions form solidarity networks that could counter the power of global capital.
The community of communities, therefore, is not like a Russian doll, with one level inside another inside another and so on. It is rather a vast network of arborescent and rhizomatic structures interpenetrating and overlapping one another. Community is porous and malleable, yet it is more real and concrete than any legalistic or bureaucratic boundaries that are placed around human populations. Community is something that is organic to the human spirit, which is why, despite how much our servitude and alienation may try to beat it out of us, we still instinctively aspire to it. We are social creatures, and it our nature to seek togetherness. Building the beloved community is the task of our species.