Thanks to Victor Hugo we have this powerful phrase: “this will kill that.” In Hugo’s world the demonstrative pronouns, this and that, represented the book and architecture respectively. This is always the thing near at hand, proximate to the speaker; that is at a distance. I never quite bought his argument, frankly. In my world architecture and the book live very different lives, and can both live long happy ones without inflicting mortal damage on the other. But the phrase seems to be the mantra of the modern, even when it isn’t quoted directly.
I started ruminating on that Monday during a studio pin-up at WAAC. Our studio— named “Utopia 2.0” with a side order of wit and irony—is interrogating the now 50 year old former urban renewal area of Southwest Washington to imagine what its next 50 years might be. Our students, Washington newcomers all, produced vivid and provocative images as they searched for a graphic language to tell the complex physical, social and cultural story of this place. A continuing theme of our discussions, as would be expected, was the conviction that some authentic community was destroyed by the construction of the brave new modern world. This will kill that, said the Redevelopment Land Agency.
We cautioned the students, though, not to romanticize the lives of the pre-renewal residents. One of the students spoke admiringly of the populations of immigrants and freed slaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries putting in long days of honest labor, sharing the spaces and streets of the traditional urban fabric. Glen Murcutt once said that air conditioning killed architecture, and, he might have added, the city. An old rowhouse in Washington would turn itself inside-out come summer, spilling its residents onto front stoops and sleeping porches. An air-conditioned rowhouse—even with the greenest geothermal cooling system, cocoons its inhabitants in dry comfort and quiet. Who among us, come August, would trade our private comfort for communal sweat in the name of urban liveliness? This will kill that, roared the Carrier.
With many of the houses razed for the Southwest renewal lacking indoor plumbing and running water, theirs was a community by necessity, a sharing of things that those with a choice rarely choose to share. Shared toilets and washing are rarely considered urban amenities, except as archaeological ruins. The beautiful fountains near which we cultural consumers sip grappa in Mediterranean cities were the sole sources of water for drinking and washing not too many years ago. This will kill that, gurgled the plumbing to the piazza.
I exaggerate of course, as is my habit, but technologies that improve our individual lives often destroy our collective lives. Why go outside if your own home provides a satisfaction of every need and desire? Why go downtown if the commerce and civic participation can all be attended to at home? There’s a troubling question still in my mind, revealing a crack of inherent contradiction between green building and sustainable community: does a better interior kill the exterior? Does the private kill the public?