Friday, January 30, 2004

The Planning Urge

At Samizdata, Frank McGahon asks an interesting question - why are so many architects left-leaning? Now, there are architects who swing to the right rather than the left, some even to the far right (the late Philip Johnson being one example), but it is correct to say that most architects are rather more enamored of big government than one might expect, given their professional profile. McGahon gives four possible reasons why this should be so, but I lean more towards the fourth item on his list rather than the others:

4. Architects are planners. Forgive me yet another obvious assertion but the point is that there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?

Looking at the careers of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, I think this tendency obvious. Frank Lloyd Wright's impulse for control was so strong that he even dictated the furnishings for Fallingwater; as for Le Corbusier, no architectural vision contributed more to urban blight in the 20th century than his "Ville Radieuse" ("Radiant City"), to which we owe the soulless, intimidating concrete slums popularly known as "projects" in the United States. Corbusier's totalitarian impulses also gave an impetus to that other 20th century tendency, the yearning for totally planned, brand new, "rational" capital cities; his Chandigarh was the forefather of Brasilia, Abuja, Islamabad and other monumentally ugly wastes of public money that blight the globe.

As one who had harbored an impulse towards architecture in my early youth, I know that one major attraction of the profession is the promise it dangles before one's eyes of being able to impose one's own artistic vision on others someday, if one is sufficiently lucky or successful. The call of the New Jerusalem, La Città Nuova, Germania - an architectural utopia, pristine and orderly, free of the irrational accretions of history, planned to the last detail to provide for the everyday needs of men as well as well as their spiritual and aesthetic requirements - what siren song could be more intoxicating to the mind than this one? Just fix man's physical environment, totally immerse him in the harmonious fruits of one's creative vision, and all else that ails him will be seen to as well, at least to some degree. It is no wonder that architects should look so sympathetically on the grand aspirations of planners in other fields.