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Full text of "What u can do"

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SHADRACH WOOES 

Architecture at Rice 27 



Architecture at Rice University is a series of reports on thoughts and 
investigations of the School of Architecture, published in the belief 
that education of architects can best be advanced when teachers, 
practitioners, students, and interested laymen share what they are 
thinking and doing. 

All contents are the sole 
possession of the contributors; 
partial or total reproduction 
of the material herein 
contained is prohibited by law. 
Library of Congress Catalog 
Card Number: 72-134358 



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This is intended to be an elucidation of what '. 
believe are the purposes of urbanism, and 
architecture, today. I shall be concerned not 
only with what I think is happening in cities 
of the west but also with what I think could 
and should be programmed in them for the im- 
mediate future. I shall be concerned with what 
I think urbanism is, which means defining its 
characteristic scope and purpose: What U Can 
Do, in other words. 




OUESTIUNE or TIITTI 



Urbanism is a French word, and although my 
partially Anglo-Saxon heredity rebels at bor- 
rowing words from such Latinate sources, I have 
not yet found a good English or American 
equivalent. The English have a discipline 
called town-planning, which is something like 
urbanism; The Americans have city-planning 
which is nothing like it. In some places, 
'Urban Design' is used to render the approxi- 
mate meaning of the content of 'urbanism. ' 

The essence of urbanism, on the most mundane, 

practical level, is organization. This is also 
the essence of architecture. The relationship 
between architecture and urbanism is that they 
are parts of the same entity, which might be 
called environmental design, and that each is a 
part of the other. 

"Urbanism and architecture are parts of a con- 
tinuous process. Planning (urbanism) is the 
correlating of human activities ; architecture 
is the housing of these activities . . . 
Urbanism establishes the milieu in which 



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architecture happens ... It remains abstract 
until it generates architecture." This quote is 
from the "Carre Bleu," Nov. 3, 1961, and is one 
which I would not change very much were I writ- 
ing it today. It went on to describe the junc- 
tion of urbanism as exploring and explaining 
the relationships among human activities. 
Naturally this remains rather vague. It may 
help if we try to pin down some of the uses of 
organization in architecture and urbanism. 

All analogies are false, to begin with, and 

thus forewarned we might consider the analogy 
of agriculture. We organize nature to support 
the growth of food, clothing, building ma- 
terials, fuel, tobacco, hemp and so forth, and 
as the field and forest are organized through 
plowing, cutting, irrigation and drainage 
systems, so is the city formed around systems 
of public and private spaces, communications, 
supply, and elimination. 



The built world thus is organized to support 
the growth of society, as the natural world is 








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organized to supply agricultural produce. And, 
extending our false analogy, as the farmer 
works with nature, so must the citizens learn 
to control the beneficent and malignant forces 
in the urban context so that, through urban 
husbandry, they may create a place and a 
climate in which their society will thrive. 

Urbanism, the organization of the urban con- 
text, is first of all concerned with the sweet 
workings of the various systems which are 
needed to support life in the city, bringing 

the vital goods, fluids, and energies to all 
parts, and carrying away the wastes. At one 
level of consideration at least urbanism is 
underground, in subways and pipes and conduit. 



Since we consider that life in the city is 
worth living, we are most immediately concerned 
with the establishment of a milieu in which 
life can flourish. The question of whether or 
not it is worth it is, I believe, rhetorical, 
since life for a vast number is lived in 
the city. In our western civilization, (the 






very word comes from civis: citizen), the built 
world is the natural habitat of man. This 
milieu is organized according to systems of 
conduct (law) and systems of exchange of goods 
and services and of supply and elimination 
(economy). But first, before any of these, 
there are the intangible, imponderable, inex- 
pressible human relationships which establish 
themselves among the citizens. These form a 
kind of unwritten code which men apparently 
need in order to live together. Tenuous though 
they may be, they are yet of the greatest 



importance: the essential prerequisite of urban 
life. When these relationships are no longer 
vital, or viable, or clearly understood by all 
the citizens, they are replaced by cant, dogma, 
codes, regulations, and laws. And these systems 
of human interaction, feelings, belief, and 
legislation continuously evolve, reacting to 
the forces crystallizing out of the urban 
social magma. 



These forces result partly from the physical 
properties of life in the city, which are, in 




10 




turn, determined by systems which manifest 
man's impulsion to live together in some kind 
of physical urban harmony. These are the ways, 
the pipes, the wires and tubes, the viscera of 
the city, the urban underground which has so 
radically transformed men's lives, raising them 
above nature, freeing them from natural con- 
straints, liberating them. Men in cities thus 
become free not only from the tribal social 
order but also from the rural natural order. 
And they find themselves obliged in their 
freedom, and perhaps by their freedom, to in- 



vent new and sometimes strange constraints 
such as those which are developed by a bureau- 
cratic, administrative apparatus. 

The marvelous liberty which is gained through 
control over the physical environment, thanks 
to technical advances, is too often frittered 
away or entirely wasted in footless, inconse- 
quential administrative incompetencies, or else 
is negated by such vicious unnatural practices 
as the preparation for, and the waging of war. 




12 





It is dangerously commonplace to say that we 
thrive on adversity. It is sometimes true we 
tend to over-react in an adverse situation and 
in so doing we may prove once more our adapt- 
ability by bringing a good result out of a bad 
set of circumstances. But we do not need to be 
so perverse as to create conditions of ad- 
versity. The flowers that bloom on the dung 
heap are, after all, not more beautiful than 
the flowers of the fields and gardens. They are 
only a welcome relief. On the other hand, 
disease proliferates in dung. There is no 



excuse for creating a hostile climate, nor 
should we tolerate any in which our humanity is 
threatened. Our technologies can protect us 
from a naturally hostile physical environment. 
It is a mis-use of technology for it to be 
allowed to render the environment still more 
hostile, until, as each solution engenders yet 
more problems, running harder and harder to 
keep from falling flat, we go over the ulti- 
mate cliff. What I am trying to say is that, 
although the uses of adversity may be sweet, we 
should have the good sense to stay in control. 




14 




having invented the machines and methods, to 
remain the masters of these servants. 



Urbanism, urban design, which is architecture 
at the scale of the city, is principally con- 
cerned with organization, and therefore with 
the allocation, distribution and use of ma- 
terials and energies. The techniques of 
building are essentially ways of associating 
materials and energies, of organizing wealth 
into present and future patterns of use. In the 
present we determine the actual choice of 

materials and their use in buildings. The 
general organization of buildings, and their 
relationships to the distribution and servicing 
systems from which they draw sustenance, 
dictate future patterns of use of energies. 
This means that decisions made by architects, 
planners, and urbanists have global import 
today and tomorrow, a state of affairs which 
had been lost from view in the immediate past, 
although I believe that it was fully understood 
in antiquity. These conditions under which we 
now work, knowing the global connotations of 




16 




our every decision, implicate us directly 
and expressly in a revolutionary, or pre- 
revolutionary situation. We are part of the 
forces which act on the resources of the world 
in an immediate way. Our decisions, or our 
counsels, affect the use to which those re- 
sources are put. 

U is also urgency. Everyone is concerned with 
urbanism. It is everybody's business. We all 
suffer from decisions not made, or made on a 
basis of inadequate information, or insincere 

commitment. Yet those decisions determine the 
physical and psychological milieu, the environ- 
ment in which we live and in which we hope our 
society, or societies, will thrive. We have 
discovered, after decades and centuries of 
fumbling, that a little bit of government 
('the least possible') is far too much to allow 
a free play of free market process, even if 
that theory could apply in our crowded world, 
and that we probably need much more than we 
think. 'The least possible' may very well look 
like the spectre of socialism which was used to 




18 





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terrify Grandpa, but we will probably find it 
quite acceptable, since we are losing the 
voracious appetite which Grandpa had for "the 
things of this world" and irrational concentra- 
tions of wealth. As our numbers increase around 
the globe, presumably toward some optimum mass, 
we cannot continue to allow critical decisions 
to be arrived at, or deferred, by some arcane 
process of which even the best-informed admin- 
istrators seem to be ignorant. We run great 
risks, I believe, in continuing to allow power 
to float free of responsibility. (The CIA, the 

use of seniority in House and Senate Com- 
mittees, the States' authority over cities, are 
all manifestations of this particularly un- 
savory phenomenon, which seems to be on the 
increase. ) 



We live in constant degrading and dehumanizing 
fear of such superdangers as fission and fusion 
bombs, CBW, the population explosion, irrevers- 
ible ecological disasters, total alienation of 
entire classes, races, sexes, and generations. 
In the face of such dangers man organizes, even 






19 



20 




subconsciously, in self-defense. The danger now 
is real, and it is visible. We can feel it, we 
can even see it. Our great scientists, many of 
them winners of the dynamite prize, are 
constantly cautioning us. The history of the 
twentieth century would appear to be one of 
unrelieved disaster, the poor dying of inani- 
tion while the rich choke on their own wealth, 
fouling the earth and the sea and the air with 
the putrid by-products of an illusory 
affluence. 



What Can U Do? As I indicated before, urbanism 
is a part of the process that determines the 
use of resources. It may sometimes be only a 
minute part, but all parts are significant. You 
may feel that our position as architects and 
urbanists, handmaidens and footmen to the very 
forces which are said to be the most pernicious 
- — the state, the institutions and the corpora- 
tions — leaves us little or no power to in- 
fluence the decisions that create inexorably an 
increasingly hostile world. No matter how 
little our power, we must use it and our 




21 



22 



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skills, to demonstrate alternatives to the 
present suicidal course of policy revealed 
the positive and negative actions of 
government and business. 



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In London, on April 16, 85 of the 110 seats on 
the G.L.C. were contested by a consumer group, 
organized by transportation, planning, and 
urban specialists. The group called itself 
"Homes Before Roads", and campaigned on a 
platform of public transportation spending in 
lieu of further motorway construction. What is 



significant is not the number of seats they 
might have won (they won none) but the fact 
that this was the first time such a consumer- 
oriented party had been organized in London. 



In San Francisco the Embarcadero Freeway was 
stopped by citizens' manifestations; in New 
York the Lower Manhattan Expressway was halted, 
ostensibly by a vocal minority. There are many 
other examples of "action urbanism" of this 
nature, but the London one is perhaps the most 
satisfactory since it predicates acceptance of 




24 




responsibility and positive action — not 
merely stopping something but advancing intel- 
ligent proposals for changes to harmonize 
administrative goals and priorities with the 
citizens' needs and aspirations. This citizen 
and professional participation in programming 
is increasingly being practiced in cities and, 
as long as it does not become obscure in a fog 
of advocacy of good but extraneous causes, it 
gives great hope for the future of community 
control and a direct relationship between the 
urbanist or architect and his ultimate client. 

Advocacy has often been denounced as a hoax, 
and rightly so, when it pretended to render 
services which it could not provide, such as 
obtaining funds, or when it seemed only to 
defuse the righteous indignation of the com- 
munity without performing any real services. I 
believe that it is essential that the community 
have a hand in choosing its advocates from the 
professions, and that clearly defined programs 
of action be developed with those advocates, 
and then, finally, that the entire notion of 
advocacy be removed by establishing typical. 





25 



26 





normal, professional relationships with no 
sentiment of charity involved. Since this is 
usually the case (there is no charity; the 
architects are looking out for their clients) 
it should be possible, from there, to lead an 
assault upon the fastnesses of bureaucracy 
where the repressive rules are invented, and, 
finally to restore decision-making to an 
intelligible process. 

At another scale of involvement, U can do much 
to redress the system of economic disparity and 



social injustice in the world, first of all 
simply by not seeking to perpetuate and even to 
extend it. We should not give up the struggle 
to improve the balance between numbers and 
wealth, to insist that the vast resources of 
our complex technologies be applied to making a 
better life for every person on this earth, 
and to apply ourselves to demonstrating how 
this can be done. And that means discovering 
how to do it. 



To go back to a previous point; urbanism is 





27 



28 





primarily an organizing process, as is archi- 
tecture. The wealth of nations, the world's 
wealth, can be used for either constructive or 
destructive purposes. Urbanism, a constructive 
use of wealth, can have destructive connota- 
tions if it uses the world's resources un- 
wisely, if it wastes them. In addition to the 
obvious dangers of waste (pollution, for 
example) there is the danger of imbalance in 
the distribution systems, with congestion at 
some points and penury at others. At the 
present time some 3/4 of the world product 

(which might be called the Gross International 
Product, or GIP) is being consumed by about 1/4 
of the population, most of it in the Northern 
Hemisphere. This clearly reveals an irrational 
concentration of wealth, on the edge of a sea 
of poverty. The scientific prediction people, 
working from observable trends, expect this 
disparity to increase, with North America 
consuming about 80% of the GIP and representing 
6% of the population in, for example, 1984. It 
seems to me that this frenetic consumption of 
the world's wealth could very well create a 





29 



30 




revolutionary situation, in which we would be 
cast in the role of the oppressors although 
this is hardly the idea we have of ourselves, 
if we take our great political documents as 
evidence. It will not be "revolution for the 
hell of it", in America, but, for the rest of 
the world, revolution for survival. Since we 
have clearly demonstrated that we do not 
require all this wealth — look how much of it 
we squander in the waging of war and how much 
we dissipate in various forms of pollution — 
for our own needs, and since we seem actually 

to suffer from our so-called affluence with 
physiological distress and pyschological vying 
for top honors in the hostile environment which 
this affluence has created, and since, finally, 
it turns us against one another, and against 
our brothers and they against us, hadn't we 
better reconsider this kind of progress which 
strangely resembles that of the lemming? 

Well, we are reconsidering, in the Northern 
Hemisphere. The birth rate is receding in 
Japan, for instance. Young people all through 




32 




the 'western' or developed nations are ques- 
tioning the precepts of greed, and growth for 
its own sake. Ecology is a campaign issue. Even 
John Volpe, a king of the road if ever there 
was one when he was governor of Mass., is 
talking about mass transit, as an alternative 
to further urban highway building ! I may be 
clutching at straws, and whistling in the dark, 
but I feel that the self defense mechanism of 
which I spoke earlier is beginning to operate, 
and perhaps we may look forward to a saner 
future. 



For Urbanists and architects a saner future 
means that we can at last rid ourselves of all 
those nutty ideas about throw-away buildings, 
built-in obsolescence, high energy consuming 
schemes, and walk-around cities on the one 
hand — but it also means that we must recon- 
sider extreme low-density development, with its 
enormous waste potential and over-extended 
supply lines, on the other. We come at last to 
the useful end of the 'waste produces wealth' 
period, having discovered that the wealth 




33 




produced by waste is ill-gotten, a two-edged 
sword, a poisoned gift. 

Architects and urbanists will make their plans 
and develop them in light of economic, rather 
than merely financial considerations, for 
instance. 

Decisions will be made on the basis of reason, 
perhaps, and not merely in the light of polit- 
ical opportunism. Reason will dictate con- 
tinuous renewal of the environment at every 

scale, not massive blight followed by massive 
reconstruction. 



Shadrach Woods 
Spring 1970 




Graphic Design: Peter C. Papademetriou 
Production Assistant: Peter G. Rowe