Lefebvre: Notes on the new town

The city I live in is in an expansionary phase. At every turn, new construction is afoot, and it has happened more than once that I have turned a corner previously at the edge of town only to discover that there now is a brand new set of buildings there, unapologetic in their materiality. To be sure, these buildings were not unannounced, and with a bit of research it would have been very possible to not have been surprised by their appearance. But a person can only spend so much time keeping up with municipal developments; at some point, developments will overtake phenomenology. The city is, by definition, bigger than any one individual within it.

These new parts of town are at once free of history and overdetermined by it. On the one hand, the physical location they occupy used to be nondescript fields and marshes up until the point building began; the city happened until it didn’t, here being the point it stopped happening. On the other hand, these same locations are continuations of the city, and therefore inherit a plethora of administrative, aesthetic and phenomenological dimensions from the built environment it extends. There are no local traditions yet, in the overspecific sense of the word ‘local’ connoting this very spot; nevertheless, slightly less ‘local’ local traditions will inevitably impose themselves and terraform the cityscape into more of itself with time. For new students moving in to attend university, this part of town promises to be just like any other, in the absence of personal memories to anchor local identity.

Lefebvre, in writing Notes on the new town, ponders these same tendencies, albeit writ large. My city is a 21st century boom town, firmly entrenched in the later stages of modernity. Lefebvre’s new town is a 20th century new construction, designed townscapes specifically meant to break with the old order and upgrade the living conditions of ordinary people to modern standards (i.e. electricity and running water). Out with the organically grown, gnarled, unplanned chaotic messes that were old towns, in with the rationally planned, carefully ordered and functionally specialized architectural beacons of modernity. If changing the physical conditions wherein humans dwell, then these new construction projects were the epitome of social engineering; from these ordered homesteads, modern humans would emerge fully formed.

There is a grammar to these new towns. They can, in a sense, be read by those who know the linguistic and architectural twists and turns embodied by the buildings themselves. Nothing is hidden, there are no secrets here; everything is planned and designed to be understood at a glance. To quote:

Every object has its use, and declares it. Every object has a distinct and specific function. In the best diagnosis, when the new town has been successfully completed, everything in it will be functional, and every object in it will have a specific function: its own. Every object indicates what this function is, signifying it, proclaiming it to the neighbourhood. It repeats itself endlessly.

Thus, there are housing units, where you house, shopping units, where you shop, and playground units, where children play on or with the ground. There can be no confusion as to which is which, seeing as any given part can only ever do the thing it was designed to do. Indeed, it would be a grave breach of social order should someone attempt to use the built environment at cross purposes; nothing attracts the authorities faster than a homeless person taking a nap in the playground. Whether children actually play there on a regular basis is beside the point – every object has one and only one function, to the exclusion of all others.

Implicit in this totality of vision and comprehensive planning is a sense that the built environment is not actually built for human beings. Rather, it is an extension of the logic operating in modernity as a whole – functional separation leads to more efficient usage, increasing productivity overall. The immediate objection that it is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of a dwelling or a playground is pushed aside; in Lefebvre’s new town, an argument can be made that running water, television sets and washing machines constitute the sought after increase all by themselves. It might even be true, in the short term. But as anyone know who has ever been bored in the suburbs (this most functionally separated of architectural units) with nothing to do and nowhere to go, efficiency on its own does not provide for a good home. The city is, by definition, an amalgamation of different things, who all have to be accessible to make it livable. Reduced to a single function, apathy and boredom sets in. Thus, it becomes imperative to connect the functionally separated dots. To quote:

Consequently, the intermediaries between these disjointed elements (when there are any, which is always a good thing: means of communication, streets and roads, signals and codes, commercial agents, etc.) take on an exaggerated importance. The links become more important than the ‘beings’ who are being linked. But in no way does this importance endow these intermediaries with active life. Streets and highways are becoming more necessary, but their incessant, unchanging, ever repeated traffic is turning them into wastelands.

The streets turning to wastelands is an image I think most dwellers in these new towns can relate to. Nothing happens in the streets except traffic, either by car or by foot. This space, too, has its own separate and unique function: to move from A to B. Attempts to utilize these spaces for something else are frowned upon and, if deemed necessary, stopped – be it in the form of children playing football or citizens assembling in collective action. Intermediary functions, i.e. neighbors sharing the same physical space and socializing as they happen upon one another in their daily walkings around – have been delegated to their own functionally specialized architectural units, and thus have no business taking place in the streets. The new towns frown upon spontaneous gatherings, unexpected encounters and people just hanging around doing nothing in particular (but socializing ever more naturally because of this lack of purpose). The logic of the new town is the logic of modernity: either you are busily and efficiently occupied with your assigned task, or you are redundant. It is a working metaphor built into the physical environment, as inescapable as it is worthy of being criticized.

Lefebvre: Notes on the new town