On Parks and Public Space [in progress]

Note: what follows are some current fulminations on the nature, identity, and purpose of parks and public space. It is still very rough, so if anyone would like to contribute either advice or scholarly resources, please do in the comment section.

Two days ago, as I prepared for my entrance into graduate school, I finished up my advising review and stepped outside. It was an overcast day, but there was a breeze and the temperature was mercifully hovering around 65º as opposed to the eighty degree days with brutal humidity that I have become accustomed to since moving out here. I had a few hours to kill before my next appointment, so I decided to take advantage of my last free day before voluntary M.Arch imprisonment and take a ride through Forest Park.

For those unfamiliar with Forest Park it opened in 1876, and can be seen from a height of 28 miles (thanks GoogleEarth!). A portion of it was borrowed for the 1904 World's Fair (which also included the campus of Washington University and the ever-so-ethnically sensitive named area that would become Dogtown) and, despite incursions and subsequent development of a highway, a surface metro line, a science museum, and a parkway, it still remains 1.4 times bigger than Olmstead's Central Park. I decided to ride the perimeter trail which is about 6 miles in length. After my ride I came to two conclusions: firstly (full disclosure here) I am way out of shape. Recently the sum total of my riding has been more or less to school and back; in my undergrad days that did mean conquering a 8 block long steep hill on the way home (really fun when you haven't slept in 37 hours I can assure you!) but here my route is mostly level unlike the picturesque contours of Forest Park.

The second train of thought is more substantive. Is there anything today that can rival the generosity and public benefit brought about by the parks movement in the late nineteenth century?

Obviously the parks movement has much guilt as a result of its association with the picturesque movement and that movement's subsequent corruption by the Jeffersonian/Lockeian ideal of property ownership and "free market" (I use it in quotes as the American market has never really been free -- look into agriculture subsidies if you disagree) into the unstoppable beast of suburbia. If we can set aside this admittedly culturally influential relationship and examine the unprecedented societal benefits brought about by the parks movement it is almost impossible to compare it to any present day phenomena. To use Forest Park as an example, there are not only typical spaces for recreation, contemplation, and socialization, but also three museums (art, history, and science) and a zoo. Both general museums (such as the Missouri History Museum) and science museums, as well as public zoological parks came out of the late-victorian mania for education and classification; these were modern concepts in the era of the park's inception.

There of course is a darker side and inherent contradiction to this seeming beneficence; these public institutions were created to pacify a somewhat rebellious lower class, to educate the torrent of uneducated European immigrants and indoctrinate them as members of an enlightened American populous, and to preserve the status quo from the feared corrosion of radical European movements (marxism et al) and the homegrown threat of unionization as a result of atrocious conditions. Thus, the parks and other public institutions served to an extent as bread and circuses (or almost the spectacle of Debord) but with the crucial distinction that unlike the carnage of Rome, or the empty spectacle/simulacra of the modern age, such institutions responded to a perceived threat by redirecting society in a positive manner toward greater education for all. If I sound less than radical here it is because the society reacting with positivity is most always preferable to the alternative. It seems that we are now fully in the grasp of the alternative; instead of reacting as those fearful Americans of the late nineteenth century did, we cannot even respond to the perceived threat posed by our on children without resorting to militaristic techniques of control.

At this point it might be a good time to consider the words of one of the most prescient minds of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin:

"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with that insight."

-Walter Benjamin

"Theses on the Philosophy of History"
Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (1968)

This militarization and transformation into a society of continuous control has momentous implications for all of the design fields. We, as architects, landscape architects, urban designers, planners, graphic designers, and industrial designers have been given this situation, and we must work constantly and to the best of all our collective abilities to turn these increasingly negative and dangerous responses to the ancient fears of terrorism, cultural difference, political ideology, and race into positive institutions, places, and objects that will contribute meaningfully to the public realm.

Books Cited in this article

The Kids are Alright?? ‘Hanging Out’ as Social Problem [via Spiked]

The Local Government Association (LGA) has compiled a list of naff songs for councils to play in trouble spots in order to keep youths at bay – including Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ and St Winifred’s School Choir’s ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’ (1). Apparently the Home Office is monitoring the scheme carefully. This policy has been copied from Sydney, where it is known as the ‘Manilow Method’ (after the king of naff, Barry Manilow), and has precursors in what we might call the ‘Mozart Method’, which was first deployed in Canadian train stations and from 2004 onwards was adopted by British shops (such as Co-op) and train stations (such as Tyne and Wear Metro).

Another new technique for dispersing youths is the Mosquito, a machine that emits a high-pitched noise only audible to teenage ears. Adults walk by unmolested, but youngsters apparently find the device unbearable and can’t stand to be near it for long. The Mosquito, currently being trialled in Somerset, makes a noise that carries over 20 metres or so, and which to adults registers as a kind of faint buzz. To people under 20, however, it can be so piercing that they simply cannot remain in earshot. The Mosquito will literally scream children off the streets (2)....

In 2005, several British towns drafted in the army to patrol the streets at night – a senior Ministry of Defence official said the presence of troops would ‘deter bad behaviour’ from youths. Police in Weston-super-Mare have been shining bright halogen lights from helicopters on to youths gathered in parks and other public places. The light temporarily blinds them, and is intended to ‘move them on’, in the words of one Weston police officer (3).

These bizarre attempts at crowd control provide a snapshot of adult unease about young people. Teenagers are treated almost as another species, immune to reasoning and social sanction. Just as cattle are directed with electric shocks, or cats are put off with pepper dust, so teenagers are prodded with Manilow, Mozart or the Mosquito. ‘Make them go away’ is the only thought here... [emphasis added]

(1) Matthew Norman, London Evening Standard, 12 June 2006
(2) A pain in the ear, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 7 August 2006
(3) A pain in the ear, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 7 August 2006

Confinement, Education and the Control Society [via Ideant]

This analysis was, in my opinion, so well done that I have decided to run it in its entirety. Remember to check out the ideant feed.


"Perhaps it's not surprising that Foucault, the "panopticon guy", is characterized as a thinker of power, discipline, and punishment. But as Deleuze (1995) points out, Foucault also believed that we are increasingly moving away from being societies based on discipline to societies based on control. According to Deleuze's reading of Foucault: "We're moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication" (1995, p. 174, my emphasis).

Did Foucault prematurely announce the end of confinement? It sure looks like it when looking at the US, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, even while the crime rate continues to fall. By June 2004 there were 2.1 million people in US jails, or one in every 138 residents (ref, ref). Race has everything to do with this issue: "blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested... and 49 percent of those in prison... One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995." (ref).

And that's just at home. The US is also in the business of confining people abroad. According to the article American Gulag in Harper's Sept. 2006 issue, 450 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, approximately 13,000 in Iraq, 500 in Afghanistan, and an estimated 100 in secret CIA "black sites" around the world. They have not been formally charged, and have little legal recourse. In essence, they are guilty until the US decides they are innocent. While the man in charge of the facility "firmly believes" that there are no innocent men in Guantanamo, a report  based on data from the Dept. of Defense indicates that 55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies (ref, ref). According to Harper's, 98 Guantanamo detainees have died to date, it is safe to assume not from natural causes.

But it's not simply the case that this society is a bit behind in the transition from discipline to control. It is actually advancing equally well on both fronts. In fact, increased control goes hand in hand with increased confinement because increased control means more precise ways of identifying those who fail to perform to society's expectations. In a technocracy, control is surveillance: the continuous monitoring of public, private and work life, and the "intelligent" identification of any deviance. But while new control technologies afford more effective and efficient methods of management and surveillance, you still need an apparatus for controlling those who fall outside the established parameters. This group includes those who have failed in the educational system and therefore cannot productively contribute to the service economy, enemies of the state (preemptively defined), non-conforming minorities, etc. (I'm not suggesting there are no criminals in prison; I'm merely drawing some conclusions from trends in the makeup of the prison population). The trick is then to turn the confinement of these 'burdens' of society into a business opportunity by benefiting from their cheap labor or by privatizing the industry of confinement itself (think Halliburton).

I hinted above at the role of education as a control mechanism that helps differentiate the productive members of society from those who should be confined and disciplined. The fact that the same groups who are disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population are also those most likely to drop out of the educational system is not a coincidence (only about half of Black and Hispanic youth graduate with a high-school degree; ref). But for everyone else who succeeds, what does education look like? The answer is: continuous control. I was struck by Deleuze's comments regarding the changing nature of education in a control society:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything... school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It's the surest way of turning education into a business. (1995, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on 'life-long' learning. The constant student is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Thanks to distance education, e-learning and technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS), education becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which —more importantly— can be used to monitor performance throughout the 'learning' career of the individual. Thus, assessment-based education helps reconcile control and discipline in society by helping to effect, in the case of those who fail, a transition from controlled subject to disciplined object.

I want to go back briefly to Deleuze's comment about control societies also operating through "instant communication" (1995, p. 174, my emphasis). It would make sense to assume that, in a crude way, control societies would want to control communication. But that is not the case. According to the standard technophile discourse, thanks to technology our societies enjoy an unprecedented freedom of speech and expression. Communication technologies with low operational cost and low barriers of entry (such as blogs) are praised for giving "everyone" a chance to express themselves. But Deleuze points out that "Repressive forces don't stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves... What we're are plagued by these days isn't any blocking of communication, but pointless statements" (1995, p. 129). Deleuze is suggesting that there is a connection between control and an over-abundance of (meaningless) expression. More of this type of communication has not resulted in stronger social bonds, but in increased isolation: concurrent with advances in ICTs, the last U.S. census shows that 25% of the nation's households (27.2 million) consist of just one person, compared to 10% in 1950 (ref).

This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an 'empowering' media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.

Offline Reference:
Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press."

Books cited in this article:

Hot Off the Wire... Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village are up for sale! [via Tropolism]

"Metropolitan Life dropped this bombshell right before the Labor Day news cycle (Curbed is on vacation this week, nuff said right there): Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village are up for sale. All 80 acres of prime Manhattan real estate, all 110 apartment buildings, all 11,000 apartments: yours for $5 billion. While we're sure the bulldozers won't be coming in anytime soon (the lawsuits alone are going to keep the neighborhood as is for years), we are counting on approximately 2 architectural competitions, 135 developer-requested housing schemes, 1 tasteful exhibition at the AIA Center For Architecture, several dozen symposia at New York University, one tasteful symposium at Columbia University, 580 posts on Curbed, and 23,820 comments on said posts..."

Can someone say enter Joshua Guttman?

An Exposition of the Exquisite Struggle

One of the major benefits of an architectural education, if one is able to avoid the giant pitfalls, is the importance (hopefully) placed on a problem that has plagued mankind for almost three thousand years... that is, how to think. Now, I am not saying this is universal, as it is very easy to get sucked into the cult of construction drawings, the cult of fabrication, or, worst of all, the cult of architectural pornography and representation. While Dwell et al are extremely good at portraying the sexiness of architecture they fail utterly on the rare occasion they even attempt to represent the thought process or conceptual methodology behind a design. We all know people and projects that have been successful due to overly sexed visual or digital representation, but these frequent transgressions aside, the most important skill to attain is that of an organized, inquisitive, and relevant process of thought.

That brings me to both the name an the purpose of this blog. With the name "Exquisite Struggle" I do jokingly acknowledge the conventions of blog and especially architectural blog nomenclature. It smacks vaguely of pretension while alluding to some almost unachievable ideal. It is two multi-syllable words which seems to be almost a requirement (either that or a synthetic or overly pretentious single word). These lighthearted permutations aside, I term the "Exquisite Struggle" as the two part endeavor of first objectively viewing the world and formulating a discreet methodology and course of action and of then the parrying and unspoken advocacy and negotiations that bring such pedagogy to fruition through otherwise unwilling clients. It is exactly this second stage of Exquisite Struggle that Jean Nouvel depicts in his first conversation with Baudrillard:

"…then there are those things that remain unsaid. There is always something unsaid; that's part of the game. And what remains unsaid is, ethically, something additional, something that doesn't run counter to what is being sold or exchanged…" it is exactly this that has meaning and "signifies something vital. That's where the game is played"
(-- Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. The Singular Objects of Architecture.)

The game is the Exquisite Struggle.

It is my hope that by forcing myself to commit to a weekly writing schedule I will further unify my thoughts and benefit as much from the blog as I would hope my listeners would. I intend to approach this from a radical urbanist perspective drawing heavily on a Situationist analysis and extending my ruminations over diverse subjects while intending to draw connections between allegedly dissimilar topics. I plan to focus on art, architecture, urban life, with occasional references to articles I find noteworthy and occasional breaks to display various series of my photography and projects.

Book cited in this article:

Is this thing on?

Well it took awhile, but I've finally taken the plunge and joined the blogosphere for real. Creating a (real) blog has actually been on my list of priorities for quite some time, but an involuntary 6 month hiatus from home internet access precluded such a creation until recently. As an incoming graduate student in architecture, I was afraid it would prove too time consuming. The inception of a blog by my friend Evan at Tenuous Resilience (hilarious name by the way) convinced me I could do this too. So, after about 6 hours of CSS tweaking (I can do it, but I'm not good...) and approximately 30 minutes of brainstorming a concept, here I am live on the interwebnet.