Pseudo. New. Urban. Living. (vs. TVA modernism)

(I should stress at the outset the degree to which this is very much a set of thoughts aligned with and indebted to those of my comrade Mr. Hatherley. If anything, this represents the attempt to adapt his particular lens to a set of distinctly American objects. Albeit an attempt by someone, myself, who actually knows little about urban development or public works projects. I just love concrete. Also, a nod to China Miéville, who has been rightly stressing to me the pornographic aspect of the urban renewal gaze toward aestheticized landscapes of decay.)

A spectre is haunting American cities slowly rent asunder by the collapse of manufacturing and the absence of viable development alternatives - the spectre of "New. Urban. Living."

And as promised, it is coming soon. Yet the look of this drapery both undercuts and proves its supposed point: it masks the form of the building beneath as it reveals it, the vacant skeleton support system pushing out, some hungry ribs through the skin. Above, repeated like a stuck frame of film, the image of what is to come: a hip young woman, black leather vaguely Design Within Reach modernist couch, a dog. No nuclear family or couple, but a young professional. Neither the young urban professionals of the 80's nor the tech new money nerds of the 90's. This is, after all, not new urban living but New. Urban. Living., in which each term stays separate. Your experience is urban, but your living is decoupled from it. Therein the promise of the midsized non-metropolis city. Have your organic cake, and eat it in a diverse demographic with a knowledge economy too...

This image, and the ones that follow, are some I took on a recent trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and honored, back in the mid 20th century, as the ugliest city in America ("intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness"). I was there for my sister's MA thesis show in graphic design (which was amazing work on real questions of food distribution, farming, local markets, etc - the site here for any interested). This was my first time in the South proper, with much to confirm my vague imaginings (brilliant barbecue, more blatant Christianity than I can stomach, far slower cadences of speech than I am used to, the general air of slow decline and spacious crumbling).

What struck harder, though, was the sense of a city stuck in time: not in the sense of antiquated or outmoded, but the opposite, of being pulled in opposite directions to the point of fraught stasis, an unfolding and uneven intersection that seems to put very much at stake the feel of the town and the shape of the lives of whoever lives there. A rather quiet war, not so much taking place there as embodied there, between the loft apartment future of pseudo-urbanity and the lost future of the clean concrete and planning of what I'll call here "TVA modernism" (not necessarily TVA projects but constructions from that period and look of large public works and buildings). I use pseudo here in the mode that I read it in Adorno and Debord, to mean that which is negated without dialectical progression, a sort of emptying out without movement, in which appearance reigns, not because there once was a real content of depth that has been evacuated, but because this appearance promises something beneath it that never was. (Think of the "New. Urban. Living." that houses itself on the surface of the site of real decay and obsolescence, but in doing so, posits itself as a return to and moving beyond of a kind of urban living that never belonged there: as such, its newness is fundamentally pseudo.)

Regarding the pseudo-urbanity, a few scattered glimpses.

Walkways along the old brick wall, keeping the shape of the non-windowed practicality with the skeletal hangers leading to the door in the back. Over the parking lot directly across from this wall, one sees this:

The utter resistant loveliness of this strikes me, but we know well the aesthetic capital that such "authentic" markings of prior usage (the paint lines separating missing floors, the frozen shadow of the stairwell) bestow upon the inevitable plans to turn this into apartments, clothing stores, the housing or services needed to bolster consumption and rehabitation of this town.

Coca-Cola fonts and lofted ceilings.

Yet the attempts to refurbish and refill are largely hollow, quite literally, with many of the floors above the downtown (and over the classiest Arby's I've ever seen) vacant.

That said, unlike the part of California I live, where the decimation of the construction industry following the housing bubble bursting has made evidence of new construction a rarity, there is a significant amount of rebuilding and refurbishing happening there. And in spite of what some of these comments might paint me as (namely, one who will denigrate any attempts at urban renewal because they represent the extension of capitalist rentier logic or the cultural commodification of genuine impoverished zones, etc, etc), there is much to be excited about there. Yes, we know the story from necessary rebuilding (so as to make liveable) toward full-blown gentrification, but this doesn't mean that such a story is ever free from the prospect of being derailed into something genuinely communal, an assertion of right to the city's present as a collective incursion into its future. The exciting work in Knoxville is primarily that of individual neighborhoods in which old houses are repaired: not the massive outlay of capital used by developers to make over a city block but the slow work of DIY, of the exchange of skills and sharing of tools. There is a real sense of this in Knoxville.

The problem is how to square that with urban renewal, its economics (the large sums needed to freeze in a building that will at some point help raise the property value of its area, and therein its own value) and aesthetics (the preservation of a historical effect of past time with a literal gutting of the internal structures that supported past modes of habitation and claims to the space where one lives). The problem is not the fact of redevelopment itself: it is the imbrication of the aesthetic inflection with the underlying economic patterns, and the subterranean political currents and forgettings that accompany such a coming-together.

Or: how do we assert such a set of traces as more than the window dressing of urban renewal and its resistance to really renew, to really impose or offer prospects of clean, affordable housing and access to greenways, sunlight, and water? In the short term history of America and our shorter term memory, the real remnants of manufacturing begin to like so many British follies, crumbling ruins purpose built to augment the pseudo-history of their estates.

Looking up in Knoxville starts to show a possible alternate path, if only via return to a mode of construction and production that still marks it. Between the brick corner of "old-fashionism" (insofar as that means the buildings of the mid 20th century or the now hard to fathom structures of mass blue-collar manufacturing that formed the backbone of so many U.S. zones) and this other thing, this rising remainder of Knoxville's other past, as the headquarters of the TVA and its vision of public ownership, albeit not of a remotely radical communitarian model, and massive construction to literally reshape the topography and lines of movement in east Tennessee. Something between Constructivist visions of the transformation of everyday life, Ginsburgian disurbanism spread across the Smokies, and monolithic forms of white concrete landing like public works project aliens high in the mountains.

The mountain work in question is the observation tower at Look Rock in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.: where you walk these odd angled ramps and their sightlines toward a 360 degree view over the mountain range. Most striking is the immensity of the tower and the sheer fact of the amount of concrete: it is a form to be looked at and to be looked from, purposeless except for an act of looking and walking. The oddness of ascending ramps that echo the stairs of Melnikov's Svoboda Factory club while watching hawks circle above the forest is hard to top.

It would be one thing is this were a one-off oddity, the work of some rogue civil engineer. But the soaring scope and attention to form that flaunts both its utility (these are indeed solid ramps) and its elegant out-of-place-ness are, if anything, the hallmark of the instances of TVA modernism that I saw (and I'm sure there are many more than I happened to stumble on).

Most jawdropping, for me at least, is the Henley Bridge, actually complete shortly before the TVA charter was signed into existence. It is a monumental fact of a bridge, concrete and steel-reinforced, arcing high over those walking along the river.

Without doubt, I am romanticizing this bridge as some Hart Crane-like instantiation of an alternate trajectory of "building" America, as if this represents the lost instant that should have become a persistent tradition. However, the point might be that what is powerful about it is its persistence as a non-tradition: soaring arches that keep signing the same thing, a moment of Futurist excitement about what can be made with matter, energy, and machines, and that, for whatever ideological baggage may come with such fantasies of world-remaking praxis, they are surely preferable to the ideology of pseudo-planning that characterizes urban renewal.

Further along the river, we find one of those ubiquitous centers for new small city living, replete with these lampposts that echo the original light fixtures for the World's Fair Park built in Knoxville in 1982 (below)

but with new, unwanted brick pillars , an echo of what you see when you turn around...

namely, the center in question, seemingly quoting the industrial production of the Tennessee Valley with its over-girded steel. Yet like so many of these places, they are built to answer a demand but to demand that demand, to create a space to be used by a kind of "New. Urban. Living." consumer that doesn't exist in that town. For what we should demand instead is this:

And, in another register, this:

Out front of the TVA headquarters that guard over the town, like white cube sentries, there is moving water, a breezeway that fills the central market with air, and, above all, a semblance of plan, like the bridge, in that regardless of what may come to be built, unbuilt, rebuilt around it, it asserts a vision for a kind of planning, a recognition that left to their own devices, economies and the cities that give birth to, and are born out by, them will go to shit. Scattered heterogeneity, not an expression of the particularity of a region and its possible diverse instances of small businesses, modes of living, cultural zones, and so on, but the opposite, the heterogeneity that is the pseudo-plan of late capitalism. The "diversity" of the market that flattens all worlds in its path.

To come to this the long way around:

We don't want to remotely assume that there is any old school Keynesian solution to our financial meltdown, as lingers in the hearts of the Obama administrtion. And we should reject as such the idea that rebuilding infrastructure in the mode of the TVA in the 30's is anything other than a desperate grasp of after-the-fall neoliberalism at some resurgence of manufacturing.


there is something to be reawakened in the vision of TVA modernism, in the aesthetics not of the pseudo-plan but the partial-plan that is self aware (unlike Tafuri's denigration of the failed utopia of the partial plan, which remains unable to think this alternate mode, we might argue). And it should be held in all its resonances, in the ghosts of public ownership that are starting to gain mass in this era of failed bailouts and the necessary demand that any enterprise bailed out must become owned by and accountable to taxpayers, in all this as part of a twin resistance to urban pseudo-renewal. There are, on one hand, the the forms of melancholic decay that exceed the pornographic aesthetics of recuperation and white-washed salvage. And on the other, these large arcs and blocks of concrete, those constructivist angles, set in the mountains, shaping town squares. A brake on the sprawl dislogic of urban development and, more crucially, a break in time, stains and strains on the dominance of capitalist world construction in all its pseudo-validity.


Kauders said...

How does this Knoxville TVA aesthetic relate to that of, say, Glen Echo Park in Washington DC, another publically funded depression project I think?

Giovanni said...

Great post, that's at least a seven on the Hatherley scale.

Regarding the rebuilding and refurbishing, we've started seeing lofts in Milan, and I can report a first-hand experience. The last place where my partner and I lived before moving to New Zealand was a microscopic flat above my father's upholstery shop, in a formerly working class but very central and rapidly gentrifying area of the city. When dad retired, he sold the place and it was turned into an American style loft, with much loss of the original architecture (which was in fact far lovelier). But there was a catch: an architect living in upstairs from us had told me once that the foundation's original wooden piles would have certainly been gone for some time, rotted away as a result of the rising of the aquifer underneath the city when the industrial belt shrunk and stopped pumping it out. It was simply impossible to repile the place, so it was just going to give at some stage. It wasn't hard to believe him because there was a crack in our wall so large you could see the light coming through from the other side.

Yet the place went for quite a bit, and the new owner invested an even larger sum one in prettifying it. Talk about affluence built on a bubble of nothing.

Also: China Mieville does my taxes. I thought I should mention that.

owen hatherley said...

I'm flattered there's a 'Hatherley scale'.

It's always weird to non-Americans (and I suspect many Americans too) to think that this bit of social capitalism (a very big thing in post-war Europe, there's a book I've seen around from the '40s called Experiment in Planning, selling the virtues of the TVA to the English) should be based in the deep South. Sadly it didn't make socialists out of southerners, it would seem.

The precariousness and paradoxes of housing in 'up-and-coming' areas (as the optimistic estate agent term has it) is a perennially interesting thing. Recently me and Nina visited a friend's new place - he'd started renting an ex-council flat near the river and attendant industrial areas. It had loads of space, two spacious balconies, huge windows, separate loo and bathroom - all things conspicuously lacking in either her minuscule flat in aspirational Ballardian housing development or my rotting, bug-infested canopy carved out of the space above a chipshop. What's especially interesting about this is that it was his place, from the outside, that people would assume to be poorer.

Word verification: 'cheewort'

Giovanni said...

Every area is 'up-and-coming', though, no? I mean so long as it isn't already upmarket. In fact the Italian real estate jargon word for it, signorile, lit. gentlemanlike, could be the subject of a whole book on the fiction of our economic miracle. But I digress.

Now I wonder if the UK might differ in this respect and the US more so. The Italian heyday was some time ago - Siena had 200,000 inhabitants before the plague of 1348, vs. 50,000 today. We lack the sense, the memory of decadence, of things that might be down-and-falling (although we're catching up on that), of whole towns or boroughs completely abandoned. Lacking first-hand experience of these things, I was quite struck by the photos of abandoned houses posted over at ads without products a little while ago. Old. Urban. Dying, perhaps.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

In an odd way, as an American, it makes perfect sense that the South should be the site of this. Something of the tremendous social upheaval of the Civil War, followed by "Reconstruction" and the hypothetical rewriting of race relations, make it a place strangely open to transformative projects, albeit ones whose logics rarely reach their targets.

(Although Texas was home to a utopian socialist colony for a bit, so perhaps Peter Linebaugh or the like could cobble together a lost revolutionary commonist history across the deep South and old West.)

As I'm reading and going to be writing on that old Jameson chapter on the Gehry house, it might be interesting to think back to the question of "wrapping" as it relates to the issue here, to up and coming areas that either veil their rich apartments with derelict exteriors or with that odd hybrid that wants to recode crumbling brick as the guarantor that there will indeed be expensive lofts inside. This is the inverted sign of America's deep love for vinyl siding: the shiny artificial quick fix to termite and weather damage.