Monday, 7 May 2012

writing about architecture: book

Jacques Ellul – The Meaning of the City

What is a city? What does a city mean for you? How do you define the city-ness of a city? By what scale do you measure urbanity? Where does it begin and what is its essence? What thin, red, necessary and sufficient conditions delineate the metropole? And then, what of the city's allure? If the city qua city is centralised dwelling, what magnetises that node? What central suction, what centripetal affection drew you hence? Why are you here on the Holloway Road? A job? For what? To hide? From whom? As a means? To an end? Are you here under duress? On pilgrimage? By accident? For asylum? To profit? Or plunder? The city promises much for these, while it is yet a mystery. What is a city? How do you consider it? All of you who love to hate to love London, how do you construe its sprawl as the subject of such affection? Can you speak of the city's totality except by deference to myth and metaphor? For surely the city as an independent and unified entity exists only as an abstraction, as a mirage, as power play, as a spirit? The infinity of London's diversity resists reduction and in this way I have never met a complete 'Londoner' and accordingly there is no such simple thing as London. And yet we ally ourselves to her, we march under her banner, we trade in her name, we defend and are defended by the brand of an unknowable London. Why is this and what is a city? Dear urban creatures, do not be ignorant of your own reasons for being and being here, do not avoid to question the meaning with which you invest this city.

The city has a particular meaning for Jacques Ellul. He writes of these feelings quite plainly, damningly, but plainly and these meditations form the thrust of his book The Meaning of the City. The book is hugely problematic, but it is precisely in the problematic nature of this work that it rewards rereading and earnest discussion. There are three major points which he helpfully makes plain: the personal nature of the urban phenomenon, an apocalyptic reading of the urban end game, and, relatedly, an explicit disjunction between human and divine roles in redeeming the city.

Ellul argues that the city is no mere impersonal product of inert extension and technique multiplied to accommodate a density of human bodies on a centralised network for the advancement of economic efficiency. The city is not primarily a technical phenomenon, it will not be fixed by tinkering, the eager queue of architects, planners, hygienists and economists will modify the device in vain and certainly the psychogeographers and social scientists' efforts to reinterpret the city are inadequate. That happy city we all want cannot be re-engineered because it has already failed at the level of its motive force: the metropolis was fashioned for a purpose, conceived as a machine for hiding in, born as an organism bent on self-defence. In expressing this, Ellul helpfully invigorates inquiry into the human desires and supposed needs which founded the city; and by speaking of these desires he establishes that this urban mode of dwelling is not inevitable. The city is a personal force, a moral phenomenon open to criticism, open to being other than London is.

By such a critique he would rattle the negligent and speak urgently needed restraint to those holding a faith that urbanisation is an unequivocal good in the project of progress. However, for the antiurbanist Ellul, the desires which motivate the city are only and always depraved, and so the city is only and always bound for apocalypse. In prejudicially bringing an apocalyptic reading to his source texts Ellul promotes a fatalism which is ruinous to any effort to motivate action towards the improvement of the city. If the discussion of a meaning to the city was opened up by qualifying the urban phenomenon as moral and personal, it is firmly closed by this disempowering fatalism.

In 2012 we live in a crescendo of apocalyptic enthralment, conspicuously in the language of some among the environmental movement, and by extension in the massively popular brand of disaster cinema. The apocalypse is attractive because it excuses responsibility to care for the city now. Into this mêlée, The Meaning of the City is useful for the lengths to which it pushes the logic of a philosophy which is behind the appeal of these visions. If at first he establishes the city as morally personal, and second he advances the city as subject to judgement apocalyptically, the third point of his theology which I believe to be instructive to our own time is his resolution to the urban problem: the New Jerusalem. Ellul fans the flames of learnt helplessness in his conclusion by forging a disjunction between the human project and divine action. This is not Christianity, neither is this sustainable, but it is a widely held hope amongst those who suffer the city. If environmentalism was going to declare heresies it would do well to address apocalyptic antiurbanism.

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