In 2015, the New York Times invited seven of the world’s most distinguished architects to defend seven of the world’s “most hated buildings”. These included the BT Tower in London (which I’m not sure counts as “most hated”) and the Tour Montparnasse in Paris (which certainly does).
The hideous spread of 'spreadsheet architecture'
The very worst of the seven was the Vele di Scampia – a truly grim housing development in a suburb of Naples. Vele means “sail” and individual blocks resemble boats – if, that is, boats were built from concrete in the brutalist style.
An internal canyon-like passageway runs along the length of each block. These were meant to evoke the alleys of a more traditional Neapolitan neighbourhood. However, the gangways suspended at various heights above the ground level create a dark, dystopian environment – like something out of Bladerunner, but with more litter.
Not for much longer, though. According to a Guardian report by Sophia Seymour, this architectural experiment is coming to an end:
“This week, however, marks a new chapter for the beleaguered estate, with the announcement that authorities will finally tear down the distinctive sail-shaped tower blocks. Unusually, the effort to demolish the buildings has been led by the residents themselves… alongside the mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, Le Vele campaigners unveiled a red banner which read: ‘The fight has been won, goodbye.’”
Like most dystopias, the project started off with utopian intentions:
“But the demolition also marks the symbolic failure of Italy’s postwar dream of social housing. Built between 1965 and 1980 by the Neapolitan architect Franz di Salvo, Le Vele was meant to replace the slums and squalor of the medieval city centre. Di Salvo, inspired by Le Corbusier, was operating in the spirit of the case per tutti, or houses for everyone.”
It can be argued that the original architectural vision was betrayed:
“When finished, the corridors were narrower than planned, the tower blocks closer together and the proposed transport links and social spaces non-existent. The effect was to isolate hundreds of the city’s most destitute families without access to work in a vast concrete slum.”
The article also mentions empty lift shafts and extremely thin external walls.
However, these problems are hardly unique. Even when modernist designs are built exactly to the intended specifications, their subsequent failure is often blamed on non-architectural problems – e.g. poor maintenance, inadequate transport links, wider social issues. These can certainly play their part, but it all begins with the building.
Monolithic, system-built, unornamented architecture is inherently fragile – especially in application to social housing. The authorities and contractors have all the power, the residents none. Mistakes are systematically replicated across hundreds of dwellings – going unnoticed until it is too late.
Unlike most forms of traditional architecture, these are one-shot buildings – you have to get them right first time, because their scale, materials, method of construction and unity of design are all barriers to modification. The irony of ‘modernism’ as a label is that it is all about people from one point in history dictating to the future – imposing buildings that are almost impossible to adapt to changing needs.
The false promise of the vertical city
Then there are the unintended changes that come to every building with the passage of time. Even if maintenance budgets are adequate or residents are empowered to look after their own homes, entropy will have its inevitable effect. Everything that was new will become old. The only question is whether a building will age gracefully. Modernist designs – dependent on clean lines, unadorned surfaces, the triumph of the industrial over the natural, never look better than when they’re new.
Traditional designs, on the other hand, tolerate entropy. The weathering of the elements, the patina of age, are enhancements, not disfigurements. Even in this era of spreadsheet architecture, traditional designs are still being commissioned and built. When new, they almost look too perfect – and, indeed, they mature with age. In accordance with Nassim Taleb’s principle of anti-fragility these are buildings that benefit from disorder.
According to the New York Times feature, another problem with the Vele di Scampia was that gates had been installed to keep the police out. That’s not good, but modernist housing developments of this kind don’t need gate-installing gangs to isolate themselves from the wider community. All you need is a plan that overturns traditional principles – not only for the buildings themselves, but also for their layout within the space they occupy.
Le Vele is a prime example of what happens when the street is rejected in favour of Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” concept – i.e. blocks surrounded by greenery. Perhaps, he was inspired by the stately homes of the rich, thinking that the people should have the opportunity to live this way too. Unfortunately, the lesson of history is that the rich choose tall, monumental, spatially-separate structures precisely in order to isolate themselves. That’s fine when you don’t need to work and have transport at your disposal, but otherwise an absolute disaster.
For the great majority of people, the traditional streetscape evolved and endured over millennia to maximise the connectivity of the shared urban environment – and also its security. As Jane Jacobs put it in the Life and Death of American Cities, there must be “eyes on the street… ” The tower in the park, however, not only removes the street, but lifts it residents high off the ground – their eyes are in the sky, looking into the distance, not where they need to be. Jacobs also said that there needs to be a “clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.” The tower in the park erases that distinction, creating a no-man’s land which is neither public nor private and therefore insecure.
The brutal apartheid of the French banlieues
It may be that projects like the Vele di Scampia were brought low by crime and neglect. But they were also doomed by an arrogant disregard for the past. The modernists may have thought they were rejecting backwardness, but in fact they were discarding centuries of accumulated human experience – and starting again with nothing.
The sooner their creations return to nothing, the better.