In a not entirely facetious vein, I once taught a course at the Southern California Institute of Architecture where every student was made to imagine they had a B-52 and unlimited bomb tonnage. Their assignment was the optimal improvement of the built environment through the destruction of the ugliest and most antisocial large buildings.
It was hopeless to expect that architects would agree on what constitutes “good design,” but I was curious whether we could achieve any consensus about “bad architecture.” If so, perhaps we could leave some pertinent instructions for the next LA riot.
In the event, students loved playing Curtis LeMay and bombed the city with gusto, but with disappointingly little overlap among their targets. Perhaps “bad” design was as capriciously subjective as “good” design. But one student remembered a lecture I’d given about Churchill’s strategy for terror-bombing German cities during the Second World War. The RAF’s early priorities were the slum neighborhoods in Berlin and Hamburg-Altona that had the highest percentage of Communist voters in the 1933 elections, with the expectation that morale in these former red belts would shatter most easily. (It didn’t.)
By analogy, my student reasoned that we should ignore the ugly buildings and bomb their designers instead. To be as inclusive as possible, he had made an address list of the headquarters of the major corporate architects and commercial developers. These were pre-drone days, and some students balked at the idea of targeting people rather than their creations. But when someone else pointed out the incredible future that such carnage would create for young, promising architects, there were smiles all around.
We were having too much fun to reflect on the fact that the system would immediately reconstruct itself with SCI-Arc grads seduced into business suits, or that avant-garde experiments depend on powerful private patrons.
The discursive world of urban design and planning will always be dominated by masturbatory fantasy until its inhabitants acknowledge that the real target of change must be the commodity form of land itself. Greater equity in urban space, including the basic right to remain in the city of one’s birth or choice, requires radical interference with rights of private property. Reforms — large-scale affordable housing, for example — that once seemed realistically achievable within electoral politics now demand an essentially revolutionary upheaval. Such has been the logic of Reaganite post-liberalism: to convert basic demands into what Trotsky called “transitional demands.”
Certainly, it was inspiring to see Occupiers reading the like of Slavoj Žižek and David Harvey inside their tents in Zuccotti Park, but the cause might have been better served if Progress and Poverty (1879) had been on the reading list as well. In 1890, Henry George, not Karl Marx, was far and away the most popular radical thinker in the English-speaking countries. His concept of a confiscatory tax on unearned increments of income from land ownership was as enthusiastically embraced by urban workers (he almost won the mayoralty of New York in 1886) as by Highland crofters and Irish tenants. Although Engels and Daniel De Leon rightly scourged the “Single Tax” as a universal panacea, George was no crank, especially in the application of his ideas about land reform to urban areas.
The great accomplishment of the Occupy movement — forcing national attention on economic inequality — became its ideological cul-de-sac to the extent that the movement was silent about economic power and the ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. Anyone can enlist in the vague cause of reducing income inequality, but actually attacking (or even acknowledging) the pyramid of economic power required a clarity that Occupy groups largely failed to achieve.
And yet, the historical moment offered the opportunity. After 2008, the American financial and residential real-estate industries were wards of the state, entirely dependent on public investment and government action. It was a prime moment for progressives to demand their conversion into de jure public utilities — nationalized and democratically managed.
An emphasis on public ownership would also have illuminated solutions immediately at hand, such as using the huge housing stock that defaulted to federal ownership to address the lack of shelter and affordable rents. Instead, the Obama administration followed the same path as Bush senior in the savings and loan crisis a generation ago: organizing a fire sale of homes and apartments to speculators.
Let’s be blunt: unregulated real-estate speculation and land inflation and deflation undermine any hope of a democratic urbanism. Land-use reforms in themselves are powerless to stop gentrification without more municipal ownership or at least “demarketization” of urban land.
The public city is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against the private city, and it’s time to identify large-scale private property as the disease. Bombs away.