Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Failed Project of Civilization

Contributed by Patrick Webb
of Real Finishes

This essay is really addressing ethical questions pertaining to the built environment, that's to say how society might organize itself architecturally: How ought we to live? What models help us best to flourish as human beings?

I observe that for many that question has been put to rest. The city is the best model for human flourishing and all energies should be directed to refining it. I don't take the aforementioned position as a given and contend that there may very well be value in revisiting the few basic structures of societal self organization, some ancient, others more recent. Brace yourself for the anecdotes, here they come!

The Ascetic - either the hermit or perhaps the solitary frontiersman who lives in near isolation, living off the land so to speak. The monastery creates a brotherhood of ascetics who though sharing certain tasks in common, reserve much time for isolation and quiet contemplation.

A pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee during my Aliyah

Alright, where to begin? Well, not at the beginning but in my twenties. For 7 years I took a vow of poverty and lived as an ascetic, my daily concerns being studies of linguistics, ethics and aesthetics. Particularly the latter being my personal interest, I could be rightly called an aesthetic ascetic as it were. As a young man I was relieved of the pressures of raising a family, acquiring debt, managing property, climbing a corporate ladder, building a business or otherwise establishing my turf in a commercial enterprise. Yes, there were rules and obligations; however, my experience of the monastic was that this conformist aspect of the life was light, just enough for cohesion of the brethren. I've never since had as much time to simply think and personally develop. As I'm always pressed to answer: how did you not have sex for 7 years? Don't know, couldn't do it now. Likewise reintegrating into the so-called "real" world of civilization was a bitch.

The Tribe - Nomadic by nature not 'cause they hate cha. Hunter gatherers and foragers are the oldest form of society and continue to persist, though to an ever shrinking degree, to the present day.

Civilization hates the tribe, plain and simple. As is well recorded, Europeans flooded the planet from the 15th thru 18th centuries, conducting an unrelenting pogrom of improvement. They encountered pre-existing cultures along the way: Islam, Incas, Chinese, Indian, etc. They didn't care for them much with their pagan and primitive ways but at least they could respect them at some level as proto-civilized, they had cities and rules of law after all. However, when they reached Africa, North America and Australia were they in for a shock: bloody tribes! These people lived and died leaving virtually no mark on the land. The human being living as an animal, how unbecoming. For the enlightened adherents of Cogito Ergo Sum, this just did not compute.

I was born in Manhattan, the heart of arguably the world's first megaregion stretching from Boston down to Washington DC. Nevertheless, I spent my summers at my family's property in Jamaica, W.I. Millbank was a little place deep in the tropical rain forest at the end of the road leading up from Kingston into the Blue Mountains. No phone, no electricity, no plumbing, no problem man. It was a village but retaining many characteristics of tribal life. One bathed in the river, cast nets for fish, caught rock shrimps too, foraged for produce and game in the bush as well as for medicinal leaves and roots. The local folk would go off into the jungle for days on end. Little use for money. No law, no codes and consequently no criminals. Your only responsibilities were to one another, simple and free. That way of life is over, like a fading dream. The 4G service there is better than Charleston. Millbank has been transformed into a distant, impoverished outpost of a civilization upon which its denizens now passively depend.

The Village - A sedentary development of the tribe. Familial groups who stay put by establishing agricultural and husbandry practices.

I recently returned from a traditional plasterer's gathering in the village of Llangors, Wales. Flying over the Welsh countryside en route to landing in Cardiff one can't help but notice the lovely plots of land set aside for cultivation and grazing, interspersed with forest as well as small villages connected by country lanes. Not at all unlike a neural network, you get the palpable feeling the fabric of this society is quite literally sentient and very much a thriving living organism.

Llangorse Lake

Hundisburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Similarly, I had the experience last summer of working in Hundisburg, literally "village of the hound", in the middle of nowhere Germany. Hundisburg was situated in a similar pattern of concentrated village development with adjoining agricultural lands and forest that had slowly accreted over millennia. As these villages would grow to a state of maturity, they would divide like a cell and form a new largely self sufficient familial group at a distance away no more than a two hour walk. And so around Hundisburg you have in a radial fan: Ackendorf, Rottmersleben, Nordgermersleben, Bebertal and Süplingen each with its own distinctive, if related character, culture and history. Modernity has pressed upon them all, imposing for good or ill the legal and transportation infrastructure of contemporary life. Nevertheless, I admired the persistence of the locals to live off the land, eat from their gardens and with the seasons, continue to make their own building materials then build according to their traditions, refuse credit cards and avoid even cash when possible in lieu of barter. For the kids, the next generation being English speakers as beneficiaries of a standardized education courtesy of the E.U., these are just nostalgic fetishes of their cute but backwards parents. They're all European now.

The City - Something altogether different from the village. The city is characterized by strict hierarchies, rules of law, property rights and division of labors. Most towns share these characteristics and can be classified as small cities.

The city is a rather recent phenomenon among human society, perhaps dating back at the most some eight to nine thousand years. For sure villages go back much further. However, as I've been enlightened by a colleague who is writing a book on city planning, a city is most definitely not an overgrown village. Ancient cities weren't grown at all, rather they were manufactured whole cloth with religious, legal and economic infrastructure accompanied by a rationalized plan that is to say an urban layout.

Who made these first cities? The best I can tell, tyrants. The city is possible because of institutionalized systems of coercion, by force of violence enforcing a culture of subjugation, dependence and passivity maintained in successive generations by indoctrination of rule of law and respect for authority. In a word slavery.

Rebellious Slave, Michelangelo
Admittedly there have been these intractable problems from the inception of the city but the case is continually made that the city is a worthwhile project after all. Look how much culture it has brought humanity. You don't get opera in a tribe or Michelangelo in a village. The highest of highs, such pinnacles of human achievement. Inspiring values worth almost any sacrifice...but from whom?

Democratic Athens struggled with this question. By Athenian democracy I mean property owning males, about 10%. Women, foreigners and slaves, you know the folks who actually did all of the work didn't count because after all work is demeaning, subhuman. A group of the citizens felt democracy was all wrong, the enfranchisement of 10% was already too broad. The unlearned it gave voice to interfered with the realization of the ideal polis where the good, the just and the beautiful were recognized as three expressions of a single guiding universal ideal. The beautiful city is a just city. A just city is a good city. A good city is a beautiful city.

If you are committed to the city project as your model of human flourishing I guess it's perfection is perhaps a reasonable quest; you're committed after all and that's the nature of commitment. However, from someone like myself who makes no such commitment, it reeks of Romanticism. No not the 19th century aesthetic movement but hearkening all the way back to Classical Greece & Rome: Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. When has the West or anyone else for that matter ever produced anything even approaching a good, just and beautiful city? Athens? Rome? Paris? London? New York? It's a delusion, a fantasy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the ideals of the good, just and beautiful as among the guiding lights for human flourishing. I just observe that the city has never been the appropriate societal vehicle for such development, rather an impediment.

The Megaregion - The absorption of cities into huge swaths of development, forming blocs that are in fierce economic competition with one another in a single global market.

Cities were horrible places for most people. Running them required armies that acquired and policed slaves, serfs or similar peasant rabble; the only "volunteers" being the most vulnerable and desperate outside populations who, otherwise facing starvation, were compelled to prostitute themselves as "metics" or indentured servants. Unsurprisingly, the city was the minority form of societal organization. Up until as late as 1800 less than 3% of the world's population lived in cities, although it must be admitted that the outstretched influence of the city was already vigorously on the rise. Today, over half the world's population lives in cities, a startling 75% in the West. Who doesn't physically live in the city, lives according to the prescriptions of the larger megaregion.

The megaregion is the metastasis of the city, spreading everywhere like cancer. It is militarily intolerant of any independent form of societal self organization. Totalizing, the megaregion reaches out into the most far flung reaches of desert, tundra  and jungle, to the most isolated tribe and village, "civilizing" them, excising conformity and dependence by rule of law.

When I was a child I had a vision for world unity. I thought how wonderful it will be when everyone has electricity, everyone has a car, everyone speaks English...everyone becomes the same because they're just like me! I think I can be forgiven for that; it was the thinking of an undeveloped, immature child. As humanity faces impending ecological crisis, the depletion economies and nihilistic behavior of the megaregions are stamping out remaining solutions embedded in thousands of years of accumulated tradition, culture and language, literally humanity's collective ability to think, in favor of an imposed universality. The fact that megaregions such as Toronto, Dubai and Peking are converging in the ways they look and function is not evidence of progress, it's evidence of tremendous loss resulting from infantile thinking.

So the questions arise: Is this state of affairs inevitable? Is this human evolution, progress toward some yet undetermined end? Who's to say for sure, maybe it is. I have my biases but I'm not insisting that the tribe and village are better than the city. Personally though, I don't like having all my "evolutionary" eggs placed in the megaregional basket without my consent. Just as we make room for national parks, protected species, there may be some wisdom in making a place for other forms of human society, uncivilized as they may be. Civilization can afford this and the price our species may have to pay for not doing so might be too much to bear.

Contributed by Patrick Webb
of Real Finishes


  1. Your musings are very thoughtful and, as you hope, provocative.
    Certainly “civilization” (the living in cities) carries costs with it, but as you point out, it is the presently accepted “best model for human flourishing,” certainly with its many faults notwithstanding.
    It is important to question that assumption, as you do when you define your topic clearly in the first paragraph: what forms of society (or communities) best promote human flourishing?
    You present this as an ethical question, suggesting that an ethical community promotes human flourishing, and you present the inquiry concerning “how society might organize itself architecturally.” (emphasis added)
    But do you reach architecture? Your comments concern land usages of social organizations and civil or political organizations. I have argued elsewhere that this organization precedes building (and architecture) because building is an activity with public content on public land, and the community (monastery, tribe, etc.) necessarily controls what is placed on it.
    So, how do you reconcile forms of organization with what is built to serve them?
    And how exactly does architecture promote human flourishing; what is its ethical content?
    It also occurs to me that you ignore the larger cover over these organizations, the organization of the sacred.
    The neglect of the religious content of settlements becomes especially noticeable when you speak about the beginnings of the various forms of settlement—ascetic, etc. Is their beginnings not in their religious origins? Certainly cities (perhaps not tribal settlements; and not megaregions) were founded where the godhead struck the earth, and religion is important in binding a people into a community. Why, then, do you give religion such short shrift?
    Finally, I beg to differ about the inevitability of any changes that come from evolution in so far as they affect human flourishing. Human flourishing requires the exertion of the will. As I understand evolution it treats change mechanistically and leading to inevitable outcomes aimed at survival. If that is so, then it is certainly the wrong word to use to describe present trends of globalization of megaregions that certainly threaten the survival of those who occupy the earth. This is willful and not evolutionary. And if their development is the result of evolution and therefore inevitable, there is nothing to be done about it. Here lies fatalism that defies willful efforts to change course.
    Your musing raised interesting questions. I look forward to your responses and to the comments of others.

    1. Bill, I'll take what I perceive as 3 points of evolution, religion and architectural ethics in reserve order.

      Regarding evolution, personally I see no relation to the megaregion. The mess we're in has been by choice. As you say an "exertion of the will", at least someone's will. That would indicate that other choices can be made. So I don't think we differ on this point, at least within an acceptable range.

      Ah religion. Perhaps I did ignore it though I prefer to think I've set it aside for the moment. Only so much provocation per post, no? It's difficult only if because I suspect religions of pre-civilisation were unlike the highly refined versions of today. But yes, the sacred bears discussion I do concede.

      "So, how do you reconcile forms of organization with what is built to serve them?
      And how exactly does architecture promote human flourishing; what is its ethical content?"

      My apologies in advance if I'm creating a straw man but what follows is based on my reading of your questions. If it is implied that architecture is the built representation of an idea, is the formal projection of the will, then I claim that it is not only that and not precisely that, nor even most importantly that or at least wasn't (I think this level of abstraction is nearing a reality in contemporary practise where a drawing can be architecture and a building can be printed). My own again anecdotal experience in craft has taught me to submit my will to the materials I work upon. Gypsum, lime, stone, timber all concentrate my attention, they transform me. My path to flourishing comes from the independence acquired through mastery; I am granted agency by pliability to something outside of myself having its own unyielding ways. My conversations with my fellows seem to confirm this as a sympathy, one we might also extend to our forefathers.

      I'll make a further claim that architecture of this sort is also about the cultivation of judgement. Loosely speaking, ethics has been associated with judgements of the intellect based on reason, aesthetics judgements of the senses influenced by emotion, maybe even desire. I'm not convinced they're different. Even if we firmly decide something by reason, how do we decide to decide? Let me digress by saying that architecture, in this traditional sense is a judgemental activity and not a trivial one. A large measure of human experience is tied up with it. In the case of the tribe and village less architecture was planned out in advance, only so much transmitted by ideas. One became more ethically and aesthetically developed, transformed and empowered by making, among other things, architecture.

  2. Patrick,

    Concerning megaregions produced by evolution or willfulness: I was following your opening sentence in your final paragraph where you raise the questions about inevitability and “human evolution.” We agree that they exhibit willfulness, not inevitable predetermination. The same goes for the faults and deficiencies of cities that you enumerate. Remember Athens and Melos: certainly not a proper model for a civil society.

    Concerning architecture’s promotion of human flourishing: For an architect to be successful (and rise above mere building) it does indeed require the craft that you describe, the hand doing the work of the head that understands and depends on the work of the hand. Is that not the connection that is missing when building becomes mechanized and industrialized? And is not the perfection that craft seeks not another form of the congruence with nature that is one way to understand ethical conduct? I think this is another way to say what you say in the final paragraph of your comment.

    Religion: I certainly understand your desire to defer the discussion of religion. Religion, sex, and politics are forbidden topics in polite conversation (What does that say about this campaign season’s rhetoric?). When I used the word I intended to convey the ritualistic aspect of venerating and celebrating the sacred, and indeed those have taken, and continue to take, a great diversity of forms and display in settlements from tribes to megaregions (megachurches?). I look forward to your (polite) comments on this.

  3. Bill,

    It would appear to me that our Western conception of the sacred revolves around a certain idea of perfection. Perfection as a state, beyond which no further improvement is possible. In the Christian heaven e.g., the highest order of angels being the Seraphim, the pinnacle of creation have no other task then to cry out, "Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah" in a closed loop.

    Craftsmen think in terms of excellence, if perfection enters into it at all it's in the limited sense of being perfectly human. This puts them at odds with a hyper-rationalised society and a recently developed architectural class that conceive of an ideal order of perfectly straight lineaments executed in space, one could say heaven or maybe even Revit. In any case, a higher plane of existence than the craftsman inhabits.

    The traditional Islamic rug weaver or mosaicist is sensitive to the overreach for this type of perfection as blasphemous and will deliberately add "imperfection" before completion of the work if it does not occur spontaneously.

    Industrialisation alienates us from our work as the megaregion does so from our individual and social identities more broadly. In both cases the paths to knowing and being known are obscured and diluted. This subject merits more than a comment. Probably a book or several generations of research. I'll give it further reflection and begin to address my own perspective of the role of the sacred in architecture with my next essay contribution here.