Paradoxical city: imagined utopias and images of ruins, by Malcolm Miles*

This post is a shortened version of the paper presented by Professor Malcolm Miles at our Utopian Urban Futures conference on 27-28 June 2016.

[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way]

Images of the modern city range from a citadel – a place of safety from wild nature and invading armies, a beacon of permanence – to a site of dynamism and diversity. Historically, cities enable a division of labour which allows specialisation in all areas of production and governance. The confluence of power in modern cities led, too, to a professionalization of knowledge and establishment of public institutions comprising a bourgeois public sphere. But modern cities are daunting: overwhelming in scale, where crowds gather and regimes are overthrown. The tendencies of permanence and ephemerality are equally utopian, one looking to immutable perfection, the other to a deconstruction of the institutions of power. Underneath this dualism is a more complex, three-way tension between what might be called Enlightenment’s children: scientific rationalism; the pursuit of happiness; and (later) Romanticism. Can the utopian imaginary reconcile dreams of a better life with the need to refuse the instrumentalism by which such dreams are undermined when ends are justified by (any) means? And how is a Romantic desire for wildness reconciled with rationality, when the Romantic’s happines is found in smashing the edifices of established institutions?

Parallel to the above is a tension in how modern cities are represented. From Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy, the city is a place of moral conflict and dirt. It is also, in the view of elites, where mass publics rise to destroy the city. But the crowd is another ambivalent construct, offering anonymity to individuals seeking to evade social norms while reflecting the city’s flux. Anonymity was the condition of the flâneur, wandering the arcades to observe city life. Baudelaire romantically likens the poet-flâneur to both a rag-picker (in reality the most abject trade, carried out on the city’s edge), and a prostitute, selling writing on the open market. Yet something else is buried here; the modern writer is adrift in a modern life which offers no security, only the manufacture of desire, for instance, for novelty goods. If that world is disdained in favour of art, the price is marginality. In this context, most representations of modern urban life are either detached, like Baudelaire’s, or as negative as the images of smoking chimneys and bad housing found in novels (and real life – as encountered by Friedrich Engels in Manchester in the 1840s).

Against the grain, but in different ways, Matthew Arnold and Samuel Barnett offer exits from the mire. For Arnold, the cultural values and institutions of the educated middle-class was the only bastion against impending chaos. In Culture and Anarchy, written in the late 1860s, amid industrial unrest and religious dissent, reissued in 1889 in a popular edition, he writes of a, ‘single-minded love of perfection.’ Culture can reunify a broken society, acting from a high moral ground. But Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, although privileged, sought to replace the charity of middle-class, liberal reformism with self-improvement by the poor; and saw the responsibility of the privileged as contributing to better opportunities for all social classes.

Practicable Socialism (1888) collects essays by both Barnetts, arguing for the introduction of a standard old-age benefit of eight or ten shillings a week; a free health service; provision of libraries and parks; and replacement of unsound housing. Samuel Barnett’s The Ideal City (1894), based on Bristol, is a utopian vision in which urban conditions – proximity, mobility, the division of labour – produce egalitarianism, cooperation and the mutual aid. The Ideal City is optimistic, and Materialist (people are moulded by the conditions in which they live). As Helen Meller summarises, Barnett believed that deep-rooted social problems,  ‘… could only be solved in a new climate of understanding about cities and their influence on people. Thus for Barnett the key was social relationships. If only people got to know one another, especially people from different classes now segregated by the economic forces of modern urban growth, then the necessary concern and knowledge to overcome all problems could be found.’

The state has a key role in the ideal city, providing good public buildings and a well-ordered, clean and well-connected environment:

Halls, galleries, libraries, hospitals, colleges, asylums, prisons (many of them brilliant with mosaic) will catch and raise the thoughts of men [sic] … The city will extend far and wide, but the air will be so clean that no quarter will be unhealthy on account of smoke, and the tram service will be so complete that no quarter will be isolated. Trees and flowers will grow in the streets along which will run streams of pure water. The traffic will pass over noiseless pavements, and the heart of the city will be as pleasant for residence as the suburb. A walk will be no hardship because the shop windows will be arranged as to make pictures in the streets, and the advertisements will be under the control of an artist.

Barnett’s optimism was not widely shared. And in culture – notably modernist literature, a negativity prevails. In passing, I would see the same negativity informing English Town and Country Planning, influenced by the Garden City Movement. Mainstream English urbanism becomes anti-urban, harking after a lost Eden in an imagined countryside. A key case of this negayoivity is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which, for instance, he juxtaposes an idealised Thames in Elizabethan times to a modern, oily Thames of drifting barges. Eliot’s style echoes the shifting sands of modernity, with moments of fracture and sudden changes of voice, time and place. F. R. Leavis aligned this to Eliot’s sense of the, ‘incessant rapid change’ of the machine age. The lament for lost coherence is, however, itself an Elizabethan world-picture, evoking a passage in Thomas Elyot’s The Governor [1530]: ‘Take away order from all things, what should then remain? Certes nothing, finally, except some man would imagine … chaos.’ Eliot’s poetic project is, for Terry Eagleton, ‘a wholesale salvage and demolition job on [English] literary traditions … [and] dissociation of sensibility.’

Eliot’s image of a waste, wilted land is a literary trope for a state of mind. The Waste Land was completed during a three-month stay at a Swiss clinic. But the difficulty, for me, is that Eliot’s personal disintegration is universalised as social decline. In contrast, Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness finds hope in destruction as the wildflowers begin to grow in the rubble, engendering a wild freedom which makes the ruins another utopia. Barbary, the protagonist spent her formative years in the maquis in the Vichy period. Moved to London, Romanticism’s child, she behaves wildly and lives in the bombsites. In a maze of little streets winding through the wilderness, she discovers broken walls, pits with forests of bracken and bramble, ragwort and coltsfoot – wild rambling shrubs growing on the ruins next to broken vaults and stairways. At one point, a sentence of 22 lines offers a litany of past and present in which the future is a re-wilded city not unlike, in feeling, Richard Jefferies After London (1885). Macaulay quotes The Waste Land at several points, but there is a celebratory quality to her nihilism, barbarity has remoulded history, in contrast to Eliot’s unremitting gloom.

*Professor Malcolm Miles, University of Plymouth
Malcolm Miles is Professor of Culture Theory in the School of Architecture, Design and Environment at the University of Plymouth. He is author of Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation (Pluto Press, 2011), is guest co-editor of the Journal of Cultural Politics (Duke) 2013, and sits on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Architecture and Urbanism (Routledge).

Text by Malcolm Miles © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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