Cities After…Office Spaces as Homes - Pt 1: The Modernist Legacy

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This episode of Cities After… is the first of a two-part series in which Prof. Robles-Durán will explore a post-covid urbanization trend taunting real estate developers and municipal governments across the globe: the adaptive reuse of vacant office spaces into homes. As businesses struggle to lure employees into the full-time occupation of their corporate cubicles and housing prices continue to rise, some champion the rezoning and transformation of office space into residential property as a win-win scenario for cities, while others forewarn the trend as a fiscal and economic catastrophe in the making. Robles-Durán takes a different stance on these positions in this two-part series, first, by unfolding a brief history of a few influential urban ideas from the end of the industrial revolution to the present—particularly functionalist and modernist principles—and, second, by discussing the effects and socio-spatial consequences of these trends.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity

These are the first of two episodes where I will take up a post-COVID organization trend relating to real estate developers and municipal governments across the globe: The adaptive re-use of vacant office spaces into homes.

As businesses struggle to lure employees into full-time occupation of corporate cubicles, and housing prices continue to rise, some champion the re-zoning and transformation of office space into residential property as a win-win scenario for cities. Others forewarn the trend as a fiscal and economic catastrophe in the making. I take a very different stance on these two positions. I will elaborate on this in the second episode. However, I will dedicate this first episode to unfolding a brief history of the contemporary spatial division of labor. By this, I mean how our cities have been physically shaped following capitalism. For this task, I will focus on a couple of influential urban ideas that were conceived from the end of the Industrial Revolution into modernity. More precisely, from the last decade of the 19th century to post Second World War reconstruction.

To formulate a critical insight into the current surplus of vacant offices worldwide and its distressing consequences, it will be helpful to understand some of the functionalist/modernist tendencies that have contributed to this mess. It is important to note that most of the influential modernist dreams of better cities began as ideas in the writings of utopian socialists of the 19th century. Notable amongst them were the French theorist Andre de San Simon, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, and the British philanthropist Robert Owen. Each of them dedicated a part of their life to design, promote, and develop new cities according to their particular utopian version of socialism. On a side note, the term utopian-socialist first appeared in 1843, in one of my favorite texts by Karl Marx that was entitled “The Ruthless Criticism of Everything.” In this text, Marx uses the term utopian-socialist as a derogatory expression to criticize the well-intended intellectuals who fantasized about perfect egalitarian societies without truly understanding what kind of political economy would socially sustain all these cities.

Some of these socialist utopians like Fourier and Owen managed to secure the funds and political support necessary to build their new cities. For many others, the egalitarian urban dreams remained as provocative ideas that would later return in the urban visions of others that followed. One of these utopian followers was an American journalist and writer named Edward Bellamy, well known for his famous 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward to 2000-1887. The novel was about a young person that sleeps in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000, to discover a world positively changed by some socialist principles such as worker cooperatives and the nationalization of private property and industry. Bellamy had a significant following amongst urban thinkers at the time. A notable one was Ebenezer Howard, a British planner known as the father of the Garden City Movement. Besides being a great admirer of Bellamy, Ebenezer Howard was also a follower of the American journalist and political economist, Henry George, who in his widely influential 1887 book Progress and Poverty, wrote about the socialization of land rents, expropriation of utilities, universal pension, and voting rights for women. While advocating for pro-capitalist free trade principles like many libertarian or liberal socialists of the time, Bellamy and George were highly contradictory thinkers. Ebenezer Howard was not an exception. Howard's ideas for the Garden City were presented as a remedy to the overcrowded, unsanitary, and inhumane urban living conditions of the working classes. The title of the 1898 book that made his planning ideas famous, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, was pretentious enough to be taken by many as a positivist solution to the urban ills of the time.

Ebenezer Howard's views echoed the Arcadian pastoral imaginaries of rural life that were so popular with liberal capitalist ideology of Victorian England. In essence, his solution to urban squalor was to reintroduce the virtues of rural life by planning a controlled and geometrically harmonious spatial layout that, according to him, merged town and country. His original plan consisted of 3600 hectares or roughly 9000 acres, ordered around a concentric pattern with six large radial boulevards that extended from the center. Imagine, kind of like a round pie cut in six slices. These large boulevards would then connect the residential streets, open spaces, parks, and other public amenities, serving a limited population of no more than 32000 people. According to Howard, once the Garden City reached this population, it would be completely self-sufficient. The Garden City would be then expanded by extending their radial boulevards into other autonomous satellite Garden Cities via automobile roads and railroads forming Garden City clusters.

There is much controversy about whether or not the Garden City was a vital precursor of the socially and environmentally disastrous post-war suburbanization projects. Defenders of the Garden City concept were usually liberal progressive people who justified it by claiming that land speculators and real estate developers destroyed its social potential, giving way to privatized garden suburbs. The reality is that, from its inception, Ebenezer Howard's idea was to be financially backed by real estate capitalists, or as he called them “gentlemen of responsible position and undoubted property and honor…”.

As you can imagine, these gentlemen were first and foremost interested in the Garden City for its capacity to open new forms of land speculation. They were not interested in Howard's idealistic selling point of creating decent living spaces for the working class. After so much drama, the outcome of the first Garden City became unaffordable for blue-collar workers and instead developed into a very attractive garden suburban arrangement for the growing middle classes. The success of the Garden City model with the petit bourgeois helped propel a trending class desire to separate residential spaces from the dirtiness and chaos of the industrial city. This tendency, together with the exploitative needs of capitalists, ultimately led to the professionalization of urban planning through the development of the functionalist/modernist planning principles that still haunt cities today.

By the end of the 19th century, there was a growing tendency to fragment urban living into specialized productive spaces. Urban density and the closeness between living and working, between the workshop and house, between the square and the factory, were no longer seen as a favorable spatial arrangement. Prioritizing distance between the workplace and the home
was where it was at. After all, who would want to live next to rising industrial pollution and the site of slums, dirty factory workers, and pauper people in the streets! Let me illustrate these conditions with the following excerpt from Friedrich Engels’ descriptions of Manchester: “Every great city has one or more slums where the working class is crowded together. True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich, but in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where removed from the site of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can. The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul stagnant pools instead. The houses are occupied from cellar to garret, filthy within and without. Their appearance is such that no human being could possibly wish to live in the filth and ruin surpassing all description. Heaps of garbage and ashes lie in all directions and the foul liquids emptied before the doors gather in stinking pools.”

Urban cores were being left to cluster working classes into ever-expanding factories together with their exploitative conditions. In contrast, the middle and upper classes favored fragmentary urban planning as a primary directive from which future cities would develop. From the time of the Garden City, fragmentary planning ideas flourished in colonial Europe (from Camilo Sitte’s Austrian city planning accordance to artistic principles to Tony Garnier’s Une Cite Industrielle in the south of France). All of them were heavily influenced by static utopian dreams of an ideal city distance from the unsightly urban spaces where capitalist wealth was being extracted from.

In just two decades, functional urban fragmentation became synonymous with modernist planning. The modernist planning principles were based on strict and rational assumptions of modern civilized human behavior. It goes something like this: Humans have different needs or functions during the day (sleeping; working; playing sports; leisure; cultural activities; shopping etc). Each of these activities had very specific special needs. For example, resting family activities and sleeping were performed in the living quarter. Moreover, work was performed either in the office or factory, and those required specific spatial layouts. Leisure, culture, and shopping required particular arrangements and so on. Basically, daily life was conceived in fragments. Each fragment was to be uniquely designed to perform optimally. Cities had to be functional for productivity and growth. Urban space was to be divided to perform. Most confounding, the new modern city had to start tabula rasa, either on a new site or built on top of a demolished quarter. The mixed and dense urban fabric of the past was no longer desired. Away with the old, or rather, let us hide or displace the dirty old urban playgrounds of industrial capitalism.

Struggling to cope with the corrosive urban consequences of industrial capitalism, cities around the world began to entertain and implement functional planning principles in the attempt to solve its many ills. It was not until the end of the First World War that its core ideas became ubiquitous across the globe. Many people attribute this boom to the agency of the Swiss-French architect, famously known as Le Corbusier, who in the 1920s, began to design a series of urban projects leading to the 1928 inaugural meeting of the International Congress of Modern Architecture, better known for its French acronym CIAM. It also led to his 1930 proposal for an ideal city that he called Will Radius, translated as Radiant City. It was somewhat of a linear city of high-rise blocks with function separated in accordance with the form of a human body. It is true, the city had arms, a head, spine, and legs. These parts were linked by wider linear roads for the efficient circulation of not blood of course, but automobiles. According to Le Corbusier, his proposal was to be seen as a blueprint for social reform, and the ultimate opportunity for reuniting men in an adequately ordered environment, blah blah blah, unlike the chaos of the old cities.

I must stress that the commanding impact of functionalist planning cannot be credited to the so-called genius of a few men as many professionals in the architecture, planning, and urban design disciplines still like to do. I pay attention to them because few address the political power games, the land speculation, and financial operations backing these urban projects. Like always, designers become successful because they better service the capitalist needs of the times.

The epoch that saw the rise of modernist planning was troubled by mass inequality, wars, socio-political unrest, numerous economic crises, fascism, and relentless ideological conflict. The era of welfare capitalism was in the making. Urban fragmentation made sense as a tool for social spatial reconstruction and for the service of the economy which would gradually build the office towers replacing the dirty factories and slums, which were slowly relocated to existing colonies and other economically depressed territories in other continents (of course, far from the site of the citizens of the colonial powers).

The conceptual origin of what is known as modernist urban planning was based on separation. The hundreds of static utopian proposals of built and unbuilt modern cities provided the spatial infrastructure that capital needed to optimize the functional needs. Optimize, isolate, alienate, separate. This was better expressed back in 1957, in the following quote by the French theorist Guy Debord: “While all the technical forces of capitalism contribute toward various forms of separation, urban planning provides the material foundation for those forces and prepares the ground for their deployment. Urban planning is the very technology of separation.”

Now let me jump 65 years and return to the basis of this two-part podcast. After all, I was supposed to talk about the conversion of vacant office spaces into housing, wasn't I? Well, in most of the world, with perhaps the exception of hyper-densities like New York and Hong Kong, the urban districts where vacant office towers dominate the landscape, were planned under functionalist/modernist principles. These districts were designed to accommodate the mono-function of the productive office and its corporate culture. Even hyper-dense cities and urban districts that label themselves as mixed-use employ one of the most pervasive legacies of functional planning. This is zoning, which is nothing more than the fundamental bureaucratic instrument of separation. The reproductive pattern, for which modern urban living is sustained, is dependent on this spatial separation, a circadian rhythm of sorts: workers wake up in their homes; take a shower; dress up; have breakfast; commute; work at least eight hours in an office to make money for someone else; shop; socialize; have dinner; and sleep to repeat the cycle every day, until it is retirement or death. In most cases, these activities are executed in separate urban sections, explicitly designed for that purpose. This fragmented spatial-temporal sequence can be even more apparent in suburbia, another influential legacy of this century-old planning trend. Although ordered and manifested in physical space, separation is essentially the abstraction of daily life at the service of capital. So, how would this abstraction change if the function of office districts suddenly compresses into the household, into your home? If the functional spaces of office towers are squeezed into the living rooms of those who used to be office workers, would the separation end? Or, on the contrary, will the separation be perfected? The epoch seeing the compression of office space into the household is troubled by mass inequality, wars, sociopolitical unrest, numerous economic crises, fascism, and relentless ideological conflict. A new era of capitalism is in the making, and a more severe form of urban separation is starting to make sense as a tool of social-spatial reconstruction towards a new kind of North. In the next episode, I will try to address these points and questions, as I will attempt to foresee some of the social-spatial consequences of the adaptive reuse trend of turning offices into housing.

In the meantime, I will leave you with another quote from Guy Debord’s 1957 Society of the Spectacle: “The general trend towards isolation, which is the underlying essence of urban planning, must also include a controlled reintegration of the workers based on the planned needs of production and consumption. This reintegration into the system means bringing isolated individuals together as isolated individuals. Factories, cultural centers, tourist resorts, and housing developments are specifically designed to foster this type of pseudo community. The same collective isolation prevails even within the family cell where the omnipresent receivers of spectacular messages feel the isolation with the ruling images. Images that derive their full power precisely from that isolation.

Transcript by Cindy Asma Siddiqi

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