Manhattan Transfer – John Dos Passos II

Manhattan Transfer does not reach a conclusion or climax but fades out, true in its effort to capture the erratic, cinematic way of life in New York. I found a blurb of a bookseller who described the book as ‘cubist’, which is quite apt. The characters and scenes are put together in the way in which painters would collage newspaper clippings, bottles, tables and violins. I enjoyed being immersed in this modern work, it reads thoroughly contemporary. A nice conversation between three downtrodden men to close the post on Manhattan Transfer:



“It’s the same all over the world, the police beating us up, rich people cheating us out of their starvation wages, and who’s fault? … Dio cane! Your fault, my fault, Emile’s fault….”

“We didn’t make the world…. They did or maybe God did.”

“God’s on their side, like a policeman…. When the day comes we’ll kill God…. I am an anarchist.”

Congo hummed “les bourgeois à la lanterne nom de dieu.”

“Are you one of us?”

Congo shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not a catholic or a protestant. I haven’t any money and I haven’t any work. Look at that.” Congo pointed with a dirty finger to a long rip on his trouserknee. “That’s anarchist…. Hell I’m going out to Senegal and get to be a nigger.”

“You look like one already,” laughed Emile. “People are all the same. It’s only that some people get ahead and others dont. … That’s why I came to New York.”

“Dio cane I think that too twentyfive years ago. … When you’re old like me you know better. Doesn’t the shame of it get you sometimes? Here” …he tapped with his knuckles on his stiff shirtfront. … “I feel it hot and like choking me here. … Then I say to myself Courage our day is coming, our day of blood.”

“I say to myself,” said Emile “When you have some money old kid.”

“Listen before I leave Torino when I go last time to see the mama I go to a meetin of comrades. … A fellow from Capua got up to speak … a very handsome man, tall and very thin. … He said that there would be no more force when after the revolution nobody lived off another man’s work. … Police, governments, armies, presidents, kings … all that is force. Force is not real; it is illusion. The working man makes all that himself because he believes it. The day that we stop believing in money and property it will be like a dream when we wake up. We will not need bombs or barricades. … Religion, politics, democracy all that is to keep us asleep. … Everybody must go round telling people: Wake up!”

“When you go down the street I’ll be with you,” said Congo.

“You know that man I tell you about? … That man Errico Malatesta, in Italy greatest man after Garibaldi. … He give his whole life in jail and in exile, in Egypt, in England, in South America, everywhere. … If I could be a man like that, I don’t care what they do; they can string me up, shoot me … I don’t care … I am very happy.”

Manhattan Transfer – John Dos Passos – I

In the compendium ‘The American City – Literary Sources and Documents’ by the late Graham Clarke, the novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) by John dos Passos is mentioned as a book which captures the spirit of modernity of pre-war New York well:

“In relation to New York, it is the new kind of city John dos Passos attempted to image in Manhattan Transfer (1925). A novel not so much concerned with character as process, Manhattan Transfer maps out economic and technical changes as they affect the form of a new kind of urban life. Acutely alert to architecture and the iconography of urban space, Dos Passos registers the city as a “perpetuum mobile” of increasing process and disparate energies. The city is, both literally and symbolically, a text to be read, and full of clues as to the way in which underlying cultural change is usually expressed in the Manhattan of the 1900s. What is so brilliantly rendered is a sense of flux – a seemingly endless transference of meanings from sign to sign which moves beyond the extremes of negative and positive responses so characteristic of the nineteenth century. The novel is, thus, committed to a twentieth-century perspective.”

Manhattan Transfer - John dos Passos (1925), this copy 1st Penguin edition 1946

Manhattan Transfer – John dos Passos (1925), this copy 1st Penguin edition 1946

The novel is indeed distinctly different from the work of Henry James, who for instance in his New York Revisited, reflects critically about the modernisation of New York, and writes trenchantly on the development of skyscrapers. Reading parts of both books next to each other is quite illuminating. Even though the timespan in which these were written is only two decades apart, James’ writing style is flowery, turgid and moralistic, whereas Dos Passos throws you in the midst of the New York experience, of the life of waiters and sailors, lawyers and young mothers. The cut-and-paste of moving from scene to scene reminded me of the movie pulp fiction, although this is so much older! I found in both books gems of perception, uncovering what may very well be the essence of New York. What to think, for instance of the dialogue between a real-estate broker and one of his client, standing in a field on Long Island and promising that the area will only become better:

Manhattan Transfer, Penguin Paperback Edition, 1946:


2. Metropolis

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble columns. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn . . . Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the materials of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildings will jut glittering, pyramid, on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.

p. 11

Mr. Perry flicked at the burdock leaves with his cane. The real-estate agent was pleading in a singsong voice: “I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Perry, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. You know the old saying sir … opportunity knocks but once on a young man’s door. In six months I can virtually guarantee that these lots will have doubled in value. Now that we are a part of New York, the second city in the world, sir, dont forget that. … Why the time will come, and I firmly believe that you and I will see it, when bridge after bridge spanning the East River have made Long Island and Manhattan one, when the Borough of Queens will be as much the throbbing center of the great metropolis as is Astor Place today.”

“I know, I know, but I’m looking for something dead safe. And besides I want to build. My wife hasn’t been very well these last few years. … ”

“But what could be safer than my proposition? Do you realize Mr. Perry, that at a considerable personal loss I’m letting you in on the ground floor of one of the greatest real-estate certainties of modern times. I’m putting at your disposal not only security, but ease, comfort, luxury. We are caught up Mr. Perry on a great wave whether we will or no, a great wave of expansion and progress. A great deal is going to happen in the next few years. All these mechanical inventions – telephones, electricity, steel bridges, horseless vehicles – they are all leading somewhere. It’s up to us to be on the inside, in the forefront of progress. … My God! I cant begin to tell you what it will mean. …” Poking amid the dry grass and the burdock leaves Mr. Perry had moved some thing with his stick. He stooped and picked up a triangular skull with a pair of spiralfluted horns. “By gad!” he said. “That must have been a fine ram.”

Although the end of the real-estate deal between Mr. Perry and the broker is not revealed in the novel, the finding of the ram skull gives a sinister undertone to progress, just like the way in which the pyramid-shaped profile of skyscrapers is compared thunderclouds in the opening of this chapter.

Latin America in Construction Exhibition at the MoMA

Clorindo Testa, Bank of London and South America, Buenos Aires, 1959-1966, copyright Archivo Manuel Gomez Pineiro

Clorindo Testa, Bank of London and South America, Buenos Aires, 1959-1966, copyright Archivo Manuel Gomez Pineiro

The fantastically rich exhibition Latin America in Construction runs until July 19th at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was put together by curator Barry Bergdoll, with teams of experts from South America. It uncovers many unknown works and the breath of its scope (500 works) in combination with the quality of the exhibition catalogue comes a long way in addressing the Eurocentric and Western bias of the historiography of the Modern Movement. A joy. Exhibition review for Blueprint Magazine.

Online ->

Review of New Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Renzo Piano Whitney_websiteThe new Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano Building Workshop was opened in May 2015 to the public. Long anticipated, and an improvement in terms of square footage and anticipated footfall to the old building by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue, I did wonder if certain qualities had not been lost in the process. The review was published in the May issue of Architecture Today.

Uneven Growth – Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities

Uneven Growth _ Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities at Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art, New York
22 November-10 May
Review by Thomas Wensing for Blueprint Magazine

Uneven Growth, until May 10th, 2015 - view of exhibit on New York. Image Credit MoMA, New York

Uneven Growth, until May 10th, 2015 – view of exhibit on New York. Image Credit MoMA, New York

This is the closing show of a 14-month initiative in which interdisciplinary teams of local practitioners and international architecture and urbanism experts have been invited to produce tactical interventions for six rapidly and unevenly growing global metropolises — Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, New York, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro.
The six different proposals are responses to the specific nature of the different locations but all favour ‘tactical urbanism’ over more traditional top-down planning activity. Tactical urbanism is about small-scale, often temporary, urban interventions that challenge existing power structures. Pedro Gadanho, the curator of Uneven Growth, posits tactical urbanism as a critical tool against failing official policies and institutions. The interventions are intended to foster public debate and enable activist architects and communities to engage with urban problems in a more immediate way.
The statistics of rapid so-called spontaneous urbanisation are familiar enough. In 2008, for the first time in history, half of the world’s population, or 3.3 billion people, were living in cities. In 2030 the world’s population is projected to grow to eight billion, of which two-thirds will be living in cities. Currently a billion people are housed in slums, while at the same time income inequality has reached extreme levels and continues to rise.
The institutionalised marginalisation of large swathes of the population, together with the continued reliance on a culture of consumption and waste, are but two of the obstacles standing in the way of achieving ecologically viable land-use patterns and more equitable urban environments. In the exhibition catalogue David Harvey, Distinguished professor of geography and social theory at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, rightly states that the global urbanisation boom has little to do with meeting people’s needs, but is result of a system in which urbanisation is seen as a primary site for capital accumulation and speculation.

The irrationality of this economic creed is all too evident when set against social segregation and crises of accessibility and affordability in all megalopoli. With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly severe it is no wonder that the UN warns that ‘business as usual’ scenarios pose significant risks. It calls for major changes in the way urban development is designed and directed, and urges increases in investments in urban infrastructure and services, while demanding a transformation of the financial system so that long-term sustainable development may be achieved.
Given this sense of urgency, this exhibition can be seen to try to reinforce the link between architecture and social responsibility and expresses, in the words of Gadanho, ‘the optimistic belief that current design thinking can effectively contribute to the current urban debate’. But problems on the scale of the megalopolis cannot be solved by debate alone and the curatorial decision to rely on tactical urbanism as the strategy of choice, replacing top-down comprehensive planning methods, does not bode well.
The six proposals differ greatly in scope, ambition and realism. The design scenario for Hong Kong, by MAP Office Hong Kong, Network Architecture Lab and Columbia University, proposes eight new island reclamation projects in which the features of existing urban contexts are enhanced to meet current and future needs. The islands are functionally determinate, with one dedicated to the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures and another to the accumulation of discarded materials, for instance, and feels decidedly utopian in ambition.

The scenario for Mumbai, by URBZ: user-generated cities, Mumbai Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab, draws more directly on the creative ways in which urban citizens occupy and appropriate space. It takes the ‘tool-house’ typology, a house and workspace combined, as a point of departure for user-participated small-scale interventions. In addition, light-weight 3D infrastructures are superimposed on to the existing urban fabric to address the lack of public services. The project has a positive vibe and realistic feel, as it draws on the strengths of the existing fabric and human resourcefulness.
The proposal for New York, by SITU studio and Cohabitation Strategies, is the single most effective in addressing the juridical and financial framework that builds the city. In a video of interviews with experts and housing activists it is rightfully argued that there are many alternatives between the extremes of market-driven urban development and government-sponsored affordable housing that are waiting to be further explored. I was captivated by the clarity of this analysis, the insistence on mandatory legislation and the exploration of alternative financing and delivering of affordable housing.
In another catalogue essay, by Nadar Tehrani, professor of architecture at MIT, tactical urbanism is compared with guerrilla warfare in the sense that it does address larger issues, but is fleeting in nature. His argument is that the act of taking over a public space may open up discussion and lay bare the glaring disparities expressed in our cities, but in order to effect real change a more lasting engagement with the legislative framework underpinning our cities will have to take place.

The Blind Spot of Bakema

My contribution to the debate on the concept of the Open Society and the legacy of the Dutch modernist J.B. Bakema has been published on Archined. Below a draft translation in English.


Bakema’s blind spot

While in recent decades political leaders have managed to destroy the European social model in all but name, a retrospective of Bakema’s vision of architecture and an open society is an ode to a direction that was not pursued further. In this vision, the Netherlands is modern and completely urbanized, of course designed along modernist lines down to the last detail.

Acknowledging that recent decades have seen little progress towards an open society is, however, not the same as abandoning belief in progress. This article concludes with an expression of faith to direct action on the street, a place where democratic changes usually start.

In the early 1970s Jaap Bakema and architecture theorist Jürgen Joedicke published a retrospective entitled Architektur – Urbanismus, Architecture – Urbanism, Architecture – Urbanisme. The book contains descriptions of projects by the office of Van den Broek en Bakema. In the margins, Jaap Bakema, then in his early sixties, outlined once again his vision of architecture, urbanism and society.
Bakema starts the publication by announcing that a second (industrial) revolution is taking place, characterized by ‘automation, total urbanization, and democratization of the social decision-making processes’. [i] Here he reinterprets Reyner Banham’s concept of the Second Machine Age[ii] and places himself in a Marxist context in which students, not the proletariat, carry the torch of revolution. Bakema envisages a mechanized future in which greater industrial efficiency improves the quality of life of all citizens,[iii] and at the same time expresses concerns about the environment,[iv] and about the 19th-century model of unbridled exploitation and expansion on which the Industrial Revolution is based.
Bakema’s text is written in assertive style. He presents himself as both an activist and a leader who operates in the best interest of the people. His ideas for the ‘open society’ rarely move beyond generalizations, though, and he has a tendency to reduce complex political, social and moral questions to design problems. The idea that modern architecture is on the one hand a scientific project and on the other an idealistic and liberal one that expresses a ‘ larger hope’ for humanity was widely accepted and supported at the time.[v]

The large-scale architectural urbanism of Van den Broek en Bakema reaches its apotheosis in the unrealized project for Pampus, Amsterdam (1965). Proposed as a model for the total urbanization of the Netherlands, the Pampus project consists of core-wall buildings, or megastructures, placed along an infrastructural ‘spine’ that meanders through the landscape, alternating with smaller residential units and blocks of flats. Naturally, it is not self-evident that an open, democratic society has to find its ultimate formal expression in modernist megastructures[vi], or vice versa, that Bakema’s architecture of carefully designed ‘thresholds’ or ‘transitional elements’ will automatically lead to a democratic, open and egalitarian society. Bakema’s romantic vision can really only be understood as the result of a modernist belief in progress, against the background of the Cold War and in the context of the welfare state. The post-war reconstruction period is characterized by optimism inspired by strong and steady economic growth and a reduction in income inequality. These trends were the result of the successive economic shocks of the stock exchange crash and World War II, followed by Keynesian economic policies, but they were inaccurately viewed in the 1950s as the natural direction of capitalism in a later phase of its development. In 1955 the economist Simon Kuznets even went so far as to contend that income inequality follows a bell curve; inequality grows during the first phase of industrial development, but this is later corrected as a higher percentage of the population share in the increasing affluence. It is notable that Kuznets does not think that social shocks or revolutions are required to achieve a more equal distribution of wealth — as in particular Marx had thought — but that this will be achieved through the internal workings of the market, i.e. without external intervention.[vii]

Against this background, Bakema’s faith in the uneasy marriage between social democracy and capitalism is understandable, a faith so strong that Architektur-Urbanismus pays almost no attention to the fact that the basis of architecture is not only societal but also economic. The Italian architecture theorists Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co had already put their finger on this blind spot:
“The directional systems and new proposals, even in their most thorough variants such as the projects of Bakema for Tel Aviv-Jaffa and for the over-water expansion of Amsterdam, remain on paper. There is a reason for this bankruptcy. […] It fails to take into account the necessity for a direct linkage between hypotheses of new modes of production and institutional reforms. In other words, despite themselves the utopian-futuristic architects of the last decade have simply gone along with a more-than-traditional division of labor; their vaunted individuality is a last ditch where they dig in their heels to safeguard an autonomy that is, at best, unproductive.”[viii]

According to this interpretation, radical social change can only be achieved by questioning the capitalist foundations of society and revising current power and ownership relations. The difference between Bakema and Tafuri and Dal Co is that the former, despite the use of stirring rhetoric, largely advocated gradual change within the system, while Tafuri and Dal Co regretted as early as the 1970s that the social unrest of the preceding decade had not led to fundamental change in traditional labour and power relations. They too could not envisage that the call for more individual freedom, participation and equal rights would lead to the reactionary counter-revolution of neo-liberalism and the almost complete dismantling of the welfare state.[ix] The economic shocks of the oil crisis of the 1970s heralded, as we now know, the start of the Hayekian transformation of the economy, in which the fiscal crisis of liberal democracies was ‘solved’ by higher national debts, globalization, and deregulation of financial markets, combined with extensive privatization of state property and services.[x] According to sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, this transformation marks a power grab, away from democracy to a global financial and multinational elite that is not subject to democratic accountability.[xi] Social justice falls victim to so-called market justice, as governments are increasingly concerned about maintaining ‘confidence in the market’, even if this leads to the further marginalization of the weaker members of society, the destruction of social services and the weakening of democratic legitimacy. The conflict between democracy and capitalism intensified with the crisis of 2008, the bail-out of the banks and the austerity measures, but this process of erosion had, in fact, been occurring for decades.


If we look back at the model of the open society advocated by Bakema, a model based on greater democratic participation, automated production and total urbanization, then we must acknowledge that progress has scored failing grades in all three arenas. Democratic participation and confidence in the political process has declined, automation is applied to minimize wages around the world — leading to exploitation and growing income inequality — and urbanization in the Netherlands is left to market parties, privatized housing associations and property speculation, with all its dramatic consequences. Growing insight into climate change has further increased concerns about the environment. In considering these macro-economic tendencies and recent political developments, we can ask what individuals can do to stem this depressing tide. It is striking that the only time when Bakema uses the term ‘open society’ in the book Architektur-Urbanismus it is in a direct appeal for more democracy, and that he directly questions its implications for architects:

“Society must become more open, more democratic. What exactly does this mean for our profession?”[xii]
The answer, according to Bakema, is both architectural and administrative. He appeals for the humanization of architecture by emphasizing the human scale and expressing social relations, and he stresses the need to implement sound urban-design policy through zoning plans. Here Bakema is searching for a balance between individual and collective needs, and he thinks that participation and responsibility of citizens should be increased with government and the political process as the agent to achieve these goals.

Neo-liberalism has successfully co-opted the concept of individual freedom to weaken larger social connections in society and to call for less government involvement.[xiii] This increase in individualism, combined with the constant emphasis on consumption, has led to the fragmentation of society, as reflected in the declining participation in societies, trade unions and political parties. The idea that the individual is on his own and isolated — this in spite of new means of communication — is a major obstacle to change. Bill McKibben, a prominent climate activist and journalist, realized that writing books about climate change in order to raise awareness among people is not enough:
“It took me a long time to realize that the scientists had won the argument but were going to lose the fight, because it isn’t about data and science, it’s about power. The most powerful industry is fossil fuel, because it is the richest. At a certain point, it became clear that our only hope of matching that money was with the currencies of movement: passion, spirit, creativity—and warm bodies.”[xiv]

On 21 September my wife and I thus took part in the People’s Climate March in New York, joining a multitude of singing and dancing people from America and all over the world. Television usually creates the impression of a completely polarized society, while here we had farmers from Nebraska, Native Americans, Hare Krishnas, vegans and victims of Hurricane Sandy walking side by side. We were no longer alone, isolated in front of our computers, but part of one big, peaceful movement. People did of course realize that demonstrating and sending one signal is not enough, that the climate problem cannot be viewed independently from the prevailing social and economic inequality. Political and social changes need to be fought for, along the paths of direct action, the ballot box, and everything in between. Even so, the sense of collectivity was a transforming experience; at least a start has been made.

For architects I think that the double-edged answer given by Bakema still holds true. For us it is indeed a political and physical problem, or in the words of Tafuri, a matter of redistribution of the means of production and institutional reform. Architects are well positioned to acquire knowledge, organize themselves and formulate and visualize an alternative vision, and to communicate this with a wider audience. We cannot expect the Dutch political class ever again to support a progressive vision of public housing, planning and urbanism without the application of pressure, nor without popular awareness of alternatives to the terror of ‘the market’. I do not know how many bodies are needed to extract ‘democracy’ from the power clutches of vested interests and Wall Street, how loud our voices must be to end political stalemates, but what I do know is that the open society is more a verb than a fact.

[i] Jürgen Joedicke, Architectengemeenschap Van den Broek en Bakema, Architektur – Urbanismus, Architecture- Urbanism, Architecture – Urbanisme, Stuttgart 1976, p. 6:

“Now, in 1975, the second revolution of our century is in full swing; it is characterized, among other things, by: automation, total urbanization, democratization of the social decision-making processes. The first revolution, which took place between 1910 and 1920, was essentially determined by: mechanization, new architecture, mass society.”

[ii] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London 1967 (orig. 1960), p. 10: “A housewife alone, often disposes of more horse-power today than an industrial worker did at the beginning of the century. This is the sense in which we live in a Machine Age. We have lived in an Industrial Age for nearly a century and a half now, and may well be entering a Second Industrial Age with the current revolution in control mechanisms. But we have already entered the Second Machine Age, the age of domestic electronics and synthetic chemistry, and can look back at the First, the age of power from the mains and the reduction of machines to human scale, as a period of the past.”

[iii] Jürgen Joedicke, Architectengemeenschap Van den Broek en Bakema, Architektur – Urbanismus, Architecture- Urbanism, Architecture – Urbanisme, Stuttgart 1976, p. 72 “It is true that in the future there will no longer be enough work for everybody, or if working hours are shortened, then in his spare time the inhabitant should be able to expand his house…” Bakema refers to an article by him in the periodical de 8 en Opbouw, no. 9 1942, in which he explains that the structural unemployment caused by mechanisation should be solved by changing the ownership relations of the means of production. This is also a position adopted by the first CIAM congress: “The idea of ‘economic efficiency’ does not imply production furnishing maximum commercial profit, but production demanding a minimum working effort.” La Sarraz Declaration, 1928 English translation, Ulrich Conrads, Programmes and Manifestos on 20th-Century Architecture, Cambridge (Mass.) 1970, p. 109.

[iv] Jürgen Joedicke, Architectengemeenschap Van den Broek en Bakema, Architektur – Urbanismus, Architecture- Urbanism, Architecture – Urbanisme, Stuttgart 1976, p.28 and p. 47

[v] Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City, Cambridge (Mass.), London 1983 (orig. 1978), p.3

“By one interpretation, modern architecture is a hard-headed and hard-nosed undertaking. There is a problem, a specific problem, and there is an obligation, an obligation to science, to solve it in all its particularity; and so while without bias and embarrassment we proceed to scrutinize the facts, then as we accept them, we simultaneously allow these hard empirical facts to dictate the solution. But, if such is one important and academically enshrined thesis, then, alongside it, there is to be recognized a no less respectable one; the proposition that modern architecture is the instrument of philanthropy, liberalism, the ‘larger hope’ and the ‘greater good’.

In other words, and right at the beginning, one is confronted with the simultaneous profession of two standards of value whose compatibility is not evident. On the one hand, there is an expression of allegiance to the criteria of what – though disguised as science – is, after all, simply management; on the other, a devotion to the ideals of what was a few years ago often spoken of as the counter culture – life, people, community and all the rest; and that this curious dualism causes so little surprise can only be attributed to a determination not to observe the obvious.” The big difference between Rowe and Bakema is that Rowe acknowledges the inherent contradictions of the modern project.

[vi] For an interesting criticism of the proposals by Bakema for Amsterdam and Tel Aviv, see Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture – a Critical History, London 1992 (orig. 1980), p.274.

[vii]Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge (Mass.), London 2014, p.14 Piketty explores in depth the difference between the optimism expressed publically by Kuznets and the reservations he voiced in his academic work.

[viii] Manfredo Tafuri, Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture, New York 1979 (original 1976), p. 390.

[ix] In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, the chairman of the European Central Bank stated: “The European social model has already gone when we see the youth unemployment rates prevailing in some countries. These [structural] reforms are necessary to increase employment, especially youth employment, and therefore expenditure and consumption.”, website visited on 26 October 2014.

[x] Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time – The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, London, Brooklyn 2014, p. 72-73, in the chapter ‘From Tax State to Debt State’, this transformation is expressed as follows:

“If the fiscal crisis of the state […] is situated on the revenue rather than the expenditure side – then we are struck by two trends of the recent decades that no one foresaw in their actual significance. The first is the transformation of the tax state into a debt state – that is, a state which covers a large, possibly rising, part of its expenditure through borrowing rather than taxation, thereby accumulating a debt mountain that it has to finance with an ever greater share of its revenue. […] But it should be noted in advance that the formation of the debt state was impeded by a countervailing force which, in the neoliberal reform movement of the 1990s and 2000s, sought to consolidate government finances by privatizing services that had accrued to the state in the course of the twentieth century. This was the other historical development that the crisis theories of the 1970s had not yet been able to foresee.”

[xi] Ibid. from p. 79 on he argues that a bigger gap has emerged between the interests of the Staatsvolk, a term for the citizens of independent nations, and the Marktvolk, an internationally operating financial elite. See also: Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, New York 2010. This book examines the 2008 crisis in great detail. Stiglitz is a strong advocate of more regulation and Keynesian economic policy, and argues that the neo-liberal economic model has in fact little to do with the workings of the free market, but is based on a far-reaching and unhealthy intertwining of politics and marketplace.

[xii] Jürgen Joedicke, Architectengemeenschap Van den Broek en Bakema, Architektur – Urbanismus, Architecture- Urbanism, Architecture – Urbanisme, Stuttgart 1976, p. 101

[xiii] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York 2011 (orig. 2005), p. 5. “The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideas of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as ‘the central values of civilization’. In so doing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductive ideals. These values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgements for those of individuals free to choose.”

[xiv] Bill Mc Kibben, Interview by Jay Caspian Kang, The New Yorker, 20 September 2014,, (viewed 2 November 2014).

Radical Cities: Activism and Architecture in South America

Nederlands /Archined: Radical Cities: Activisme en  Architectuur in Zuid Amerika

English / Blueprint: Radical Cities: Activism and Architecture in South America

Radical Cities – Across Latin America in Search for a New Architecture by Justin Mc Guirk is an interesting read, which shows how social change can be realized under difficult circumstances. The book reads like a travelogue, manifesto and argument all at once.

The top link connects to the review I wrote for a Dutch website, the second link gets you to the English review for Blueprint magazine and after the picture the English synopsis:

RadicalCities1 RadicalCities2


Radical Cities – Across Latin America in Search of New Architecture by Justin Mc Guirk is a riveting travelogue which narrates the stories and lives of activist architects, politicians and radical communities in pursuit of a more dignified existence for the inhabitants of barrios, villas miserias and favelas across South America.

The title alludes to both David Harvey’s Rebel Cities and to Le Corbusier’s famous manifesto; the writer Justin Mc Guirk is clearly inspired by both the utopianism of modernism, by Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City, and by the anarchism of people like John Turner, a British architect who worked in disadvantaged communities in Peru in the 1960s.

The book starts with a visit to one of the Superblock estates in Mexico, Tlatelolco, a gargantuan and strangely technocratic modernist housing complex designed in the 1960s by Mario Pani. ‘South and Central America were home to some of the greatest experiments in urban living in the twentieth century’, McGuirk contends, but however large, the projects were ́tokenistic ́ in comparison to the scale of the problems of poverty, explosive population growth and mass urban migration. It is telling that in Tlatelolco the modernist layer was superimposed on an archaeological site, centred around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, bordered by Aztec pyramids and a Spanish Colonial church. It was supposed to be the symbol of a bright future, modernity as the proverbial third culture, but was not immune to the violence of an oppressive regime and natural disasters. In the run up to the Mexican Olympics of 1968 protesting students were brutally murdered by the military on the square and later, during the earthquake of 1985, some of the towers, – which had been poorly built by corrupt contractors -, came crashing down. The estate continues to deteriorate, as the state has largely withdrawn from public housing expenditure. Such, in a nutshell, are the problems one continues to deal with in South America and which Mc Guirk emphatically explores. ‘Latin America is where modernist utopia went to die’, he dramatically asserts, and this sets the tone for the argument for the more democratic, egalitarian and inclusive urbanism as practised by the communities, politicians and activist architects in the book.

McGuirk visits radical communities, for instance Túpac Amaru in Argentina, a collective movement which builds its own houses, swimming pools, and community facilities at a fraction of the cost of regular house builders, he meets with the squatters occupying the Torre David, an empty and unfinished office building in the centre of Caracas. He explores the projects and picks the brains of several activist architects such as Alejandro Aravena of Elemental and Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of Urban Think Tank, and last but not least meets with ‘activist’ politicians such as Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician who became the mayor of Bogotá and whose unorthodox approach helped to turn the city around. His political career was launched on the platform of ‘No P’ – no publicity, no politics, no party and no plata (money), and he famously and successfully employed 400 mime artists to regulate the unruly traffic of the city.

This generation of activists, pragmatists and social idealists are finding successful ways to address poverty and inequality, and their power lies, as McGuirk shows, in the paradigm shift which they bring about. Inequality is one of the biggest problems which needs to be addressed at the start of the twenty-first century and I think it is to Mc Guirk’s credit for delivering a book that strikes a hopeful tone, is multifaceted, personal, and yet is realistic about the challenges that need to be faced.

The combination of narrative, argument and anecdote is particularly effective in highlighting the complexities of urban renewal in deeply divided, and often violent, societies. The comparison of the relative merits of top-down large scale housing programmes and the bottom-up approach of self-help programmes and participatory design is one among many narrative strands in the book, but the argument runs much deeper than this. McGuirk is spot on in his observation that the argument for self-help programmes has been turned against itself; governments withdrew from public housing programmes, and instead tried to ‘manage’ the growth of informal settlements, thus in essence accepting and reinforcing the deep class divisions expressed in the contrast between the favelas and the formal city. The problem of housing was left to the free market, and architecture lost its social purpose.

The turn to neo-liberalism in political-economic practices from the 1970s onwards is, of course, a global phenomenon, but the way in which the Washington Consensus has been forced upon Latin America has been extremely violent, coercive and counterproductive. It is no coincidence that countries like Argentina started to do better economically by ignoring the directives of the International Monetary Fund. The effects of neo-liberal policies may have led to a rise in activism, personal initiative and independent politicians, although I don’t necessarily think that these are new developments. Economic exploitation has always been stark, by Western powers and by domestic elites, but visionary leadership (Kubitschek, Allende) has also been present. Furthermore, there have been many socially engaged architects, often working with communities; the figure of John Turner in Peru has been mentioned, but João Batista Vilanova Artigas, João Filgueiras Lima and Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil come to mind as well. In Mexico Juan O’Gorman pioneered a native architecture, blending folk motifs with Aztec symbolism. The difference between then and now is mainly that the power of the United States in South America is lessening, and that more stable democratic governments are emerging. With protests again taking to the streets the silent majority is no longer silent, and I hope, just as McGuirk, that governments will be held accountable for guaranteeing the right to the city for all.

How social is Dutch architecture?

How social is Dutch architecture?

The English translation of my article ‘How social is Dutch architecture?’ has been published online by Archined.

Enjoy. (if you haven’t already).

Book review of Michelle Provoost’s ‘Hugh Maaskant – Architect

Tozindo Factory - Maaskant 1961

Tozindo Factory – Maaskant 1961

Book review of Michelle Provoost’s ‘Hugh Maaskant – Architect


Website Blueprint Magazine – review

Hugh Maaskant was a Dutch functionalist architect who evolved into a corporate modernist and fully reaped the benefits of the post-war transformation of Dutch society into a welfare state and consumer society. For a long time corporate modernist architects were somewhat dismissed, either because the quality of their work did not speak to the imagination, or because they were not avant-garde nor sufficiently ideologically motivated to be worthy of scrutiny. In the case of Maaskant both is true, in my mind. On the one hand there appears very little reflection on the part of Maaskant what the larger ideological goals are, which he served, – apart from the notion that one should follow the Zeitgeist and be as modern as possible -, and on the other hand there are very few of his buildings which are truly inspiring. The factory above and the Tomado House in Dordrecht are exceptions). His style is usually middling between modern formalism and overly muscular structural expression, and it rarely has the purity and elegance of someone like Rietveld.

Be that as it may, the reassessment of ‘corporate’ modernists is a welcome addition to the historiography of modernism, and it is laudable that Crimson have taken on Maaskant and are working on a publication of J.H. van den Broek. In the case of this book by Michelle Provoost I did have the sense that the pendulum swung too far, and that she tried to make Maaskant a more important figure than he really was. In this review I have made a distinction between historiography as a genealogical narrative versus the  writing of critical history. Regrettably the book of Provoost fits too much in the first category; hagiography as myth making. For instance her claim that Maaskant has inspired the generation of SuperDutch architects is outright overstated. Naturally people at MVRDV, Neutelings Riedijk and so on freely admit that they like his work, but I do not recall that Maaskant was mentioned much by them in the early nineties. Closer to the truth is that Maaskant was just one inspiration amongst many.
I hope you’ll enjoy the piece.

How Social is Dutch Architecture?

First published on, December 6th 2013, translation March 9th 2014. This opinion piece is intended as a starting point to research solutions to the current laissez-faire direction of urban planning which the Dutch government has adopted…


A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

In the recently published ‘Double Dutch – Dutch Architecture after 1985′ Bernard Hulsman[1] characterizes recent architecture in the Netherlands as a belated victory march of postmodernism. By predominantly interpreting this period in a fashionable and stylistic sense, Hulsman distracts, according to Thomas Wensing, from the truly worrisome and problematic development which has occurred since 1985: the blind following of neo-liberal doctrine. National urban planning directives, the healthy architecture climate and exemplary government patronage have all disappeared. Wensing calls on architects to take position and to actively develop a more social vision for architecture in the Netherlands.

“I think it is absolutely essential, and I think it is incomprehensible that this has not happened yet in any way, that there will be an ideological response to the sudden disappearance of socialism, which has been in almost all cases the latent nourishment and justification of our modern architecture, whether we are honest about it or not.”[2] – Rem Koolhaas

In 1990 Rem Koolhaas organized a symposium at Delft University centered on the question ‘How modern is Dutch architecture?’ The lecture is intellectually rich, intense, and emotional in the best sense of the word; it is testament to an internal struggle which is rare in current architectural discourse. The lecture marked the beginning of a blooming period in Dutch architecture, an era which has for the time being, through the credit crunch and drastic cuts in government subsidies to the cultural sector, came to a close. In the text Koolhaas explicitly points to a crisis of confidence within himself, a crisis caused by the falling away of socialism and the rise of neo-liberalism.

“In the mid-eighties socialist ideology also started to fall away, which in the case of the IJ Plein project was symbolized by a series of successive developments. Firstly, Amsterdam was split up in boroughs, and one of the first boroughs to be formed was Amsterdam-Noord. At that moment the paradoxical phenomenon occurred that the borough council, which was purportedly dedicated to socialist principle, was the first to grouse about the socialist point of departure, namely social housing at the waterfront, which had been realized by the central city government, and for which we had been the instrument. This council made a few absolutely laughable, but at the same time maddening trips to America, decked out with video-cameras and other modern equipment to see how things could be different, and this council discovered, especially in Baltimore and San Francisco, the vision which with respect to the IJ-plein should have been discovered, and should have been realized.”[3]

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

In his typically confronting manner Koolhaas accused Dutch modern architecture of a series of negative characteristics and failings. One of the reasons for the shortcomings of Dutch modernism was that it had never completely surrendered to the maelstrom of modernity. The figure of Van Eesteren was cited by Koolhaas as the ultimate, and negative example of the Dutch modernist as a busybody. Not the intense fire of the avant-garde was the true essence of Dutch modernism, but the will to lay down rules, the need to qualify and quantify, the will to plan.

Koolhaas’ lecture solicited different responses at the time, but no one at the symposium delivered a critical reflection on the stealthy erosion of the welfare state, nor did anyone ask whether the concomitant dismantling of the planning apparatus of the central government was such a great idea. Apart from Koolhaas it was Kenneth Frampton who, at the beginning of the nineties, sharply pinpointed the developments in the Netherlands:

If any European country has continued to maintain a reflective practice in architecture at both national and local levels it is certainly the Netherlands, and yet with exception of the Delft Structuralist School, a consistent culture of architecture and urbanism has also eluded Dutch practice since the 1970s, and private speculation and laissez-faire culture politics came to play much stronger roles in Dutch life as a whole.”[4]

Frampton acerbically added that the success of Koolhaas was due in large measure to these economic and political shifts and he expressed the hope that the state would again fulfill a more active role.

The neo-liberal dogma is here put forward as the reason for the loss of the Dutch planning and urbanist tradition, but it is not as if Frampton only points an accusing finger in the direction of government. The coinage of the term ‘reflective practice’ is meant to point towards the combination of enlightened patronage, quality education and exceptional architectural talent, which are all prerequisites for a healthy architectonic culture. This therefore implies political and critical consciousness across sectors.

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

The neo-liberal trend continued, however, and it was Bart Lootsma who in 2000, in his book SuperDutch, borrowed the term “Second Modernity” from the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens to underscore mainly the positive aspects of the confluence of globalization, an open society, economic growth and the development of new networks and communication technology.

While the first phase of modernity was largely shaped by the industrial revolution and its consequences, the second phase is an outcome of the rise of electronics and communications technology. As a small trading nation and prosperous welfare state, the Netherlands is perhaps more susceptible to these developments than other countries and therefore forced to anticipate the developing situation, among other things at a political level. The unification of Europe has played an important part in this because of policies committed to developing open markets. The required process of deregulation has obliged the Dutch government to abolish, privatize or otherwise change countless public and semi-public agencies, subsidies and laws.”[5]

It follows from the quotations above that a field of tension undoubtedly exists between the foreign perception of Dutch social achievements and the appreciation in the Netherlands itself for what through centuries has been built up. Although Lootsma here and there drops a critical note, the contemporary reader does not get the impression that he was fully aware at the time of many of the negative aspects of globalization, privatization, or the opening up of markets. It is furthermore suggested that the Dutch state did not have any alternative options to the shedding of tasks and services and privatization . This is a gross misconception; it is not as if ‘Europe’ ever demanded of the Netherlands to decentralize urban planning. This was a political choice.

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

By putting Van Eesteren forward Koolhaas aimed to emphasize a suffocating aspect of the Dutch planning compulsion; this is too short-sighted and too negative, however. A characteristic of the Dutch organizational obsession is that on the basis of a wide consensus a balance is sought between economic and social interests[6]. Our long social tradition has since the Dutch Golden Age been driven by both social consciousness and economic motives.

That foreigners were regularly amazed by the attention, and resources, expended on creating an orderly, well-equipped, and smooth-functioning system of old-age and sick care, and poor relief, is undeniable. But charity and compassion, it should be noted, were not the sole motives which went into producing this result. In fact, the Dutch civic welfare system was a product of numerous social, economic, religious, and cultural goals and priorities and it is this broad background which made the Dutch system at once incomparable and inimitable.”[7]

The previously used anecdote of the socialist council member who visits America to get to know the ropes of neo-liberal urban planning is to me an apt illustration of the morbid Dutch passion to conform and to be a pet student[8]. Hulsman thus typifies in Double Dutch the period after 1985 as ‘the normalization of Dutch architecture[9], with which is not only inferred that the Netherlands are now finally in step with globalization, but also that postmodernism has become a fait accompli. With such a superficial and uncritical reading a new low has been reached in Dutch architectural discourse, and I would like, just as Koolhaas did years before to me, to make a call to architectural practice in the Netherlands to critically reflect on the golden years since 1985 and to formulate a vision on where to go from here.

With reflection I most certainly do not mean the superficial observation that postmodernism finally has arrived in the Netherlands, that we are finally free to build ‘modernism without dogma[10]’, or more nihilistic still, that now “anything goes[11]. I think that we need to rise above these shallow stylistic qualifications and establish that the construction fever was fed by a self-destructive economic model. In addition, I pose that architecture is a reflection of values which a society holds and that, by extension, architects have a public responsibility to question the prevailing status quo.

The 'Rotterdam', Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

The ‘Rotterdam’, Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

How can it be that leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz convincingly argue that a well-functioning government is needed to stabilize ‘the market’[12], but that the Dutch government still eagerly relinquishes the means to exert any kind of control of the construction industry and housing production? I refer here naturally to the further weakening of social housing corporations with a ‘corporation tax’ of 1.7 billion Euros, the abolition of the ministry of urban planning and the environment (VROM), and the drastic cuts to education and cultural budgets. How can it be that meanwhile architects and critics lose themselves in fretting over ‘fusion’[13], neo-traditionalism and neo-modernism? Are there not more urgent matters which cry out for a solution?

To give but one example: the Netherlands have dropped from 31st to 49th place on the Climate Change Performance Index.[14] To put this in a larger context, this is slightly better than China (54) and a lot worse than Denmark (4) and Germany (8). It is therefore justified and hopeful that the Dutch state has recently been summoned  in court by a class action lawsuit, because it falls short of combating climate change.[15]

In 1990 Koolhaas called for a ‘revision of the Dutch concept’, and I argue that such a revision could consist of a rediscovery of ideas which have since long been part of the make-up of Dutch identity, and which have unrightfully, or too early been relegated to the dustbin. This revision will undoubtedly be painful as it entails sustained fighting against vested interests and dysfunctional economic dogma. I am convinced that activism and engagement of citizens needs to increase. It is worth to embark upon this uncertain adventure, not in the least since so many odds are at stake.

Utopias are not the real fantasy, but our current reality of private property, waste and inconspicuous consumption is. The 21st century will have to bear witness to unrestrained experimentation to formulate and achieve a new balance between humans and nature. Architects, roll up your sleeves!; make a start by writing angry letters, organizing petitions or starting a conversation with the (leftist) representative in your borough.

[1] Bernard Hulsman is the architectural critic of NRC Handelsblad, NRC Next, a right of center daily in the Netherlands.

[2] Rem Koolhaas,’Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur?’, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1990, p.18-19, translation by author.

[3] Ibid., p.12

[4] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture – A Critical History, Thames & Hudson, London, Third edition, 1992, reprinted 2002, p.330

[5] Bart Lootsma, Superdutch – New Architecture in the Netherlands, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p.21

[6] This is usually referred to as the ‘polder model’.

[7] Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic – Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, paperback with corrections, 1998, p.355

[8] I refer here to the post-war tendency in Dutch politics to rarely ever challenge US imperialism and, in the European context, to be one of the staunchest advocates of fiscal austerity.

[9] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[10] Modernism without dogma (Modernisme zonder dogma) refers to a book by Hans Ibelings, published in 1991 by Nai Publishers, in which the generation of emerging Dutch architects such as Mecanoo, MVRDV and Neutelings & Riedijk are typified as applying modernism without the ideological moral constraints of the heroic period.

[11] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Uitgevers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[12] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2010, p.201 “Economists have developed a short list of instances where markets fail – where social and private incentives are not well aligned – that account for a large fraction of the important failures.”

The creation of too many externalities, a word to describe the socialization of the costs of economic production and the privatization of its profits, is perceived by Stiglitz as a systemic failure of markets.

[13] Fusion is a term used by the Dutch architect Wilfried van Winden to avoid using the term postmodernism. The website of WAM architecten states (, accessed March 09, 2014:

“FUSION is geen stijl maar een houding; een strategie van de open geest, die geen taboes aanvaardt”,  aldus architect Wilfried van Winden. De toenemende diversiteit van culturen en subculturen in de moderne samenleving vraagt om een nieuwe architectonische strategie. FUSION staat voor een inventieve wijze van mengen en verbinden van heden en verleden, van Oost en West, van traditie en vernieuwing, van high en low culture.”

“FUSION is not a style, but an attitude; strategy of an open mind, which does not accept any taboos”, according to Wilfried van Winden. The increasing diversity of cultures and subcultures in modern society requires a new architectonic strategy. FUSION means to mix and connect of the present and the past, of East and West, of tradition and innovation, of high and low culture.”

[14] <> accessed December 2013.

[15] <> accessed December 2013

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