One of those weird issues that I devote my thinking time to is the intersection between values and architecture. So I was very excited when I came across a blog called Architecture and Morality (Thank you Marginal Revolution).
Unfortunately, the blog does not live up to its name as much as I would like. Most of their posts seem to be about morality or architecture, but they rarely talk about how the two intersect. But I did not give up on the blog and my patience was rewarded with a recent post by Corbusier called Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust.
I have wanted to call attention to this post ever since it came out. But every time I sat down to write a post about it, the post would get unwieldy with the weight of my own ideas. When one has thought about how architecture and values intersect as much as I have, one is strongly tempted to use any excuse to get up on a soap box. So today, I am going to see if I can’t finally get away from my inner voices long enough to quote from Lesson from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust and explain why I think Corbusier’s point is important.
Here is the quote…
These kind shortcomings testify to a broader pattern of a lack of social trust in developing nations. One of the essential ingredients to national prosperity is a high level of social trust, allowing an environment where strangers can interact freely with one another, collaborate on joint ventures, provide capital to entrepreneur’s ideas and so on. It is not enough for an elaborate set of laws to be drafted to force strangers to trust each other, it is imperative that respect for another’s property and dignity as a human being be deeply ingrained in a society’s cultural psychology. Such unwritten but consciously internalized safeguards make it possible for drivers not even to contemplate driving over medians or sidewalks, for street-level windows to be unprotected, for people to wander around the city or a store without uniformed personnel minding your business. What’s most important is that social trust makes possible for cities to be more live-able, for life to be a bit easier as we don’t have to worry about our own security. Until that level of social stability is achieved, the rich will wall themselves off from the poor, the poor will remain in their ghettos, and the influence of “bourgeois” values of respect, decency, scholarship and ambition to those who need it most will be stifled. This class isolation retards progress on all fronts, not least in the development of mobile and economically dynamic cities .
Now it is tempting to just dismiss this. If we have thought about it all, we have probably already come to the conclusion that the ethical character of society makes a big difference on how it develops. We also all assume that a country that is not very developed economically speaking will have architecture that will reflect that fact. So at first glance it might seem like the above quote is superficial and obvious.
But if you think about it, I think you will find that the above quote cuts a little deeper then your first impressions lead you to believe.
First of all, the idea that values shape the nature of architecture does not get the attention that it deserves. Most people tend to think of architecture as something that is shaped by technology, economic concerns, and taste. We do not think about architecture as something that reflects our moral values. If the effects of our values on architecture are considered at all, they are considered through the lenses of environmental issues.
Thus, the point in the quote that I took from Lesson from Mexico is rather original in that it looks at how a broad spectrum of values affects architecture. The only reason it seems obvious to us is because we are outsiders looking in. We know how Mexico City could be different because we live in a different cultural.
But I doubt that it seems obvious to people living in Mexico City. They probably think that it is just the way the world is and that there is no other realistic way to build. In the same way, I don’t think most of us are aware of how much our values impact the architecture that is around us.
For example, most people would probably attribute the US interstate highway system to advancing technology and economic need. In reality though, it is primarily a testament to American values. On a purely economic rational, America would have been better of investing in rail based transportation links.
This post is really not the place for proving the above point. But I would like to point out to the skeptical that private money built the railroads in this country. Yet it took massive amounts of public money to build the highway system that we have now. Those people who assume that the fact that railroads declined in the face of this massive subsidy for highways proves railroads intrinsically less useful economically than highways need to rethink their assumptions.
Moreover, people should not assume that railways would be like they are now if we had poured the kind of capital into them that we put into our highways. Just as highways were quite different that roads that preceded them, so to the rails system would have been quite different if we had made the equivalent investment.
Even if you doubt that realistic case can be made for the economic superiority of robust rail system and a subservient road system as opposed to robust road system with a subservient rail system, you should still be able to see why I say that the highways system is a reflection of American values.
Imagine, if you can, that I am right about the economic superiority of rail. Would that mean the America would abandon the highway system?
I think that anyone who knows the American public realizes that a vast majority of them would pay a heavy price to avoid having rail be a major part of their transport. Economics alone would not be enough to get them use rail unless they had no other realistic choice.
Like I said, the subject of highways vs. rail really needs a separate thread. I don’t want to argue the case for rail in this post. I just want people to think about how Corbusier’s observations on Mexico might apply to the US.
This is admittedly hard to do. It is hard to be self-critical and to think about how our society might be if we had different values. But I think that exploring those issues can lead to valuable insights with benefits beyond architecture.