Architecture and Morality

Monday, January 02, 2006
That's the name of a blog I came across recently. It appears, from the posts I have read, to be more concerned with urban planning than with what I understand as architecture. But perhaps the field has transcended mere building design and now encompasses the design of entire cities.

I know we have some architects in our readership, so maybe they would enjoy this. For everyone else, check out Complexity and Conservatism, on why designing whole communities is not really a conservative project, and The Rotting of America's Great Cities.

In the latter, blogger Curbosier quotes the former mayor of Houston to the effect that "the Great Society impulse itself is what most damaged many cities—by stressing welfare payments and income redistribution, ethnic grievance, and lax policies on issues like crime and homelessness, instead of the creation of a stronger economy."

This ties into the role of the destruction of communities in the overall decline of the West, taken up by Truepeers in the post below.


corbusier said...

Thanks for linking to my site. I agree that I tend to veer off talking about urbanism rather than architecture. The problem might be that talking about architecture sometimes tends to be esoteric and bore most readers. Also, the reality is that there are better bloggers who can talk and breath architecture every minute of the day. I'm far too interested about other matters to dedicate myself to just one topic. Heck, blogging is my escape from my job at the architecture firm, so why dwell on it even more than I have to?

Buddy Larsen said...

Nope, the great cities were not fated to rot.

Government policy did it--and the most-helped became the worst-damaged, while among all Americans, only the set-for-life bureaucrats running the programs escaped the great devaluation and trivialization of those in the programs.

flenser said...


I've read various articles on how the urban redevelopement of the Great Society led to the destruction of the old neighborhoods, and how this led to the breakdown of the older social structures and rising crime rates. I'm afraid I don't have links to any of these studies. Do you happen to know of the ones I mean?

Skookumchuk said...

And why is the architecture school invariably the ugliest building on campus?

Buddy Larsen said...

Flenser, you can't go wrong with von Mises, as applied to the topic from Grove City College, I believe the home base of the von Mises Institute.

Here's a PDF (prob around somewhere easier to navigate):

The Bad Effects of Good Intentions: Why the Welfare State Inevitably Fails
Jeffrey Herbener
Professor of Economics
Grove City College
will put you on its email list and send you great solid chewy reports, weekly.

Thank You, Lord, for the internet!

Buddy Larsen said...


truepeers said...

I will never forget my visit to downtown St. Louis in the late nineties. It was like a mini-Manhattan, a forest of elegant early twentieth-century skyscrapers that had been largely abandoned, the greatest ghost town I've ever visited.

But, ignorant though I am, I don't associate Missouri with the heart of welfare stateism, whose destructive effects I don't deny. I just want to say there must be a host of factors in the decline of great cities, not least being that many people don't like living in densely populated environments and leave then when economics and transport technology permit.

terrye said...

I took a course a million years ago or so in European history at IU.

The professor was named Lunden. He also worked architecture into the course because he felt how people presented themselves to the world said a great deal about them.

He made note of the fact that at Versailles the aristocracy was known to piss on the vlevet drapes.

I obviously do not think that the Great Society saved the cities, but I do think it would be a mistake to blame urban rot on welfare programs exclusively.

I am old enough to remember tar paper shacks, haven't seen any of them for awhile.

It seems to me that the urban poor were poor before and if we look at cities in other nations where welfare did not exist such as Bombay and Sao Paulo with its infamous tin shanties it would seem there is more to urban poverty than the Great Society welfare programs.

My father in law grew up in Cincinnatti Ohio. Back in the 20's they lived on the river in a narrow two story house with an attic.

There were big corks in the floor. When the rains came and the river was rising they would take the furniture to the attic, roll up the linoleum, pull the corks so that if the water came in it could get back out without taking the house.

They called them river rats. Eventually the city put canals in place to take the water away.

In other words even before the Great Society there was a class of poor people in this country's cities.

We can rightly claim the programs did not lift these people out of poverty or give them dignity and a future but I really think we go too far if we just blame poverty on welfare.

I have actually known some poor people and believe it or not they are regular human beings.

Buddy Larsen said...

The question is not whether or not a society should extend a helping hand to those in need, that question is long-settled in the affirmative.

The question is, what--if anything--went wrong with the Great Society, and why.

Maybe nothing went wrong with the Great Society, maybe the social pathologies that seem to track with it, came about from a different source.

But the thing to remember is that if efficiency is good then measuring is important, and the clean antiseptic language of sociology has real people making up the stats.

Doug said...

There is little doubt in my mind that the welfare system is implicated in the breakdown of the family through the mechanism of making fathers dispensable.

In Watts there was a 1 2 3 punch of the EPA, the welfare system and immigration policies that turned a nice community of small entrepreneurs into what it has now become.
Physical poverty is one thing, fatherlessness and spiritual poverty is another.

who, me? said...

here I believe terrye uncharacteristically misses the point. Of course there were people living in poor conditions, but the social capital of even the grimmest neighborhoods was wantonly destroyed by "urban renewal," of which the lamented Kelo eminent domain decision is the most recent progeny. "Urban design" is a cousin.

It may be easier to exit a tar-paper shack than a drug-ridden highrise. I don't know, but the answer would be a fact. I know which I'd prefer, but (newsflash!) what makes me comfortable is not the ideal deciding factor here.

I recently read in a Marginal Revolution link that sanity for human transactions rests in understanding "spontaneous order" and "opportunity cost." Both those principles could shed light on how to deal with urban poverty.

Doug said...

(some of the human beings from that culture are anything but regular)

Buddy Larsen said...

Amen, Who-me, amen.

There's plenty of prominent black voices now saying that the trends were all moving in the right direction in all aspects of black urban life--until the Programs sent the young utopians in with free money and limitless non-judgementalism.

It was basically a re-round-up of the slaves.

Except the idea wasn't to pick cotton, but to support the Programs.

Buddy Larsen said...

I'd love to see the "spontaneous order" link, if it's handy--

CF said...

It ruined the middle class Black community in Milwaukee and then the city itself which went from a well-rdered , clean politics place to another corrupt hellhole.

Buddy Larsen said...

People look at the enormous collapse of civic structure in the 60s-70s as if it was a sort of pre-ordained historical force (a la marx), or maybe just an accident, or maybe baleful UFOs, but hardly anybody ever looks directly at government policy.

Sometimes I wonder if PC is partly to prevent just such direct inquiry.

David Thomson said...

“There's plenty of prominent black voices now saying that the trends were all moving in the right direction in all aspects of black urban life--until...”

The decline of these black neighborhoods is primarily the fault of Martin Luther King,Jr. He failed to keep the nonviolent radical leftists outside of the movement. Hindsight is 20/20. I probably would not predicted the train wreck. It is only now obvious to me that the election of Lyndon B. Johnson was a tragedy for the country---and especially for its Afro-American citizens. Michael Harrington and other leftists dominated the policy setting of his administration.

Buddy Larsen said...

The road to perdition is paved with good intentions, as the old saying goes. Boy, does LBJ ever, ever validate THAT old saw!

MeaninglessHotAir said...

One of my favorite books is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. I don't know if her theories are correct, but she has a lot of interesting and rather counterintuitive things to say about what makes a city work. I am convinced that architecture does indeed play a major role in success or failure.

Buddy Larsen said...

it's got to be integral to "community" that the members need each other, as buyers and sellers of goods and services--this survival-driven incentive leads to generosity and tolerance and mercy, as people will strive to see the best in each other--as a practical matter if not a mandate of religion.

The programs come in and flatten all that, and soon there is no incentive not to put up the steel doors and fifty locks and simply surrender to the chaos filling the vacuum created by the loss of community.

I know I'm way over-simplifying--but great changes do begin at the margins, and human relations--like all complex systems--exist in delicate balance.

Peter UK said...

One of the major failings of public architecture is that human scale has been lost,those vast structures look great on the skyline,neat in the model stage,with little fake trees,gardens and grass.The reality is acres of blank concrete and glass,there is nothing of that rich diversity of nature that the human race evolved with,at ground level most modern building projects are boring and unstimulating.There is none of the charm by which much earlier architecture endeared itself.The buildings may be awe inspiring,but from a distance.
Vast windswept open space belong to no one and in turn become neglected and abamdoned.
Architects need to have their rulers taken from them and ceremoniously broken over someones knee.