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Sara Westin, The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-Analytical Perspective, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2014, 304 pages, £63.00 hardcover, ISBN 9781409448037.
Following in the (both trailblazing and transgressive) footsteps of acclaimed Swedish geographer Gunnar Olsson, with The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-Analytical Perspective Sara Westin has given us a truly remarkable synthetic account that spans across an impressively wide range of sources, disciplines, and scholarly traditions. Her efforts to put the fields of planning and architecture on the analyst’s couch, as it were, have garnered a fresh round of insights into what she has here termed the vision-reality gap: that is, the – often significant, if not diametrically opposed – distance/dissonance between the (abstract, conceived) plan and its (concrete, lived) implementation in the urban world of everyday life. Arguing that “the need for more facts is lesser than the need to evaluate what we think we already know” (page 28), Westin effectively utilizes a combined psychoanalytic/perspectival approach to expose the myriad ways in which the ghosts of modernism can be found haunting the planning and architecture professions right up to the present.
Empirically anchored, however loosely, on her less-than-enthusiastic impressions of Hammarby Sjöstad – a relatively recent, decidedly top-down, and apparently staid and lifeless urban redevelopment project in Stockholm – Westin charts an ambitious, if serpentine course through highly-varied intellectual terrain in order to analytically explore, and better come to terms with, the sense of unease and alienation that overly-planned neighborhoods such as this one bring out in urban aficionados like herself. Weaving her way around a dizzying array of interlocutors – from Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf, to Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre, and Jane Jacobs – Westin’s journey takes a number of surprising twists and turns: from ethico-philosophical reflections on planning as a form of neurosis; to an in-depth examination of the nature of urbanity in general; to an extended deliberation on renowned urban morphologist Bill Hillier’s theory of space syntax. And while there are any number of potentially fruitful directions that this (both engrossing and erudite) text could lead us to consider, in the spirit of critical engagement, I will limit my commentary here to but three (intertwined) interventions pertaining to dichotomies, historicism, and dialectics, respectively.
Westin makes her case by way of a series of eloquent juxtapositions and heuristic dualisms (Homo Faber/Homo Ludens, conceived/lived, Apollonian/Dionysian, Eros/Thantos, agoraphobia/claustrophobia, philobats/ocnophils, etc.) that often appear to polarize the world of experience into two overarching modalities: including a central motif that pits “the eye of the architect” against “the body of the flâneur”. Of these notable dichotomies, perhaps none come through as strongly as the fundamental divide posited between the individual and society at large. Here, despite the book’s overtly psychoanalytic disposition, it is in fact Nietzsche’s influence that resonates most prominently. The flâneur, as an isolated urban explorer, truly and authentically experiences space from the body outward: in it, she dwells with the unbridled desire and playful wonder of a child. The architect or planner, on the other hand, approaches space from on high as a detached and disembodied technocrat – that is, as a representative of the superego, or stand-in for the restrictions of society itself; he surveys and controls it according to the stultifying prescriptions of abject utilitarian functionalism. In the tracks of this (seemingly timeless) battle between the tragic/heroic solipsist and the leveling effects of the social, however, we are left to wonder: what lies between this apparently unbridgeable gap? What of inter-subjectivity and collective human praxis? Where might the “advocacy planning” associated with the likes of Paul Davidoff, say, or Chester Hartman - to draw on just two significant examples from the annals of the progressive planning profession – fall on this schematic? Can we really equate the social justice-oriented approaches they deployed in the wake of the “long, hot summers” of the American urban crisis with the uncompromising aesthetic modernism of an Acceptera manifesto penned almost half a century earlier in Scandinavia?
This leads us to my central concern: the matter of historicism. On the one hand, I confess to being both acutely aware of, and undeniably sympathetic to, the challenge that (especially Lacanian) psychoanalysis poses to this notion, and I very much agree with Felicity Callard who notes, quite rightly, that “the unconscious is not and cannot be reduced to a historical construct” (2003: 304). At the same time, I am decidedly less willing to say the same about a number of key figures that surface in this text: including, to be sure, the planner, the architect, the flâneur, and – perhaps most importantly – the city itself.
Indeed, in the spirit of Fredric Jameson’s well-known edict to “always historicize!” – an imperative he posits as nothing less than the most crucial aspect of dialectical thought in general (1981: 9) – I find myself compelled to address the manner in which Westin appears to render the (curiously conflated) figures of the architect and the planner in so patently ahistorical a manner. Architects and planners are here, somewhat paradoxically, ascribed both too much and not enough agency. Too much, because they are discussed independently of the path dependent, political-economic forces that invariably (and often severely) constrain their activities; not enough, because the historical recuperation of the challenges brought to bear on planning and architecture in the 1960s by the New Left – what amounted to a cynical cooptation that gave rise to the enshrinement, in the planning and architecture professions, of a new urban sensibility that we could call, after Scott Larson (2013), “building like Moses with Jacobs in mind” – is not given nearly enough weight. Planning and architecture have undoubtedly retained a great deal more from their modernist heritage than they would likely want to admit; but it is vital to consider how they have evolved, both through time and across space, in ways that have increasingly attempted to harness the very domains of (lived, embodied, affective) experience that Westin seems to consider beyond their purview.
As for the flâneur, Westin offers us a (both productive and provocative) new reading of that (in)famous wanderer of modernity’s apparent boredom and idleness: one that masks a hunger or longing for an elusive set of attributes that we define, however imprecisely, as urbanity itself (page 43). Nevertheless, I want to problematize her claim that the flâneur is a “fundamentally timeless figure” (page 121).
Taking flânerie out of history and ascribing to it a universal “existential relevance” as “an expression of a … passion towards urban life” (page 43) is to hypostatize a social act that carries varying degrees of significance at different historical conjunctures. On this score, Walter Benjamin – a keen observer of the phenomenon in question - provides a most lucid example. Susan Buck-Morss (1990) has helpfully illustrated how Benjamin’s (largely affirmative) views on the public orientation of the flâneur began to change as the revolutionary potential of the 1920s gave way to the politics of the Third Reich. For Benjamin, as the conjuncture shifted, the very meaning of flânerie changed with it. Indeed, by the time the war arrived, Benjamin was equating the flâneur with “the sandwichman” – a figure “paid to advertise the attractions of mass culture” – and, even more drastically, with the (proto-fascist) “journalist-in-uniform”: the latter of whom “advertises the state [and] no longer the commodity” (cited in Buck-Morss, 1990: 304-307). To be clear: my point here is not to attribute any inherently fascistic tendencies to the figure of the flâneur! Instead, it is to suggest that the activities, characteristics, motivations, and desires of the flâneur – like those of the planner and the architect, for that matter – cannot be appraised outside of the concrete socio-historical circumstances they are always-already enmeshed in.
Some final words, then, on the city and urbanity itself. Referring back to the dualisms discussed above, Westin is unreserved regarding exactly where the urban might be found. Aligning urbanity wholly with Dionysius - with play and the festival, with poetry and the body, with flux and the fleeting moment –, a series of associations are mapped onto specific areas of the eternal metropolis. It is the inner city – and especially the dense, “spontaneous”, and “naturally evolving” grid of those cities like nineteenth- century New York, which have been guided more by the invisible hand of the capitalist, and less by the heavy hand of the dirigiste – that encapsulates the attitude of urbanity, while the suburb and the new town represent the Apollonian alienation of regulation and control. Here, urban forms – like the figures of the flâneur, the planner, and the architect who dwell within them – are considered entirely apart from the conjunctural totality they remain a part of. By taking these forms out of history, as it were, we are unable to see the evolving roles they play in collective social praxis. We do not see, for example, how neoliberal urbanization has increasingly privatized, homogenized, and gentrified the central cities of numerous metropolitan regions into perverse parodies of the diverse agglomerations they once were. We also do not see the new forms of radical subjectivity and urban sociality that have begun to emerge from the very places that were designed to suppress them in the first place: the – now disinvested and selectively abandoned – postwar suburban “pavilions” (in Lefebvre’s sense of the term) that can often be found wedged uncomfortably between what Peter Marcuse would call the central city “citadel”, and the new, affluent exurbs on the margins.
And this, of course, brings us to the dialectic. Westin unabashedly proclaims the urban as “an essential part of what it means to be alive, to be human” (page 47), and even more, “as a synonym for life itself” (page 132). Devoted urbanist that I am, it is difficult not to be seduced by language like this – and on an intuitive level, I am admittedly hard-pressed to argue otherwise. And yet, like the young Manuel Castells who accused his illustrious mentor Lefebvre of reifying the city, of espousing an “urban ideology,” I remain both cautious and reluctant. From my perspective, if the urban does have any ontologically “essential” or “timeless” characteristics, then surely its ultimately contradictory nature would be most prominent among them. Yes, urbanity indisputably has its Dionysian elements, but it is in no way exhausted by them. To borrow language from the psychoanalytic tradition, there is an excess – an Apollonian remainder, a stain – at the heart of this urban fantasy, and the name of that repressed real is political economy. If the city is a festival, it is also a rational landscape of capital accumulation. More crucially still, there is no simple way of parsing the former from the latter, and any discrete central city/suburban, downtown/new town dichotomy that valorizes the former as much as it condemns the latter is surely inadequate to the task.
Make no mistake: these warnings are in no way meant to take away from just how impressive an intellectual feat this book undoubtedly is, and I consider myself to be a sympathetic fellow traveller, a kindred wanderer, in the milieu so thoroughly, enjoyably, and passionately explored by Westin over the course of these highly-engaging pages. But I want to conclude by considering (and contesting) the status of a commonly invoked, anti-modernist straw man. Drawing from Lefebvre’s “Notes on the New Town”, Westin repeatedly conjures the dour image he portrayed of Mourenx, a working-class French new town in the 1960s, as an exemplar of the vision-reality gap: a continental Pruitt-Igoe, as it were, that exhibited all the stereotypical follies of aesthetic modernism run amok. And while it is true that Mourenx filled Lefebvre with dread, we cannot forget just how he characterized the boredom of the new town. Like the flâneur that Westin here attempts to recuperate, the boredom of the new town was not the passive, detached, dispassionate, or complacent boredom that Lefebvre ascribed to his hometown of Navarrenx. Instead, it was a boredom “pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, [and] unrealized possibilities” (1995: 124): and with this, we get to the dialectical heart of the matter. As much as Lefebvre preferred the urbanity of a bygone era, he refused to look backward. “[W]e will not find a style for our age in a place like [Mourenx]” he demurred, “[b]ut we will find the way towards it” ( page 126). It was in this experimental “laboratory”, he thought, that new forms of social existence might emerge to “face up to the challenge” of his time. When thinking about the challenges of our present, then, it would be wise to consider his reflections. As central cities across the global North and beyond increasingly become bastions of (both fortified and privatized) economic privilege – “vertical suburbs” that, behind their postmodern façade, are every bit as deadening as the most dystopically-functionalist landscapes of modernism’s past – it would seem that our own forms of flânerie will need to take us further afield in search of a new urbanity appropriate to the conjuncture in which we have been thrown. It is vital that we remain open and alert to finding it wherever and whenever it happens to emerge.