Given my preoccupations during 2010 – BP and its crises – books which architects should read instead of “architecture books” – and the resurrection of General Motors – it seems apt to round off the year with a piece which integrates them, and investigates how all three affect us in ways we don’t realise.

The watchful part of me has been aware of the narrowness of architects almost since I began training as one.  We learned what the generation before us learned: Mies, Corb and Frank Lloyd Wright; supplemented with Jimmy Stirling and High Tech, before raiding the journals for fashionable deconstructivism.  We didn’t learn much about the forces which drive and shape Scottish architecture.  When we graduated, we found that design-led practice has its limitations.  There’s a strange monomania about it all and ultimately, as greenhorn actors and novelists are drilled – you need to live in the wider world in order to understand it.  You need to become a complete, rounded human being, because an architect who knows little outwith architecture, is little use to society.

This has everything to do with the mindset of people who decide to be architects.  There is an intellectual narrowness about them, adopting received ideas such as those houses with windows set flush with the skin, and roofs made of the same stuff as the walls.  Those are designed by architects for an audience of architects, and have their genesis purely in skimming books of fashionable Swiss architecture.  Books written for architects can be the last thing that architects should read, and I was reminded of this again when I tripped over the Archidose blog, one of those long-running American weblogs written by a thoughtful architect who regularly reviews publications.  Whilst one week he mentioned City of Quartz, an excellent book about urban sprawl around Los Angeles, he reads very little fiction.  That’s a personal choice, yet it means he missed out on an even better book about the nature of Californian urbanism and how people live on the West Coast – “Vineland”, written by Thomas Pynchon.

Out of Pynchon’s six novels, I came to Vineland first – perhaps just as well, since “Mason & Dixon” is a historical doorstop, and “Gravity’s Rainbow” is an American Finnegan’s Wake, the kind of book you sometimes can’t find the intellectual traction to read all the way through.  The Great American Novel – Heller, Updike, Bellow – is an East Coast phenomenon, but the country’s economic pulse has long since shifted westwards.  I guess Pynchon recognised this, and wrote something about the West Coast which talks about the very fundamentals of society – the economy, culture, individual freedom and the role of the state.  It’s just the right length for a novel, has both narrative and characterisation, and offers a window onto a way of life which might be very different to our own, if it didn’t have surprising parallels.

Pynchon’s California of the 1980’s is a by-product of both a booming economy, and the hippy counter-culture.  It already has giant windmills spinning on its hilltops, proving that one solution to our energy crisis is a technological rather than a cultural one.  The lesson is you generate energy using alternative methods, rather than merely consuming less.  His is also a car-based culture – from the kitschy cedar-shingled campervan which Zoyd borrows when the Feds are on his trail, to the custom PanAm which DL roars off in, like something from “Vanishing Point”.  In fact, Pynchon has a canny eye for American pop culture, and films from the recent past are a staple of Vineland.  It’s a road-trip culture, with one proviso – when muscle cars ruled in other states, California’s legislators led the way in trying to curb the automobile.  After all, they insisted 30 years ago that the quaint MGB sports car should be fitted with side impact bars and a catalytic converter: left to their own devices British Leyland might have got around to fitting them sometime in the 22nd century.  Where California leads, the rest of the world follows.

Until now, state legislation has concentrated on reducing pollution, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions so that today, the gas emitted by the exhaust is cleaner than the air sucked into the induction manifold.  Having got that far, a bigger, trickier beast is now in California’s sights: the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).  It will be much more difficult to eradicate, because carbon lies at the heart of industrial society.  Car manufacturers will be forced to make a growing proportion of their cars ZEV’s – zero-emission vehicles – which means battery electric, or hydrogen fuel cell-powered.  The ultimate Californian aim is to kill off the internal combustion engine by 2040, though it has yet to address the fact that hydrogen has a lower calorific value than petrol, and electricity often comes from power-generating monsters that guzzle coal or the even dirtier lignite.

This raises a couple of points – Pynchon demonstrates how life in California is fundamentally planned around the auto, not only with 12-lane interstates and strip malls on the urban fringe, but also symbolised by the female ninja DL’s alternative suburban existence – “She had by now grown into a relationship with the Plymouth, named her Felicia, bought her a new stereo, was washing her at least twice a workweek plus again on weekends”. Compare this with Rex’s cherry red Porsche 911, similarly washed and tended with loving care.  Rex called the car “Bruno”… and it ended up being driven away by a spin-off of the Black Panthers.  When DL was whisked away to a Tokyo concubine auction, “Her little car was left alone in its space, sometimes, across miles and years, to call out to her in a puzzled voice, asking why she hadn’t come back.” This works on several levels – the emotional investment we make in the car as an agent of our freedom, the anthropo-psychic life we assign to our possessions, and Pynchon’s magical realism which springs from the work of the philosopher Roland Barthes, who described cars as magical objects which are appreciated by the public in the same way as the great Gothic cathedrals.

So it seems the novel’s protagonists are wedded to their personal transportation, culturally as well as practically, and the American economy agrees, as does General Motors.  The General returned a $2bn profit for the last quarter, and started to repay the billions it borrowed from the federal government to stave off bankruptcy.  While it’s realistic to encourage us to use the bus, train, tram and bike within cities, it’s essential to make cars cleaner, because GM will keep building them for as long as we keep driving them…  Now that oil companies are evolving into energy companies (BP at one point had a strapline on its adverts, “Beyond Petroleum”); the car companies have grabbed their alternative technologies with palpable relief.  On the opposite side, environmental charities are looking at the private car’s other problems, such as causing congestion, physical inactivity, and contributing to road accidents.  Everyone tacitly acknowledges that private transportation won’t go away any time in the next few decades.

The relevance to our townscape is that a culture steeped in the car finds its cities shaped by the car, and technology is actually working against the multi-modal vision of how cities might work, a la Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs.  At one point, it looked like the automobile would die in the aftermath of peak oil, as an unavoidable consequence of Hubbert’s Law.  One extrapolation was that car-focussed planning, such as the Radburn layout, would be supplanted by walkable neighbourhoods.  Visionaries proclaimed that a car-free world was coming – but the zero-energy vehicle changed all that.  Pynchon’s West Coast techno-utopians believe the solution lies in equipping the car with a fuel cell or lithium ion battery, albeit “zero energy” is a conceit since neither the fuel cell- nor the electrically-powered vehicle is a perpetual motion machine.  More energy will always go in than come out the other end – if only to overcome mechanical losses. 

Outwith the city, the California of “Vineland” could be Scotland – both are several hundred miles long, with an ocean coastline; a belt of low-density urban sprawl in the middle; its valleys running inland to the desert are similar to glens reaching into the massif of Grampians and Cairngorms.  We will need our ZEV’s to reach Bakersfield and Barstow (where the drugs kicked in, according to Hunter Thomson, RIP…), just as we need ZEV’s to get to Braemar and Blairgowrie.  You would need to empty the countryside completely, and vastly increase the density of cities, to render the private car obsolete.  In reality, the opposite is happening – “some day this would be all part of a Eureka-Crescent City – Vineland megalopolis,” and the huge stands of redwood trees will be felled.  Cities are growing, and increases in travel are a symptom rather than a cause of this.

By definition, the shape of cities themselves will develop far more slowly than the technology of vehicles, as the time and money is being spent developing the car itself rather than the city.  Progress in urban planning often consists of looking at precedents then trying to create something new, and the biggest jolt to traditional planning was the introduction of the car.  It profoundly affected urbanist thinking in the 1920’s, but since then we’ve merely tinkered.  Look at diagrams from recent New Urbanist or sustainable community proposals: then compare them to the Essex Design Guide of the early ‘70’s, Gordon Cullen’s “Townscape” from the ‘60’s, or Walter Bor’s work in Liverpool just after the War, which included the creation of “play streets” where cars were banned during the daytime.  They all create places where people take priority over cars, which after all is the objective.

The wise have argued that we have been through all this before – many times before – but we have to keep coming back to the start, because we forgot the initial lesson.  That doesn’t mean you should, like the New Urbanists of a Leon Krier stripe, simply run a set of James Craig’s plans through the Xerox machine.  Now for the crunch… although none of the New Urbanists consider that the Radburn layout is *less* car-friendly than the Georgian New Town in Edinburgh, the latter’s long, straight, wide boulevards – with cars parked against both kerbs and in echelons along the centre – are dominated by the car, whereas the 1960’s New Town like Glenrothes has its cars tucked away in a series of cul-de-sacs.  Is Edinburgh’s car-choked George Street, or a SSHA housing scheme like Auchmuty, with cars tucked away in parking courts, the more people-friendly?  I hope you can see that current design dogma is no help to us, because Liverpool achieved child-friendly streets decades before the Dutch Woonerf, or indeed Disney’s ersatz town called Celebration appeared.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” said Voltaire – but we’re all snowflakes, and the car-planned city is the avalanche.  Yet we invented the snow shovel a long time ago, and all we need to do now is grab it when we go into the toolshed.

Thanks for reading this, Happy Christmas, and if you’re currently out of work, I hope you find a job in the New Year.

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