Changing Cities and a Radical Avant-Garde
As Seattle undergoes its rapid reconstruction it’s worth revisiting a past artistic movement to understand the importance of the built environment for cities on the brink.
In Victor Luckerson’s recent article for The Ringer on the confrontation between Seattle’s City Council and Amazon he raises an important question as to the role of radical politics in a city’s governance. Pitting the fiery Marxist rhetoric of councilmember Kshama Sawant against Jeff Bezos and his company’s presence in Seattle, Luckerson does a good job of portraying the city as an exemplar of a much larger trend in the clash between leftist activists and corporate influence. But, amidst the more technical discussions of the council’s proposed head tax to staunch Amazon’s hold on the city’s economy, an alarming pattern begins to emerge. Dangling the threat of slashing thousands of Seattle-area jobs Amazon inevitably gets its way – the tax is repealed and order is restored. The specific details of the city council’s plan came along with enough controversy to cloud the more unsettling possibility of Amazon’s domineering attitude towards the city; after all, the tax included all businesses with gross revenues over $20 million and even self-described liberals found the prospect of taxing grocery stores and storied Seattle institutions like Uwajimaya unsettling. That, coupled with what many saw as a nebulous plan to combat homelessness with the tax revenue, allowed the city to survive its crisis of conscience without necessarily having to renounce its liberal ideals nor its commitment to corporate courtship.
So, precariously situated between its past cultural heritage as a safe haven for self-fashioned socialists and its increasingly gentrified future, Seattle’s sprawling neighborhoods and downtowns are beginning to embody the ideological struggle that characterizes much of the city’s divided opinion. As the Seattle Times noted a year ago, Amazon owns 19 percent of all prime office space in the city (a number that has since grown). It makes sense then that the landscape of the city would surely change in response to so large a presence. Yet to longtime residents the city has grown increasingly unrecognizable as the surrounding communities have absorbed the huge influx of well-paid tech employees. Housing prices have skyrocketed along with the demand for residential property and this, in turn, has lead to a shift in what kinds of commercial and residential spaces are built. No situation captures this friction quite like the current debate raging over the planned demolition of longtime concert venue “The Showbox.” Holding shows on First Avenue for nearing 80 years, the building is being phased out for what developers describe as a 44-floor apartment building. With perhaps the only course of action to petition to establish the venue as a significant cultural landmark, opponents of the apartments hope that historical weight will prevail over the city’s current development mania.
However, not every building carries the gravitas of “The Showbox,” and in the vast majority of cases the developers win out, leading to the establishment of a certain building aesthetic that reaches its apex in a neighborhood like South Lake Union. In these places there is a noticeable absence of any old buildings – they consist mainly of sleek elevator apartment buildings and commercial lots that can only be described as “Walgreens chic” with clean lighting, airy storefronts, and curiously high prices. The hipper restaurants that populate these areas following a roughly consistent model with obscenely long drink menus, an aversion to uppercase letters, and a nonsensical title. Without straying too far into old man polemics, I think its worth noting the warning that early city planning theorist Jane Jacobs gave regarding the successful spatial and economic diversity required of high-functioning cities. In essence, her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities argues that successful cities have lots of different people doing lots of different things on busy streets that offer a myriad of uses for all sorts of people. That means old buildings housing new ideas or new tenants interspersed with new buildings, and an “eyes on the street” mentality where the sheer presence of people on the streets encourages effective self-policing and public responsibility.
Yet it is her cautionary notice that rings loudest today; after listing off the ways cities can incorporate successful diversity, she begins to discuss the process by which these cities collapse. Once an area becomes saturated with popularity it’s inevitable that one of its uses (think tech in Seattle) grows in demand beyond the confines of its location. Thus the desire is to continually reproduce that “primary use” to the point where it becomes monolithic and no other types of businesses or residences have room to succeed. The area then loses the diversity by which it became so popular and soon resembles a monotonous lot of buildings whose varied population has long since dispersed. The clearest example Jacobs provides of such a phenomenon is the Financial District in Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s. Consisting only of corporate buildings and banks, the area’s secondary businesses – restaurants, retail shops, and other attractions – sunk under the pressure of trying to fit an entire day’s worth of business into the lunch rush and after-work crowd (the only time people were on the streets). Foot traffic never developed and the area was unable to achieve the lively residential and retail environments of neighboring Manhattan districts. In other words, people were bored to tears with nothing to look at but big glass banks.
A similar warning could be issued to Seattle today. In danger of becoming a “corporate city,” Seattle residents are forced to reckon with the encroachment of high-priced housing developments and corporate tech buildings that are reshaping the downtown area. But what purpose do these developments serve? In one sense it is an easy answer – to house a growing economy and the young professionals that drive it. Yet, taking a cue from 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt, we can reasonably ask if a building’s significance extends beyond its function as shelter. This is because, in Arendt’s terms, the world of material objects (or, “things”) acts as a storehouse for cultural or institutional memory: we make things that outlast us so that society doesn’t need to be continually rebuilt from scratch. In this entirely different sense then, Seattle’s housing developments attest to a whole host of societal ideals, relationships, and customs that are all inscribed within the particular buildings being constructed.
There is a biting irony to the way Luckerson ends his piece: concluding with Amazon’s soaring stock prices and a defeated Sawant left licking her wounds, Lukcerson writes “Life inside the great glass bubble couldn’t be much better.” He is of course referencing the most ostentatious of the city’s recent constructions: the “Amazon Spheres,” the triple glass bubble structure in South Lake Union. These enormous glass bubbles are temperature controlled (72 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 percent humidity) employee offices and meeting spaces that are complete with a multilevel horticultural complex designed to mimic the world’s most satisfactory climate. Tours are open to the public, but like much of the playground-office hybrids that haunt the tech industry, the ethos is very much look but don’t touch. Hence the intensity of Luckerson’s conclusion is a testament to how much the discourse in Seattle has become an issue of inclusion and exclusion; at the same time the city is witnessing an unprecedented number of people making the street their homes, Amazon employees can wait out Seattle’s long and rainy winters from the comfort of their climate-controlled plant bubble. Discouraging any kind of substantive public use, the newly constructed aspects of corporate Seattle manifest the economic disparities of a growing industry on an unprecedented scale. Longtime residents can only sit and watch as Seattle’s growing skyline seems to be made for anyone but them.
However, as much as the temptation exists to ascribe to Seattle’s increasingly tech utopian aspirations a sense of wide-eyed novelty, the problem of how a city’s buildings and attitude towards its material objects are to be handled in the pursuit of a larger vision is nothing new. The political importance of the material construction of a city is once again found in the writings of Arendt where she argues both that such a world provides the means to relate people together at the same time it preserves their sense of individuality. The famous analogy in her 1958 book The Human Condition is of people sitting around a table: the table binds them all together over its shared use while maintaining a sense of separation between among the users. Such a formulation of objects as communal, the backdrops for the action of the public sphere, might seem too abstractly philosophical to hold any true weight in current housing and planning conversations, but its contextual foundations shed light on a useful historical counterpoint to Seattle’s own transitional period.
As Professor of Art History at Northwestern University Christina Kiaer details in her book Imagine No Possessions, Russia, even prior to 1914 and the beginning of World War I, was “industrially backward” (Kiaer 18). Following the country’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the consequent emergence of the Soviet Union, Russia found its revolutionary zeal confronted by crumbling infrastructure, old technology, and shortages of labor and capitol. As Kiaer highlights in the opening chapter, the impoverished state of Soviet industry was in direct conflict with its socialist ideology where “industrial production represents the highest form of human economic achievement” (Kiaer 18). In an effort to bolster its productive capabilities and to lean into its Marxist future of creative and non-exploitative industrial production, the Bolshevik government, and Vladimir Lenin in particular, introduced a series of economic measures entitled the “New Economic Policy,” or the NEP. Legalizing wholesale and retail trade, the NEP was designed to be a brief backpedal from the more radical economic ideals of the country’s “War Communism” period from 1918-1921. However, the NEP stirred up an enormous amount of controversy amongst those who saw it as a reenactment of the exploitative practices of pre-revolutionary Russia. The country’s economic circumstances cast an unflattering light on its socialist idealism and therein was born the contestation of the country’s direction.
Sound familiar? If not, remember that much of the same problems of a city (ostensibly a public space) and its relationship to private enterprise, are brought up by Luckerson in his profile of Seattle and its Amazon debate. Although the obvious differences remain between turn-of-the-century Russia and present day Seattle – the most basic of which is the fact Russia was ruled by fantasies of production while Amazon pedals fantasies of consumption – they both express the fraught relationship of city infrastructure, political discussion, and economic growth.
I would caution against taking this comparison too far – this period in Russian history did culminate in one of the most murderous regimes in human history, and Seattle doesn’t appear to be heading in that direction. So instead I would propose that the lesson to be learned here is not so much a dire warning against impending dictatorship, but the revitalization of a historical possibility that went unfulfilled. For amidst the concerns over the country’s adaption of the NEP there remained a burgeoning group of (often state-sponsored) avant-garde artists that expressed their sense of optimism and possibility that followed the Revolution and the uncertainty of a brand new political moment.
The largest of these groups, the artists of “Russian Constructivism,” were distinguished by their efforts to bring about the collapse of the distinction between art and everyday life. Rejecting what they deemed to be “bourgeois art,” any art that contained no political or practical purpose, the Constructivists aspired to participate in the realization of Russia’s socialist ideals. Central to their political activism and artistic project was a re-conception of people’s relationships to material objects. Objects, for them, were not meant to be seen as acquisitions, but as “comrades” and active participants in a just society. Citing the work of Russian artist Boris Arvatov, Kiaer lists the “new criteria of value” for such objects: “convenience, portability, comfort, expedience, hygiene and so on – in a word, everything that they call the adaptability of the thing, its suitability in terms of positioning and assembling for the needs of social practice (Kiaer 33). So although the Constructivist project spanned the gauntlet of mediums: theatre, cinema, photography, advertising, design, and architecture, they gathered around a core set of beliefs. Chief among these were active viewership, incorporating art into everyday space, and increasing the sphere of industrial utility through art.
It was in their attention to materials that Constructivism most differentiated itself from other artistic schools. They aimed for maximum transparency; using “glass, steel, concrete [and other] artificial materials” it sought to unearth “the mechanism of a thing, the connection between the elements of a thing and its purpose” (Kiaer 34). Forgoing decoration, adornment, or any other form of “commodity fetishism,” the Constructivists saw in their wholly transparent objects and buildings the gateway to a world bereft of exploitative labor, mystified and desirous relationships with objects, and exclusionary wealth. These were lofty goals they ascribed to their works, and in viewing the Stalinist years following their rise to prominence it would be easy to deem them all failures.
But, hidden within this almost naive utopianism, the Constructivist struggle for an alternative relationship with infrastructure and everyday life may provide some critical knowledge for Seattle’s own future. Beginning in the 1930s a marked shift in the understanding of the Constructivist’s unofficial slogan “art into life” emerged. Coinciding with the rising importance of the “great city” as a standing symbol of a country’s prosperity, Moscow underwent an architectural transformation under the direction of Stalin. Later described as “Stalinist Gothic,” the massive skyscrapers constructed from the 1930s into the 1950s serving as hotels, government buildings, and state universities were designed to provide a visual reminder of the Stalinist party ideal. With enormous bases that tapered into towering spires, the buildings were meant to remind the public of the party’s manifesto the masses collectively lifting up the state-rulers at the top.
The idea that the particular shape of a building could encourage political engagement is of course found in the earlier Constructivist architecture projects. Yet these huge new undertakings represented an alarming shift in the notion of what constituted public use. For despite the fact that these buildings were ostensibly public, as Professor Susan Buck-Morss notes “In Moscow, public space meant state ownership, but access to most buildings was restricted-to members of a particular union, or profession, or party elite (Buck-Morss). Hence they encouraged public participation only nominally; in reality they attested to the mutation of the avant-garde’s mission from the political engagement of art and the public to the roping off of those in power under the guise of communal progress.
The Amazon Bubbles, and many of the modernist architecture projects popping up around Seattle bear remarkable similarities to the world the Constructivists anticipated. With their liberal use of glass and iron such buildings mimic the transparency of construction and the subtle blurring of public and private space pursued so fervently by the Soviet avant-garde. Yet, as shown by the legacy of the later Stalinist adaptation of these building models, its a thin line that separates earnest public engagement from the false equalization of those in power with those without it.
Seattle’s great glass bubble is growing, but does its transparency hide a more alarming attempt to equate the success of those within with those outside? Does the mass aggregation of public space for a singular use instill an institutional legacy of collaboration or exclusion? The answers will be infinitely more complicated than the questions, but with no end in sight to the recent development boom all we can do is ask what kind of political formations our budding infrastructure creates.
Works Referenced by this piece Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Mike Rosenberg and Ángel González, “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s Biggest Company Town” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions Susan Buck-Morss, “
The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe”
Victor Luckerson, “Seattle and the Socialist: The Battle Raging Between Amazon and the Far Left”