34. Architectural Developments

Lifting the human spirit, as well as the quality of life, should be the goal of those concerned with providing affordable housing for the globe’s billions. All of us truly owe it to the human race to leave this planet a better — and where possible a more beautiful -– place. The structures we inhabit must take pride of place in such an effort, but in particular this demands not only a different approach to financing but also the talents and creativity of the architects, planners, builders and craftspeople who are directly involved.

“Architecture Reimagined”, a new show at the Royal Academy in London, tests our response to more innovative and explorative architectural proposals. The Curator, Kate Goodwin, hopes it will “heighten our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture and thereby encourage the creation of a more rewarding built environment.”

Alas, there is a huge gap between the aspirations of architects and the structures that are ultimately built. For years the area around Cambridge’s railway had fallen into shabby decline and various proposals had been discussed and then rejected. Around 2004 one property group designed a master-plan aimed at offering a ‘European’ approach to create a development where people could work, live, shop and socialize — encouraging a sense of belonging and pride in their community. It took a few years for the plans to be approved and then the initiators went bankrupt and it was taken over by new investors.

Last week, wandering through the yet to be completed development, I was struck by the discrepancy between the reality and the bill boards shouting:

“See the Future. Be part of it!
See chic cafes, bars, lifestyle shops in the new city quarter”

The lack of imagination and innovation of the new six story structures said it all: Money had triumphed over what initially had been a rather idealistic venture. The spacious development has little hint of intimacy. Nothing appealing is to be seen on the exterior of the buildings. But that is not unusual as I have found degrees of bleakness in most of the housing developments currently being completed in the greater London area. Architecturally, the loss of individuality, of identity, would appear to have become contagious.

I suppose that what bothers me about the new housing and office developments in the UK is the desire of the large corporations to impress by building ever taller glass and steel office structures with competitive  phallic compulsion, while the concrete housing developments are lacking not only in idealism but are also bereft of architectural ambition. It is entirely understandable that in a time of recession it is not possible in public housing to get funds allocated for anything but the essentials. However, is it too much to suggest that variety is also the spice of livable housing itself? Very few of these developments displayed a single sculpture. (Nor, for that matter, do the new industrial parks.)

“Garden Cities” — the forerunners of the “New Towns” in England — were initially conceived as a counterbalance to the over-crowded conditions prevailing in the industrial cities by the end of the 19th century. Among those most convinced of combining the benefits of town and country life was the planner, Ebenezer Howard. He put forward, in his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1888), detailed plans for complete new towns in which houses, schools, shops, factories and recreational facilities would be installed. His enlightened ideas were put into practice with the establishment of Letchworth, located some 35 miles north of London, and in 1920 with Welwyn Garden City. He had hoped that these two would be the role models for future cities throughout the United Kingdom, but no further “Garden Cities” were created. They were deemed as too ‘middle-class’ for the masses. However his comprehensive model was highly influential in the post-WWII era in the establishment of new planned cities such as Milton Keynes and Stevenage.1

The New Towns were adventures in physical as well as in social construction. As such, they were much maligned. An architectural critic has described them as “bubbles of optimism, steps towards a future we have long since abandoned,”2 The direction of the new architecture was already moving towards (1) the profitable, (2) the efficient, (3) clear and rectilinear blocks, (4) poured concrete, (5) schematic duplication and (6) the “empty in human content.” The aluminum framed glass boxes came later. Increasingly, the order embodied in mass production became the most profitable and thus the most desirable. This was “the bureaucratic personality, sterilized, regimented… ultimately hostile to every other form of life than its own: cut off from human resources and human roots.”3

Instead of “the repetitive inanity of the high-rise slab, the distinguished architectural critic Lewis Mumford called for an “organic order based on variety, complexity and balance” which “provides continuity through change, stability through adaptation, harmony though finding a place for conflict, change and limited disorder, in ever more complex transformation. This organic interdependence was recognized and expressed in every historic culture… and although these buildings have outlived their technologies they still speak to the human soul.” Lewis Mumford “The Highway and the City, 1953.

Although cities are holding an ever larger proportion of the world population, economic expediency in the developed nations drives most city planners. Whether it be housing estates or “Science Parks”, standardization of both design and construction prevails. “The construction of our habitat continues to be dominated by market forces and short-term financial imperatives. Not surprisingly, this has produced spectacularly chaotic results,” wrote the prominent architect Richard Rogers. He maintained that “The quality of urban environment defines the quality of life for citizen.” Today the rapidly built-up cities “reflect society’s commitment to the pursuit of personal wealth. Wealth has become an end in itself rather than a means of achieving broader social

Market-driven criteria of commercial developers produce disastrous results, claims the architect. Rogers contends that “Building is pursued almost exclusively for profit. New buildings are perceived as little more than financial commodities, entries in company balance-sheets. Any expenditure not directly related to the making of short-term profit exposes developers to longer-term capital outlay, which makes the company less competitive and hence more vulnerable to financial exposure and ultimately to take-over.”5

Technological advances are changing our lives much faster that the buildings that house us. As the relative cost of the packaged and standardized steel and concrete buildings keeps on falling, they are being reproduced at an ever faster rate, providing neither enhancement of our lives nor enrichment. Today you can walk into new developments in most countries without getting a clue as to where you might be: Singapore, Milan, Toronto or Brisbane. There is unlikely to be any genuine difference in the style of the rectilinear or square boxes of multiple stories.

Another noted architect, Norman Foster, argues forcefully that in our world  “Freedom of public space must be defended just as fiercely as freedom of expression, and that “The encroachment of private control demands public accountability.”

As I observed the new Microsoft research headquarters in the Cambridge project rise incredibly swiftly, I marveled how mechanical form now follows mechanical function. The characterless glass and steel box has become the established mark of modern acceptability and to counterbalance this has been the creation of the sensational in such works as the London Shard which exhibit the audacity and daring of both the designer and the builders.

As we move ahead in the 21st century, we must start to build structures and developments that emancipate and civilize. Greater emphasis must be placed on the “character” of the new buildings. This should somehow incorporate the contours, colors, shapes and shades of the natural environment. It should also, where feasible, enhance the tastes and heritage of the prospective inhabitants.

1“The New Towns of Britain.” Central Office of Information, January 1969.
2John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, 2014.
3Lewis Mumford “The Highway and the City,” 1953.
4Richard Rogers, Cities for a small planet, 1997, p.17
2Ibid, p.67


33. US “reefer madness” continued…

The raging incongruity of US efforts to control the use of marijuana is no longer irrational, it is insane. The complexity of the overlapping controls by local communities, states, the judicial system, the criminal system, and the federal government has left me flabbergasted. However, I have yet to come across an American who believes that it serves such dubious purposes as keeping young male blacks in jail, maintaining employment in the “prison industry,” keeping the Mafia in business or subsidizing the ever growing numbers dealing with the surrounding legal issues. All these interests, opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana, have contributed to political gridlock on the issue in Washington.

The US now has experienced almost 80 years of prohibition on Marijuana which, after alcohol and tobacco, is the third most popular natural substance consumed nationally. It is important to compare this with the prohibition of alcohol which lasted only 14 years from 1919 to 1933. It took the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to repeal the prohibition on alcohol. Is it not high time to end the folly of the ineffectual prohibition on marijuana with an amendment to the Constitution which would decriminalize production, transportation, sale and consumption of this “drug?”

The patchwork of prejudice, fear, ignorance and phony medical expertise stitched together by a range of politicians stretching over generations is truly awesome. The origins of such folly seem quite beyond the fantasy of even the best of Hollywood script writers. During the depression of the mid-1930’s when a number of Americans were wondering what could fill the vacuum created by the end of prohibition, one rather bizarre administrator, Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics detested jazz to such an extent that he wondered how to stop such degenerate sounds from further undermining the sensibilities of young Americans. Investigating the background of those playing jazz, he noted correctly that most of the gifted musicians smoked marijuana. Blocking the drug could stop the music! And so the campaign of fear focused on “reefer madness” was launched to frighten the American electorate into gradually banning marijuana. The propaganda of the 1930’s portrayed cannabis as the killer weed which could turn average American youths into a homicidal, suicidal and crazed maniacs. So by the mid-1930s cannabis was declared a drug in every state.

And so where are we 75 years later? The US is spending well over $50 billion a year in its war on drugs. In the thriving black market, more than 750,000 Americans are arrested by the police every year in connection with the use of marijuana. One in six of Americans serving time in one of the over-crowded federal prisons is there for having violated the laws regarding cannabis. An even larger number is held in state and local prisons.

The first ray of good news on this issue in a long time is that since January 1st recreational use is permitted in Colorado and the state of Washington and that 20 states and the District of Columbia now allow some form of medical marijuana to be used. Any resident of Colorado over the age of 21 can now buy up to an ounce of cannabis at one of the 40 stores (“dispensaries”) open to retail customers. A rolled joint costs $10 (£7). Out of state visitors can buy just a quarter of an ounce but must use it within the state as carrying “pot” across state lines remains a federal offense.

There is big money to be made in cannabis and the prospect of an open market in cannabis may serve to drive much needed reforms. Investors are watching whether the legal sales of cannabis in Colorado and Washington will match the optimistic predictions of a windfall for the state budgets? Those behind the reforms in these states are motivated by the need to have more money flowing in from the taxes, but also from the money to be made by the growers and distributors who will no longer have to pay the Mafia, the police and the lawyers in order to stay out of jail.

The war on marijuana, like any war, results not only in casualties but also deeply affects all those involved in fighting it. Under current drug laws, some criminals escape long prison sentences by informing and also earn up to 25% of the assets that are forfeited by those convicted of growing, buying, selling, or using marijuana. So a substantial number of professional informers have developed a direct interest in lying for profit.

Few marijuana cases commence without an initial tip from an informant. Some power company employees, who may be allowed to trespass in order to read meters or repair equipment, have made informing a second (and more profitable) career. Employees of various shipping companies, such as UPS and FedX also can earn extra cash by informing on anything suspicious. Such activities by informers tend to undermine the social fabric of any society.

There is growing public recognition in the US “that prohibition (of marijuana) has been a fiasco that has led to needless imprisonment and fiscal waste.”1 As the Financial Times concluded editorially “Blanket prohibition has failed and cannot be sustained. There is growing public recognition in the US that prohibition has been a fiasco.”

Oregon, Arizona, Alaska and California (all Western states) are the most likely to have a change following ballot box voting over the next two years but what these states will be doing is to contravene the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, adding to the massive confusion as to what is legal and what is not.

The evangelist Pat Robertson recently joined the ranks of those speaking out on the issue by suggesting that “We should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.” Prof. Mark Kleiman, one of the most patient and rational of experts on the confusion and contradictions whirling around this issue, says that a big riddle is whether marijuana might indeed become a substitute for alcohol. Kleiman would be pleased if there could be a decline in consumption, “Alcohol use has far more detrimental social costs than marijuana, by critically any measure: addiction, accidents, violence, illness, death”2 he said, pointing to the fact that alcoholics used to be viewed as wicked, sinful and evil but are now are regarded as suffering from fallibilities which demand medical attention.

Under the current laws of fifteen states you can get a life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana offense. The distinguished reporter Eric Schlosser came across the case of a man getting life without parole for a single joint! He asked: “How does society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing somebody with a gun?”3

In California the average prison sentence for a convicted killer is 3.3 years, but in Montana you can get a life sentence for a first offense for growing one marijuana plant. Schlosser suggests “given that an estimated 300,000 die from tobacco and over 100,000 from alcohol, it clearly seemed to me that a concern for public health was not behind those strict punishments for marijuana.” The war on marijuana has been much more a war on the sort of people who smoke it, be they Mexicans or blacks or jazz musicians or beatniks or hippies or hip-hop artists. Racial prejudice and bigotry play a huge role in the interpretation of the many laws. Blacks are currently three times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana violation.4

The large swings between tolerance and intolerance in the US regarding cannabis reflect much larger social trends. The Reagan era of the 1980s was a period in which intolerance was symbolized by the slogan “Zero Tolerance.” Schlosser wrote “There was an upswing in anti-immigrant sentiment and a backlash against women and unions and minorities and I really think you have to see the war on marijuana in that context.” When Reagan launched his War on Drugs in 1982, 88% of American high school seniors said it was easy for them to obtain marijuana. A dozen years later, 85% of such seniors re-affirmed it was still easy. In the intervening dozen years half a trillion dollars had been spent on attempts to eradicate the evil weed and more than a quarter of a million Americans had been sent to jail.

A fifth of the American 50 states have basically decriminalized marijuana and those arrested for possessing small amounts are fined much as they would be for parking violations. That has been a step forward, but nearly all of the former slave states in the south, from Alabama to Oklahoma, have failed to take the more liberal stance.

It seems obvious to me that approaching cannabis should not be through the criminal justice system but through public health efforts. Decriminalizing marijuana is a necessity. When will this finally happen? Passing a Constitutional amendment usually takes a number of years. Pardoning all those who have been jailed for using small amounts of marijuana could be a positive move towards decriminalization when President Obama leaves office in 2017. America’s hopes depend on radical change to end this tired folly called “reefer madness.”

1Shannon Bond, “Colorado enjoys relaxation of the marijuana legislation,” The Financial Times, January 4, 2014; “Drugs policy enters a brave new world,” Editorial in the same issue of The Financial Times.

2Patrick Radden Keefe, “Buzzkill,” The New Yorker, November 18, 2013, p. 50

3Interviews: Eric Schlosser/Busted-America’s War on Marijuana/Frontline/PBS.

4op.cit. Keefe, p.40

FYI: Outside the United States, Uruguay decriminalized marijuana in 2013 and there also have been moves in Canada to do so. In the UK the Police Foundation (a non for profit group presided over by Prince Charles) issued a report which stated that: “Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents. It is very expensive of the time and resources of the criminal justice system and especially of the police. It inevitably bears more heavily on young people in the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities, and as such is inimical to police-community relations. It criminalizes large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young, people to the detriment of their futures. It has become a proxy for the control of public order; and it inhibits accurate education about the relative risks of different drugs including the risks of cannabis itself.” Police Foundation of the United Kingdom, “Drugs and the Law: Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.

32. Challenging Plutocracy

I started off the new year wanting to write something meaningful and provocative about the growing inequality of income and wealth in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The statistics pouring forth in the press at year’s end emphasized that a fraction of one per cent of the US population controlled about 90 per cent of the wealth creation in the U.S. I intended to focus my blog on this. The new challenge seemed to be that both of our economies were shifting towards a plutocracy in which a minute percentage of richest are increasingly controlling the national governance. Yes, there are still elections in which two parties in the U.S. can slug it out, but neither Democrats nor Republicans challenge the capitalist basis of the economic system and in the UK the parties tend to squabble about the degree of privatization vs. nationalization.  Both the Republicans and the Tories rant against “Big” government and, being urged by the wealthy to do so, are attempting to reduce the sizes of their respective state sectors. Economic legislation, such as taxation, has been bought out by the truly rich in the US. Their tax rates are so different from that of the middle class and the poor that they only pay minimal sums to the government. For example, in 1944 the top marginal tax rate on taxpayers making more than a million dollars was 65 percent of their total income. By 2005 those making more than a million paid just 23 percent of  such high incomes for federal taxes.1 Rather than make payments to the revenue they give vast sums to lobbyists and towards the campaigns of political representatives who will then pass or maintain legislation protecting their interests, Their wealth itself, much of it now in funds or investments based overseas, is kept under wraps.

So, after collating material from my files and pouring over my notes, I decided to look in the internet under “American Plutocracy.”  There I came across a book by David C. Korten2 highlighting the thesis that the United States has always, since its inception, been a plutocracy!  It exposed how the Founding Fathers from George Washington down to Thomas Jefferson were all wealthy land and slave owners. In fact, this small clique of mostly rich males controlled the direction of the new nation. Women, slaves (blacks), the poor (those without land or a house) and Native Americans had no voice in framing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights. The article them went on to contend that the wealthy made certain that their holdings and interests were protected by all of the laws enacted and that this legislated favoritism has continued to the present day!

These (to me) surprise revelations truly pulled the rug on my proposition that the United States was turning into a plutocracy! The question then arose: So what, if anything, could be done to correct this? Certainly not the appointment of yet another commission to study the problem nor public inquiries by a divided Congress.  The statistics are all there: For better or for worse, parts of the government now have had access to all of the communications made by banks, money traders and launderers, investors and corporations. This surveillance could be invaluable information for the IRS. The banks were the first to be challenged in a modest way after the collapse of Lehman’s five years ago. Greater openness has now been demanded of them.  However Investment Funds, brokerage houses, and the like have not been subjected to more transparent procedures. As a result, the transactions and evasions of the hyper-wealthy have not been open for examination. What is now required is legislation demanding openness on all substantial transactions by any individual, corporation or group. Of course the wealthy will do all in their power to assure such legislation would not be passed. Those who failed to declare or made false or incomplete declarations would be faced not with fines (which are easy to pay or write-off as losses) — but with jail terms and imprisonment. This would effect a massive change in the culture of tax evasion and corruption which has so undermined the democratic process in Washington. It is important to note that almost all American politicians who have run for office, are in office, or have left office in the 21st Century are now wealthy. Alas, the costs of running for office are so high that it is unreasonable to try running for office if one don’t have the money. However, if we compare their wealth entering  office vs. their wealth upon leaving, the rise is massive.  In effect, the legislators are part and parcel of the plutocracy.

The American plutocracy has been so effective  for the rich because the electorate continues to believe that they hold power without in reality having a significant impact on the economy. Any resolution to this problem has become even more complex because plutocracy is no longer confined to one or two nations but has turned global. Chrystia Freeland a Canadian reporter, who has has written a new book on plutocracy3, makes the point that the super rich are, these days, largely stateless: They are becoming a trans-global community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York, Hong Kong, Zurich, London, or Singapore today’s super-rich are increasingly escapist. This wealthy elite view themselves not as part of a plutocracy but as an independent grouping far above such parochial concerns as national identity, or devoting “their” taxes to paying down the budget deficits of their incidental countries of birth.  Coping with the evasiveness of these billionaires is fast turning into a global challenge. Perhaps their threat is even more subversive for the trappings of our democracy than the thinly veiled plutocracy which was launched over 200 years ago.

1 The Nation, June 30, 2008.

2David C. Korten, The Great Turning. (2007). He noted that “The U.S. Constitution was written by white men predominantly of the propertied class. For their time, the steps they took were heroic and progressive. They brought an end to hereditary monarchy and introduced the separation of church and state to end theocracy — both exceptional accomplishments. The original Constitution, however, enshrined the power of white males of property in the institutions of a plutocracy… It specifically sanctioned slavery and gave no rights to women, Native Americans, or people of color.”

3Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, (2013).