A rapist in every Jefferies tube: Detroit, design, and our dreams of space

A friend linked me to this stunning gallery of photos at the Guardian of Detroit, in ruins. As noted in the margins, large swathes of Detroit now more closely resemble the set of a post-apocalyptic film than they do an actual city. Aged and beautiful buildings have been left to rot. Even the books are still on library shelves, their presence an indication of systemic failure rather than any individual mistake.

Granted, anyone who watches music videos has been familiar with this for a while:

(What, you thought Michael Moore was the only pop culture figure to comment on the tragedy of Detroit? Bitch, please.)

What’s sadder, in its way, is the fact that this has all happened before, and will happen again.

Koyaanisqatsi – Pruitt Igoe
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This is Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis urban housing project designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the same man who designed the World Trade Center. To my knowledge, Mr. Yamasaki is one of the few architects to watch two of his most famous creations destroyed by human intervention, rather than natural disaster. In 1972, years after Pruitt-Igoe had become a labyrinth of crime and all but 600 residents had left, all 33 buildings in the complex were destroyed with the approval of the federal Department of Housing. The demolition lasted years — about the same amount of time it took the public housing authorities to install playgrounds for the children the projects were designed to house.

I don’t mean to diminish Detroit’s loss. It’s absurd that Marshall Mathers should have to remind us, but Detroit used to be a beacon of what America could do when she put her mind to it. It was Motown, the Motor City, the Rock City. It made the best cars and the best music we had to offer. That it is now a husk of its former self is an indictment of policy at the municipal, state and federal levels. Of course, the same could be said of the Kowloon Walled City:

The narrator is speaking Japanese, but he’s describing a neighbourhood of Hong Kong that has since been wiped off the city’s surface. Japan had a huge role in the Walled City’s population boom after their occupation of Hong Kong. When they left the Triads took over, and the City became its own region with its own rules. Only after the crime rate diminished did Hong Kong authorities discuss demolition, and it was only in the early nineties that the evacuations were complete enough for the buildings to come down safely.

During a recent talk with a friend, we agreed that in much the same way that Canadian engineers wear the Iron Ring, designers ought to wear a reminder of what happens when you forget the human element. Maybe something from Detroit, or St. Louis, or Kowloon. Certainly, we should take a long, hard look at these failures before designing for long-term space colonization. During Charlie Stross’ recent posts on generation ships and the difficulty of building and maintaining them (and the communities they transport), stories like Pruitt-Igoe and Kowloon are often left out of the resultant (and loquacious) commentary. But I think designing for community support is just important as designing for life support. Who cares if your air never runs out when your city in the stars is full of thugs, with a rapist in every Jefferies tube?

Yes, I know. Cold sleep. Wake-shifting. But say you make it Yonder. Now you get to build a colony. How do you keep that dream of colonization from turning into a Le Corbusian nightmare of suffocating closeness, with trash everywhere? How do you respect the limitations of resources and the requirement for sustainability while still respecting the basic human needs for cleanliness and space? Charlie has recently called for more utopian fiction, and I think this is one place it could and should go. We used to read raygun stories about how cool space was, all the features we’d get under the domes, how our colonies would unfold perfect and glossy as an IKEA catalogue. But the real feature isn’t some push-button innovation. It’s not the food pills or Gernsback chic. The real feature is the lack of bugs. World-building, not window-dressing. Hospitable environments, not merely habitable ones.

It’s the dream. Let’s do it right.

2 thoughts on “A rapist in every Jefferies tube: Detroit, design, and our dreams of space”

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