Utopian urbanism

…it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now…

Naxos´ rerelease of The City
Naxos' rerelease of The City

A post which has little to do with surveillance and security today, but much more to do with another of my interests, in urban futures…

The predominantly classical music company, Naxos, has issued a new version of the classic 1939 documentary, The City, which was released to coincide with the New York World´s Fair. The film is a superb piece of work in many areas – a great script by the legendary urbanist, Lewis Mumford, based on his book, The Culture of Cities, luscious cinematography by Ralph Steiner and and Willard van Dyke and, the reason why Naxos is involved, a brilliant score by Aaron Copeland, which has been re-recorded for this release. It is already available for free download from the Internet Archive (a treasure house of historical material), but of course you won´t get the specially rerecorded score or the extra documentaries that accompany the anyway relatively inexpensive re-release.

A past vision of an urban utopia...
A past vision of an urban utopia...

Despite its serious message, the film ultimately shares the optimistic atmosphere of the World’s Fair – see, for example, Andrew F. Wood’s lovely site full of those influential images of progress that so shaped the rest of Twentieth Century’s idea of what the future would look like and then later, should have looked like. Today, it has acquired a new relevance, produced as it was out of that amazing surge of energy in US society resulting from Roosevelt’s solution to the Great Depression, the New Deal. Mumford´s admonition that “the age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities, better suited to our needs” (see this article about the movie) has never been more pertinent. As of 2007, we entered an age when the majority of the world’s population is living in cities that are already divided by extremes of wealth and poverty (especially here in Brazil), and a global recession is developing, which should cause humanity to rethink its priorities.

The 1930s saw the best and worst of the drive to utopianism. Some of those paths resulted in the holocaust and the gulags, some led to the unsustainable consumer capitalism we are still trying to revive, but it is the adventurous, progressive, social democratic spirit of the New Deal and the World’s Fair that it is most worth revisiting now.

The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba
The Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba

Here in Brazil, another nation, like the USA, which struggled throughout the Twentieth Century to fashion itself into a democratic utopia, we can also see this spirit embodied in the gorgeous curves of Oscar Niemeyer‘s fluid Brazilian modernism. Lewis Mumford may be long gone, but Niemeyer is still with us at 101 years old, and still working with the same commitment.

It is a sobering thought that it will not be long before there is no-one left from that generation of urbanists, the generation that was committed to invention, beauty and social progress. Here’s to them…

(thanks to Janet Forbes of York University, Toronto, whose post to a mailing list inspired this reverie)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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