Modernist city planning, the anthropologist James Holston
writes in The Modernist City
, was based on a utopian ideal and a revolutionary program. In the mid-twentieth-century, more than one developing nation embraced the progressive ideals embodied in modernist planning as a means to hasten social and economic ‘advance.’ But, as Holston points out, the results were not infrequently mixed to negative. The city was radically defamiliarized and ‘de-natured’ in the new designs: not an organism but a machine. A new book
connects up the development of modernist architecture to training in new engineering and manufacturing techniques. Transparency of materials (think glass
) and monumental public spaces were thought to materialize a critique of private property. The ostensible equality of city residents was one goal.
Holston focuses his ‘anthropological critique’ on Brasilia, the now-legendary Ur-modernist capital of Brazil, and here he finds that the revolutionary program of the city’s planners failed, in part because the city’s inhabitants actively resisted it in their everyday lives and forms of dwelling. And we have become accustomed to such critiques. Imagine the surprise, then, of Tapiola, a suburban development on the outskirts of Helsinki.
You can learn about Tapiola in minute historical, cultural, and architectural detail at Tapiola 50, a website celebrating the development’s 50th anniversary. Tapiola was, to my knowledge, constructed under exactly the same design principals that other mid-20th-century urban developments were. I have lived in Tapiola for less than a month. And far from a modernist dystopia, the place seems like Le Corbusier’s Valhalla. Families roam clean and crisp public squares pushing distinctively Finnish super-strollers (most are equipped with huge wheels, the better for pushing through snow I’m told): SUVs for babies. Clusters of intelligently designed apartment buildings are seperated by birch glens and walking paths. Public buses, bikes, pedestrians, and cars co-exist. The overall impression is youthful, fair-skinned, orderly, and pleasant.
I can assure you that this is exactly what the place looks like in real life (minus the pixelation). It raises a question: is the modernist aesthetic in fact appropriate to particular sorts of ethos? A Finn might respond (and some have, when I asked a few) that Finns are not in fact predisposed to the Mediterranean life of the street that might be more characteristic of a Brazilian/Portuguese mode of dwelling. Perhaps, then, the modernist aesthetic ‘works’ in some places more than others. Perhaps the emphasis on ‘organic’ cities versus ‘denatured machines’ needs to take account of places like Tapiola, where modernist design appears to exist in felicitous harmony with a style of living. Or perhaps I haven’t lived here long enough to know where the fissures and dissatisfactions lay.