Upcoming: The blunting of discrimination

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The next chapter of my research on Commonplaces

The blunting of discrimination:  Producers and consumers between the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan.

During the 1950s, in a world polarized by the ideological divide between Capitalism and Socialism, the reconstruction of war-stricken (East) Berlin and Rotterdam was more than a mere matter of social utility. It was under this pressure that Europe produced its last significant street paradigms: the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan. Standing on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, these street spaces epitomized two radically contrasting takes on architecture, the city, society, and ultimately human nature itself.

In Rotterdam, van den Broek and Bakema rethought the centre as a place for intense consumption, shelving away the rising class of tertiary workers in tall residential slabs perpendicular to the first-ever pedestrian commercial spine in the world. In Berlin, Herman Henselmann planned a new expansion spearheaded by a monumental axis lined by neoclassicist apartment buildings. The choice of urban setting, function, and language is so diametrically opposed as to become almost a caricature of the effort to construct two different political subjects: the consumer, and the producer.

As far as architecture was concerned, blessed were the times such a choice still seemed possible – for, as this reading of these paradigms will uncover, the two conditions shared more than we would like to admit. In a macroeconomical framework where money and wage labour could not be eradicated even by a socialist regime, Simmel’s “blunting of discrimination” is the sine-qua-non of contemporary urbanity merely because consuming and producing are actually one and the same. The Lijnbaan and the Stalinallee were the manifestos of a wonderful world that almost was – one in which boundaries were still clear, zoning still made sense, labels still held their power.

In both cases these streets spell out an ambition to create a believable narrative, a narrative that would be able to hold together the splinters of an urban context that was irredeemably leading towards extreme fragmentation – and extreme genericity as well. If the consumer paradise borrowed the rationale of modernism, the monument to the producers leaned on an attempt at reviving a Schinkelian classicism of sorts. This search for a forced identity produced results that verge on the tragically ridiculous, or the ironically heroic – and it is anybody’s guess whether still today we can reject the Stalinallee as ridiculous and hail the Lijnbaan as heroic, or rather see the matter the other way around.

The story of these two streets is also a bittersweet parable on the power (and occasional weakness) of architectural language. In ten years, the Stalinallee paradigm withered and was quickly abandoned between harsh criticism, while the Lijnbaan model thrived and influenced not only the western world, but also key spaces of East-German cities such as Dresden and Chemnitz. While it is obvious that consumption has risen to the foreground of an increasingly rarefied production cycle, this fact alone does not suffice to explain the dynamic that saw the Lijnbaan model proliferate, and the Stalinallee paradigm die. Was it the demise of Stalinism that decreed the end of a turgid yet readable monumentality, or was it rather the strength of Modernism that endorsed a new model of urban centre based on shopping as a quasi-pedagogical activity? Is it politics that trumps architecture, or isn’t it rather form that, at times, influences function?

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