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Economic Growth Houses

From a conversation with Gail Tverberg.

I just looked at a documentary telling that in antique Antioch there lived 172 people per dekar (not sure if it was per dekar), while in today’s New York there are only some and forty people per dekar, and in Rome just eight. With mixed cities and New Urbanism we can live much denser still much better lives without cars! James Howard Kunstler wrote a brilliant essay about this back in 2011, called “Back to the Future”.

Kunstler has named the suburbs the worst waste of resources in the history of humankind. I think we have to realise the suburban “home” is not a home, but an economic growth house. General Motors put a lot of resources into destroying the American public transport, described in the documentary “How General Motors Destroyed a Nation”. Less known is General Motors role in promoting the new suburbs with isolated houses as Heaven on Earth, with the purpose of making people depended on the car industry:


But how did the modern system of development and consumption — our “technological-consumerist” system — come about? Was it not an inevitable part of the evolution of science and technology, and an inevitable response to the desires of consumers — in short, our destiny?

No it was not. In fact this system was invented — planned by industrialists and political leaders in the early years of the 20th Century, primarily in the USA. The story was documented well in the 2002 film by BBC documentarian Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self”, and in particular the first episode titled Happiness Machines. Leaders of Wall Street joined with political leaders to solve a twin problem: how to keep the masses engaged in productive and wealth-generating activities, which would also quell potential political unrest.

Their answer was to create a new kind of consumer society — the one we take for granted today, and the one that is still used to sell consumer products (including modern architecture in Dwell magazine, for example). This new idea was perhaps explained best in 1924 by Banker Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers — the same company whose notorious collapse in 2008 helped trigger the global financial crisis and great recession. “We must shift America from a needs-culture to a desires-culture”, said Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Central to this fascinating and poorly-understood story was Edward Bernays, a remarkably important and yet almost unknown figure in modern history. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his brilliant idea was to use Freud’s own ideas on subconscious desires to create powerful new strategies for advertising, public relations, and propaganda. Among Bernays’ “accomplishments” was getting millions of women to smoke for the first time and essentially inventing the modern political campaign, with all its emotional manipulations. (Freud, to his credit, strongly protested this manipulative, exploitative, and fundamentally antidemocratic use of his ideas.)

Even less well known, Bernays played a key role in selling modernist urban and suburban planning to the public. As Curtis’ film demonstrates, Bernays helped to orchestrate the seminal “Futurama” exhibit by General Motors at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was this event, perhaps more than any other, that sold a radiant vision of the suburbia to come to a desperate public, traumatized by the Depression and coming war, and seeking a positive vision of the future. To this vulnerable audience, the marketers offered a gleaming new age of modern buildings and suburbs and consumer gadgets of every conceivable type. It was all so wonderful! We had certainly been “trained to desire, to want new things …” And we got them.

And it was architects, working with industrialists like the leaders of General Motors, who led the charge. Here is the pioneering modernist architect Le Corbusier’s prescription for drive-through utopia, described in his pamphlet Radiant City (1935, translated into English in 1967):

The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work … enough for all.

Radiant urban sprawl

It is at this point in the story that some architects will protest: surely it is unfair to blame modernist architects for the ills of the built environment! After all, the American-style suburbs are full of pseudo-traditionalist schlock… we modernist architects are actually making the world more sustainable, through our new “green building” technologies; you can’t blame us!

We will have more to say about the merits of “green Modernism” below. But this pseudo-traditionalist schlock, so detested by many architects, is a mere thin veneer of marketing applied over the same stripped down blueprint for sprawl — the one created by modernist architects like Le Corbusier, based upon the fundamentalist concept of “the city as a machine”. Its segregated parts would combine mechanically, and would be connected by machines — specifically, automobiles, and the machine-like buildings that they moved between. If a little applied schlock made the package easier for consumers to swallow, that could be easily arranged.

Today’s modernist designers would love to disown the aesthetics of American-style suburbia, but the fact is that the industrial manufacturers of these mass-produced suburban environments loved the modernists’ machine-minimalism. Not content merely to strip down the parts of the old cities into functional bits of machinery, they also stripped down the detailing of the buildings themselves. They made flat, clunky windows, deleted ornamental trim, eliminated connective outdoor spaces — and gleefully turned buildings into just so many manufactured boxes, packaged in decorative marketing gimmickry.

Of course, human beings were also treated as segregated bits of machinery. Would-be suburbanites were lured by the knowledge that they could drive far away from others who weren’t like them, and live in large houses on large lots away from other people. They could always drive to the big-box stores for their growing consumer needs. Everyone would then produce a great deal of economic activity, make a great deal of money, and all would be well — until the unintended consequences took their devastating toll.

So the rapacious industrialization of the environment came packaged in a marketing campaign aimed squarely at consumers’ deepest Freudian desires and fears. Perhaps the most seductive marketing concept of all, on display to such powerful effect at the General Motors diorama at the 1939 World’s Fair, was the allure of an exciting new technological future. This intoxicating “futurism” was a concept pioneered by Le Corbusier and other early modernist architects. Industrial behemoths like General Motors readily understood the seductive appeal of this exciting technological novelty — New! Improved!

But a related concept, no less attractive to General Motors, was that anything older — like old streetcar lines, or the streets and street-friendly buildings on which they ran — were intolerably old-fashioned. The streetcar lines must be bought up and demolished; the inner-city neighborhoods, with their tight walkable streets, must be abandoned.

Some twenty years later, General Motors captured this romantic spirit of industrialization perfectly in a rapturously futuristic television and film advertisement. An attractive couple glides through a dazzling modernist utopia in their rocket-like car, as the music plays:

Tomorrow, tomorrow, our dreams will come true!
Together, together, we’ll make the world new!
Strange shapes will rise out of the night,
but our love will not change, dear —
It will be like a star burning bright,
lighting our way, when tomorrow meets today!

In the advertisement, the “strange shapes” that “rise out of the night” are buildings, and they are clearly avant-garde works of alluring fine art. This was yet another example of a potent marketing combination. If fine artists were now in unquestioned service to promoting industrial products, well, that was surely progress in modernity. Such work could thus also be placed within the honored tradition of great architects of the past — however much it actually rejected most of that design legacy. With this combination of product marketing and avant-garde art in service to industry, modernist design took a commanding hold over consumer consciousness — and over the power-brokers of civilization.

Thus was born a powerful alliance that continues to this day — and continues to obstruct, except in mechanical and tokenistic ways, the needed revival of walkable street-based urbanism. Le Corbusier said we must embrace an exciting future, and to do so we must “kill the street” — and he was remarkably effective in doing so. General Motors, too, said we must embrace an exciting future, and to do so we must kill the streetcar, and the “old-fashioned” world in which it existed. GM too was remarkably effective, fueling the massive destruction of inner-city neighborhoods, and the streetcar systems that served them.

It must be said that this regime did in fact work extraordinarily well, in the limited sense of an economic development strategy centered on industrialization and the merciless denuding of the built environment according to geometrical fundamentalist ideas. But the model, economically a riotous success, now leaves us with a looming global crisis of extraordinary proportions. Le Corbusier could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about climate change, resource depletion, or the complex dynamics of good cities. Today, however, we have no such excuse.



Further it's interesting to see how the suburban home started growing drastically from 1973, the same time as debt started growing rapidly:

See more articles here.

I think the suburbs with increasingly larger McMansions to fill up with all kinds of stuff played a large role in growing debt levels. The houses grew big together with the people! All a vaste of resources as Kunstler says, but VERY IMPORTANT AND EFFECTIVE IN CREATING DEBT!

Another purpose of the suburbs was to isolate people from one another, to avoid revolts!


DR: From the 1920s to the 1970s an iconography was developed that turned corporations into our heroes. Instead of me buying stuff from people I know, I actually trust the Quaker Oat Man more than you. This is the result of public relations campaigns, and the development of public relations as a profession.

PN: Did the rise of PR just happen, or did they have to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control?

DR: They had to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control. The significant points in the development of public relations were all at crisis moments. For example, labor movements; it’s not just that labor was revolting but that people were seeing that labor was revolting. There was a need to re-fashion the stories so that people would think that labor activists were bad scary people, so that people would think they should move to the suburbs and insulate themselves from these throngs of laborers, from “the masses.” Or to return to the Quaker Oats example, people used to look at long-distance-shipped factory products with distrust. Here’s a plain brown box, it’s being shipped from far away, why am I supposed to buy this instead of something from a person I’ve known all my life? A mass media is necessary to make you distrust your neighbor and transfer your trust to an abstract entity, the corporation, and believe it will usher in a better tomorrow and all that.

It got the most crafty after WWII when all the soldiers were coming home. FDR was in cahoots with the PR people. Traumatized vets were coming back from WWII, and everyone knew these guys were freaked out and fucked up. We had enough psychology and psychiatry by then to know that these guys were badly off, they knew how to use weapons, and — this was bad! If the vets came back into the same labor movement that they left before WWII, it would have been all over. So the idea was that we should provide houses for these guys, make them feel good, and we get the creation of Levittown and other carefully planned developments designed with psychologists and social scientists. Let’s put these vets in a house, let’s celebrate the nuclear family.

PN: So home becomes a thing, rather than a series of relationships?

DR: The definition of home as people use the word now means “my house,” rather than what it had been previously, which was “where I’m from.’” My home’s New York, what’s your home?

PN: Right, my town.

DR: Where are you from? Not that “structure.” But they had to redefine home, and they used a lot of government money to do it. They created houses in neighborhoods specifically designed to isolate people from one another, and prevent men in particular from congregating and organizing — there are no social halls, no beer halls in these developments. They wanted men to be busy with their front lawns, with three fruit trees in every garden, with home fix-it-up projects; for the women, the kitchen will be in the back where they can see the kids playing in the back yard.

PN: So you don’t see the neighbors going by. No front porch.

DR: Everything’s got to be individual, this was all planned! Any man that has a mortgage to pay is not going to be a revolutionary. With that amount to pay back, he’s got a stake in the system. True, he’s on the short end of the stick of the interest economy, but in 30 years he could own his own home.



We can conclude that Suburban Hell was invented for three reasons:

1) Boost economic growth to make people dependent upon the automobile, and building ever larger houses to fill up with stuff in competing with “the Joneses”.

2) Destroying healthy urban structure in order to isolate people from one another, to avoid revolt and for better controlling the masses.

3) Destroying the commons because people have everything they need behind their grand doors, NO sharing. Sharers are not good consumers!

Home is a network of connections, not a suburban McMansion!


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