Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rethink London: Concrete towers an international style

Cherryhill: a mix of apartment towers, an indoor mall and a commercial complex.

Recently I saw the following Twitter tweet: "A new arrival from Australia points out how much Cherryhill looks like Chernobyl." I was shocked. Cherryhill is a successful residential development in London while Chernobyl is the name of the Soviet era nuclear power plant closed in 1986 after fire followed by an explosion damaged the plant, killed two workers and blew a massive cloud of radioactive debris high into the atmosphere.

Contrary to popular mythology, Pripyat and Chernobyl are completely different cities. (I first learned this while taking pictures for the local paper of children from the region who were visiting London.) Chernobyl is NOT the city built some two to three kilometers from the plant in the late '60s and early '70s to house plant workers. That place is Pripyat. Pripyat is the city that was emptied completely of residents immediately after the nuclear disaster. The place has sat abandoned for 26 years.

While there is a town of Chernobyl, it is about 14km from the nuclear power plant. It had no commercial links to the Soviet power station. The actual town of Chernobyl attracts very little attention. It is just one more little, regional town left almost deserted after the nuclear disaster contaminated the entire region.

Today, a few hundred inhabitants still live in Chernobyl. They post signs in front of their homes saying: "Owner of this house lives here." Finding pictures of the little town, with a recorded history going back to 1193, is almost impossible. I'd post a picture if I could. This link may show an abandoned Chernobyl home. Or go to the bottom of this post. I've posted a link to a few seconds of video shot driving through Chernobyl on the way to Pripyat.

Straight street, overgrown from lack of use, in Pripyat.
The roads in Pripyat grow narrower and narrower every year as grass and weeds encroach on the long straight expanses of pavement. Abandoned for decades, the apartments of the Soviet planned community are now missing windows and doors. Pripyat is often compared to cities in the American rustbelt: Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland . . . Talk about the residential area carelessly known as Chernobyl and you are talking about post-nuclear-disaster Pripyat.

When I objected to the comparison of Chernobyl to Cherryhill, the writer tweeted that he found "the physical resemblance was uncanny." I finally understood. The fellow was talking about the architectural style of the Pripyat buildings. He was confusing the name of the power station with the name of the community.

Photo of Pripyat swimming pool structure by Timm Suess
The writer voiced surprise that buildings almost on opposite sides of the world would resemble each other. "Uncanny," the writer wrote.

I agree with the writer, except for the uncanny bit. The apartment towers in Pripyat do share a look with the apartment towers in London, Ontario — as well as with towers in Paris, New York, Vancouver, Calgary, Tokyo, Nairobi and thousands of other cities and towns around the globe.

The resemblance isn't uncanny, it's expected. The large, concrete slab towers, built all over the world, all exhibit some adherence to the international modernist style.

What is the international modernist style. This is what Emily Tyrer of Wesleyan University wrote:

The International Modernist Style developed out of a search for a building style unique to and expressive of the modern world. Modernist architects’ work expressed the technology, materials and functions that were new to the twentieth century. The resulting architecture was thought to be inevitable: based on function, technology and the spirit of the times. 

It adhered to the American architect, Louis Sullivan’s dictum, “Form follows function.” The style is characterized by architecture stripped of extraneous ornament, historical references and traditional symbolism. It demanded amnesia relative to history. 

The Modernist style was considered a mark of high morality; historical types and styles were “a lie,” in Le Corbusier’s words, and ornament was a “crime,” according to Adolf Loos. Instead of incorporating ornament or using historical typologies, they attempted to give aesthetic value to functionalism. The naked function and bones of its structure would be the final form. 

Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase, “Less is more” represented the minimal ideal of Modernist architects and their buildings. They aimed for purity: sheerness, flatness, and smoothness. They aimed for a new style that could be relevant universally, based on inevitable, scientific facts of construction and human behavior.

If you got here because of an interest in ReThink London, you should follow the following link and read: tower renewal project: plasticity revisited by Graeme Stewart. Stewart writes:

The modernist concrete slab or tower in the park type apartment building, “is perhaps the most successful typology of the modern movement”. . . . this opinion reflects the remarkably global scope of the implementation of the ubiquitous modern tower. From Soviet mass housing, European post-war reconstruction, North American urban renewal, the utopias of Brasilia and Chandigarh, and Hong Kong’s super-blocks, this modernist machine for living is truly a global type, and has largely filled its mandate of providing well serviced and equitable housing for tens of millions of people.

One last thought: the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter, can limit thoughtful discussion.

Looking for a Chernobyl (Pripyat) look-a-like, look to the American rust belt.
Known as the Brewster-Douglass Project in Detroit, the straight roads, overgrown vegetation and abandoned apartment towers really do resemble the look of neighbourhoods in the former Chernobyl Territory of the old Soviet Union.

Why the projects in so many American cities failed while developments like Cherryhill in London, Ontario, succeeded is the really important question urban planners must answer. (If you are going to try finding the answer, google Sam Katz as a start. Sam Katz is a big reason for the success of Cherryhill and I may post more on Sam Katz soon.)

If you'd like to see a very short video shot in the Town of Chernobyl, check out the following:

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