The Recycled City

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:18

    McLuhan's influential gift was to unite a theoretical literary imagination about the impact of different kinds of communication with the practical ongoing pattern of North American life. He sustained an open nonelitist mind about different media. No intello-snob, he was a critic who was, however, never meanly critical. Like a Mobius strip he moved in an unbroken line from exploring a deeply Catholic commitment to high-meaning symbols to puckish description of banal daily life. He became both a fad guru, especially in advertising, as well as a consistently thoughtful and idiosyncratic public intellectual.

    Another of his provocative ideas has much to do with the regeneration of inner cities throughout the industrial world: "One Generation's Technology Is The Next Generation's Art Form." This has a surprisingly direct connection with the cultural and economic success of lofts as a primary residential form and merchants' choice for style of store at the end of the century. Large bare spaces in which underwear used to be sewn or silver ingots turned into fish forks or furniture legs hammered into place are now the preferred home bases of adequately affluent artistic and commercial busybodies. Players of poignant rock guitar and skinny models with extra teeth pay millions to live in old egg factories, chickens not included. Perhaps their parents or accountants think their brains are fragile. The story is true in London and Paris and New York and Chicago and Boston, nearly anywhere there are factories made of brick nestled in cities with the hum of busy life.

    I encountered it afresh when I landed in San Francisco. My plane was a late one and there were no cabs. But a shuttle co-op taxi was just outside the door, so I took it. On its way into downtown it released several passengers in parts of the city I hardly knew. These were once the factory, automotive, plumbing and warehouse areas?clanky places like that. They were nowhere near the cable car lines and congenially interesting tourist distractions that lure people from all over the world. Among its more general advantages, this indirect tour offered an unexpectedly delightful sighting of the old headquarters building of Levi Strauss?tawny tan paint and low-slung mission style. Here was the symbolic source of the great American contribution to the world's butts; the Vatican of durable, low-key, sexy clothes nearly everyone can afford; one of the authentic folk shrines of our century; country clothes created in the middle of a city; rather like the lab where Edison developed the lightbulb.

    But the most interesting and significant feature of this unexpected tour of San Francisco was the demonstration once again of the importance of McLuhan's notion that the technology by which one generation earns a living is how the next generation lives its life esthetically. The messy sites of noisy, bustling machines become the status dwellings of the taut new elite. Subtle restaurants with long forehead fronts and semidark plate glass exteriors cosset the consumers of arugula and monkfish laced with capers. Coffeehouses pay the rent where once illegals patched up tires on their last leg; $400 sweaters-Milanese are arrayed like jewels in a former warehouse for hoisin, soy and bean curd.

    It would have been a rare theorist of art who would have predicted during the early days of burgeoning industry that the descendants of the barons who built French chateaux in Pacific Heights in San Francisco (and in Newport and Scarsdale) and Euro-townhouses in other major cities would seek out bare, spare, industrial spaces in city after city. Areas such as Soho and Long Island City in New York, and South of Market Street in San Francisco, have seen that, literally, the workplaces of industry have become the studios and homes of first artists and then affluent civilians. They find the spaces once created for machines especially agreeable and invigorating. The landmarks movement, in which New York City was a leader, not only certified the historical value of old buildings but also drew attention to the often-irreplaceable luxury of their scale, their arrogant domination of space, their potent and unyielding connection to the inner fabric of city life.

    Despite the leafy suburban stage sets made possible by highly subsidized highways, there remained through the lens of landmarks a strong sense of the esthetic vitality of central-urban structures once thought merely old and dispensable. It remained clear that cities were compact for a reason?because they made sense economically. They provided a lot for residents to do easily and with considerable elegant variety. And for historically fortunate urban areas like New York City, with its vast public transport system (evidently, some 40 percent of all mass-transit rides in the U.S. are taken in the greater NYC region), the culture of cars has not overwhelmed the culture of people, at least not as completely as in towns like Houston and Los Angeles.

    And, years later than smart people should have, major developers have realized that it's economically senseless and esthetically barren to build yet more suburban shopping malls and tract housing when, for example, the underused or moribund rail yards that large cities almost invariably have can become features of renewed and vivacious urban landscapes. Hence the 300-acre Central Platte Valley of Denver, once mainly a rail yard, has spurred renewed interest in the central city. Ditto in Sacramento on 37 acres, Salt Lake City on 40, on 36 acres in Portland, OR, and there are similar plans afoot in Omaha, Las Vegas and Dallas. Should New York City ever overcome its foolish adolescent confusion about the disastrous project of shoehorning a major stadium into the West Side rail yards, there too a major contribution to urban vitality could continue to revivify the fortunes of this already architecturally fortunate city.

    It's clear there's an energetic urban revival in a number of significant cities, as the tide of people flowing to the suburbs appears to be reversing or slowing. The economic and emotional cost of the increasingly cloacal and seemingly hopeless traffic in edge cities, combined with their low sensual intensity, appears to be generating real estate activity in the centers of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Memphis and Seattle. People are fleeing from where people used to flee from cities to. Cities are where urbanity's at. Elderly people have second thoughts about living in gated Florida or Arizona cities, where acquiring a quart of milk involves a car ride or consultation of the schedule of the shuttle bus. Instead, they are returning to central cities, where entrepreneurs and hoteliers like Marriott are a decade late in beginning to respond to their spending power and needs. The nationally declining crime rate has boosted the movement firmly?Milwaukee has not had a single downtown homicide over the last seven years. And in a kind of immense symbolic transformation, Raymond Hood's American Radiator Bldg. at Bryant Park, with its redolent black and gold facade, will change from the headquarters of an industrial company to a super-scale hotel sharpened by the luxurious minimalism of design. The latest, almost comical version of futurist nostalgia is evidently the concrete flooring much prized by urgent movers who wish to make a statement with every step they take.

    The overall point is Marshall McLuhan's. The old architectural technology pleases the eye and appears to calm the spirit. It becomes its own esthetic form. Powerhouses and textile mills become art galleries, and people collect small shiny machines because their innards are beautiful and intriguing. It is all a cheerful surprise.