Read in ‘Urban Utopias of the Twentieth Century’ (1977) of Robert Fishman:


So much fun reading the old stuff again. Last December I started writing a book on cities, what they are, why they exist and what they are heading for. So it’s a book on the past and future of urbanization. The publisher is Amsterdam University Press. It will be launched in May 2016, in the People’s Industry Palace. You will be amazed. So while writing my book, I took some old stuff on cities and planning from the shelves of my private library again. One of them was Robert Fishman’s ‘Urban Utopias’. I wanted to know more about Ebenezer Howard, the evangelist of the Garden City movement in the first decades of the twentieth century. Fishman describes how middle-class Londoner Howard discovered a true goal in his life: dissolving monstrous London by building hundreds of new towns in the countryside. It fascinated me because Howard’s thoughts became a true gospel in Dutch planner’s circles after the Second World War, his view leading in postwar spatial planning.

As a planner I wanted to know how the radical Howard imagined his dream would come true. They always told me he was a very practical man, his schemes and diagrams flexible, his approach open minded. Not Edward Bellamy’s centralized planning approach was his favorite, because as a London Radical he loathed state intervention. He was convinced his ‘peaceful path to real reform’ could only succeed if small communities were embedded in a decentralized society. People would then start cooperating spontaneously, everything based on independence and voluntary action. Howard was a true anarchist. Fishman: “The Radicals devoutly believed in Progress, and they held that mankind was evolving toward a higher stage of social organization – the cooperative commonwealth – in which brotherhood would become the basis of daily life.” In Dutch postwar planning I cannot mark off any of these values. It was centralized state planning pur sang that led to the dissolvement of the big cities. Is the result a higher stage of social organization? I don’t think so. I’m afraid Bellamy has won.

What is to be done?

On 25 november 2015, in filosofie, literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Christal Palace’ (2005) of Peter Sloterdijk:

Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘In the World Interior of Capital’ (Het Kristalpaleis)  is a must read, especially at this very moment, after the events in ‘Paris’ and ‘Brussels’. Sloterdijk’s philosophy of globalization is based on the story of Christal Palace in London, 1851, the first World Exhibition. The building of glass and steel, designed by Joseph Paxton, was an impressive pleasure ground of Western capitalism, luxury, consumerism and power, a temple of pure commercial and decadent Enlightenment. When the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski visited it in 1862, he was astonished. After years of death camps in Siberia, which he survived, he entered the palace. His awe and loathing got mixed up with his reading of Chernyshevsky’s novel ‘What Is To Be Done?’, published in 1863. An explosive concoction was brewed in his mind. Sloterdijk: “Famous for its time, (and of a resolutely pro-Western tendency), and with consequences that would extend all the way to Lenin, this book announced the "New Man" who, after accomplishing the technical solution to the social question, would live amongst his peers in a communal palace of glass and metal-the archetype of shared accommodation in the East and the West. Chernyshevsky’s culture palace was conceived as a luxury edifice with an artificial climate, in which an eternal spring of consensus would prevail. Here, the sun of good intentions would shine day and night, the peaceful coexistence of everyone with everyone would go without saying.” The Christal Palace became the expression of expansive Western civilization.

So then Dostoyevsky decided to write his ‘Notes fr0m the Underground, published in 1864. The short novel  is about a man living in Saint Petersburg, fulminating against modernity, being very angry with the West. According to Sloterdijk it is the first expression of opposition to globalization, a book on terrorism, hatred, violence and boredom. “The visionaries of the 19th century, like the communists in the 20th century, had already understood that social life after the end of combatant history could only play out in an extensive interior, an interior space ordered like a house and endowed with an artificial climate. Whatever one may understand by the term real history, it should, like its spearheads, sea voyages and expansionist wars, remain the perfect example of undertakings in the open air. But if historical battles should lead to eternal peace, the whole of social life would have to be integrated into a protective housing. Under such conditions, no further historical events could occur, at most household accidents. Accordingly, there would be no more politics and no more voters, but rather only contests for votes between parties and fluctuations among their consumers.” Until 9/11 it seemed this was really the case. Then the terrorists began their attacks. The media loved it. The terrorists know.

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A beautiful city

On 23 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1859) of Charles Dickens:

Have you read all those newspapers publishing on Paris this weekend? On all those killings, violence in the streets, terrorism, islam. Can’t get enough? I prefer rereading Charles Dickens. Dickens published his great novel on the French revolution in 1859. His own life was in a crisis. He divorced. In 1858 he decided to write ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a novel on London and Paris in 1798, the year of the French revolution. Private and public revolution assembled in one book. His favorite source was ‘The French Revolution’ of Thomas Carlyle. The novel we wrote is almost Dostoyevski-like. It’s about Dicken’s obsession with destructive violence. Violence of the mob. “He regarded violence as the necessary end of violence; prison as the consequence of prison; hatred as the wages of hatred. He preached that we must not allow society to take on the condition of frustrated anger in which men become mobs and the world is violently upturned.” Such dangers, wrote George Woodcock in his introduction, could not be removed by repression, but only by recognizing and alleviating the conditions that caused them. So reread Dickens.

Charles Dickens had no programme for an ideal society. What he critized were the wrong moral attitudes of people. We have the moral choice between changing society and changing oneself. Better change oneself. “It is in fact by a moral resurgence that Dickens hopes to defeat the threat of revolution, and the idea of such a resurgence is clearly linked with the theme of resurrection that permeates every level of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’  and assumes an almost grotesque variety of forms.” Nothing new. Very difficult indeed. Dickens: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” (…). Just before the guillotine Sydney Carton thinks these thoughts: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” A minute later he dies.

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The future

On 13 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Future City’ (1973) of Roger Elwood (editor):

Today I will give a lecture at the conference for teachers in geography of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG) in Ede, the Netherlands. Subject: the future. Some 800 teachers will be there. Where to begin? How to end my story? For inspiration, I reread ‘Future City’, offered to me by the Dutch grand old man Fred Zandvoort, and see what writers were thinking about the future of cities in the year 1973. Will cities last? How will they look? Some fifteen novelists wrote wonderful science fiction-stories on cities. Roger Elwood, the editor, noted in his introduction that it was not a happy book. Sure. Frederik Pohl, an American sciencefiction writer, for example is the author of the afterword. Pohl: “The cities I know best, New York and London, are absolute failures in some very essential ways. New York is dirty, noisy, preposterously expensive and essentially unsafe. (…) London is physically safer, but it is also dirty, also noisy and rapidly becoming just as preposterously expensive.” Then he concludes: “And yet they survive.” Pohl was convinced that city life was a failed experiment, that we will never give up on. Sounds familiar, still?

Pohl thought planners were having a problem. “Cities do not like to be planned very much.” He had made a lot of excursions to new towns – all modernist projects – and had come to the conclusion that you cannot plan a new city. “All of them are dreams, and making them come true destroys them.” Then he wrote that cities are accumulations of a diversity of social capital. It is a matter of size, of scale effect, he stressed. Only big cities are real cities; it needs a huddling for a lot of people, you should be able to get a meal at four in the morning, otherwise it is not a city. I think he was right. “They are so needed that they cannot be allowed to fail.” Well, that depends. At least that was the pessimism of the seventies. We are far more positive now. Cities are the best places in the world. Well, at least the big ones. The future will be an urban one. Even in the Netherlands we will build one big city, at last.

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The end of things-as-known

On 10 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (1970) of Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow’s ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’, published in 1970, is a must read. Mr. Sammler, a survivor of the Holocaust and an intellectual, is the hero of the novel. He lives in New York. His age: seventy-something. Every day he takes the bus from his apartment on the West Side to the Fourty-second street library. Then Bellow’s description of Sammler’s daily urban trip on the bus: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennas. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metral dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through intervening night. SPRY. But then he was half blind.” New York gives Sammler no hope. Not only the pickpocket at work on the bus depresses him. Also racism, tourism, erotic persuasions, the crazy violence of fanatics. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”

In the novel Mr. Sammler tries to get a grip on New York. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic, Stanley Crouch writes: “We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.” According to Mr. Crouch, Bellow chose New York for his novel as the capital of capitalism, the power of the city over the country was evident. But then, in chapter 6, there is a telephone crisis. In New York! Sammler is at the house of his benefactor Elya Gruner in New Rochelle, who is dying in a hospital on Manhattan. Trains are not running. The servant will bring him in the silver Rolls Royce. There he goes. “It would soon be full spring. The Cross County, the Saw Mill River, the Henry Hudson thick with reviving grass and dandelions, the oven of the sun baking green life again.” They’re getting nearer to Manhattan. So in the end he is positive, isn’t he? “Looking from the window, passing all in state, in an automobile costing upwards of twenty thousand dollars, Mr. Sammler still saw that together with the end of things-as-known the feeling for new beginnings was nevertheless very strong.” He drives from north to south, up Broadway. “And away from this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth but already looking toward the moon and Mars with plans for founding cities.”  There he finds Elya in the hospital at last, dead.

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The enemy is noise

On 23 september 2015, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘There is simply too much to think about’ of Saul Bellow (2015):

Chicago World's Fair, 1933 Art Print

The first essay in the bulk of nonfiction of the great American novelist Saul Bellow, assembled in ‘There is simply too much to think about’, is called ‘Starting out in Chicago’. It’s about how the young man started writing novels in the Windy City in the thirties, at the time of the Great Depression. This is how Bellow described Chicago in his adolescent youth: “A colossal industrial and business center, knocked flat by unemployment, its factories and even its schools closing, decided to hold a World’s Fair on its shore of Lake Michigan, with towers, high rides, exhibits, Chinese rickshaws, a midget village in which there was a midget wedding every day, and other lively attractions including whores and con men and fan dancers.” Several millions of dollars were spent on the Fair of 1933, but it didn’t produced jobs. Bellow remembered how president Roosevelt later, “seeing how much trouble unhappy intellectuals had made in Russia, Germany and Italy between 1905 and 1935”, started to pay the jobless youth “for painting post office murals and editing guidebooks.

More descriptions of an industrial Chicago in the thirties: “I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago.” More depressing even: “In my own generation there were those immigrants who copied even the unhappiness of the Protestant majority, embracing its miseries, battling against Mom; reluctant, after work, to board the suburban train, drinking downtown, drinking on the club bar, being handed down drunk to the wife and the waiting station wagon like good Americans.” These are the notes he made in 1974-75. There was no poetry in his hometown, that’s for sure. “The enemy is noise.” What did he mean by that? “By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of the media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crisis of modern life.” The crisis of modern life? Bellow studied sociology and anthropology. In 1937 he finished his study. As a writer and anthropologist he decided to describe melting melting pot Chicago, for which you have to read ‘The Adventures of Augie March’. On poverty, on discrimination, on late-nineteenth century capitalism. A must read.

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Miami Virtue

On 20 januari 2015, in internationaal, literatuur, migratie, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in ‘Back to Blood’ (2012) van Tom Wolfe:


Tijdens de feestdagen eindelijk gelezen: ‘Back to Blood’ van Tom Wolfe. Heerlijk boek. De roman gaat over Miami, Florida, een metropool van 5 miljoen inwoners in het verre zuiden van de VS, of zoals de burgemeester van Miami, Dio, het zegt: “Miami is the only city, as far as I can tell – in the world – whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants (….) and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it’.” Hoofdpersoon Nestor Camacho is een Cubaan, net als zoveel andere inwoners van Miami – allemaal gevlucht voor het regime van Castro. Maar er is ook een grote Haïtiaanse gemeenschap, een Afro-Amerikaanse gemeenschap en zo meer. “We got to make Miami – not a melting-pot, because that’s not gonna happen, not in our lifetimes. We can’t melt’em down…. but we can weld’em down.” Daarmee bedoelde de burgemeester dat iedere bloedgroep, elk ras, elke nationaliteit in de stad zijn eigen wijk krijgt en het gevoel moet hebben op gelijke voet met de anderen te staan. In de roman blijkt dat dit tribale evenwicht lang niet bestaat. De Anglo’s zijn stinkend rijk, terwijl de immigranten straatarm zijn. En wie ècht rijk is, dat zijn de Rusissche oligarchen. Welkom in Miami anno 2012.

Wolfe, inmiddels 81 jaar oud, schreef een soortgelijk plot vijftig jaar geleden, toen gesitueerd in New York. Op zijn zevenenzeventigste was hij vier jaar geleden vanuit Manhattan voor het eerst naar Florida gereisd, waar hij de raciale politiek van Florida van nabij had gadegeslagen. Hij was geschokt teruggekeerd. Hoewel de roman weinig nieuws bevat, is het geval Camacho – een Cubaanse politieagent die een zwarte drugscrimineel aftuigt en beschimpt en vervolgens via een registratie van het gevecht op YouTube wordt aangeklaagd in een waar volksgericht – buitengewoon actueel. In Ferguson – een voorstad van St Louis – zijn weer rellen uitgebroken en zelfs in het New York van Tom Wolfe zijn de agenten boos op hun burgemeester, die hen afviel in een soortgelijk geval. De affaire Camacho staat voor een integratieproblematiek die door de nog steeds groeiende migratie naar de VS vanuit het zuiden en het westen (Azië) op de grenzen van het mogelijke stuit. Ik was amper in ‘Back to Blood’ begonnen of president van Obama zocht toenadering tot het Cubaanse regime. Wat een geluk. Na vijftig jaar worden de betrekkingen eindelijk versoepeld. Mijn gedachten dwaalden onmiddellijk naar Miami. Hoe zou het daar nu zijn?

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Egel of vos?

On 25 augustus 2014, in literatuur, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ (1953) van Isaiah Berlin:

Mooi essay van Isaiah Berlin over ‘War and Peace’ van Lev Tolstoi. ‘De vos weet vele dingen, maar de egel weet één groot ding.’ Dat betekent, er zijn mensen die denken vanuit één groot systeem en leven vanuit één visie, terwijl andere mensen vele doelen tegelijk nastreven, vaak onderling niet verbonden, althans niet gerelateerd aan één moreel of esthetisch principe. De Britse filosoof Berlin ziet Tolstoi als een vos, maar een met de stille ambitie om tegelijk ook een egel te zijn. In zijn ‘Oorlog en vrede’ schetst de grote Russische schrijver een wereldbeeld waarin niemand greep heeft op de loop der gebeurtenissen, theorieën, wetten en abstracties gelden hier niet, alles is chaos, alles draait om een veelheid van concrete zaken die uitsluitend te relateren zijn aan individuele behoeften. "It aims to show that men are never in control of events and indeed that the more they seek to control them, the more futile they become." Zelfs, of bij uitstek, de grote Napoleon heeft bij Tolstoy geen vat op de gebeurtenissen. Tegelijk voert Tolstoi de Russische generaal Kutuzov op als een held die zijn eenvoudige instinct gebruikt, geduldig afwacht, niet ijdel is, en meebeweegt met de golven van de geschiedenis. Tolstoi gaat uit van "the unplanned and unplannable character of all great events."

Waarom is dit essay relevant voor planologen? Ook planologen kunnen beter vossen zijn, dan egels. Een planoloog – "official specialist in managing human affairs" – kan zich beter niet spiegelen aan een Dante of een Marx, wel aan een Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, Balzac of Joyce. Pluralisme past hem beter dan monisme. De gedachte dat de toekomst uitgestippeld kan worden of te plannen is, is ronduit suspect. Tolstoy acht het zelfs onmogelijk "that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events." Is Tolstoi daarmee een pessimist? Berlin denkt van wel. Zelf denk ik van niet. Realist dan? Nee, een planoloog is, net als Tolstoy, zowel vos als egel tegelijk. Hij ziet de betrekkelijkheid van wetenschap, visie en kennis; tegelijk verlangt hij naar eenheid. Berlin: "Like Moses, he must halt at the borders of the Promised Land; without it his journey is meaningless; but he cannot enter it; yet he knows that it exists; and can tell us, as no one else has ever told us, all that is not – above all, not anything that art, or science or civilization or rational criticism, can achieve."

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Ideale stad

On 16 juni 2014, in boeken, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in The Invention of Solitude (1982) van Paul Auster:

Dit stukje is opgedragen aan Mirjana Milanovic, stedenbouwkundige. Vanavond spreekt ze in De Balie, Amsterdam. Onderwerp: de ideale stad. Net als voor mij is haar favoriete auteur Paul Auster. Zijn debuutroman, The Invention of Solitude, is inderdaad een schitterend werk dat gaat over vaderschap. In het eerste deel, ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’, beschrijft Auster zijn vader, in het tweede deel, ‘The Book of Memory’ wijdt hij uit over zijn zoon en diens verhouding tot hem, de vader. New York, Parijs en Amsterdam spelen in deze autobiografische roman een betekenisvolle rol. Vooral Amsterdam. Althans, in ‘The Book of Memory’ voert hij Amsterdam veelbetekenend op. Het begint met een bezoek aan het achterhuis van Anne Frank op een regenachtige zondagmorgen. Daar, in het achterhuis, moest hij – ‘A’, de hoofdpersoon – zowaar huilen, bij het zien van de verschoten Hollywood-fotootjes die Anne had gespaard. Toen besloot hij zijn boek te schrijven. “As in the phrase: ‘she wrote her diary in this room’.”

Drie dagen bleef hij in Amsterdam. Hij verdwaalde er. Dat lag niet aan hem, maar aan de stad. “The plan of the city is circular (a series of concentric circles, bisected by canals, a cross-hatch of hundreds of tiny bridges, each one connectin to another, and then another, as though endlessly), and you cannot simply ‘follow’ a street as you can in other cities. To get somewhere you have to know in advance where you are going.” Drie dagen lang liep hij in cirkels rond. “He wandered. He walked around in circles. He allowed himself to be lost.” Was hij in de hel beland? Was Amsterdam de afspiegeling van de onderwereld? Hoe langer hij liep, hoe meer hij besefte dat hij dichter bij zijn innerlijk kwam. Het vervulde hem zelfs met geluk. “As if on the brink of some previously hidden knowledge, he breathed it into his very bones and said to himself, almost triumphantly: I am lost.” De ideale stad, hij lijkt op de hel.

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On 25 april 2014, in boeken, literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in ‘How to get filthy rich in rising Asia (2013) van Moshin Hamid:


De nieuwste roman van de Pakistaanse schrijver Moshin Hamid speelt in een metropool. De naam van de reuzenstad kennen we niet, maar zeer waarschijnlijk is het Lahore. Ook een tweede, nog grotere metropool wordt in de roman opgevoerd; die ligt aan zee. Vermoedelijk betreft het Karachi. Het maakt Hamid niets uit, want het verhaal kan zich overal afspelen, en niet alleen in Azië. Want net als zijn hoofdpersonen in zijn roman geen naam hebben, hebben de steden waarin zijn verhaal zich afspeelt geen aanduidingen. In een interview in NRC Handelsblad (12 april 2013) vertelde hij dat hijzelf afkomstig is uit Lahore, inmiddels een stad van 10 miljoen inwoners, en dat de stad 15 miljoen inwoners zal tellen als zijn kinderen volwassen zijn. "Ik denk dat Lahore in veel opzichten beter model kan staan voor de stad van de 21ste eeuw dan Londen of New York." Gelijk heeft hij.

De hoofdpersoon geeft tips aan zijn lezers hoe steenrijk te worden in Azië. De eerste tip is: ga naar de grote stad. Mooi hoe hij de Aziatische metropool vervolgens beschrijft: "Your city is not laid out as a single-celled organism, with a wealthy nucleus surrounded by an ooze of slums. It lacks sufficient mass transit to move all of its workers twice daily in the fashion this would require. It also lacks, since the end of colonization generations ago, governance powerful enough to dispossess individuals of their property in sufficient numbers. Accordingly, the poor live near the rich. Wealthy neighborhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards, and those in turn may be separated from the homes of the impoverished only by a open sewer, railroad track, or narrow alley. Your own triangle-shaped community, not atypically, is bounded by all three." Ziedaar een perfecte beschrijving van moderne metropolen zoals ze tegenwoordig vooral buiten Europa worden aangetroffen. Kortom, leesvoer voor studenten Urban Studies. Of deze: "Your city is enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandybeached, tropical island republic, a population that arrives, however, not by outrigger canoe or latern-sailed dhow, but by foot and bicycle and scooter and bus." En, voegt Hamid eraan toe, dit is slechts een van de vele steden in Azië die zo snel groeien. Samen vormen ze “a change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet.”

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