The Man in the Street:
A Polemic on Urbanism
Shadrach Woods

An Analysis
Michael Mostoller
In the battle for the city who can speak for the public? Shadrach Woods' book of 1975, The Man in the Street was an attempt to outline the position that must be taken on the side of the public. While the public that resides in the city endures it, their right to an inspirational urban life is all too often at the mercy of the power of others. Shadrach Woods understood the city as the arena of conflict in the battle of interests that western society has come to be. He posited that the only place for the site of a better future of a better world was the very city that seemed to be the problem. In the suburban United States such a position seems misguided -- a problem of the past, or naive and utopian -- a problem of the future, or misplaced -- a problem for poor nations. But Woods was stubborn in his belief. He believed in everything that is out of fashion: the people, the city, urban activity and tranquility, public service, privacy without consumerist isolation, confrontation without violence. He even believed in belief, that most suspect of contemporary virtues in a cynical and striving society. To believe in the belief that cities have a future must stand today as almost an idle, even silly preoccupation -- a preoccupation with a past we have never had, a present that does not exist for anyone of means, a future that recedes into a continuous dispersed megalopolis. Yet his persistent insight into belief and into the positive future of the city was so paradoxical as to carry the ring of necessity. To him the task of architecture was to create a great city for the man in the street, that "anonymous statistic of history."
Two forces of urban change characterize our time: a shift of population that puts a new man and a new woman and many children into the city at the same time others more wealthy leave; the national and global society colonizes the city through the expropriation of its wealth and the redistribution to ex-urban and non-urban interests, primarily the suburbs and the military. Somehow the cities seem to be desirable magnets and places to a bandon; to be sources of the production of wealth and poverty stricken. How can this be? What is going on?
Traditionally the reasons for cities were security in numbers, exchange and trade, the starting place of careers, the terrain of opportunity, social promotion, art and information, "the sense of nearness, of human relationships under the stress of propinquity, of something happening." But, in this century, new ingredients are added to the city stew: the economic and technological 'revolutions' that empty the countryside and fill the cities and exponentially enlarge the population. Woods listed these revolutions that have led to an urbanization unprecedented in scope or impact or duration. They are: (1) the industrial revolution that attracts men from hard and uncertain work on the land to easier and more secure work in cities. (2) The agricultural revolution that requires fewer and fewer people to work the land and that reduces the percentage of agricultural production in the gross national product. (3) The medical and scientific revolution that ensures population growth. (4) The social revolution that makes culture an urban product available only in the cities, further widening the gap so as to relegate farmers to an inferior human status. (5) The financial revolution that regards the results of human labor inferior or inefficient and that invests heavily in machinery and subsequent service industry, further expanding the urban labor market.
The great phenomenon of the 20th century was the change from a rural to an urban economy measured in billions of lives. The result, according to Woods, was a "New Man in the New World," lured to the city by desire and forced there by necessity. After widely available personal transportation comes on the scene, at the same time the New Man moves to the city, the Old Men move out. This leaves the New Men, and increasingly some New Women, as the emergent power source in urban affairs, but caught in the web of a power structure unchanged by world-wide urbanization. Urbanization has not altered the national control of public resources or the multinational conglomerate control of resource development. The new men, women and children live therefore in an urban world colonized by a national government and capitalist, or socialist, entrepreneurs that funnel the money from the cities to the country's sub and ex-urbs. The human result is chaos. The environmental result is chaos. Cities are in crisis everywhere. The New Man becomes a "passive victim of elusive and shifting national priorities" -- who is expected to believe that urban deterioration is worthy of being endured in the interest of national product, prestige or power. Yet Woods' hope still lay in these new urban people, "who begin to appropriate to themselves the space of the city, and to realize that they and their activities and aspirations form the built environment. From now on, so to speak, they are in charge, it is their world; the King is dead."
This situation is characterized by basic natural and manmade contradictions that govern the twin phenomenon of urbanization and colonial expropriation. There are the natural facts of an increasing population living on decreasing resources and that every use of available energy is accompanied by an increase in ambient pollution. There are the manmade structures that insist that an expanding national product will take care of our problems while the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider and that establish an expanding government with a bureaucracy that increasingly seeks to avoid responsibility. The Man in the Street attempts to portray the conflicting interests of this modern urban society. It presents the discipline of urbanism -- the architecture of the everyday world -- as the methodology of the restoration of the urban realm, from the level of governmental organization and resource allocation to the design of the city block and its buildings. To come to grips with this message critically, the discussion of the problems of the modern world-city and the conditions of the men and women in the streets of that city-world will be analyzed. The forces that Woods presents as lying behind this set of problems and his discipline, with its goals and solutions, will follow, reviewed in the interest of seeing if his proposals, left lingering for thirty years, are a route out of the mess we find ourselves in around the world, if indeed there is a route for architecture under these circumstances.
Problems of World City
First the problems. These problems are presented by Woods as being of three kinds: the problem of human nature, the problem of the structure of our society and the environmental problems of the city. These three issues give rise to the contemporary human condition. Examining the last bundle first, the city problems are threefold: the predicament of inherited forms, widespread urban chaos and the dilemma of growth.
According to Woods, "In any urban future the urban past will play the major role." This is problematic, often even approaching catastrophic, as so many structures and what is now being called "infrastructure(s)" are old and worn out from long use and tremendous over-use. The statistics of this phenomenon can be grasped simply by the eye and the seat of the pants from a bus in any city. All categories of use, from outworn and outdated commercial/industrial buildings to deteriorated residences to failing bridges, attest to this fact. In addition, the early mass transit systems of this century, such as subways, and the railroads of the previous one, are in dire straits. At the national scale the railroads have been in trouble since their overuse in World War II! Post war expenditures flowed away from their repair and improvement to the federal highway system, which is itself now beginning to fall apart in array after array of disintegrating urban necklaces. Utility services share the fate of benign neglect of all infrastructure once built, whether in this century, the last or the eighteenth. In sum, much of our urban material is worn out and in need of extensive renewal.
The legacy of the past also includes urban patterns established under societies structured upon hierarchical authority rather than the fluid mobile society of today. While European city patterns were often monumental centralized symbols of the monarch, the United States gridiron was neutral and adaptable; indeed it's openness was a response to the old fossilized order. Even so, centers were established, often at the points of maximum transport convergence and least capacity. And soon, the emergent wealthy class established ghettos of commerce, residence, pleasure and education for their own use and by exclusion, in other areas of the urban terrain the ghettos of the poor came to be. Industry fitted in somewhere in-between. We therefore have inherited two outworn city patterns: the pattern of streets and services that focus on centers without meaning or movement capacity and the ghettoized city that results from exploitation economics.
This contributes to the second problem -- the urban chaos. Specialization of use has broken the city into functional zones that work in themselves, but taken together create problems of commutation, dreariness, lack of identity, lack of security, and the diseconomics of part-time use. Architectural theory has been partly to blame for this breaking up of the city into ghettos of use, and in fact, created the rationale for the taking of the advantageous parts of the city by uses that could bid up land values to the exclusion of all other uses, primarily the financial and administrative offices of corporate capitalism and the residences of the top echelons. The zoning doctrine of separated functional zones lent credibility to this appropriation of land and hastened the diagrammatization of the city into large scale agglomerations of isolated mono-use.
Deterioration and squalor are another variety of urban chaos, interacting with efficiency, safety and livability in a negative way. The public realm is particularly damaged by the violence of decay and collapse: "we have been unable to create and maintain even a minimum standard of environmental decency across any of our western cities." In addition, pollution of the public air, water and and sound-space has proceeded apace. Overcrowding is endemic in the ghettos of the poor and a common feature of middle class redoubts, adding to the forces of deterioration and abuse of every part of the urban fabric. The result is the human condition of the man in the street, the inhabitant of the worn-out, squalid, polluted, noisy, dreary ghettos that make up the modern city. The corresponding lack of privacy, poverty and degradation, psychic stress, crime and even civil war is the normal condition of the urban dweller who however, must remain: "Only a fool would choose to live in a western city today, were it not absolutely essential to his material and spiritual existence."
The last environmental problem of the city is growth. As the city grows absolutely, problems of congestion and overuse of the urban material occur. In addition, as the city grows in area, valuable land is lost to the society and to future generations. Although growth is inescapable, the contemporary solution for growth, the suburb, creates even more problems than it solves. "We believe that it can be shown that the space wasteful, energy consuming, low density suburb is veritably parasitic, not only in the sterilization of public land but also in the burdens which it inevitably must inflict upon the city, either through removal of a part of the tax base, or through direct or indirect subsidy." While the suburbanite profits from all the resources of the city, he contributes little in return: "he lives off it, but not in it." According to Woods, the children of the suburbs (for whom they were ostensibly created), seemed to be rejecting them, alienated from the very values they embody, as they streamed away to the city for jobs, education and action. The suburbs helped destroy the city economically and socially, he believed. The exodus of the coming of age generation seemed to him a spiritual validation of his belief in the value of the city as a generator of all that was vital in human culture. However the immediate effect of suburban displacement was the permanent despoliation of the land, the evisceration of city resources and the making of the entire city into a ghetto of poverty. "Although we made the cities, we certainly never intended them to reflect so accurately the shortcomings of our society," he commented. This typically acerbic observation of Woods has only been rendered tragic in the intervening years, as the city has been further drained of energy and yet forced to deal with all the problems of our sub-urban state.
The Forces at Work
Woods' description of the problems that the city was facing was a mild tonic compared to his outcry at the shortcomings of our society: a society that he saw as devoted to endless economic development - with expansion and exploitation joined together; top of the heap individualism; management by overwhelmed, unresponsive bureaucrats; rabid nationalism; and misuse of resources on a global scale. He saw the city as the front-line battlefield in this societal system, where interest groups, ethnic or economic or both devoted the lion's share of the worlds resources to the seizure and maintenance of their own hegemony. Solutions to the problems of the city were overwhelmed by power politics and private greed. The participation of the poor, even the rich of the cities, was diverted into a struggle of what later was called "the war of all against all."
Within the setting of the state, Woods also foresaw clearly the war on the city waged by the military-industrial complex from its fortresses in the suburbs and exurbs; a 'war' that reduced the cities to the status of "colonies of their own country", where "colonialism . . . takes the form of capturing the wealth produced by the entire society and distributing it inequitably among the members of the society." This was the direct result of the program of economic growth, and waste; and a military based economy. "Cities and the people in them are left to their own meager devices while their resources (by way of taxes) go into rocketry and atomic bluff, defense of the 'state', prestige, glamour, and old-fashioned boondoggling in the form of intra- and inter-continental superhighways, moonshots, real estate promotion and other good works." This remember, was written in 1973, long before either the 'boom' real estate market and financial high jinks of the eighties and the accompanying 'boom-boom' buildup of the military.
The organization of the free enterprise economy made fortunes, and, we were to learn shortly after the book, hordes of homeless people. In the main it furthered the interests of the already wealthy, a condition that was further exaggerated in the ensuing Reagan years when the top 1% of the population gathered 75% of the increase in wealth. The so called trickle-down theory worked only through the top 10% who got most of the rest. So called spin-offs from military investment never reached the man in the street in city improvements. The values of upward mobility and individual 'liberty' were used mythically to rationalize the internal exploitation of disinherited others and of ever vanishing resources, rather than as democratic tools of empowerment, and responsible stewardship of the earth. The managing class used the urbanistic devices of the private automobile, outlying shopping centers and industrial parks and office complexes as vehicles for the accumulation of vast wealth (with which they then hired name architects for their flagship structures and private villas). And always, even in the midst of this bloodletting of activities, the remaining city resources were used as a money mine for the larger 'state', the cities always running a negative 'trade' balance of tax dollars out to the feds and the states in relation to contracts received. The outflow of dollars that were unreturned to New York City in this period, for example, have been estimated to be on the magnitude of eight billion dollars per year.
In this struggle for power and growth all human values are perverted: the bureaucrat becomes timid and power hungry, public service is demeaned, jobs lose their value in the interest of consumption, love of country becomes the chauvinism of the military state or the nationalism of hatred, the man in the street is disenfranchised from the planning process and is set against his neighbor in the struggle for economic power. Woods' polemic was here at its height. Yet, since the book was written, the war on the city has been more overt, more total and more conclusive. Cities have all been going bankrupt as tax revenues have dwindled and national assistance has ceased. Services have been cut in every area -- fire, police, transport, education, welfare. Homelessness appeared and has grown, giving new meaning to the 'man in the street'. Urban housing programs generally have as their first priority the salvaging of the tenements of the nineteenth century. Continued flight of the middle class to distant suburbs have turned the city into giant ghettos for the most poverty stricken elements in our society. Even most new immigrants avoid the inner city and settle in the older inner suburban rings.
The other major social phenomenon of which Woods writes is the move of the rural citizen "from a poor living in the country to an even poorer life in the city." Around the globe, this is the most significant fact of our time. In the Lima of tomorrow four and a half million of its six million inhabitants will be living in squatter settlements; Mexico City will be thirty million; Brazil's urban population in 1950 was 34% of the total, in 1988 it was 71%. In Sao Paulo the average journey to work is now three hours and 73% of the population is inadequately fed. These figures from relatively 'rich', economically mature countries, auger ill for the city of the future and the nature of the architecture of the next century. Even Woods' hope turned to bitter invective as he summarized the situation: "Rarely has the world seen such a debacle, on a grand scale, as the dislocation from a rural to an urban economy in the western countries. This colossal social failure will live with us for many generations, each of which will perhaps find, as we have found, some absurdly clever way of dissociating itself from responsibility for its continuance ('you can't stop progress') and thereby creating or increasing its own alienation from its own psychological milieu, in a world which it knows to be ever more closely knit. The tendency appears to be suicidal."
Goals
However, there is no alternative to the facts of the 20th century or to the effects of urbanization. Changes must be made in the way we want to live, how we govern ourselves and in the discipline of architecture. Woods outlined a set of political goals that alone could make urbanism -- "everybody's architecture" -- possible. These goals were, in his words, "systems to destroy The System" that oppressed us: (1) The use and allocation of resources, wealth, institutions, amenity and energy must be made equitable, from the scale of the city to that of the planet. (2) Privilege must be abolished; new sources of power for the New Man must emerge. Vested interests of the privileged must be countered and destroyed. (3) End the war economy. (4) Consumerism and expansionary economics is not a vehicle of social progress, but of social decay. Different, more moral values should motivate economic ends. (5) The belief in public service and public work must be restored. (6) Real power must reside in urban community.
To end the massive domination of the nation state over urban life Woods proposed the municipalization of government. This reform would provide a framework for the massive redirection of our way of life implied by the changes he recommended. The federal government expends resources almost exclusively, by thirds, on "defense"; interest, i.e. payments to banks and wealthy bondholders; and entitlements to the elderly and former servicemen and government retirees. "Who ever heard of a war between cities? (at least recently)," he asked. At the level of the city our government is sane. At the level of the nation our government is insane. The elimination of the national system of major expenditures and the restoration the funds to their source would generate a revival of our daily environment and a revival of civic society now squandered in international rivalry and weaponry, on distant self-serving bureaucrats and lobbyists, all manipulated by the geritocracy that runs the national system to its particular advantage.
Woods also outlined concerns for the discipline of architecture as it would turn its attention to the city. He looked toward "the distribution of economic, social and cultural activities throughout the urban fabric; the installation of smoothly functioning systems of circulation; the articulation of public and private domains in comprehensible patterns, in ways which reduce, rather than produce conflict; the efficient and pleasant use of urban space, both built and unbuilt; the ordering of the city's activities and tranquilities in ways that can remain responsive to the citizen's desires and criteria." Distributing the city's economic base and the development of comfortable and efficient public transportation would go hand in hand. Coherent public domains -- streets and squares -- must be created along with areas of urban privacy, such as courtyards and parks. All must act to integrate the diverse populations of the contemporary multi-faceted city.
Urbanism
The architectural values and plans of Woods came from and informed these political and urbanistic goals. He proposed an architecture of change -- being "non-definite when defining elements are lacking, non- representational when there is nothing to represent', non-centric when there is no definite central function." Buildings must address themselves to the future, leaving it as open as possible. They should not be monumental nor fixed nor based on unchangeable formal compositions. They must be systems of spatial order capable of accommodating many possible ways of life that their many different inhabitants will bring to them. The architect must become a "New Man" in service to the "New Men." No longer can architects, with their various 'styles', serve only a special class. We must bypass the superficial concern for matters of decoration and high style that currently trap us in the world as a "servant of mass advertising for conspicuous consumption." The architect must abandon the role of handmaiden for a "system of systematic repression aimed at maintaining an impossible status quo" and address the real problems Woods identified.
Woods' work stands alone today as an architecture of change, either socially or physically, that addresses the work of architecture as a tool of civitas. The vision was realized once, at the Free University of Berlin, a laconic, open ended building built as a town. His view of architecture as the concern for the everyday world, the rusty and crusty world of the prole, a-formal in intent and open to interpretation, has not prevailed. Like the political ideas he espoused, the spatial idea of "minimum structure" was not fashionable. Since Woods' time architecture has maintained its interest in the status quo rather than change. The innovation of the next decade was to go beyond the status quo to the past, generating a twenty-year style wars, that currently has debouched on the shores of the recall of modern as a look, strangely tarted up in a self-conscious, arty, and fractured way with the non-centered, non-definite, and non-representational. This idea, that Woods first identified, has, if his use of it was tragic in its optimistic regicide of architecture as composition in the service of the rich, returned as formal farce.
As western society unfolds this side of a millennium it becomes clear that a stand must be taken within the profession of architecture and planning on the choices to be made on how we want to, and how we can, live together. The economic question of who benefits, the political question of who decides and the ethical question of by which values must be considered together and anew, if there is to be any future sense to our actions. The work of Shadrach Woods still offers a clear architectural and urbanistic direction out of the forest of armaments and dictatorial democracy that the west has come to embody in its destruction of its cities. His work presented in clear outline the interaction of the social, economic and political forces that the built environment embodies; the ideals it could serve; and the consequences of living in space in the everyday world that every person faces. The Man in the Street was the tale of the urban space that we all, rich or poor, young or old, do inhabit at some time; where we may find a place to live out our destiny in its houses , factories, offices, schools, buses, and streets.
A series of questions might be asked. The question is, who shall decide, govern and profit from the machines that cities are? There is the current answer, the national rulers. Woods hoped for another possibility: The man in the street, in the city. The question is, what will be the basis of the city system? The traditional answer is, the system of speculation and privilege, despair and poverty. There could be another answer, a system of communal action and tranquillity, public service and shared amenity. The question is, what form shall the city take? The traditional answer is the centric city with power concentrations and suburban dispersal, slightly modified into a automotive megapolitan mess with peripheral power concentrations and more widespread dispersal. Another answer might be the communal, non-hierarchical, continuous, de-centered city of integrated, close-by activities designed for human intercourse restoring neighborliness and urbanity as human pursuits. This vision is the city that Shadrach Woods described, in words and maps, and that he made in buildings. We owe his vision more than the idle meanderings of today.
return