Owen has written a very suave piece in the Guardian about the London suburbs. There’s a show at the London Transport Museum, Suburbia, which hails the synergy (if not conspiracy) between the advancement of the London subway system and the development of London’s outer ring. As Owen puts it, dapperly:
“The exhibition alludes to the fact that London's private transport companies were the sponsors and often the creators of suburbia, extending their lines into open country, promoting the glories of the countryside, and then developing it out of existence.”
Ah, the displaced rural nymphs. Myself, even as a boy loose in the suburbs of Atlanta, it amused me that the apartment complexes of Dekalb county would invariably give themselves names evocative of the stuff they had just bulldozed over in order to offer the 2bd 1bth for a reasonable 1970s price of 200 or 300 per month. Oakwood Trail. Sweetwater Acres.
The exhibit's enthusiasm for suburbia apparently wanes after the sweet collaboration between transport and land developers was rudely interrupted by nationalization: “After 1945, however, there were no more speculative incursions of London Transport into the countryside.” And the ductus of desire changes, too – the car comes in, and the city is no longer something one wants to be within reasonable distance of, but something to escape.
I wonder how the firebombing of London figured in that change?
There’s a nice paper by Peter Galison entitled “War against the Center” that takes up the issue of de-centering – suburbs in the fifties to de-centered information networks – or the Internet – in the sixties through the nineties - and the everpresent shadow of the bomb:
“Here I would like to point toward an architectural dispersion rather less abstract than that celebrated by a generalized zeitgeist, by a shift in an economic base "reflected" in the cultural superstructure, by an epochal postwar taste change toward suburban life, or by an entropic flow away from an ordered city core. No doubt such intellectual, pragmatic, aesthetic, and stochastic drives did contribute to the pressure driving dense city cores outward. But today I want to begin elsewhere. Not in 1973 with the oil crisis and subsequent economic upheaval, nor with the social upheavals or deconstructivist literary-theoretical work of the 1960s. Nor, for that matter, will I start with the Internet, though I will come back to it. Instead I will address bombs: the bombs of the long war that, in a certain sense, began in the 1930s, accelerated after the Nazi seizure of power, continued across the end of World War II, through the cold war, and even past the fall of the Soviet Union into the present unsettled moment.”
Galison wrote this before 9/11 – the last sentence is just a feeling, an ache in the global bones.
Galison focuses on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stationed in East Anglia during the war. This bureaucracy was making a sort of immense stress map of the German population, economy, and military machine. They were making this map not to travel it, but to delink it, burning building by burning building. “Appropriately enough, Franklin d'Olier, president of Prudential Insurance, ran the whole of the Survey- the greatest damage-assessment program in history.” One of the major figures in it was Paul Baran, a Marxist economist. One of the minor - W.H. Auden. Although Auden did know Central Europe.
It is in the game between the USBS and Speer’s Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion – and game theory was, of course, being developed at this time by Neumann with the Cowles commission back in the U.S. – that we come to the endgame of modernism – if we take modernism as really dead. What the USBS discovered was that bombing was not like pulling out a plug. In the end, German industry survived: "even in the case of a very concentrated industry very heavy and continuous attack must be made, since otherwise the enemy, if he can survive the initial shock, will be able to take successful countermeasures. “
While this might not seem like poetry, it became the good news of the Cold War period. Countermeasures – o the heavenly sound of it – meant resurrection and survival. To build the factory with specs that included the potential attack, this became the holy grail. To disperse the community from the heart of the firestorm – to decentralize communications – to randomize hubs. Such were the commands in the voice of the Pharaonic god, whose pyramid was a pentagon. What is synthesized can be decomposed, each tributary traced back to its source, each source mapped for anti-aircraft gun emplacements, each operation given instructions on the pattern of destruction expected.
Oddly, the Germans – so good at systematically going through the records to decimate Jews – did not seem to understand the science of destruction on this scale. In Gravity’s Rainbow, that is one of the overriding mysteries – why make random strikes with V2s? Surely they were trying to hit something. Deluded, like bad action movie directors, by special effects, the Luftwaffe treated bombing as a Wagnerian spectacle.
“Autumn is a funny time to be bombed. It is the hopeful start of the home year. It is not a time when exalted feeling runs high. Autumn used to stop you sighing after Ewigkeit and make you feel how much you liked just now. You felt rooted deeply – and loved your roots. Even in Britain it was Thanksgiving time. Autumn used to be a protracted feast of Saint Cosy: the hearth meant a great deal, the mothballs were shaken out of fur coats, the children went back to school, the blue misty evenings drew in. In the country, in the city squares was the tang of weedfires, the brisk rustle of leaves being swept up. This year, leaves are swept up with a tinkle of glass in them.” [Elizabeth Bowen]
The Wagnerian spectacle fizzled out in that tinkle of glass. But the future, definitely, was being forged in fire. For after the war was over, the war wasn’t over:
“Bombing the Axis economy and dispersing the American one were reflections of one another. When Charles E. Wilson, director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, came before the National Security Resources Board of the President's Executive Office, he needed an expert on how to disperse industry. To the captains of industry assembled for a 1951 hearing, Wilson sought to justify his strictures about splitting plants by ten or twenty miles. "Mr. Gorrie brought me a real expert on that. I call him a real expert because he was one of the men who had done bombing in the industrial arena of Germany, and cer- tainly he convinced me that 10 or 20 miles provides reasonable safety."25 Bombers braced for bombs.”
Galison’s point is that the history of architecture and urbanism in the post-war period should not simply fasten onto architects, or fashions. Rather, they should study the final Survey of the Strategic Bombing Survey – because, in the fifties, everybody else was.