The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.01.10

Keith Eggener

Lethal T-Square: Architecture, Violence, Renewal

Robert Moses, with Charles Bronson. [Original photograph by Arnold Newman; update inspired by jdelias' YouTube channel, via]

There is no architecture without action . . . there is no architecture without violence.
Bernard Tschumi, Artforum, 1981

I’m not a criminal, I’m an architect.
Tom Selleck, Three Men and a Baby, 1987

Bernard Tschumi, world-famous architect and former dean of architecture at Columbia University, came to early prominence by linking architecture with violence. In 1978, as part of his "Advertisements for Architecture" project, Tschumi notoriously captioned a photo of a man being pushed from a window with the following: "To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder." He followed this with "Violence of Architecture," the essay from which the above quote is taken. [1] So far as I know, Tschumi has never acknowledged his common ground with, or his debt to, Charles Bronson. He should. With Death Wish, his breakthrough movie of 1974, Bronson more powerfully than anyone of that era brought together architecture and violence, while earning for himself the sort of action-hero franchise most architects can only dream of. [2]

Death Wish has been widely condemned as a brutal and misguided fantasy for racists and reactionaries. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a New York architect who turns vigilante following an attack on his family. Variety called the movie a "poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement," while Vincent Canby of the New York Times dismissed it as "bird-brained" and "despicable" fare that "exploit[ed] its audience’s urban paranoia." [3] Despite such censure, Death Wish became a huge hit. Audiences cheered every time Paul pulled the trigger. The fact that Paul is an architect is usually seen as incidental to the story — a token of his middle-class respectability, a mild-mannered intellectual counterpoint used to dramatize his transformation into man of violent action. But what if we were to see Paul's profession as central to the story, and his actions as essentially architectural? On one level, he's simply putting into practice ideas that Tschumi used theoretically. Death Wish bears revisiting, for it sheds a light on architecture's peculiar connections to violence; it provides a parable of architecture pushed to its extremes.

The movie begins with Paul and his wife lounging and loving on a Hawaiian beach. He snaps cheesecake photos of her in her bathing suit. They soon return to New York, to home, work and the big bad city: the idyll is over. Paul is next seen in his office, bantering with colleagues about the crime wave then pummeling the city. It's the early 1970s, the good old bad days of New York — a time of fiscal crisis, crumbling infrastructure, mean streets, white flight and wide lapels. Paul's colleagues wisecrack about the murder rate and chide him as a "bleeding-heart liberal." He concedes the label. He reads Harper's and feels sorry for the poor.

Things take a grisly turn when three grinning goons (including a 22-year-old Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut) break into Paul's Manhattan apartment, beat up his wife, who later dies of the injuries, and rape his daughter, who goes catatonic from the trauma. [4] Though Paul, as played by Bronson, responds to the crime with all the affect of a potted fern, he is apparently sublimating rage and despair. He takes a working vacation in Tucson, where he befriends a gun-toting cowboy client, Ames Jainchill, who drives a station wagon with not one but two sets of bulls' horns mounted on it. As a diversion, Jainchill takes Paul to a mock wild-west town where they watch a staged gun battle between outlaws and the local sheriff. Bronson squints almost imperceptibly as if to show that a light has gone on inside Paul’s head. Jainchill next takes him shooting and as a parting gift gives him a .32 caliber pistol, nicely wrapped. Paul returns to New York (passing through Eero Saarinen’s still resplendent TWA Terminal) with his new gun and new sense of frontier justice. Before long he starts blasting muggers. He still reads Harper’s.

Paul wasn’t always an architect. In the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, he was an accountant with an aversion to modern architecture. "A God damn shame," he says to a friend while riding in a cab past one rising modernist structure. "Politicians complain about vandalism while they’re tearing down historic monuments to make room for those egg crates." [5] But in the movie, Paul designs late-modernist egg crates. His office is fitted out with drawings and models of boxy towers (one of which looks remarkably like Roche and Dinkeloo’s 1967 Knights of Columbus Hall in New Haven, Connecticut). [6] In an interview published posthumously in 1997, screenwriter Wendell Mayes said that he was "immensely intrigued" with the book and knew it would "be a blockbuster because it was coming at just the right time. The outrage at crime in the streets was a big item." [7] Paul's change of profession is significant, as he transitions from number-cruncher to problem-solver, a man who builds things rather than counts them — and murder becomes another instrument in his constructive program.

For what Paul won't do is "cut and run." Following the attack on his family, the reformed liberal says to a friend, "You know what a liberal is? A liberal is a guy who walks out of the room when the fight starts." [8] During the attack, one of the assailants walks through Paul’s apartment spray-painting everything he passes, "like a feral cat marking its territory." [9] Undaunted, Paul repaints his living room a bright, cheery yellow; this is his territory and he's taking it back. Moreover, he’s done with the broken-down justice system and ineffectual police procedures; he decides to take matters into his own hands. "If the police don't defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves," he says. He sees himself as "the first of the Resistance — the first soldier of the underground." [10] Architects are often accused of having God-like egos, and like the medieval Christian image of God as Architect of the Universe, Paul is now a creator-destroyer who takes vengeance and the power to revoke life as his prerogative. [11]

Paul’s first kill makes him vomit, but soon he starts to like it — it becomes a kind of fix. Nightly he walks the city's dark, grimy streets; he prowls parks crowded with junkies, whores and hoodlums. He looks for trouble, for problems to solve, and finds them at every turn. And sure enough, as Paul's death toll and press clippings mount, the city's crime rate drops. Criminals are running scared. Honest citizens take notice, and a few follow Paul’s lead, taking back the streets, beating back the barbarians. An old woman fights off two young assailants with her hatpin (in real life they would have kicked the stuffing out of her, but here she is a force of nature); construction workers rough up a would-be purse-snatcher. Innocents gain strength; the city revives. One imagines children emerging from the dark protective caves of their apartments for the first time in months, rubbing their eyes against the light, picking up long-abandoned jump ropes and baseball bats. Not coincidentally, Paul’s design work becomes more lively, another gift from his client Aimes Jainchill, whose self-proclaimed "funny ideas about building things" Paul adopts. In Tucson, Jainchill had encouraged Paul not to worry about "wasting" space but instead to concentrate on "space for life," and above all to build in harmony with the land. Paul does this to the acclaim of colleagues and becomes, in effect, an "organic" architect. [12] His professional metamorphosis occurs simultaneously with the onset of his killing spree: as bad guys drop, Paul's buildings grow more vigorous.

I thought I might have been the first to recognize the peculiar connection the movie makes between Paul’s hobby and his profession, between his destructive and constructive impulses. Alas, I am not. Writing for the urban planning website Planetizen, in October 2008, journalist Nate Berg compared gun-packing Paul to pen-pushing Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Each is a champion of creating better neighborhoods, and the work of both Kersey and Jacobs bolsters that of the other. . . . Both have important lessons to teach about what it means to be part of a neighborhood." [13] It's not entirely Berg's fault that these two have now blended in my mind’s eye — leaving a discomforting mental image of Jacobs beaming her grandmotherly have-another-cookie smile down the barrel of a gun — though he does go a bit off the rails in advocating Paul as "a perfect example of citizen participation in the planning process." Their collective wisdom, it would seem, boils down to this: watch thy neighbor, defend thy neighbor, but if thy neighbor messes with you, just bust a cap in his ass. Nonetheless, I take Berg's basic point. Like Kersey, Jacobs viewed citizen involvement as the essential element in keeping the city's streets safe and lively. Moreover, both Kersey and Jacobs chose to stay in the city, resisting the suburban exodus and the assaults on their neighborhoods by criminals and modernist planners.

Paul’s project, however misguided, is fairly seen as one of urban renewal — but Berg roped him to the wrong New Yorker. Jacobs was arguing against death: her book indicted modernist planning for killing American cities, and it offered prescriptions to prevent this from happening further. She compared modernist planners to "bloodletting doctors," sapping the life from those they purported to save. Readers were urged to resist their depredations and the wholesale changes they sought to effect, to study instead what worked in "common, ordinary . . . vital" old neighborhoods like her own Greenwich Village and Boston's North End. Jacobs aimed not to build anew, but to protect and revitalize existing places. Her tactics were limited to polemic and protest. Paul, on the other hand, late-modern master builder and part-time vigilante, wants to remake his city and is more than willing to break a few eggs in the process. [14] His methods are visceral and harsh, yet his violence is surgical and ultimately aimed, he imagines, at healing both himself and his city: in order for the larger urban organism to survive, the parasites destroying it must be exterminated. In this Paul is less like Jane Jacobs and much more like another New York builder, another man of action and practical violence: Robert Moses.

In his voluminous and swashbuckling book, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, Moses looked back on his many years spent building and rebuilding New York City and the metropolitan region. Though he didn't admit to actually killing anyone, he often resorted to images of fear, violence, battle and even murder. "New York is a vast, amorphous, varied metropolis," he wrote, "a fascinating and terrifying place," where public service "is a rough game, not for sensitive souls." Having started, he could "no more quit than a boxer who blanches at the size, scowl, and threat of his opponent can flee to the dressing room." In his dangerous trade, "an instinct for the jugular" was invaluable. Sometimes the metaphors turned medical: "The first prescription for slum dwellers in the ghettos of the big cities is total, immediate, uncompromising surgical removal." [15] Vehicular traffic was a "disease." Slums, riddled with crime and blight, were a "cancer" demanding "unflinching surgery." [16] Throughout much of the mid-20th century, Moses's bulldozers slashed through the city fabric, destroying long-standing neighborhoods and uprooting countless families and small businesses. His actions also opened the way for hundreds of tidy new housing blocks, much-needed highways and bridges, and parks and pools that have served millions for decades. If thousands were made temporarily or even permanently miserable in the process, this was a price that Moses was willing to see paid. When laws got in his way, as they so often did, he used his formidable political muscle to have them changed. And today we are still asking: what parts vision, daring, initiative, righteousness, ruthlessness and despotism did all this involve?

From "Death Wish and the Life of Great American Cities." [Image via Planetizen]

Paul is less concerned with laws (though he earns the grudging respect of the police, who admire his efficiency). He works on a smaller scale than Moses, and is more direct and expedient. Yet like Moses, he aims to create order out of chaos, even if in so doing he creates new forms of turmoil. Like Moses and so many others in the building and design trades — from Baron Haussmann to Bernard Tschumi — Paul, to borrow economist Joseph Schumpeter’s term, is a “creative destructionist,” effecting renewal through obliteration. Toward the end of Death Wish — before the police run him out of out New York and he moves on to clean up Chicago — Paul goes to a party where he walks out onto a roof terrace to look at the city, his city. Washed in golden light, it appears more tranquil and lovely than at any other point in the picture, refreshed in the wake of his reforms.

Architecture, said the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, "is inherently violent. It invariably subtracts from the range of available possibilities, especially the perennially attractive option of building nothing at all. In this sense, construction sites are crime scenes." [17] While Paul might well agree with the substance of this, his actions reverse the last phrase. His city was a crime scene when he started, a soiled place that he cleaned up and readied for reconstruction. In other words, by eliminating problems, Paul made way for new possibilities. (Or as Joseph Stalin, another tough guy with a plan, put it: "Death solves all problems.")

Paul is an extreme case, but a familiar type. For better or worse, the modern architect (or planner) as man of violence, destroyer-creator, is by now a fixture of our culture, from Haussmann to Moses to Tschumi; from the Italian Futurists demanding eradication of the old to make way for the new and glorifying war as "hygiene" to Le Corbusier boxing his cousin while dreaming of leveling ancien Paris so as to replant it with shiny new towers; from Howard Roark raping Dominique Francon and dynamiting his own compromised building in The Fountainhead ("No man takes what’s mine!") to Frank Gehry's taste for "rough" ice hockey and his hard-guy talk of "tough" houses and Mafia pals [18]. This pungent, testosterone-rich atmosphere may be part of what's drawn so many of Hollywood’s leading men to architect roles. Boris Karloff, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Paul Newman, Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, and Matt Dillon are just some of the many who’ve played them in the movies, while Brad Pitt plays at being one in real life. Says film historian Robert Osborne, "There are very, very few professions that still have the ring of heroism about them, and architecture is one of the few that does. . . . it’s one of the last manly professions." [19] The pervasiveness of this attitude means that architecture can still be a tough place for women to get their due. Just ask Denise Scott Brown. [20] For the record, in 2004 the Pritzker jury lauded Zaha Hadid, their lone female laureate (out of 33 so far), for her "heroic struggle" and "fearlessness" — in short, her adeptness at playing the big boys' game. (The fact that she hails from Baghdad didn’t hurt either: there’s nothing girly about Baghdad.)

Ultimately, my intent here is neither to revive a relic of 1970s cinema nor to ridicule certain architects' machismo. Rather it is to ask just what, and whom, are we willing to sacrifice in the cause of reforming our built environments? What quantities of time, resources, good will, blood, spirit, independence, present fabric, future comfort or security are we prepared to expend to "fix" places like post-industrial Detroit or post-Katrina New Orleans (not to mention post-earthquake Haiti), or any of a thousand troubled cities and neighborhoods, failing subdivisions, crumbling bridges and highways, and all-but-abandoned small towns? What's really being fixed when one person's gain is another's loss? So many things are in such dire need of fixing. It's no coincidence — nor is it merely nostalgia or the attainment of historical distance — that Moses's reputation should have been rehabilitated in recent years. [21] Among the many effects of an economic downturn like the one we’re now experiencing — or the one we endured in the early 1970s, when Death Wish became a hit — is a dramatic drop in patience. Witness the mounting frustration with President Obama for his widely perceived "failure," after little more than year in office, to solve problems caused by decades of neglect, mismanagement and bad policy. In times like these, a person who gets things done quickly and efficiently, a person like Paul Kersey or Robert Moses (or Mussolini for that matter), becomes alluring to many people. [22] Paul and Moses broke some eggs, but they got their omelets made, quickly. Whether or not people found the results palatable had everything to do with where, or if, they were standing when they were served, and how deeply felt was their hunger.