Scatology, Eschatology, and the Modern Movement

Tim Benton

Urban Planning and the Facts of Life


But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement … 
—W. B. Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop”

It is perhaps a necessary feature of the human condition that our highest ideals and aspirations are often uncomfortably connected to the most basic and sordid conditions of existence. The most tender and altruistic acts of human compassion and care, especially with the very young and very old, deal with excrement. Take public housing. The burning flame of social idealism—the idea that the vocation of the architect and planner was to improve the life of working men and women—flickered and was sometimes quite put out by the harsh realities of managing the dirty clothes, the trash, and the effluent of high-density living.

My subject was stimulated by a little book by Alice Coleman entitled Utopia on Trial.1 Between 1980 and 1985, Coleman and her team of six researchers surveyed 4,099 blocks of flats in England containing 106,520 dwellings, with a further 4,172 houses “thrown in for good measure.” Her objective was to map “lapses in civilised behaviour” (litter-dropping, graffiti-scrawling, vandalism, pollution by excrement, and family breakdown leading to children being placed in “substitute care”) against design features (number of floors per block, dwellings per block, dwellings per entrance, blocks raised above garages, etc.). In general, her survey confirms many tenets of modern folklore. The research is flawed in several respects and motivated by a passionate commitment to Thatcherite values of individuality, family, and self-interest as the only guardians of stability. Her research provides, nevertheless, an important stimulus to the analysis of housing from the point of view of lived experience rather than planned intentions.

Coleman’s ideal is the “ordinary unplanned housing” of the interwar period: street upon street of semidetached houses with their projecting bay windows, defensible front gardens and protected rear gardens, where children can safely play within sight of the kitchen window. She has little to say about the problems caused by such unplanned housing, which depended on urban sprawl and cheap land. The resulting long journey times to work, high public and private transport costs, and isolation from family and friends do not form part of her analysis. Her method necessarily focuses on the external symptoms of social malaise in housing rather than the direct human effects. The one directly human factor she does consider (children taken into state care) is the least convincing part of her case. Nevertheless, she argues persuasively that housing design has been seriously flawed and that both architectural and municipal responses to housing problems have failed to identify the features that need to be corrected.

The relationship between the architecture of housing and social behavior is intriguing. When the exhibition Le Corbusier, Architect of the Century was being planned in the mid-1980s, the organizers found it difficult to line up the usual sponsors of architecture exhibitions (the builders, cement manufacturers, and well-meaning patrons). The fundraisers described this resistance as “the Broadwater Farm factor,” which may not be an obvious reference. Broadwater Farm is a modern housing estate in London; it was awarded a prize by the Royal Institute of British Architects, and it was also the site of an ugly riot in which a young policeman was killed. According to this line of thinking, the architects of the estate were responsible for the policeman’s death, and Le Corbusier was in turn responsible for the architects’ design. Of course, modern architects—not least Le Corbusier himself—have brought this on themselves by seeking to attribute to their designs wide-ranging social benefits.

At the heart of the issues raised by Alice Coleman’s research are the social, psychological, and economic ties that bind the individual to family and social groups. Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “There is no such thing as society.”2 In this view, communities consist of individuals and families responsible for their own welfare and security, and restrained only by a framework of law and morality. Coleman’s view of society is certainly a bleak one, populated by perverts, criminals, vandals, and meddling architects who must be kept at bay behind “defensible space.” This is of course a widely shared view, which may or may not have been aggravated by the architecture of social housing. It fails to consider the optimism and aspirations towards social interaction that mark the most successful housing environments. It also fails to consider ambition and desire, which cause people to pay high prices to live in the dirtiest, most dangerous, and most desirable cities, while safe, clean, respectable, and boring suburbs are deserted by the young. I propose to focus on a specific aspect of this relation between the individual and the social.

If an Englishman’s home is his castle, his best friend is his dog. Insecurity breeds fear; dogs mitigate this anxiety. Thatcherite principles have contributed to the decline of the family and increasing loneliness; for many solitary people, often elderly, a dog is a trusted companion. But dogs and multistory living do not go well together, especially when the dogs are large dogs, the kind once bred for hunting and running, often in packs. These animals do not adapt well to being indoors for hours at a time, punished for every gesture of joie de vivre. In England the term “latch-key kids” describes children (often quite young) who are given house keys and allowed to fend for themselves between the end of the school day and the time when their parents return home. It is these kids and their elder brothers who write the graffiti and supply the urine that Coleman’s researchers noted with such assiduousness. And it is their canine counterpart, the latch-key dog, released from the apartment in the morning and allowed to run wild until the evening, that produces much of the excrement that Coleman proudly counts and presents as damning evidence for architectural design failure. Packs of semi-feral dogs are a dangerous and worrisome feature of many housing estates.

This question of excrement needs to be confronted. I am writing this essay in Paris. If dog shit and urine were taken seriously as a mark of antisocial, unstable, and undesirable housing, Paris would no longer be considered one of the most desirable cities in the world. But of course Paris is one of the most desirable cities in the world. Its residents seem to develop a sixth sense that enables them to evade this pollution in their perambulations. On Fridays and Saturdays, the Metro platforms and city pavements run with urine. Once, in the 1960s, the dog shit count in Paris was highest in those quarters with the highest proportion of middle-class, elderly people. The small, portable dog, so often the companion of the widow or widower of the rentier class, left its delicate productions liberally on the pavements of Auteuil, Passy, and the best shopping streets of Paris. As part of a 1970s campaign to “teach your dog the gutter,” a highly apropos poster showed a middle-aged woman in a fur coat squatting on the pavement. For some reason, the French bourgeoisie has not learned the hard discipline expected of New York, Boston, and London dog owners. Instead, the authorities here have approached the problem with technology (delightful lime-green ride-on pooper-scoopers) and an army of laborers, which can be seen hard at work everywhere in the wealthier districts.

Nor were the planners idle. A white rubberized asphalt sign (one meter long) showing a dachshund with its nose pointing to the gutter (an icon with social as well as metonymic resonance) was distributed across the pavements of Paris. (Some still survive, in those residential districts where the pavements have not been dug up to introduce some new gas, fluid, electrical, or electronic service.)3 On the road surface opposite these visual commands was placed a small interruption in the lines that indicate automobile parking slots. This rectangle, two by 1.5 meters, marked the spot where—the planners fondly believed—the dogs of Paris would congregate to relieve themselves. Perhaps there is a municipal report somewhere that calculates the cost in lost parking meter revenue caused by these canine-inspired interruptions. I have often thought that the spirit of the Enlightenment has never been more perfectly captured than in these white rectangles, each with its “X” marking the spot.

Planning illusions like these touch on the great moral truths of urban living. The personal costs of living alone—the heroism of modern life in an alienating city—can be mitigated by companionship, which can in turn place stresses on the fabric of shared urban existence. The motor car, the television, and the prostitute perform functions similar to those of the dog. Each caters to the individual at the expense of the collective.

More recently, the shape and size of canine excrement in Paris has changed. More working people, young men, and families now own dogs, and these dogs are larger, more active and restless. This brings me to the urban park. The urban parks of Paris are miracles of invention. They vary from the forests of Vincennes and Boulogne to the landscaped masterpieces of the Buttes Chaumont and the Parc Montsouris to the tiny insertions in the urban fabric, consisting of a circular or free-curving paths around fountains surrounded by bushes. All of these parks share regulations that specify where adults, children, and dogs may go. Dogs may not go on sand pits intended for children, whereas dogs correctly muzzled and controlled may go on the grass, where children and adults are normally forbidden. Animal zoning preceded pedestrian and automobile zoning in Parisian planning law.

The control of animal excrement dominated the thinking of 19th-century planners and underlies much of Baron Haussmann’s great modernization of the Parisian water supply and sewers. Once again, the infrastructure that brings fresh water to city dwellers (the provision of which has been prized as a high achievement by emperors, popes, and municipalities) lies close to that which handles the more sordid but equally vital task of waste disposal. Haussmann’s sewers were not designed to cope with human excrement, which, in traditional fashion, was dealt with by privies, cesspits, and night soil men. Perhaps if they had been, they would not have been the public spectacle they were, with parties of dignitaries wined and dined under chandeliers in the spacious sewers beneath the boulevards. The sewers were for the so-called gray effluent (from baths and basins) and for the products of street gutters (litter and horse manure). Every block in Haussmann’s Paris was designed with a source of water at the high point, which could be deviated by rolls of rag or carpet one way or another around the block to disgorge into the sewers. Street crossings preceded the automobile and traffic lights, and consisted of paths swept clean of manure for the pedestrian. Long after European cities were paved, their streets and sidewalks were dirty enough to create the fashion for the enclosed arcade or passage, whose regulations invariably excluded dogs. These arcades and passages provided the clean pavements and dainty shops where the fashionable young lady and her chaperone could stroll, pursued by those “botanizers of the asphalt,” from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin, whose imagination fueled French literature for half a century.

The shift from horse to automobile and metro has replaced an obvious pollution with one less visible and in the long run more harmful. Only the dog and the drunk are left to stain the pavements. Both are likely to become more offensive. In 19th-century France (and probably elsewhere), free public conveniences for men were typically introduced in places where public urination had become a nuisance. Austere cast-iron Vespasiennes afforded the minimum of enclosure—just sufficient to preserve decency, but not enough to allow lewd acts to pass unnoticed—and retained the social nature of male micturition. Needless to say, women were not generally catered to until well into the 20th century, when more lavish facilities, usually underground, supervised, and not free, were provided on selected sites (near bus stations and markets). One of President Giscard d’Estaing’s claims to fame was that he introduced to Paris the coin-operated, musical, automatic public toilet—supreme achievement of individual privacy on the street. These highly stylized, space-age oval capsules, imitated elsewhere in Europe, mark a further stage in the regression from the idea of social space. If natural bodily functions are to be expected wherever people congregate, the trend is towards denying their public existence and offering complete privacy for those who can afford it and have the patience. For those whom society cannot easily control, the dogs and the drunks, the pavement retains its function. In the absence of leadership from politicians and planners, it is left to the dogs and the drunks to make the case for society.

If the juxtaposition of excrement and the social sphere has led to gradual erosion of social coherence, similar processes have taken place with respect to clothes washing and refuse disposal. Some form of waste disposal (if only rubbish shoots and wheeled rubbish carts) has always been part of public housing schemes; so too, when possible, have shared washing and drying facilities. The Viennese “superblocks” of the 1920s offered minimal space and facilities inside the flats, but all provided kindergartens, sand pits, public gardens, and steam-heated wash-houses. These symbols of community were potent, but at a price. Anyone who visited the Quarry Hill flats in Leeds4 (which were demolished in the early 1980s) will remember the factory chimney rising above the collective wash house and shopping center at its core. The wash house, with its efficient washing machines, ironing tables, and spacious drying racks, was much appreciated by the residents as a place to meet and gossip, but the chimney left an unpleasant smell and gritty deposit. The chimney served the Garchey refuse disposal system, which collected the refuse flushed down the sink in each kitchen in the estate, spun out the water, and incinerated the rest. Housing architects loved these means of expressing social cohesion. Of course, the private washing machine (for those who can afford to buy and locate it) has largely replaced the washhouse, just as radio and television have largely replaced the cinema and the church.

The lesson of Thatcherite and Reaganite policies, well learned by their successors, is that there are more votes in reducing taxes and creating misery for a minority of uninfluential people than in bearing the ever increasing costs of raising standards of service, comfort, and hygiene for all. We’re going to see more drunks and more dogs, more urine and dog shit on the streets, as the vestigial idealism of the bourgeois architect and planner retreats behind the defensible space of the individual family unit. Whether cities will become more exciting, desirable, and practical is, of course, another matter.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1