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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/18/20

Architecture of Cruelty

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Message Linh Dinh
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Eastern City Gate, Belgrade, 2020
Eastern City Gate, Belgrade, 2020
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Van Gogh was most creative during the autumn and spring, I remember reading somewhere, because a radical shift in the weather was exhilarating. This shouldn't mean you should look forward to leaves changing color, however, or even exuberant flowers smearing their sassily obscene palette on your tumescent eyeballs. Stop playing with yourself, dude. Da Vinci noted, "He who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death." You're only allotted so many grains of sand, sunsets, departures and whiffs.

There's a brisk wind this morning. Summer is almost done. On Zdravka Čelara, two women are taking their sons to school. Although the boys are old enough to hump their own backpacks, these negligible burdens are slung over their mothers' shoulders. The trim kids are dressed in cheerful shirts, pants, socks and shoes, and their svelte moms are similarly colorful, a rebuttal to the gray and beige concrete of nearly all the buildings glowering and glooming over them.

You know you're in Eastern Europe when you see all these monstrous, brutalist blocks that enclose most citizens still. In the US, similar buildings existed to warehouse welfare blacks, mostly, but nearly all have been torn down. After two miserable decades, the 33-building Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis was dynamited in the 70's. Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is best known for the Twin Towers, also purposely pulled. What should be his epitaph, I wonder?

I blew? They blew me? They blew me because I blew?

On my first visit to NYC in 1979, I zoomed up to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. It was astonishing to look down on such a thicket of lesser skyscrapers. I felt like Superman. With daily access to such a view, the novelty would wear off, I'm sure, and be overridden by more practical matters, such as the time needed to ride elevators up and down. Still, a worker there could clock out each evening. How many of us would care to live on, say, the 88th floor of any building?

Towards Midtown, in the hazy distance, were some of the most iconic and enduring NYC buildings, though Alfred Barr, MoMA's first director, felt nothing but contempt for them, "Romanesque, Mayan, Assyrian, Renaissance, Aztec, Gothic and especially Modernisticeverything from the stainless steel gargoyles of the Chrysler Building to the fantastic mooring mast atop the Empire State. No wonder that some of us who have been appalled by this chaos turn with the utmost interest and expectancy to the International Style."

Only unadorned boxes are kosher, and the best ones are the square dicks, sodomizing God. Navel gazing center of the universe, New York had twin cocks.

There should never be an international style of anything, least of all in architecture, for buildings everywhere emerge from the local climate, first of all, then are refined and embellished down millennia through habits, traditions and individual quirks, as defined by the natives. Peasants or workers from any village are already distinct, much less internationally, so whenever you hear of a one-size-fit-all, international solution, there's bound to be a strait jacket, if not gulag, just beyond the red horizon.

On two separate days, I walked several hours through New Belgrade. I passed few pedestrians. A planned development, New Belgrade is a Socialist showcase featuring monumental buildings, vast lawns and wide boulevards, everything made to impress, especially in photos. To live there is another matter.

New Belgrade has few shade giving trees, for these would obstruct its grand vistas, I reckon. Its six-laned avenues are made wider by ample trolley track medians, so just crossing it is a red pain in the Socialist ass.

In summer, you're baked into a Nubian sheen halfway, and in winter, an artic gale is liable to hurl you up into the frozen void, so that you're lost forever, just like Kafka's bucket rider.

Acres of empty lawns surround the massive Palace of the Federation (now renamed Palace of Serbia). Although there are trees, no one relaxes under them, for the landscaping is so standoffish. Fountains gush from a huge rectangular pool, quite pointlessly, really, for no one's looking.

Under an unforgiving sun, a sweating boy pedaled his tricycle over the scorching flagstones. On this afternoon, he and his grandma were the only ones at this charmless civic plaza. Soon enough, the heat and glare chased them away.

The only crowds I saw in New Belgrade were disembarked bus riders flocking to American styled shopping centers, Delta City and Ušće. You know you've erected a dystopia when soulless malls become cherished oases of pleasure, relaxation and sociability. If that sounds like vast swaths of America also, it's because we're only talking about degrees here. You've been international styled, buddy. Feeling ridiculous, bipeds blunder through dead spaces.

Crossing into Zemun, there's the Hotel Yugoslavija, which looks, I swear, just like the Palace of the Federation. With the International Style, everything must be blocky, flat, unadorned, hard and angular. Vehemently masculine, it's unleavened by any female beauty or softness. Socialism in concrete.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.


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