Source: First Light: New and Selected Poems(1994)
E. Ethelbert Miller
Source: First Light: New and Selected Poems(1994)
In 1933, a group of architects boarded a ship and set sail from Marseille, France to Athens, Greece. On board were several of the world’s most famous modernist architects and artists, including Erno Goldfinger, Le Corbusier, Alvar Alto, and dozens of others.
There was a silent film made of the voyage that shows the architects on the deck in short-sleeved white shirts and sunglasses. The cruise was the setting for the International Congress of Modern Architecture, commonly known by its French acronym, CIAM.
The subject of this particular congress was city-planning. The members of CIAM thought that cities were too congested, noisy, polluted and chaotic. And they believed some of these problems could be solved by separating out the functions of a city into distinct zones for housing, working, recreation, and traffic.
Zoning wasn’t a new idea, but the architects from CIAM wanted to take it farther. The living spaces would be in high-rise apartments so that the ground-level was open for recreation and collective spaces—live in the sky, play on the ground. Cars would even drive on elevated roads so that pedestrians could have the space below all to themselves. There would also be separate districts for industry and shopping. Where old European cities were winding, cluttered and polluted, this new one would be linear, open, and clean, with everything in its proper place.
Modernists also saw this new kind of city as capable of providing more egalitarian conditions. They wanted beautiful housing that everyone could afford. They had big dreams, but the 1930s was a time of worldwide economic depression. But the rebuilding that followed the Second World War provided a chance to start over.
Le Corbusier with students and models of (unbuilt) urban design proposals
In 1943, the Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) published a book called Charte d’Athènes (The Athens Charter). It outlined exactly how to build new cities in the way the architects from CIAM had talked about back in 1933. Le Corbusier traveled the world talking about these utopian ideas for city building, and governments liked what they heard—not so much for the utopian ideals, but rather for the price, because what Corbusier proposed was, in fact, very cheap. Concrete, the Modernist building material of choice, was inexpensive, and building apartments in high-rises required less land than building stand-alone homes.
After the war, developments all over the world were built with CIAM’s modernist principles in mind, although they weren’t all pure expressions of CIAM and Le Corbusier’s ideas. Many cities took some of the ideas and left others. But the city planners of Amsterdam wanted to go further. They decided to build a new neighborhood, close to Amsterdam, that would be a CIAM blueprint— a perfect encapsulation of Modernist principles. It was called the Bijlmermeer, and it tested these ideas on a grand scale. When it was over, no one would ever try it again.
Pi de Bruijn was an architect in Amsterdam who, as a young man, was hired to help plan the Bijlmermeer. The utopian ideals of the project captured de Bruijn’s attention for seven years, as he worked as part of a team headed by an architect named Siegfried Nassuth. Nassuth was an idealist who felt the cities of the past had failed and needed to be rebuilt from scratch, using the modernist principles developed by CIAM.
There was never any question that the so-called Bijlmer (short for Bijlmermeer) would be made of tall concrete housing towers, but they did choose to arrange them in the unique shape of a honeycomb.
The hexagonal grid would allow each apartment to get some sunlight every day. The apartments were meant for the middle class, and no apartment was designed to be “better” than another. Every man would be equal to his neighbor. At one point, Pi de Bruijn proposed to have apartments on the ground, but lead architect Siegfried Nassuth would have none of it. The ground was meant to be a collective space for everyone, according to the principles of modernism.
When the first few buildings were finished in the late 1960s, advertisements depicted a paradise with modern apartment towers, surrounded by lush green grass and trees. De Bruijn and his wife moved into the complex in 1969. “I lived on the 9th floor,” he recalls, and “I had a four-room apartment: three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, beautiful bathroom, and a balcony that was two meters wide and twelve meters long. It was a paradise of a balcony.”
But there were also some immediate problems at the Bijlmer. A metro line was supposed to connect the new area with Amsterdam, but construction was delayed. For a while, there was only one dirt road leading out to the area. The designers had planned for a shopping are, but the shops didn’t come right away either, which meant there was no where to buy groceries.
Eventually the roads did begin to appear, and they were elevated above the ground, weaving in and out of the high rises. Driving through provided a spectacular view, but it was difficult to navigate or orient around a center, because there was nothing like a city center or town square—there were just identical concrete buildings arranged in a honeycomb formation. And there was no one to ask for directions, because there were no pedestrians on the elevated streets. De Bruijn complained about all of this, but his superiors told him to wait.
And so de Bruijn waited, and waited. Other residents were not as patient. Disillusion set in and the waiting lists disappeared.
By the early 1970’s, as the Bijlmer was still being built, much of the world was already turning against the massive concrete apartment towers that modernists had pushed for in the 30s and 40s.
Pruitt Igoe in St Louis, had also been an experiment in the modernist principles of CIAM—it was constructed in 1954, and by the mid 1970s it was already so overrun with vacancies and crime that the city tore it down. The American urban planner Oscar Newman had theorized that is was the vast amount of common spaces that had lead to Pruitt Igoe’s downfall— these neglected spaces had become hiding places for criminals. He worried that the Bijlmer was likely to suffer the same fate.
Even members of CIAM were starting to question and denounce this approach to building. The famous Dutch architect and CIAM member Aldo Van Eyck went on national TV and cried literal tears over what an awful concrete monstrosity Bijlmer was. Architect Rem Koolhaas said of the Bijlmermeer that it “offers boredom on heroic scale.”
Still, more buildings went up — massive concrete structures with around 400 apartments in each one. The Bijlmer steadily grew, even as the housing association that controlled the buildings had trouble finding enough tenants. In the end, 31 buildings went up, holding 13,000 apartments, though hundreds sat empty.
In addition to all the buildings there were also 13,000 storage spaces on the ground level, 31 parking garages, hundreds of elevators and staircases and common spaces and 110 kilometers or 68 miles of indoor ground-level corridors. There was so much space, and not enough people to fill it up, or watch over it
Yet there were still people who needed housing. In fact, there were thousands of newly arrived citizens, who had traveled across the Atlantic ocean and needed a place to live.
The Bijlmer would be that place.
Around Christmas, LitHub put up their round-up of The Most-Rejected Books of All Time (Of Those That Were Eventually Published), and the literary Internet chimed in—I chimed in, too, sharing that my forthcoming novel had been rejected 98 times.
The reality of rejection is not a new topic for lit mags or bookish media, and what often follows these articles is the chorus of authors who have had some kind of publishing success, or, in my case (and in the cases of countless others like me), at least enough success to feel comfortable sharing about rejection and to be able to conceptualize it as a pathway to print.
However, without a book or two, or at least a string of magazine appearances, those rejection numbers, whether it’s nine or 19 or 98, feel less like a badge of honor. I certainly wouldn’t have shared my number if my manuscript were not under contract. In fact, I had a higher number for my first novel, and I never talked about it frankly until the book was out. I also didn’t talk about how one agent wrote to me and said they could maybe sell it if I made the main character male instead of female. And I didn’t discuss the angry rejections I got—because my protagonist was so “unlikable”—I just kept trying to place it. As Roxane Gay has written, on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s important to not let rejection be validation.
While it’s true that writers absolutely must believe in their own work, must try to cultivate a thick skin, must be polite to editors (please, please be polite to editors), rejection and everything that comes with it—doubt, disappointment, demoralization—is real, and if we care about cultivating new voices, we must ask how we, as a community, can do better than patting ourselves on the back for our own moxie.
For all of the happy endings born of multiple rejections, I know there are writers out there with very good, even breakthrough stories and manuscripts who have given up at 20, or 50, or 97, just as there are writers who scraped together $30 dollars for a contest, and were not selected and who do not have the funds to apply again.
Recently, a writer emailed me and said she had been rejected a handful of times for her YA novel. I told her, nicely, I thought, that until she got to 100, she should get over it. She didn’t write me back.
I’ve said this so many times, to so many aspiring writers, this “100 rejections” thing. I’ve said it on panels. I’ve said it in workshops. I’ve said it in topical conversations and casual ones. I said it at a pizza place during a birthday party for a cousin when I was talking about having a day job.
I keep thinking about this. Emerging writers already know how hard it is. Shouldn’t we, instead of continuing the “tough it out” conversation, be more transparent about our own experiences and challenges?
(I’m not naïve about my particular contribution to this conversation—but four years ago, which is not so long, before my first book, I was just another writer in the slush. I never considered that I’d stop writing, but I did start to believe I would never have my own name on my own spine.)
Perhaps it’s better to make a different point, like about how unpredictable writing can be. For example, my most-read work to date is not the stories I worked on for over a decade, it’s not the novel I spent eight years on, it’s a guest post I dashed off about how many books don’t sell.
Or, how once, I had a story accepted in a print publication because I guess they liked it well enough but mostly they needed a very specific word count for their layout. I know this because the editor told me. I’m not really sure why he told me. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this information. It’s a decent magazine, and I submitted because I had read it, so now it’s there on my publication list with everything else.
A few weeks ago on the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams wrote about literary citizenship and the value we get from helping others alongside imploring writers to do their homework. Learn the business she says, because it is a business.
There’s certainly no obligation to share trusted contacts or make introductions to friendlies, and we don’t have to offer guidance towards specific publication outlets: it’s old, old advice, but writers should get a sense of who their targets are via their reading habits.
Still, in terms of the woman who wrote to me, I could have encouraged instead of being blasé. I could have asked her how she was targeting her submissions, as careful targeting will cut down on heartbreak. I could have asked her any number of questions that were supportive rather than dismissive. I could have sent her a link to a success story, instead of trotting out the 100 rejections narrative again.
If nothing else, I certainly could have been much more transparent about how it has felt, collecting so many rejections. I will always believe that it’s foolish to give up at only three or four, but it takes some real time to get to 100 or beyond. It can take literal years. I could have shared how much it is a drain trying to stay positive for myself even if I am not always positive externally. I could have shared how I keep all the rejections in an alphabetized card file so I can look at them and remind myself that I am actually doing tangible work, not just moving pixels around on a screen.
I could have shared about how I talk sometimes to writer friends about re-imaging rejection as “reminder”—how when a publication or press or an agent declines, it’s just a nudge to submit again, elsewhere.
It’s a nice idea, in theory. In practice, it’s a lot of trips to the post office or a lot of time on Submittable. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only way to get there.
If I had read the LitHub article before I had a book, I would have thought, Well, that’s nice for them to be finally published, what about the rest of us. We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.
Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more “likeable,” it’s absolutely a better book for this effort.
You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.
If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the 100 rejections scenario, but I really hope not.
When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through 11 drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.
Image Credit: Flickr/Judith E. Bell.
The post Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices appeared first on The Millions.
Source: Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems(Putnam, 2008)
Le Corbusier was a painter, writer, architect and planner, but he was also an adept promoter of novel designs and theories. So when he debuted his Maison Dom-Ino concept home, it boasted a light and elegant form, but was also cleverly named — its title referenced the look and modularity of gaming “dominoes” (with dots extruded to form columns) as well as “domus,” the Latin word for house.
In this project, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier (or simply: Corbu), synthesized prefabrication, flexibility and minimalism. The design featured thin reinforced concrete floors supported by slim concrete columns. He described his solution as “a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans” to allow for “the construction of the dividing walls at any point on the facade or the interior.” At a time when load-bearing walls and masonry construction were the norm, this was an unusual approach to structural engineering. It would go on to inform much of his life’s work.
Corbu also had radical ideas when it came to architectural ornamentation, rejecting decorative traditions as outdated in the Machine Age. Critiquing the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, he wrote: “The religion of beautiful materials is in its final death agony…. The almost hysterical onrush in recent years toward this quasi-orgy of decor is only the last spasm of a death already predictable.” He believed the the modern world had evolved beyond the need for decorative frills — useful, well-designed things would fill the void, not just in architecture, but for furniture, furnishings and fixtures, too.
Corbu’s views were shaped by other schools of thought (like the Bauhaus) and other Modernists, including Adolf Loos, who wrote in Ornament and Crime: “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.” Many prominent architects would go on to reject ornamentation, eschewing traditional styles for sleek minimalist looks, in part thanks to the writings of Loos and Corbu. In the 1920s, Corbu published his own influential book, Toward an Architecture, in which he famously wrote “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (“A house is a machine for living in”). It reflected his functionalist vision for the future of domestic design.
The volume also contained a critical manifesto, Five Points of Architecture. These points expanded further upon ideas he explored in the Maison Dom-Ino, laying out a blueprint for contemporary domiciles free from structural conventions and historical precedents. The five points are interrelated, and can be summarized as follows:
Corbu also practiced what he preached. By the late 1920s he had begun work on what is now one of his most well-known projects: the Villa Savoye. It was the physical embodiment of his five points, and this video does an excellent job of showing precisely how:
Corbu lifted up and supported the structure using concrete pilotis. In turn, interior columns freed him to create open floor plans and non-structural facades with long and narrow window strips (which would have been impossible if the exterior walls were load-bearing). On top of the home sat a roof garden, conceptually: a slice of the landscape lifted up, offsetting the footprint of the house with lofted green space.
For Corbu, the interplay of masses and light made the residence beautiful — its aesthetic was a product of function and geometry. “The plan is pure,” he boasted, “exactly made for the needs of the house …. It is poetry and lyricism, supported by technique.”
From the Villa Savoye, the lineage of Corbu’s design can be traced both backward (to the Maison Dom-Ino) and forward to other now-famous works of Modernist residential architecture, including the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe and the Glass House by Phillip Johnson.
But Corbu’s five points and Villa Savoye did more than just shape residential architecture — they also informed decades of urban design, and, eventually, a series of vertical urban villages in the sky.
|(Photo: Roberto Roldan)|
Source: Blood Dazzler(Coffee House Press, 2008)