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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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