July 29, 2003

The City in Mind

Tonight is date night with Shelly so you won't get a new essay on my shiny new Web site just yet.

But here's a great interview with James Howard Kunstler for you. He writes novels and also the best books about American cities I've read by anyone. (The Geography of Nowhere and The City in Mind.)

Here's what you'll get if you click through the link.

Q - In your recent book "The City in Mind," you write about the architectural monstrosity that is Boston City Hall. You said that it "looks like the back office of Darth Vader's Death Star, a brutalist trapezoidal heap of stained beige concrete on a despotic brick podium... windswept, cold, vacant, cruel, petty, bland... a nightmare." How could a design that's so obviously *bad* actually get approved and built?

And in answering a different question he gets right to the root of it.
[W]e Americans have a weakness for the idea of the cutting edge, and we're easily led into mystification. It comes from our hysterical Protestant Puritan national experience, which breaks out every 60 or 70 years, like the Great Awakening in the 1740s, Mormons in 1830s, hippies on 1960s. Americans like to by mystified, and they're easily impressed by obscurantists, wizards of Oz, people coming from Europe with their funny accents.

In Europe, architecture had social and political content, but when it came to the US it became just a matter of fashion. So you have all the practitioners in the post-war era doing this brutal architecture in which history has been eliminated, and the forms are brutal, and you have an additional problem: our cities are being tyrannized by automobiles. You're getting a wholesale degradation of public space. In one sense, Americans' public space is being systematically degraded, and on the other hand, the architecture being used to occupy it is becoming more and more degraded.

This was a main component of the Marxist hoodoo that attached itself to architecture after 1945: in order to be good, it had to shock and appall the bourgeoisie. That's us, normal educated people. When you say that normal people know that this is bad, they're reacting appropriately to buildings designed to shock them and injure their sensibilities.

Read it all. Kunstler is equal parts witty and wise.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 29, 2003 01:18 PM

I ws actually a bit disappointed with City in Mind, which was a let-down after his previous excellent efforts. Still, there is no denying that Kunstler is a smart guy and most city planners could take lessons from him on urban planning.

Posted by: Mike Silverman at July 29, 2003 02:49 PM

I read The City in Mind just before I went to Paris for the first time, and his Paris chapter enhanced my visit considerably.

And his essay on the history of Mexico City is the most haunting re-telling of the apocalyptic clash of the Spanish and Aztec empires I've read yet.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 29, 2003 03:07 PM

Modern architecture is more about disdain than shock. (It's certainly not about cheapness). "Marxist hoodoo" sells because it promises population control, pure and simple.

Governments want nothing more than to control people. Tell a government official they can package the great unwashed masses into clean squares, to break preconceived notions, to bind them glowingly into a happy mass with no social baggage, and create crisp queues of satisfied citizens, and the eyes light up. Tell them a new City Hall can reinforce their vision of the Long March, and the pockets will open.

Meanwhile, Marxist architects expressed disdain for people by focusing on materials rather than environments, spaces rather than living, and utopias rather than realities. Luckily, New Urbanism seems to be a means of reversing this trend by building architecture around the person, rather than forcing the person into the architecture.

P.S. I enjoyed Kunstler's analyis of Starbucks. Perhaps they're the closest thing we have today to private libraries.

Posted by: Hovig John Heghinian at July 29, 2003 06:15 PM

Interesting.I should add that Europe has a lot of ugly architecture as well - the 60's and the 70's in particular were a horrible period.Every time I walk around my hometown of Helsinki,I'm stunned how easily you can track the gradual deterioration of architecture through the last century.
Not only are the turn-of-the-20th-century (high mark of Finnish architecture) stone buildings in Helsinki visually pleasing,they are in much better shape than the concrete ones that are just 30-40 years old.The materials used on the latter were simply substandard.

Modernism brought with it an attitude that instead of fulfilling the needs and wishes of the inhabitants,the ideal architect should impose his utopian ideas on them.(I'm simplifying matters to make a point.)Thus ideology trumped reality,with predictably horrible results.

Happily,things are getting better these days.

Posted by: JH at July 29, 2003 08:33 PM


I don't have anything to add to the post, but welcome to your new digs, it looks, well like your old digs, which was nice. Best of luck, except some trackbacks I'm sure.

Posted by: Kombiz at July 29, 2003 10:18 PM

And then, there's Lileks.

Posted by: George at July 30, 2003 05:56 AM

Is Kunstler to be considered a new urbanist?

Posted by: Gideon Strauss at July 30, 2003 10:51 AM

Kunstler is just himself, but he is friends with the New Urbanist crowd. He dedicated his most recent book to Andres Duany.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 30, 2003 11:27 AM


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