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 1:18 PM
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