Sentimental Visions of Societies Past

It is nearly impossible find someone who will defend America’s suburban sprawl — with good reason. I’m certainly not writing this to do that.

Now that we’ve accepted that as a problem, we’re faced with a much harder task: solving it. In order to do so, let’s go back and trace the roots of the problem. In 1925, Le Corbusier came out with a radical, highly influential plan to raze a good deal of central Paris in order to make way for a new city-within-a-city. His plan called for a large group of perfectly identical, exactly aligned skyscrapers. Even though this plan was ignored, it set a precedent for Modern urban development — a precedent for an attitude of blatant disrespect for past architecture, blind faith in modern skyscrapers, and flat-out rejection of the principles that had guided the development of cities up to that point. Le Corbusier essentially wanted to do away with the street. This idea was even more clearly embodied in his vision of the ‘city of the future’ in which massive concrete apartment buildings (‘machines for living’) were scattered throughout the country and connected only by highways.

Le Corbusier’s plan for remaking part of Paris.

More after the break.

Frank Lloyd Wright was also instrumental in the development of the principles that would guide mid-century suburban development in America. In 1932 he first outlined his plan for “Broadacre City,” a proposed city of the future that had a lot in common with what Le Corbusier was proposing — essentially a great society of epic proportion, scattered across the countryside and connected with roads. While Wright was more sensitive to human social needs than Le Corbusier (Wright at least proposed community centers that would replace city downtowns as gathering spaces), neither plan really presented a legitimately desirable or workable solution to the problems confronting the 20th century city. Neither Wright nor Le Corbusier approved of traditional cities, with their dense packing of people and lack of open space — both legitimate concerns. The city, however, was not going anywhere. Its efficiency and logic are simply undeniable.

These two forces pulling in opposite directions — growing cities and urban centers undertaking massive development, and growing suburban ‘paradises’ of oversized houses, even larger lawns, and cars, cars, cars — essentially created the biggest urban planning problems that we’re facing today. People want open space, a traditional symbol of American wealth, and easy access to big box stores, but at the same time cities are efficient, practical, and even exciting. How can we create a legitimate framework for future American development that acknowledges the necessity of the city and curbs sprawl, while still providing people with inspired places to work and live, as well as access to open space?

What should we do?

The first step we need to take is addressing the problem on its own terms. We cannot deny the existence, or the necessity of the existence, of the highway or the big-box store. These are parts of our society that are the inevitable results of a globalized capitalist economy. Good architecture must accommodate the needs of its users, but it also has the potential to instigate social change for the better and elevate the experiences of its users. The 20th century has provided us with many examples of architects ready to take on modern problems on their own terms. Wright and Le Corbusier created plans that could never be realized, but in a sense they were thinking in the right ways. Kevin Roche also spent much of his career creating architecture that addressed modern problems on their own terms with equally modern solutions. His Knights of Columbus Building, in New Haven, played off a nearby highway with its huge, dark, circular piers. His New Haven Coliseum, right next door (until it was demolished, that is), had its parking on top of it in order to enhance access to the building, avoid parking sprawl, and deal with a high water level on the site. These projects provide a convincing alternative to the schmaltzy ‘New Urbanism’ espoused by reactionaries like those at the Preservation Institute. While there is certainly something to be said for humane, pedestrian-friendly urban spaces, they are not the real solutions to the biggest urban problems facing us today. Dressing up buildings in faux-classical skins and attempting to smooth over the realities of modern society with quaint lampposts and tinkling fountains simply isn’t a legitimate way to address the problems of the 21st century. These sentimental visions of societies past only bury, and thus exacerbate, the real problems at hand.

Roche’s Knights of Columbus Building.

Kevin Roche was a great architect who created works of dignity and poise — works that brought out the best in modern society by actively exploring our world, and interacting with the problems facing it. But not all of his works attained that level of success. His many suburban corporate headquarters buildings, while certainly legitimate stabs at elevating the experiences of workers and reducing negative environmental effects, simply did not address the real problem of suburban corporate headquarters on a large enough level. If we are really to address the problems of office parks and strip malls and the like, we need an integrated solution that combines architecture, urban planning, zoning laws, and the active participation of a society that can understand the massive consequences of its out-of-control commercialism. We need solutions that begin by taking these problems on their own terms — understanding that big companies and suburban communities are here to stay; we need solutions that do not make Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s own big mistake: failing to acknowledge inescapable realities of society (in their case, they ignored the reality of the city; in ours, we must not ignore the realities of big corporations and suburban developments). We need solutions that do not attempt to remake society. We need solutions that are not about dignifying the worst parts of society, but rather about elevating human behavior in a workable way.

In order to get to those solutions, we must not get lost in the trappings of our sentimental desires for the cities and societies of more innocent times. We need to listen to original thinkers like Kevin Roche and Rem Koolhaas. We need architects who are willing to give up big cultural-center commissions in order to face these far less glamorous problems.

I’m not claiming to have ‘the answer.’ Urban planning is the fluid pursuit of shaping the interactions between people and the physical environment. In order to move forward, we must recognize the ever-changing nature of those interactions.

Note: photographs in this post were not taken by me. Photo credits: 1. 2. 3.

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4 thoughts on “Sentimental Visions of Societies Past

  1. […] previously explained my overarching view of 21st century urban planning here, but I did not spell out exact formulas for success. I do not claim to have such formulas; I am […]

  2. […] apply similar thinking to urban design, as I’ve blogged about before, but in a different sense. Since urban design is not the same world of abstract aesthetics as […]

  3. […] big is something I’ve long advocated here at Concrete Aspirations. Ingels looks forward with an open-mind, exactly the methodology we […]

  4. […] series came out of my April piece about the follies of looking to the past and the necessity for bold ideas that tackle the problems […]

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