Tuesday, September 30, 2008

City air makes people free*

This post is inspired by a recent Bulletholes' offering.

In the late 90s, I read The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler, which greatly informed my understanding of architecture, civic structure and what was dysfunctional about the post-modern blight of our American landscape. These books resonated with what I already felt aesthetically and instinctually. Make no mistake, aesthetics, and more specifically classical architectural conventions, have a functionality that surpasses their joy-giving properties, which is arguably function enough.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a city that was fairly well designed and clearly well-cared for by its denizens. Portland has been a darling of The New Urbanism, for which author James Howard Kunstler is a grumpy cheerleader. Cranky, curmudgeonly, cantankerous, these are words which describe him well. Yet, it's precisely the sort of aggressively opinionated and humorous point of view that made me enjoy his books. There is great value to what he has to say:

"Community, as it once existed in the form of places worth caring about, supported by local economies, has been extirpated by an insidious corporate colonialism that doesn't care about the places from which it extracts its profits or the people subject to its operations. Without the underpinnings of genuine community and its institutions, family life alone cannot bear the burdens and perform all the functions itself." - from Home from Nowhere

A basic principle of classic civic structure is that it has a center - the town square, the public meeting house, a place for people to gather and engage in the discursive functions of a democracy. This is a principle of civic structure, and gives cities strong creative prowess, and principal Aristotle recognized as vital to and defining of a city. In fact, his notion of 'ideal cities,' needed variety and plurality, and intimacy amongst its citizenry, for "they must know each other's characters." Kunstler believes that America is suffering a 'crisis of place.'

You be the judge.

Here is a litany of complaints set forward by Kunstler regarding Modernism and the damage done:

- by divorcing the practice of building from its history and traditional meanings
- by promoting a species of urbanism that destroyed age-old social arrangements and, with them, urban life as a general proposition
-by creating a physical setting for man that failed to respect the lives of other living things and the consumption of natural resources, or to respect the lives of other living things
- by creating a crisis of human habitat -
- cities ruined by corporate gigantism & abstract renewal schemes
- public buildings and spaces unworthy of human affection
- vast sprawling suburbs lacking any sense of community
- housing in which the un-rich cannot afford to live
- slavish obeisance to the needs of automobiles and their dependent industries at the expense of human needs

(*a medieval German maxim. Aristotle said that "men come together in the city to live; they remain there in order to live the good life," but "if it overpasses the bounds of growth, absorbing more people than it can properly house, feed, govern or educate, then it is no longer a city.")


bulletholes said...

Here in DFW we are slaves to cars. I look out my window here at work and see a 10 lane parking lot ALL DAY and thank God that i only live 2 miles from here.
Your video is SO GOOD and I wouldn't know where to begin. He's smart and funny and seems to be channeling "The Fountainhead"...

Is the same thing going on everywhere as here? I mean, building new strip malls right next to the dead ones?
Giving no thought to real public transportation? people thinking that an hour commute each way is efficient and desirable?

I don't know much, but I know when things don't make no sense.

Anonymous said...