Monday, May 05, 2003

Good Experience Live XI

James Howard Kunstler: The Horror of the Industrial City

James Howard Kunstler is author of the books The Geography of Nowhere and the City in Mind. A resident of upstate New York, Kunstler is a regular contributor to the New York Times. He has no formal training in architecture or urban design. Here is a rough transcript of his talk at Good Experience Live:

We're concerned here with the issue of place. How many of you come from places that are more like this than New York City. Sometimes we call it suburban sprawl. I call it the national automobile slum. There's a lot of misunderstanding about this. There's tremendous distress among Americans who have to live in places like this. One of the big concerns about America is that it's all the same. Well, the hill towns of Tuscany are all the same. The boulevards of Paris are all the same. It's not that these environments are the same, it's that the experiences you have there are uniformly terrible.

The virtual is not an adequate substitution for the authentic. There's a part of our every day world called the public realm. It's the physical manifestation of the public interest and public good. And it's the container of our civic life. You have to treat that in a certain way. You have to use architecture and buildings to define space. We need to honor the public realm in order to make civic life possible.

We need to be oriented in time and culture. We need to see visibly in the language that surrounds us to know where we've come from and where we're going. We also need to have hope for the future. To remove that hope is a catastrophic event. This is all part of the culture of civic design. And it has a culture as strong as that of Web design.

Your ability to create a sense of place depends entirely on the ability to define space. There are places not worth caring about. There are environments in which no one wants to be. Then there are public spaces worth caring about. There's a particular way that you assemble a public gathering place. This place succeeds because it has an active permeable edge in which things can enter and leave.

Boston City Hall Plaza is a public space failure. And we don’t want to fix it because we don't want to hurt IM Pei's feeling. This is the back of city hall. And remember that this is an architecture design competition winner. There's not enough Prozac in the world to make people feel good about walking down this block. Ask yourself, what are the languages, grammars, and rhythms that this is saying? A kind of despotism that is unspoken.

This is a picture of the convention center in the town I live in. This building is designed like a DVD player. Aux. In. Power supply. Who gives a fuck? Now this is Main street America. You've got convenient space for shopping. You've got stores on the first floor, and other stuff happens upstairs. Also, access is on the first floor. We call that at grade. Then we've got the nature Band-Aid. We think that if we're green we can heal the sick urbanism we've got in our culture.

Here's an example of part of that culture. There's a role for nature in the urban center, and it tends to be formal. The trees have four jobs to do, and that's it. Job number one is to spatially create a special pedestrian zone visually. Job number two is to protect the pedestrians psychologically and physically from the vehicular traffic on the street. Number three is to filter the light and make the sidewalk a more pleasant place to be. And job number four is to soften the urban hardscape. We've gotten away from that.

Where does the problem lie? I call it the horror of the industrial city. You've got this congestion. The idea gets fixed in our collective urban consciousness that we need to go back to the country. You know, live in the woods. The first incarnation of that can be seen in suburbia. We'll work half a day in urbanism, and then we'll go home to our rural villa. What happened is that it mutates. It becomes kind of traffic. It ends up being not country living but a cartoon of country living. Suburbia has been promising country living for the last 50 years. It ends up having all of the congestion of city living and none of the urban amenities.

Here's a perfect example of subdivision living. What's really going on here? Why aren't there any windows on the side? The family that built the house may say they wanted to save the $4,000 it would've cost to add windows. That's bullshit. They're blinders to maintain the illusion of country living. And look at the size of that porch. That's just a television screen. You'd have to be a family of pituitary dwarves to use that porch. It's 14 inches deep. It projects the illusion that we're normal, we're normal, we're normal. And what message does this building, a school in Las Vegas, send? It tells children that they must have done something really wrong to end of there. Notice the token bit of nature. Thank you, Sierra Club of Las Vegas.

We need a new urbanism. I've been very proud to be associated with the new urbanist movement for the last 10 years. It's a movement working to reform the public realm of America, the shared public place. We've been busy diving into the dumpster of history to retrieve all of the information we haven't used for 50 years. Like, how do we design a town? You've got the public stuff, the monumental stuff. And you've got the private stuff. Put them together and you get the civitas.

One neighborhood is a village. Several neighborhoods are a town. Several towns make up a city. Cities are living organisms, and cities are more than the sum of their parts. There's a lot of experimentation going on for attempting to retrofit the architectural garbage that we're left with. This is a good example. This is a dead mall in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Eastgate Mall.

The idea was that it would be redesigned as a new neighborhood. We would impose a new street and block system over the old parking lots and structures. The more frontages you create, small little blocks, the more opportunities you will have for reconstruction. Finally, we're using the idea of the normal building block as the new approach to urban planning, not the megastructures. We can return mutilated urban places to neighborhood centers.

We're going to have to reorganize just about everything in America. Things like Wal-Mart are going to be gone in five to 10 years. The damage that these places do is difficult to calculate. And they did it with the complicity of America. That's the law of perverse outcomes. People don't get what they expect. They get what they deserve. We need to rebuild these local networks of economic dependence.

Life is tragic. Bruce Willis isn't going to come in in the third act and save us. We need to do this ourselves. The end result of creating 27,000 places that might not be worth caring about is that we might have created a country that’s not worth defending.

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