Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore, part 7: the urban wasteland

August 26, 2008

Among the most beautiful cities in the world, places that attract tourists and art lovers, not one was planned or constructed by exponents of Modernist ideas. Brazilia, Chandigarh and Milton Keynes are heroic failures that will never develop into places that people love as they do Paris, Rome, New Orleans, or New York.

As Aldo Rossi explained in his book, The Architecture of the City, the special cities that we value as works of art in themselves were the product of the minds of designers who looked at urbanism as a form of cultural expression, not those who reduced planning to formulas for traffic management, maximum density, or housing built for the lowest possible price . His critique of Modernist ideas about the city helped to sink the ideas of functional city planning and zoning that had driven planning during the mid-20th century.

Since the 1980s, much of the world has abandoned the idea that it is possible to construct a beautiful city. Once the urbanistic formulas of the Modernists were discredited, planning itself entered a period of decline in influence. Despite the excellent studies of successful traditional urbanism written by Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, Christopher Alexander, and Kevin Lynch among other mid-century critics of Modernism, city governments largely ignored the new research, instead opting to abolish their planning departments or put them into the hands of so-called policy analysts. This happened in New York following the Lindsay administration, when the city’s fiscal crisis became an excuse to dismantle one of the most creative and vibrant urban design departments in America. Since then, “planning” in New York has been the province of back room deals between developers and the mayor.

The wasteland of Modernist urbanism has been depicted in numerous films and novels, from Jacques Tati’s Msr. Hulot satires of the late 1950s and 1960s to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in the 1980s. Its effects have been studied by sociologists and historians since the late 1940s, when “urban renewal” began to transform the dense cores of many large cities into versions of LeCorbusier’s famous “Ville Radieuse” or Radiant City. For decades the alienation engendered by “towers in the park” was ignored because its effects were felt mainly by the dispossessed and poor, people of color condemned to life in “the projects.” Only in recent decades have psychologists begun to recognize its symptoms in the middle and upper class residents of “garden suburbs” whose alienation stemmed from similar conditions.

Episodes of the Jetson’s television series made the dream of city life in the future into a lark–talking to friends via TV links, whizzing from market to work in floating cars, and spending days alone with robot companions seemed romantic and fun. But when that dream became a reality a decade ago, people noticed that they were lonely, depressed and psychologically damaged. The massive separation that technologies of transportation, communication and building have provided has its dark side–the loss of community.

That loss was obvious to many critics of Modernism long before it became the subject of books and the popular media. In the 1970s a group of Yale-trained architects influenced by Vincent Scully and Denise Scott Brown designed the Florida town of Seaside as if it were an old-fashioned pedestrian-friendly American village. Liz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany subsequently joined with like-minded urbanists on the West Coast to form the Congress for the New Urbanism, which now has tens of thousands of members. Their research showed that many of the cardinal tenets of Modernist planning led to abject failures in the areas that they were intended to ameliorate–traffic, land use, hygiene, air quality, environmental conservation. Indeed, nothing promulgated by Modernist architects has been as destructive as their vision of the new city. Throughout the globe, in Beijing, Jakarta, Mexico City, Singapore and Johannesburg the same sterile, vacuous, scale-less wasteland is replicated amidst ribbons of highways and traffic jams.

Unfortunately, the New Urbanism came too late to change the policies that created zoning, building and planning ordinances in use throughout the United States and most of the developed world. Since the early 1990s the CNU has offered new solutions to zoning, transportation planning, and housing, sponsoring design conferences and charrettes in troubled places such as post-Katrina Mississippi. But resistance to common sense solutions to restoring community has been stubborn, especially among academic architects and planners. Their defense rests mainly on the claim that governments and developers fail to create the “creative” Modernist urbanism that exists in their drawings and virtual computer models. The users and patrons are at fault.

The world is aware of the failure of Modernism as an ideology driving urban planning and community building. Even many architects who design abstract, high tech buildings are critical of existing strategies for laying out streets, squares and public spaces in the city. The recent Sundance TV series, “Architecture School” makes this clear. In the film, Tulane University professors accept the existing urban fabric of New Orleans as right for regular folks. The community comes before architecture, and students learn a lot about the social basis for their discipline as they try to design a house in a traditional neighborhood. Unfortunately, when a resident asks why all of their proposed buildings are “ugly” they have nothing to say. The double standard applies here as in most situations–the professors can accept the old city as a viable pattern for development, but the architecture must be new, radical, innovative, and Modernist. So New Orleans, one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world, will get a few more alienating icons. It has endured hurricanes, poverty, war, and the ravages of a mighty river for centuries. A couple more ugly houses won’t even be noticed.

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