Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chaos in the City. Architecture, Modernism and Peak Oil Production – James Kunstler in Interview

Some people seem to take pleasure in boasting about how long it takes them to drive to work. Like the Yorkshire men in the Monty Python sketch, they get up half an hour before going to bed the night before in order to arrive at work on time in the morning. They live, for the most part, in the suburbs.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere (1993), The City in Mind (2001) and the forthcoming The Long Emergency, argues that the low-density suburban sprawl of “in particular” North American cities is an unsustainable model of urban development built on the back of unrealistically cheap oil which has scarred the US urban landscape and destroyed urban communities. As anyone who has been arrested for taking a stroll (i.e. not driving) in a US suburb can testify, the US urban landscape is not &ldquowalkable”, not conducive to the warm human relationships which are so beloved of Americans that there have been attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Main Street USA in towns owned by large entertainment corporations. In the real world, Kunstler writes, buildings have become divorced from streets because people drive or are expected to drive everywhere (The City in Mind).

But Kunstler likes cities and buildings and even roads, if they are done properly, as, he maintains, is the case in Paris. He is not slavishly in favour of green spaces in cities, arguing that people often favour green space because of the depressing belief that we are no longer capable of designing a building that can compete with a patch of grass. Nor does he oppose gentrification, which he sees as a routine and essential process without which neighbourhoods and cities would never recover from down-cycles. “In America,” he tells me, “we have adapted a sentimental view that the well off should not displace the people living in run-down neighbourhoods. This is a philosophically indefensible position, since it presumes that well-off people are not welcome in the city per se, and have no business fixing up old property. It implies that the well-off should restrict themselves to life in the suburbs or the rural hinterlands. A city without better-off classes cannot endure”.

The ideas issuing from the highest circles of architectural education today are patent absurdities, such as the idea that novelty ought to trump the public interest […] Personally, I view some of the leading architects of our time as being among the wickedest people in the world

Worse by far than the general unpleasantness of US cities and the gutting of their centres is the looming global oil crisis. Peak oil production is about to be reached, Kunstler and many others maintain, and a period of unprecedented civil unrest will come in its wake. Kunstler's forthcoming book, out in May from Atlantic Monthly Press, is entitled The Long Emergency but as far back as 1993 he wrote: “Some talented mob-master may arise among us, promising the American people that he can bring back the good days 'if only we have the guts to invade some region with deep oil reserves'” (The Geography of Nowhere). Civil unrest caused by the peaking of oil production is upon us, and 'unrest' is putting it mildly.

Kunstler's prose (he is also a novelist) ranges from energetic to downright pugilistic and his books on urban planning issues and the growth of the suburbs make lively reading. A row of facades, in The Geography of Nowhere, has “an aspect of slack-jawed cretinism”. In The City in Mind he writes that St Louis is “a virtual mummy's tomb”; Baltimore “a fly-blown carcass”; Atlanta “one big-ass parking lot under a toxic pall”; Manhattan a “physically sordid agglomeration of endlessly repeated sub-mediocre typologies and over-blown engineering stunts”; Buffalo “looks as if it suffered a prolonged ariel bombardment”; and Appleton, Wisconsin has an “asteroid belt of highway strips and architectural garbage five miles outside of town”.

I caught up by e-mail with Kunstler just after his return from Europe and asked him if he had visited any grim European cities this time round. “Well, I was in two of the real good ones”, he wrote back. “I suppose there are plenty of industrial backwaters around Europe that aren't all that groovy. But for the most part their cities are much more satisfying places than the towns and cities of America”. One of the reasons that American towns are less satisfying is their low-density sprawl, whose civic deficiencies Kunstler gives as: “the lack of decent public space, the extreme segregation of uses, the disadvantaging of children and old people who don't drive. There are plenty of cities worldwide that have neighbourhoods composed of single-family houses on very small lots, the houses themselves sometimes being very grand. It is also not difficult to combine typologies, mixing single family houses with multifamily houses on small lots. The differences are often cultural. In Paris, for instance, apartment living is normative; to some extent the modern apartment building was pioneered in Paris. London, on the other hand, has long been allergic to apartment living. The result there was a series of neighbourhoods composed entirely of single-family rowhouses, a rather dreary and monotonous condition. Sprawl is the least natural and normative living arrangement. It was pioneered in the US, which began the 20th century with a handsome supply of its own oil. We now depend desperately for more than half the oil we use on nations who hate us. The age of sprawl as a credible alternative is nearing its end”.

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