Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

I asked Kunstler if successful cities were planned or if they grew. “For the most part 'successful' cities grow 'organically' in a self-organizing process that might be characterized as the process called 'emergence'. But parts of cities definitely are planned in an overt and conscious process. The neighbourhood squares of London and their accompanying row houses fall into that category, as do the great avenues of Paris dating from Louis-Napoleon's time (1848-1870), or earlier pieces such as the Place de Vosges, which was a royal palace occupying an entire block with a square in the centre. The industrial era induced a kind of hyper-growth on cities that was sometimes planned and sometimes arbitrary. Of course, one has to make a distinction between grand schemes of urban design carried out as projects (e.g. Washington DC) as opposed to sets of standards and norms of excellence (e.g. the City Beautiful movement in the US (1890 – 1930)) which was more a matter of a consensus among architects about the best practices in design. The 20th century has been mostly unfortunate for all cities, insofar as virtually all growth has been hypertrophy, or pathological hyper-growth. The suburban tendency in America has been a fiasco, and somewhat less catastrophic in Europe, where the value of city life per se was retained”.

Kunstler describes architecture as a discredited profession in The City in Mind. (The Pompidou Centre is, he writes, a “mutilation” (39)). In interview he is just as uncompromising: “Most people, including intelligent, well-educated ones, think, in their heart of hearts, of contemporary buildings as things that have made their lives worse, not better. And certainly the accompanying disdain of the urban context among architects ('star' architects in particular) has made matters much worse. The ideology of architecture has been made hostage to the extreme entropy of our industrial culture. The immersive ugliness of American townscapes is, in fact, entropy made visible. And by 'entropy' I mean the tendency of things to lead to deadness and death. 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, or the idea that 'creativity' (so-called) is a superior method than the emulation of forms that have already proven successful (meaning problems already solved). Personally, I view some of the leading architects of our time as being among the wickedest people in the world”.

Corbusier is an especial bete-noir for Kunstler. “Corbu's main contribution to the destruction of the human habitat was his virulent hatred for cities and the enactments of urban life in particular. His writings are full of disdain for the life of the street and the people in them. It is no surprise therefore that he excelled at finding ways to destroy these indispensable units of urban design. Corbu was the father of the 'tower in the park' idea, which soon mutated in the US into the failed experiment of the housing projects. His contemporaries were equally destructive. Walter Gropius fled Germany and was immediately given authority as head of Harvard's graduate program. In doing so, he began the process whereby despotic Modernism became the only permissible mode of design in the industrial world. Its most serious offence, besides his promotion of gigantism in scale, was what writer Wendy Steiner has shrewdly labelled 'the exile of Venus', meaning they wrung everything feminine out of architecture: no more ornament, no sensuality, no curves, no emulation of forms found in nature. Instead we got the worship of the Machine, an ethos promoted by the last of the Three Canonical Amigos, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who landed at the Illinois Institute of Technology”. Here Kunstler is particularly scathing, likening this ethos to, for example, sadomasochism. “These characters and their disciples managed to squeeze all the humanity out of architecture, at least public and monumental architecture, and left us with a legacy of robot buildings made for human ciphers”.

When I remarked that Gropius's gigantism reminds me of Socialist Realist architecture he replied, “Gigantism was not by any means Walter Gropius's special thing. Gigantism was a hallmark of industrial civilization and all the architects that served it. It required buildings for activities organized at the giant scale, everything from sixty story corporate office buildings to giant slabs of university dormitories to massive government bureaucracy headquarters. Gigantism went hand-in-hand with the worship of the machine and machine form, in place of forms drawn from nature, and was also something embraced by almost all the iconic Modernists. A more interesting take on Gropius's aesthetic of machine purism is E. Michael Jones's notion that Gropius was attempting tocompensate for his messy sex life”.

Kunstler himself has no formal training architecture or related design fields. I asked him if he encountered much snobbery from trade professionals. “I've encountered some snobbery in the architecture schools where I am invited to lecture, but the architecture professors are snobby toward everyone. I don't feel singled out. They are engaged mainly in the project of defending an indefensible ideology, Modernism (capital M), which has been hugely destructive to the human race. Their vocation is discredited. The public loathes their cold and inhumane buildings. They're paranoid. Many of those who teach are precisely the ones who couldn't make a living at architecture if they tried, so they take comfort in the
shelter of theory and ideology. It confers a comfortable sense of superiority on people who haven't accomplished anything. The record of their ideology in the cities and towns of America is there for anyone to see: abandonment, ruin, and the dishonour of the public realm”. Most of the resistance Kunstler runs up against comes from people with vested interests in urban sprawl, he tells me. &ldquoI've been all over the country several times over and most 'normal' people out there are very distressed about what has happened to their towns and cities. They're also ashamed, and baffled. They are very grateful to hear that it doesn't have to be like that, that there are different choices that they (and their public officials) can make”.

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