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Replying to Corbusier

Corbusier and I had (or are we having?) an exchange of views over at Articture + Morality on New Urbanism. I am re-posting something that I wrote in his comment section for the benefit of those who like to keep tabs on what I am up to.

Corbusier,

Thanks for the reply. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to reply, but life has a way of intervening in unfavorable ways.

As usual, I am struck by how much I agree with what you say while at the same time marveling at how much our perspectives differ. If you see Modernism as the natural thing to compare to New Urbanism then everything you say is spot on. But it never even entered my little blue collared mind to use Modernism as a scale by which to measure New Urbanism.

I hate Modernism with such a passion that comparing it to another architectural style seems like an unnecessary insult. Furthermore, the very nature of the Modernism ideology means that it can never be the style of the masses as you rightly point out. It is economically impossible, not to mention that most common people have better sense than to want one of those white elephants.

On the other hand, it is at least theoretically possible that the principles of New Urbanism could become a realistic type of architecture for the average person. To my mind, then, the natural comparison for New Urbanism would be to the commercial architecture that is being put up where most Americans live. In other words, can New Urbanism replace strip malls, subdivisions, and Mc-mansions?

The problem I have with New Urbanism is not the theory that underlies it, but how it works out in practice. I don’t see where New Urbanism has any benefits in practice that normal old commercial architecture does not have. Thus, I have a hard time imagining that developers are selling anything more than a chance to be hip when they build New Urbanism structures.

Slapping the New Urbanism label on a development might increase the appeal to the upwardly mobile yuppies that are willing to pay for a cool idea. But how can it have any real staying power if fails to deliver anything different than what commercial architecture has already achieved? In other words, the day that I see yuppies walking to take care of their business in their neighborhood will be the day that I acknowledge that New Urbanism has staying power.

I wish this were not so. Commercial architecture ranks just above Modernism in my book. I would love it if people stopped building sub-divisions and strip malls. I would love it if America would go back to an architecture that was more community based. But I don’t see any sign that most Americans want to live in real communities. What good is a theory that makes possible a lifestyle that nobody wants?

4 Responses to “Replying to Corbusier”

  1. on 29 Oct 2007 at 5:44 pmcorbusier

    Apeman,

    I am very flattered by your willingness to share my articles to your readers and you offer some well considered responses to them. I look forward to exchanging ideas with you in the future.

    Before embarking on a deeper discussion about New Urbanism, could you please describe to me what you mean by “commercial architecture”? We in the architecture world never use this term to describe a particular style or period or a common typology such shopping strip malls, sprawling subdivisions and the like. While many of those things you list are visible phenomena of the twentieth century, each of those things have origin either in design philosophies that preceded the Modernist movement or are loose derivatives of it, the product of a changing economic and technological environment that architects could not control. Many of those things you seem to dislike in “commercial” architecture are as much innovations by developers, traffic engineers and a car-based culture than anything architects could come up with. Please clarify for me.

    I still think you hold particular design theories up to too high a threshold of success. We both agree that New Urbanism relies on flawed assumptions regarding the way people live today compared to the way life was lived when nineteenth century suburban town planning (what much of New Urbanism is based on) was at its most sophisticated. The evidence of this can be seen by the lack of people on the streets of these kind of communities. I do not believe that the failure for New Urbanism to generate the pedestrian traffic it promises throws it to the dustbin of urban planning fads. Rather, I think it will evolve from its naive academic roots towards a more workable and flexible theory driven by the commercial realities of the times.

    As you may have noted, it’s easier to find a lot more foot traffic in the big box retailers than in any quaint historic town square. Although I design retail environments in my job, I’m becoming more convinced that skillful retail planning will anchor and determine the success of New Urbanist development than any other factor. Considering our contemporary appetite to consume ever more as overall affluence grows and the overwhelming efficiencies provided by chain stores to answer to such demand, much of our communal activity will revolve around shopping and not by just hanging out in an outdoor public square. If your New Urbanist development doesn’t have a good retail plan, you can kiss your hopes of pedestrian dynamism goodbye.

    For someone like you who yearns for a traditional sense of community, producing a desired urban desity by such a debasing activity as shopping may engender despair. I agree with you that many Americans really don’t want to be part of a traditional close knit physical community anyway, especially now that the internet has allowed all of us to enjoy in virtual communities. But a retail-based urban density clothed in New Urbanism is still a more pleasing alternative than your strip mall or big box power center with oceans of parking and zero street life.

    Working on the front lines of retail design, the trend is definitely moving away from single-use lots with abundant surface parking to a much denser mixed-use arrangement. No new shopping malls are being built anymore, and some are being torn down to make way for a New Urbanist mixed-use ‘lifestyle’ center. Ugly Big Box strip centers will continue to be built so long as land is cheap, but in the pricier lots a mixed-use development begins to make a lot more sense.

    I’ll comment further on the place of Modernism in discussing town planning in another comment post…

  2. […] This was originally going to be a response to a comment that Mr. Corbusier left on this post. But I got a little carried away so I decided to make it a post of its own. […]

  3. on 30 Oct 2007 at 4:48 pmApe Man

    Mr. Corbusier,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond.

    As you have probably noticed from the track back, I left you a response here.

    Ape Man

  4. […] In nothing so far have I addressed the problem with the architecture that tries to address the problems I have described. One such style of architecture is New Urbanism. It concurrs with my condemnation of the vacuity of modern domestic architecture, but it seeks to address this by using forms from older styles of architecture. And that is how it completely misses the point. Those styles of architecture that we associate with “better living” were not inherently superior architectural forms. They reflected the mode of living that was going on. (I am saying much the same thing as my brother.) […]

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