Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Pondering A Problem

Friday, January 1st, 2010

There are two things that I think make for great writing. The first is honesty and the second is simplicity.

Both of these things are far harder to pull off then at first it might appear. We are not by nature honest creatures. When we talk with others we put on masks and we filter what we say. Even when we are dealing only with ourselves there is often things we don’t want to see in cold hard print even when we know they are true.

As far as simplicity, we all know that we should make things as simple as possible and still have them serve their intended function. And this is hard because it requires us to perfectly understand what the intended function is. This is hard even when the thing is our own creation.

But I find that it is really difficult to combine simplicity with honesty. When ever I strive for the one, I find myself sacrificing the latter.

I wonder why this is.

One would think that striving for honesty would also help make things as simple as possible. Surly the truth is the epitome of what is as simple as possible.

Perhaps it is just because I have a very imperfect understanding of what is necessary for true honesty. Thus, I try too many things to achieve the effect of being honest.

Or maybe it is just a reflection of my poor abilities as a wordsmith. I find that when I want to be honest I most often have to use metaphors and similes. Perhaps if I was better with language I would find a way to say what I mean in a more straightforward manner.

But perhaps the problem is simple as the fact that I am a coward and when part of me seeks to speak the truth the other part of me wants to cover it up.

Things to ponder

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

J.R. R. Tolkien was once accused (and is still by many) of peddling nothing but lies. His response was this….

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

In a different context he said…

“Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and
likeness of a Maker.”

When ever I think about art, I almost invariable think about the essay that these quotes where drawn from. Although Tolkien tried hard to differentiate fantasy from other art forms, I think all of his arguments could be applied to any art form. And I think he does his arguments a disservice by trying to limit them the way he does.

Be that as it may, I keep coming back in my thoughts to this essay because it is such an unsettling thing for me to read. I don’t feel comfortable with many of the arguments that Tolkien makes. One gets the feeling that he fell in love with his subject to an extent that is almost idolatrous. Yet at the same time, I cannot make myself dismiss Tolkien argument out hand.

It cannot be denied that man is a creative by his very nature. Nor would I argue that there is anything wrong with being creative. But to make to much of man being a “sub-creator” because he is made in the image of God is a very slippery slope. That argument can very easily lead to deifying man.

And that is before we get in the difficulties presented by Tolkien’s arguments over what is really “true”.

A question and an answer

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

What is the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or to be more precise, what is the difference between great writing and merely functional writing? And is there even any profit in considering the question?

It is often argued that great writing is just a matter of taste. And to a certain degree this is true. A blind man will never be able to appreciate the work of a visual artist. And I have determined through scientific testing that your intelligence level vastly affects what you can enjoy and what you can not. To wit, if I am tired and brain dead I don’t like things that I would otherwise love and love things that I would otherwise hate.

But when people say that great writing is just a matter of taste they are not claiming that people’s limitations affect what they are able to enjoy. Rather, they are arguing that there is no objective standard by which we might say that some writing is functional and other writing is great. This view point is seriously misleading. I would even go so far as to argue that it is completely false.

It is true to argue that mankind will never be able to articulate or understand a complete objective understanding of what makes writing great. But that has nothing to do with the issue with of whether such a standard does exist. Human beings are not the measure of reality. And this distinction matters because something that we can never fully obtain is still worth striving for.

In fact, I would argue that artistic expression in western world has gone down hill precisely because artists have come to believe that man is the measure of all things and they have given up striving to live up to any other measure. The builders of the Cathedrals lavished great care even on the unseen parts because the believed that the measure of good art was not limited to the measure of man. Modern architecture is designed solely around the need to shock or impress the mind of man. In my mind, there is no contest as to which is the better work of art.

And I think that a similar observation could be made about art in general. Once man became the measure of all things, the only things that matters where those things that could get a strong reaction out of mankind. And those were generally things that shocked, titillated, or horrified. Thus, the great and good will not consider a work of fiction to be serious unless it is one part porn, one part ghost tale, and one part freak show. And yet, their serious works do not compare to that which came before them and in their more honest moments they recognize this.

If you share this observation, then the answer to my last question becomes obvious. If acting as if man is the only measure of what makes things great drags the arts down then it is obvious that ones conception of what makes writing “great” matters. And thus there is some value in considering the question of what makes writing great how ever minor that value might be.

Dubious Judgments

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Yesterday I got one of those reminders of what people with real imaginations can do. I came across a web comic called “Order of Tales” and I thought “how bizarre.”

I don’t want to pass it off as being a great work of art that will stand the test time. I don’t even want to try to pass it off as being particularly good. But I could not help thinking as I was reading it that the dude who drew the comic had a real imagination.

I think part of what makes the effect so striking is the fact that he seems to avoid using the rational part of his mind when he draws the comic. There is no attempt to justify anything or make it seem realistic. Instead he seems to just call forth from the depths of his mind the shapes of what he is trying to express and he uses them with no apology for the fact that they are utterly wacked.

Its not the type of thing that I would have thought that I would go for. But I found the whole thing strangely appealing.

Of course, that could just be because I was tired when I read it.

Mild Delusions

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Today the challenge will to come up with something that resembles a rational thought. It is a pity that it this way. There is so much on my mind that I could talk about.

I know this is so because I spent most of last night thinking about it while I was trying to sleep.

For example, I spent considerable time pondering the beginning of Yeats poem “The Second Coming”. You know, the part where it says….

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

I say “you know”, like I have the poem perfectly memorized. But while I had the first line of the poem remembered perfectly correct, I misremembered the second line. This is the problem with thinking about things in the middle of the night, there is no good way to check up on things. If I had, I would have realized that the lines from poem that read….

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Were more germane to the point I was wondering about. See at the time I was thinking of this passage from Matthew…

27For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

See, last night I had this dim memory of being convinced at some previous point in the past that Yeats was referencing this passage, but I could not remember the verse in question. So I was trying to remember if I had thought the reference was to the falcon.

This is the problem one has when one does not write down one’s thoughts. One is constantly being forced to reinvent the wheel.

On the plus side, it keeps you from being bored when you can’t sleep because of a bad head cold.

Cursing My Blessing

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Yesterday I wrote a post that was misleading. It’s all my sister’s fault. She won’t let me write a post that is longer then 300 words long. I am pretty good at listening to females. I hear most of the words that they say. So my posts have been in the neighborhood of what she demands, word count wise.

But this crimps my style. It is hard to bring truth to the world in 400 words or less. And if you can’t bring truth to world, you have no choice but to lie.

From all the whining that I did yesterday, you would think that I am in the habit of digging holes. I am not.

But I still hate doing stupid things. And the landscape plan that I was digging holes for was stupid.

The gentlemen who were in charge of getting this particular building landscaped realized that they were in over their heads. So they went to local nursery and got a “FREE” pan drawn up based on the budget that they provided.

This “FREE” plan called for the building to be surrounded by homogeneous plant groupings that had no relation to each other. For example, the “FREE” plan called for a row of Burning Bush to be planted along side the building up to a certain point. Then it called for for a row of Day Lilies to pick up where the Burning Bush left off (in a really dry location no less!!!). After the Day Lilies left off, the plan called for Boxwood to be planted. And so on and so on.

There was no attempt to provide contrasting shapes and colors. There was no attempt to use plants to do any kind of anchoring or framing. There was no attempt to do any kind of traditional landscape planing whatsoever. And don’t even get me started on the plant spacing.

The really disgusting part about all this is that the Equipment Cowboy that I mentioned in my last post still works for these guys. He could have come up with a better plan then the “FREE” one. But people who should not be bosses prefer to get a “FREE” plan from an “Expert” rather then ask a somewhat knowledgeable laborer who actually works for them.

As it turned out, all this worked in my favor. Because my expert help was so critically needed to dig holes for this “FREE” plan, I got out of cleaning up the turds that were all over the place as a result of a major sewage blockage. And that was a good thing.

A County Boy Can Survive, But His Culture May Not

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I am no fan of Obama. But I felt a little sorry for him give all the abuse he took for saying…

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

If you listen to all those people spouting off about what Obama said, you would think that I should be offended by those statements. I have a lot of relatives in small towns in Pennsylvania. I work in with a bunch of guys from small towns in Pennsylvania. I live in a rural area myself. What’s more, almost everyone I spend any amount of time with is heavily into God or guns or both. So I guess I am amongst those who should feel insulted by Obama’s clinging remarks.

But I don’t.

It’s not that I think Obama’s comments were accurate. As I will explain latter, I think he got things completely backwards. But it is hard for me to get mad when I think someone is trying to defend me.

Even though he did not know what he was talking about, I think Obama honestly thought he was defending us folk. After all, he was talking to an audience in San Francisco were everyone assumes that we hill folk are dumb drooling idiots who are easily manipulated by those evil republicans into voting on social issues when if we knew what was best for us we would vote based on our economic interests. In that context, I read Obama as saying “Why shouldn’t they vote solely on social issues when neither Democrats nor Republicans have ever been able (or willing) to help them out with economic issues?” I think Obama was trying to remove the slur of stupidity that is so often imputed to rural folk by the more sophisticated urban dwellers by pointing out that rural folk could not rationally expect either party to do anything substantive about their economic issues. So why should it surprise anyone that they cling to social issues? What else can they realistically do?

In the context of how I have seen many urban people talk about rural folk, this constitutes a ringing defense. But it is also wrong.

To understand why this defense is wrong we will start with some music.

Now perhaps the above clip signals nothing more to you than the fact that country boys are overly macho, boastful ignorant slobs who like to celebrate their cultural backwardness and fondness for killing wildlife. Depending on your world view and personality, such a view is defensible. But if that is all you can see in such a song, you are as blind as a bat.

Ask yourself this: does anyone make songs boasting about living in the suburbs? Is there a class of music devoted to celebrating living in subdivisions that is the equivalent of country music?

The answer is no of course. So what does that tell you about rural culture?

While you are pondering that question, let me make some observations on the song.

In the first place, let me point out that anyone who hears the above song and thinks it is about the superior economic security supposedly enjoyed by country boys is missing the point. The focus is not one the economic superiority of the rural life, but on its masculine superiority and by extension its social superiority.

A Country Boy Can Survive does not seriously argue that a city boy is going to starve as result of rising interest rates and falling stock markets. Rather the implicit contrast is that economic bad times can cause the city boy to lose his 9 to 5 job. If that happens to a city boy, what is he worth? Chances are, none of the skills that made him useful to his employer have any relevance to the needs of his household. So a city man without a job is good for nothing but housecleaning. In other words, to the masculine mind he is worth nothing.

By contrast, if a country boy losses his job, he can still hunt, fish, or fix anything. His masculine role is independent of economic forces. He is worth something even if his employer no longer wants him.

This message of male empowerment is why the death of the singer’s friend is given such prominent role in the song. If you understand the country mindset, you will understand that the tragedy of the friend’s death was not the fact that he died, but that he was unable to defend himself from a punk with a knife. If you don’t get the message loud and clear that a country boy would not find himself in that situation, you are deaf.

But the story of the friend’s death also serves to highlight the social superiority of the country life. The implicit message of the song is that in the country we are all a band of brothers whereas in the city everyone is preying on each other. The bitter “for 43 dollars my friend lost his life” is meant to accentuate the broader point that in the city your worth is measured in dollars and cents, not your social ties and adherence to a cultural code of honor.

The social superiority and masculine superiority of country life are closely intertwined, as the line “We say grace and we say we say Ma’am” makes clear. That line conjures up the image of a close-knit community with strong shared values. But saying grace is a peculiarly male function in rural life. Thus, that line also highlights the fact that in the country men are men and women are women in contrast to the city, where males and females are interchangeable cogs in the economic machine.

I should note that though the song is from a male view point, the outlook expressed is not exclusively male. I know of one woman who comes from a country background, lives in the country, and has typically country attitudes. She is employed in a male dominated technology field and she does not act overly feminine (e.g., she is not afraid to express her opinions or get her hands dirty). Yet she will not look twice at any man, no matter how big his paycheck, unless he is rough and tough. Nor does she bother to conceal her contempt for all men who fail to measure up to her idea of what masculine is. And this is not because she lacks options.

I would not venture a guess as to how widespread this attitude is, since I am generally not privy to the honest thoughts of women. Truthfully, the only reason the above example sticks in my mind is because it violated my understanding of how the universe should work, to come across a woman who is more chauvinistic than I am. But I have seen and heard enough that I would be willing to bet that the attitudes expressed in “A Country Boy Can Survive” finds an echo in the female half of the race.

But so far we have been taking the song at its word as far as its depiction of what country life is like. It gets more interesting if you consider where the song stoops to a falsehood.

What makes the falsehood so remarkable is that the song is remarkably honest for such a boastful song. Oh, you might be able to quibble about its portrayal of urban life if you were so inclined (though you should remember that the song was written in the early 80’s when urban crime was more of problem than it is today and rural crime was less of a problem than it is today). But I don’t think that anyone who has lived in rural areas can fail to think of dozens of men who could honestly make almost all the explicit and implicit boasts in the song without the slightest exaggeration.

But there is one line that would sound false. That’s where Hank sings “I live back in the woods, you see, the woman, the kids, the dog, and me.” The impression given is that of nice traditional family living off in the backwoods. But a man who can honestly make that boast is a lot rarer in the backwoods than men who can do the rest of the stuff that Hank sings about. Certainly Hank can’t make that boast. He divorced his fourth wife not so long ago.

When I think about all the men that I know who could be called country boys after the model of Hank’s song, a lot of them follow the same pattern.

For example, there is this one guy I know. We will call him Tall Boy. He is an excellent hunter. He hunts anytime it is legal. It doesn’t matter if it is black powder or bow season. It doesn’t matter if it is deer or turkey season. He is always out there. If he is not hunting he will be out fishing. And he is an excellent fisherman. It doesn’t matter if he is casting for salmon, waiting for bass, or sitting out on the ice. He always does well. In between fishing and hunting, he hunts for mushrooms in the appropriate seasons, tends his honey bees, rebuilds his tractor, cuts his supply of firewood, bails hay for his wife’s horses, works on whatever construction project he had going, and occasional tends to the small business that he owns, just to name a few things that he occupies his time with. He is one of the few left around who butchers a cow by bashing it over the head with sledge hammer. A very humane way of killing a cow if it works, but if it doesn’t, you are dealing with a half a ton of very mad beef. I could go on and on telling you about all the skills he has and all the things he has done but it would take a small book.

He got his skills growing up on a farm. His father abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his family struggling. His mother use to send him out to poach deer so they would have something to eat. He only married once but his wife did not want to have any kids because of his drinking problem along with other problems. He often mentioned how much he regretted this and many other things that he did when he was younger. He had no happy home life.

I know another guy. We will call him Square Boy. He hunts deer, coons and many other things. He goes after mushrooms himself, but not to the same extreme as Tall Boy. He raises beef cattle, horses, dogs, and homing pigeons (so that he could race them against other flocks). He gets firewood and bails hay. He was an iron worker, a tree man, a sawyer, and a landscaper among many other things. He built his own house and barn. He has blotches all over him that he acquired in Vietnam from Agent Orange. He is known for his huge capacity for hard work and inhuman toughness. He once cut his arm almost completely off with chain saw. He pinched it tight with his free hand and walked over to the neighbors so that they could take him to a hospital. Once there he refused to allow the doctors to give him anesthesia and when they insisted he turned and started walking out. They gave in and sewed up his arm without anesthesia. I never did find out why he did not want anesthesia. I suspect it was because he did not have insurance and did not want to pay for it. He is a very tight with his money. Again, to tell the full tale of the range of things can do and has done would take a small book.

He grew up in a dirt poor family. He told me how he used to pull the blankets over his head and hold them tightly down because he was afraid of the rats that lived in his house. He said he used feel them running over his bed at night. His father died while he was a still a teenager. He dropped out of school so that he could help support his family after that happened.

He married and had a couple of daughters. But he is divorced and he never sees or hears from them anymore. He says his ex-wife turned them against him. This saddens him greatly. He also wishes he could have had at least one son.

I know another guy. We will call him Small Man. He is a big time hunter and fisher. He loves to shoot off guns and he has a gun collection that would outfit a small army. But what he was really known for was his black powder shooting skills. He used to win shooting matches at a hundred yards with him using a black powder rifle and his opponents using scoped rifles. He made his living as a butcher, a welder, and by working in stone quarries amongst other things. He had a bit of small man complex and would often get involved in fights with people much bigger than him. Typically he would win, because when he loses his temper he would go insane and wouldn’t even realize what he was doing until it was all over. Once when he was angry he hit a door so hard he knocked it off its hinges. Again those are only some of the highlights.

He grew up in large family. But his brothers and sisters came from several different fathers. For a while he lived in a house without any indoor plumbing while he was growing up.

He got married and had a daughter. But he divorced and his daughter lives many states away. He rarely sees her but she will send her son to stay in the summer time. He loves to teach his grandson how to hunt and fish and other such rural activities. He is proud of what a good shot is grandson is and plans to leave him his gun collection when he dies. He will be heartbroken if his grandson decides he is no longer interested in visiting his grandpa once he hits his teenage years.

And I could tell many other stories like this. Most of the country boys I know don’t have nice little nuclear families to go home to. And I don’t think my experience is atypical. The statistics tell of a lot of teenage pregnancy and single parent homes in rural areas. And those numbers are all the more jarring when you look at them in context of the rapid aging of most rural areas. You get the feeling that very few young people in rural America have their life together.

Don’t get me wrong. There are happy families out in woods where the men of the family can honestly make all the boasts in Hank’s song without having to fake the happy family bit. I know of some of them myself but I won’t bore you with their stories (if are interested in reading about a happy rural family you can go over to the Pioneer Woman’s site). To truly understand the concerns of most rural folk, you need to understand that the permanent problem facing rural areas is the absence of children. And you will not be able to understand the problem of the absence of children if you examine the happy families.

If you doubt that missing children are a big concern in rural areas, just pick up any old hunting magazine. Odds are you will find at least one article in the magazine that laments that the fact that few young people are taking up hunting. It is common knowledge in hunting circles that the number of hunters is going to implode in the coming decades. The average age of your average hunter keeps climbing. And all attempts to bring in more young people into the field have fallen flat on their face.

The causes of this coming implosion are also well known in hunting circles. It has to do with the declining number of children being born and the sharp increase in single parent homes. It is the latter that gets the most attention in hunting magazines. Over and over you read that kids don’t go hunting with their dads like they used to. The biggest reason for this is that often their dads are not at home anymore.

Now it occurs to me as I am writing this, that the three example country boys I gave might not support the idea that fathers not being around to teach their kids to hunt is anything new. But I can tell you the vast majority of hunters I know learned to hunt from their fathers. Those who did not learn from their fathers learned from their grandfathers.

Tall Boy would be a good example of this. He learned from his grandfather who lived on the farm with Tall Boy when he was growing up. Contrast that with Small Man who is trying to teach his grandson who lives many states away and you will understand why the kids today are less likely to learn from their grandparents. And since the majority of hunters that I know are divorced and no longer live with their kids, it is not likely that they will learn from their dads either.

As hunting goes, so goes rural culture in general. But you should understand that rural culture or even hunting in particular is not just about blowing up furry critters with large caliber rifles. If you don’t understand what I am talking about, you didn’t listen to Hank’s song very close.

It is this love of their culture, and not any economic insecurity, that causes rural folk to “cling” to social issues. After all, those whose primary love was money and other materialistic things left for the city a long time ago. Those that are left were self-selected to care about other things more than money.

To be sure, we can overstate this. There is more than a few people who are bumming around the countryside because they lack the ambition or the brains to leave the place where they were born. And there are others whose primary concern was the privacy or fun that that they could find in the country.

But the love of many for the culture that can be found in rural areas is very real and not just a faked artifice of country music. In my neighborhood there was a couple who were having serious financial problems due to the problems their small business was facing. As a result, they were thinking of selling their place and moving to cheaper place 20 minutes away in an effort to save money and extract some equity from their land.

Tall Boy became very upset with them over these plans. He took it as a kind of betrayal. He had made efforts to help them out and he thought they could cut down on their expenses a lot more than they had. He felt that the fact that they were going to move even though they could have tightened their belt and stayed with help from their neighbors showed that they did not value their friends very much. When I observed that they were only moving 20 minutes away and that it would still be possible to visit back and forth without too much trouble, he retorted that you can’t be a good neighbor to someone who lives 20 minutes away.

As turns out, they did not move. But the incident demonstrates how Tall Boy placed a high premium on living in a place with a tight social network in spite of the moral failings which made it impossible for him to raise a family. His conception of a good community was a place where anyone would jump in their truck at a moment’s notice to fly down the street to help out a neighbor. Or conversely, where anyone could jump in their truck and go borrow a tool that was needed. It was his conception of what a community should be like that lead him to join the volunteer fire department when he found out they were short of people (he is now the captain). In other words, even though he led a wild life (and still does to an extent) he always sought out and tried to foster the rural ideal of community.

This paradox between being unable or unwilling to live the type of life that is necessary to raise a nuclear family, but at the same time deeply attached to a tight-knit community explains the social conservatism of rural areas, even though statistics show they don’t live that much differently than urban people do as far as personal morals. Every man who loves rural culture knows that it is doomed without strong families. For without strong families they know there will be no hunters. They know that without strong families there will be no neighbors who will help them. They know that without strong families there will be no tight-knit communities.

And if you get to know the men who love rural culture, you will hear them regret that there is no one for them to pass all their skills to. They express the wish that they could go back and do things differently. They are horrified that that they are aging and facing death and there is no one to carry on after them. They loved the patriarchal ideal of being men in a community of men, but now they find themselves facing the most horrible of the patriarchal curses. They have no descendants.

This is why Hank felt obliged to fake the idea that country boys were all out their raising happy families. If the culture dies, there will be no more country boys. And that is a thought that Hank does not want to face. It is also the fear that Obama does not seem understand.

How much can New Urbanism evolve and still be New Urbanism?

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

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.

Mr. Corbusier,

The quality of your response was far more than my off-the-cuff comment deserved. I only wish that I was more capable of upholding my end of the bargain.

You are quite right to observe that my term “commercial architecture” refers to architecture that was not conceived of by architects. That was my whole point in bringing “commercial architecture” up. I should have made that more clear.

If you can bear with me, I shall try to elaborate on that point a little more. Hopefully that will give you a better idea of what I was trying to get at.

As I see it, the post-war architecture of this country was shaped by Eisenhower and Sam Walton. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, of course. But the point is that we did not become a nation of suburbs and big box retailers because architectural theories of the time called for those things. In fact, such things were the exact opposite of what the Modernist theories called for.

Now the fact that professional architects have had very little influence on how this country developed is not surprising. Architecture the world over has developed organically with professional architects only serving as bit players in a larger drama. The structure of how we live is too complicated to be controlled by one profession.

But the post-World War II period does seem unprecedented in one architectural respect. I can’t think of any other time in history when the ideas governing the minds of the professional architects were in complete hostility to what was actually taking place in the vast majority of construction. Granted, the architecture that the professionals design has always been different from what the common man was building. But the difference was in kind, not in principle.

For example, (more…)

Replying to Corbusier

Friday, October 26th, 2007

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.


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?

What does success mean?

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

While Corbusier and I have some similar criticisms of New Urbanism he takes issue with my statement that New Urbanism is doomed to failure. He argues that New Urbanism should be considered successful because of its commercial success. As he puts it…

Although I’ve expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism’s resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

I agree with what Corbusier is saying, but I think we have a different perspective. As a professional designer out in the field, it is natural for him to judge success in monetary terms. If I were in his shoes, I would evaluate competing design philosophies in the same way. You have to pay your bills if you want to eat. And I like eating.

But I am not a professional designer. I am a savage who is philosophically inclined. As such, I evaluate the success or failure of design philosophies by how well they succeed in furthering their ideals. On such a criteria, New Urbanism is a failure and likely to stay one for the foreseeable future.

As Corbusier himself admits in his post, New Urbanism has consistently failed to put people on the streets. Heck, you will see more people walking in a Wal-mart parking lot than you will on a New Urbanism inspired main street. And yet, one of New Urbanism’s central tenets is that urban areas would be healthier socially and environmentally if people walked more. The complete failure of New Urbanism to generate any more pedestrian traffic than existing strip malls is a pretty damning indictment in the terms of its own ideals.

Don’t get me wrong. I like most of the ideals behind New Urbanism. But the whole philosophy is akin to the neo-con’s idea that you could change the Middle East by imposing democracy. Without an underlying value system that binds a community together, both democracy and New Urbanism are nothing more than gilded facades.

To put it another way: everyone wants to be fit, but people have made more money selling fast food then they have selling gym memberships. More to the point, everyone who buys fast food eats it. But most people buy gym memberships because the thought makes them feel virtuous and not because they are actually going to put in the effort to get in shape. In the same way, people will say that they would like to live in a New Urbanism type world. But they will spend more money in the strip mall.

And I think most people buy into New Urbanism-style developments because it makes them feel virtuous, not because they actually intend to change the way they live.