Here is the second of those two columns:
The New Urbanists in Providence II
June 8, 2006
THE QUESTION most asked at last week’s 14th Congress for the New Urbanism was: If style doesn’t matter, why are we always discussing it? The question answers itself.
The charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism reads, in part: “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” But of course it really does not. Modernism, as conceived by modernists themselves, cannot link up seamlessly to its surroundings. Modernists are free to try, but those who succeed must abandon their modernist dogma.
The New Urbanism seeks to reconstitute the traditional patterns of living that prevailed before World War II, which have since been overturned by modern planning and design. Traditional styles are not necessarily the key to traditional neighborhood development. Walkability, proximity and intimacy of scale are more important. But the New Urbanism’s popularity, and hence its power to confront modernism, does hinge on its traditional style.
After all, the public might not necessarily recognize a traditionally patterned neighborhood without a hint from traditional styles. Slide after slide in the seminar “Can New Urbanism Capture the Market for Modernism?” showed modernist attempts at New Urbanist streetscapes. They were uniformly forgettable. Only one slide, of a block of townhouses in Aqua, part of Miami Beach, was attractive. Whether Aqua itself lives up to that slide, I cannot say. Moderne rather than modern, the block’s disciplined hubbub reminded me of the old town in the cartoon above, by Léon Krier. Aqua rejects the “Wow!” modernism that has spent decades trying, with increasing success, to live up to Krier’s wacky stereotypes.
In accepting CNU’s Athena medal honoring the seminal influence of his thinking on the New Urbanism, Krier displayed his unabashed classicism. As a boy, he watched his native Luxembourg being rebuilt in its historic patterns and styles after it was heavily damaged in the Battle of the Bulge — and its later brutalization by modernism. Krier’s influence arises in part from his erudite architectural cartoons of the modernists’ idiotic attempts at urbanism. My favorite, above, from his book Architecture: Choice or Fate (1998), shows a true and a false diversity: a traditional town on one side of a bridge and a modernist town on the other side; or a hodgepodge on both sides. The latter offers no choice.
Even as it handed him the Athena, the CNU appeared to be forgetting why it honors Krier.
In all their innocence, the New Urbanists throw open their movement to the modernists, heedless that highmindedness in modernist circles evaporated half a century ago — to be replaced by the most uncivilized behavior. The viciousness of their attack on New Urbanism following its post-Katrina success shows that they have not changed.
In a masterful challenge to “classical jihadists” (as the CNU catalogue called people like me), the CNU board’s house modernist, Daniel Solomon, focused at first on the modernists’ transformation of architectural education. He tracked the influence of Harvard’s design school under founding modernist Walter Gropius, who fostered “a widespread cult of unlearning.” Professors purged not just the practice of classical architecture but its history from courses. Texts taught budding modernists that, in Solomon’s paraphrase, “if people don’t like the mechanization and abstraction of our brand of architecture, don’t worry; it’s their fault. As a modern architect and an initiate into the true workings of historical process, you have an obligation not to listen to them.” This “Gropius anschluss” transformed the schools, the firms, and eventually the landscape. Its “smugness” was, Solomon said, “bound to create a merciless backlash,” and it did — most powerfully as the New Urbanism (although the degree of the CNU’s mercilessness is, in my view, suspect).
The rest of Solomon’s lecture, however, called upon the New Urbanists to embrace not “Wow!” modernism but a more nuanced modernism, a “playful eclecticism” patterned after three exemplars of artistic creativity: Coco Chanel’s fashions, George Balanchine’s ballet and Duke Ellington’s jazz. Because they rejected modernist dogma and embraced art history, they can be models for a less staid, more “hip” New Urbanism.
The alluring imagery of Solomon’s proposal has great strength. But he underestimates the creativity of the classical. The New Urbanism is not staid. Like a classical symphonic score, the codes and pattern books of the New Urbanism offer room for delight in the hands of a genius. The mauve curvature, say, of an otherwise straight white picket fence is architecture in the clothing of jazz. But the rules of classicism put a less heroic yet still pleasing beauty in reach of most architects — whose capacity for genius, alas, Solomon overestimates. If architecture with rules is hard to do well, try architecture without rules. New Urbanism’s central insight is that the rules of the old urbanism really do work; they need only be accepted and learned anew.
Traditional architects stand proudly on the shoulders of history. Modernists reject history, and try to stand on their own shoulders. This is contortion, not genius. It cannot fit in. But true urbanism demands fitting in — with panache if possible — something that style can assist, and New Urbanism mustn’t forget.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Cartoon depicting true and false diversity, by Léon Krier