Follies at the CNU in Dallas

Dallas, site of CNU walkability congress. (doubletree3.hilton.com)

Dallas, site of CNU walkability congress. (doubletree3.hilton.com)

The big buzz at the annual meeting (the “congress”) of the Congress of the New Urbanism, under way in Dallas, is how lame Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster was. Anyone familiar with his writing cannot have been surprised. Equally unsurprising though much more disappointing was the retreat by Steven Bingler from his pathbreaking article (written with Martin Pedersen) last December in the New York Times.

Bingler now seems to regret that either his piece in the Times, which castigated modernism for ignoring public sentiment, or his presentation yesterday on a CNU panel, has cast him publicly as a New Urbanist. Tell it to the CNU faithful! What a boor. Still, his piece is called “How to Rebuild Architecture,” and whatever his regrets, it is true and worth reading.

But as architects, Bingler’s firm was one of those that helped actor Brad Pitt prolong the pain of Katrina in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward.  He helped Pitt put up new modernist housing there that didn’t fit in with the ward’s shotgun houses. Residents mostly dislike Pitt’s poor excuse for houses, some of which have roofs that look like they’re designed to be blown off in a hurricane. Someone who’d help with that must be dubious from the get-go.

Lamster … well, who knows why he was a speaker at the congress? His writing shows that he hates traditional architecture built today – hey, it’s modern times so only modern architecture should be allowed, right? Wrong, but that is the Kool-Aid that consumes the profession’s establishment today and for the past 50 years. Lamster is marinaded in it. He is a good writer but a bad thinker, and anything he writes or says from a podium has got to be regarded with suspicion.

I believe I have Mark Lamster’s number. My blog post “Dish Dallas kitsch” from last July took down Lamster so thoroughly that he should not have been able to rise up from the floor and write another piece of so-called architecture criticism.

But there’s no shame in architecture today, or in most writing about it, or how could we still be seeing the meme that modernist architecture is really classical? To be sure, some of the founding modernists like Corbusier and Mies were brought up as classicists, but they rejected it and abandoned it, and nothing modernist bears any actual resemblance to it – except that it has what passes for roofs, doors, windows and, sometimes, symmetry.

In spite of efforts to “invite” modernism into the New Urbanist framework, New Urbanism remains a distinctive and highly successful effort to undo the dysfunctional urban planning of the past half century or so. New Urbanism is really the old urbanism from before World War II. People like it because it looks traditional, and to the extent that CNU erodes that generally accurate perception under the guise of big-tent open-mindedness, to that extent the CNU is digging itself an early grave.

That project of self-immolation was criticized in a long “Is CNU Burning?” thread on the TradArch list begun by architect David Rau after last year’s congress in Buffalo. But people do not learn, and the project apparently is continuing, in spite of a change in topic this year to “walkability,” which exactly zero people are against.

Wow! Dallas! Now there’s a town that exemplifies walkability!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to Follies at the CNU in Dallas

  1. abdaigle says:

    Steven Bingler believes in the harmonic qualities of architecture, of art and of places. Mark Lamster does not, and that is where they diverge and where Steven and TradArchers can find common ground. As for the Make It Right project, Steven’s house was the most requested model by the clients involved, precisely because it most resembled traditional architecture! The most important (sarcastic) point you make, however, is that Dallas is one of the most UNwalkable cities in America!

    Like

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