This comprehensive, fascinating and brilliant volume by Nir Haim Buras, who founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, is subtitled “Building Beautiful and Enduring Communities.” So one might well assume that it rejects the planning practices of the past century. In fact, it urges planners to embrace anew the planning practices that worked for thousands of years before the onset of those we suffer under today.
“It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good.” I don’t know who said that or whether the motto may be found somewhere in this book. Anyhow, that is the spirit of the planning enshrined herein.
The Art of Classic Planning (2020) was published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, containing almost 500 large-format pages and hundreds of color images. Backed primarily by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Buras traveled around the world to research and photograph the urbanism that preceded and ought to succeed the modernist scheme that oppresses the globe today. You can open the book and pop your finger on any paragraph to find inspiration for why such a switcheroo is overdue. “This is truly the mother of all planning books,” writes Leon Krier. At $79 it is costly, but cheap at twice the price. For planners and architects alike, it would be the mother of all Christmas gifts.
In his introduction, Buras notes that
as a matter of habit, we disallow what has worked well before. Most consider classic planning outdated, if they recognize it at all. As specialists, planners also seem to discount that consumers of cities are their peers, equally capable of understanding and judging what makes their cities good places in which to live.
The reader knows from quotidian urban life the pain, inconvenience, and cost of this. Nearly everyone intuitively recognizes something, some quality of older places, is much more beautiful and enduring than what we are building today. Annually, one in seven of the world’s population engages in tourism, and many of them seek places where they can experience that quality. While modern-day planners assure us that we will never build that way again, we swarm through Venice, Agra, Rome, Paris, Athens, and Florence as if in desperation that this is our last chance to experience it.
Buras adds that “there is no need to repeat the litany of negatives that describe contemporary development.” Then, reprising much of British architectural historian James Stevens Curl’s fine history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia (2018, Oxford), Buras proceeds in Part I (“How Did We Get Here?”) with a description of the history of the modernist mistake.
It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which the past, tradition, and history was taboo to these heroes [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, et al.]. Wanting to be expressive of the Zeitgeist, they strove to achieve atemporality through “pure” cubist form. While eliminating ornament as “criminal,” they sought the technological expression of form-follows-function.
One of the feats of Classic Planning arises from Buras’s skill at mixing quotation and narrative so as to clarify – one trusts! – the vagaries of modernist rhetorical mishmash. Modernist writing has only grown more convoluted and ambiguous in recent decades as more creative techniques of pettifoggery are required to mask the increasingly evident failure of the modernist project. Here, continuing the above quotation, is Buras’s description of a passage in which the expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn explains Louis Sullivan’s “form-follows-function”:
Mendelsohn explained that an image of function was created by “functional dynamics,” the “expression in movement” of the forces inherent in building materials “in a free play between form and its postulates of purpose, material and construction.” To Mendel- sohn, a newspaper building, for example, would not reflect its cause – the creative, political, cultural, intellectual, and commercial spirit of the paper. Instead, it would distill the tempo of modern life by expressing a material effect – the mechanical press inside.
It’s easy for a reviewer to become spellbound by Buras’s narrative of modernism’s history. How delicious it would be to quote at length, say, his description of Le Corbusier urban follies, such as the ideas that led to his Plan Voisin to replace central Paris with towers sixty stories in height. But that would take too long in an already overlong review. Let me substitute, instead, his description of how Brasilia, the modernist capital of Brazil that was erected in the 1950s, influenced the design of the government center of New York State:
At its inauguration, Brasilia was branded an Orwellian, Kafkaesque nightmare. Copying its design, the complex of state office buildings at Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (1959-1976), loom menacingly from their elevated stone podium, obliterating all vestiges of the existing site. … Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s and other Modernists’ reason for their designs to this day is that you had “never seen anything like it before” – that they were unrecognizably foreign, perceptually alien.
Clearly, the search for this ideal vision of modernism would eventually run up against a problem faced by artists down through the centuries – that art based primarily on creativity would run up against artists’ inability to conceive the next level of innovation without slapping function in the face. Corbusier created an organization called CIAM to propagate his ideas. Buras states with a profound simplicity that “the application of its principles destroyed more good traditional fabric in Europe than World War II itself.” Corbusier left CIAM, distraught that the organization’s meetings were increasingly carried on in the English language. (Corbu was a Frenchman born in Switzerland.)
My joy at Buras’s thumping of modernism knows no end, but soon he takes up his own cry that “there is no need to repeat the litany of negatives” and proceeds to Parts II and III of the book, “Classic Planning Fundamentals” and “Classic Planning Applied.”
I just now applied the blind-taste-test theory of book reviewing. Here is the passage my finger landed on. I will conclude with it (I think) because it takes us into the deepest weeds of planning fundamentals in the most charming manner.
Ahem. I find that I must nudge my finger down to the next paragraph, for without it the paragraph I originally fingered might be hard to understand, charming though it may be. First let me add that modern architecture preens at the supposed role of science in its production, but as Buras demonstrates, the practice of classicism in classical architecture and classic planning shows how the mods know diddly about science. (The originally fingered paragraph is on page 156, starting “The physical measures of stress ….”) Here is the explanatory graf that follows it:
This is important not only because people are hard-wired to respond to specific forms of fractals found in nature, but also because stress reduction is physiologically triggered when the eye-scanning fractal pattern matches the fractal image being viewed. … Upon finding [it], the brain releases endorphins, automatically relaxing the person and greatly reducing stress levels.
Okay, we are still in the weeds, deeply. But the idea is that in the Serengeti plain of prehistory, human (and animal) brains were wired to read details in their field of vision to locate information about the existence of food and of danger. Today, in our mostly more pacific environments, these brain functions have evolved from solving problems of survival to those involving the desire for beauty. Of course, notwithstanding modernist theory, beauty and function are not at all mutually exclusive but are, rather, mutually reinforcing. This relates to both architecture and planning. Indeed, a well-planned city or town might be usefully compared, I think, with a well-designed building.
I am sure that Nir Buras, whom I know through my dealings with the ICAA (the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art), would agree. In fact I have little doubt that such a notion is lurking somewhere in the engaging coils of this magnificent book. (Like beauty, the book is also useful. It does not require a degree in nuclear physics to combine the two elements.)
Be that as it may, I intend to turn to it in future posts, perhaps on the matter of how the idea of the picturesque led to modernism. Or to the question of why the author hesitates to fully endorse the ideas of architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, which are linked to architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros’s research on fractals, neurobiology and beauty, with which Buras mostly agrees. Or about the effort led by Buras to bring classic planning techniques to the renovation of the Anacostia River waterfront in Washington, D.C. (See the drawing of the proposed U.S. Navy Museum atop this post. It was done by Nir Buras for the National Maritime Heritage Foundation while in the office of Daniel Lee.)
There is a lot of gold to mine in The Art of Classic Planning. I have not done it full justice here. The book should be the new bible for the planning profession. It should be on the bookshelf and indeed on the desktop or nightstand of anyone interested in cities. And I wish to emphasize again that it would make a classic Christmas present for a friend or loved one, or for oneself.