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… Possibly the most pretentious post title yet!

So it’s officially Week 7 that I’ve gone without a car . . . that is, it’s still in the shop with transmission problems.  (The lesson to be drawn from the past two summers’ worth of car problems is, do not buy a Subaru without a good warranty and a steady income!)  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on public transit going one place or another, and have taken advantage of the lovely service of the public library.

Earlier in the summer I was avoiding “work” reading (planning-related books), in favor of easy fiction and those random books that had been on my list for a while.  As I reluctantly realize summer is ending, however, I’ve started turning back to the city books.  Rationale:  there’s a long list of planning-related things I should read.  I won’t want to read them during the school year, because that’s all I’ll be doing anyway; light fiction and some “escapist” stuff (easy to pick up and put down and pass out in the middle of a chapter at the end of the day) will be a better idea.  Therefore, better do it now!

One book I picked up (per a friend’s suggestion) is Nan Ellin’s Postmodern Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 rev. ed.).  It’s pretty theoretical and there’s a fair amount of academic name-dropping — even some stuff from the old cultural history reading list!  Hobsbawm! — but it makes some interesting claims about the goals of (post)modern design, what it’s actually doing, and why it’s ultimately still part of the Modern Project.  That is, it might look different than modernist buildings, and it might attempt to return to pre-industrial city form, but it still takes a rational and technocratic approach to achieving its aims.  And it inescapably operates within a market-oriented, consumer-based structure which essentially dictates the outcome of design and planning exercises, however inclusive.  [Insert lots of David Harvey block quotes here.]

Here are a few things to think about.  I still am.

“Recent urban design inarguably advances the modern project because it refuses to relinquish the vast possibilities offered by the new technologies because it is embedded in larger market forces.  Despite its prevalent romantic imagery, its mode of production, distribution, and consumption remain highly rational as do the lifestyles of the people who use it (with a few scattered exceptions).  In architecture, an abandonment of the products and promises of the modern project would constitute an undeniable regression because its evolution has gone hand in hand with that of new technologies.  And a challenge to the modern project on the part of planners would violate the very bases upon which planning rests since the profession emerged during the modern period and is predicated on modernist notions of rationality and progress.  It is not surprising, then, that the architecture and planning professions have largely avoided reflecting too deeply on the continued validity of the modern project.

“Pressed to ascertain whether this recent swing of the pendulum in urban design theory and practice has actually posed a challenge to the modern project or whether it has affirmed it, we must concede that as long as architects and planners seek technical and creative solutions to social problems in pursuit of progress, they continue to pursue the modern project.  While contemporary urban design may break from the modern project formally and rhetorically, it actually continues it technologically, politically, and economically, perhaps with the exception of a growing sensitivity toward social diversity and toward the environment.  Symbolically, contemporary urban design both continues and breaks from the modern project for it suggests to the general public a re-valorization of history, urbanity, the vernacular, and the community, while in fact only cosmetic changes are effected.  In sum, while contemporary urban design may constitute a symbolic break from modernism, in actuality, it continues the project, as is revealed by architects’ and planners’ goals, their means for implementing these goals, their products, and their means of assessing the relative success of these products.

Rather than avoid the drawbacks of modern urbanism, then, architecture and planning since the 1960s are guilty of much the same, albeit unwittingly.  This is largely because the political economy of advanced global capitalism and the continued prominence of positivistic thinking (despite challenges posed to it) impose constraints that limit its actual divergence.  A reality which many architects and planners have preferred to ignore or minimize is that rather than following function, form has increasingly been following finance.  The prime mover, particularly in the more liberal economies, is less the architects and planners than the larger economic system in which they work and which functions according to the profit motive.  Like the initial claims of modern design to be populist, those of postmodern urbanism have also been subverted, perhaps even more so.  But designers are reluctant to acknowledge their ever-growing reliance upon the marketplace for it detracts from their potential for creative expression and for implementing change, not to mention their ability to preserve the legitimacy of their professions.” (212-213)

“Superficially, then, we have come full circle.  This time, however, the pre-industrial-looking landscapes (some of which are more convincing than others) are the product of hyper-rational efforts.  As such, postmodern urbanism might be perceived as dishonest or pretentious for trying to be something it is not.  In addition, its complicity with the political economy in which it is embedded often renders its intents unrealizable, or in the interests of capital rather than the larger good.  As a result, many contextual intentions are stymied and, even when realized, are judged unsuccessful by users and designers alike.  When successful, though, these efforts can result in environments that harmonize with the physical and social contexts and which people appreciate for their non-intrusive quality and formal interest.

“Although the lessons of modern urbanism have yet to be fully assimilated and postmodern urban design theory is inherently flawed, it nonetheless offers certain correctives to its predecessor and has generated some built environments that are widely recognized as superior to those which issued from the tenets of modern urbanism.  Most important is the renewed attention to fulfilling non-functional needs and tastes, as manifest in building on a human scale; reintroducing ornament, color, and whimsy; developing a mix of uses in one project; valuing public spaces of many kinds; and valuing experimentation with new typologies, morphologies, and modes of architectural production including various kinds of user participation, computer-aided design, and serial production techniques.  Some of this experimentation has undeniably enhanced the lives of its users as well as the shape of the landscape.

“The reconceptualizations of the city and of culture over the last few decades are inscribed within the larger challenge to the modern canon in contemporary Western society.  This broadbased challenge is reflected in legitimacy crises in our basic assumptions, ways of knowing, and practice, and it is expressed in the millennial meditations described above.  While all indications suggest a threshold, what lies on the other side remains unclear.  At its worst, the extreme relativism and disengagement that may result from a distrust of master narratives and expertise can eliminate any possibility for communication, ethics, and democratic practice.  With regards to cultural forms of expression, it can detract from any emancipatory and educational possibilities.  The result can be an ultra-subjective alienating sense that there is no longer a “real,” and a corresponding obsession with artifice which allows for easy manipulation by the deft imagery of advertising and other forms of persuasion.  In some respects, then, the efforts among urban designers to remedy the imagery merely play into the hands of this process, ultimately intensifying rather than combating the prevailing sense of insecurity.” (291-292)

I’m looking at you, New Urbanists!!!

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Omigosh.

William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte.

This will require further investigation, but I think I found one of my new favorite people.  A few words on the man, from a collection of his work, The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham UP, 2000):

“William H. Whyte, known to friends and family as Holly, was a prophet of common sense.  He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw.  He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it.  He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that.  Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly Whyte gave them facts.” (Foreword by Paul Goldberger)

“Whyte was an astute observer who reported how people actually behaved (rather than how we assume they behave).  A charitable critic with a real moral bent, Whyte was cheerful by nature, ever the optimist; even if his observations about postwar American life were laced with warnings, some of them quite ominous, Whyte was always thinking positively, and he was clearly a patriot.  His affable personality and the agreeableness of his prose permitted him to go further in his social criticism than was typical in the popular media of the day, and people listened.” (Introduction by Albert LaFarge)

I just picked up this book and will have to reflect more on his work at a later time – partly because I should actually be reflecting on it in my Physical Planning project.  But just browsing through “The Class of ’49” from The Organization Man, I realized that he describes an institutionalization of young male America as a result of military service in World War II – a desire for structure, hierarchical management, and stability in a large organization (e.g. AT&T) rather than the messy riskiness, and sometimes inefficiency, of small businesses.  This is interesting for so many reasons:

  • Profound influence of the experience of war, particularly of soldiers, on the structure of society
  • Changing social organizations and ideals and desires and goals
  • The (possible) fundamental shift in thought post WW2 in American culture
  • The desire for stability, commoditization, sameness, as a response to war
  • The rise of what we are currently dealing with, and its potential decline and/or change (that is, big corporations; widespread suburban developments; a culture of sameness; hierarchical vs. collaborative structures; dependence on certain resources; what it means to be a worker and contribute to society)
  • The physical/spatial implications of these values, and how we interact with where we live

Something to throw out there:  the Internet (with accompanying ideas of digital information, non-hierarchical or spatially-based networks, networks in general, new communication patterns, more fluid identities, information overload, etc etc etc) is on par with World War 2 in terms of its level of influence on our culture and society – how we value and organize our world and each other.

Whereas postwar American culture was built on the desire to rebuild a better society out of mass cultural hardship and trauma,

Contemporary culture is being built by our attempts to deal with a torrent of information we’ve created … but major ideological/value conflicts also need to fit in there somewhere … hmm.

Holy crap.

I need to think about this a lot more.

I’m so intellectually flipping out right now.