Friday, September 18, 2009

Corbu? Or You?

Yesterday I posed the question of who should be on the list of worst urbanists – spinning off Planetizen.com's entertaining Top 100 Urbanists list.

The easy, cliched choice would be Le Corbusier, the brilliant but destructive architect whose vision for the city of the future was one of tall towers surrounded by large lawns and big highways. In other words, this guy invented Charlotte's suburban office park development Ballantyne, as well as this nation's many failed public housing towers. But Corbu was avant-garde and influential, and many others took up his theories. This was especially true in the U.S., where they dovetailed nicely with the auto and petroleum industries' push to get everyone into automobiles and driving a lot.


But thinking of Le Corbusier made me think of General Motors and its famous Futurama display at the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair, depicted at right. Surely the automobile and petroleum industries – with their powerful influence on Congress and highway funding and with GM's purchase of many urban streetcar systems in order to dismantle them – did more to shape the nation's cities for the worse than any one architect could.

But then, of course, it's worth remembering that while Le Corbusier did influence huge numbers of architects in this country, Walter Gropius and his colleague Sigfried Giedion (who wrote "Space Time and Architecture") probably influenced more, during Gropius' many years at the Harvard School of Design. So maybe Gropius and Giedion should be on the list.
But again, wait. Architects challenge us to think. They may be wrong but who, really, decides what gets built? It's government that makes the rules that shape our cities. What about Herbert Hoover, who before he became president was Commerce Secretary and commissioned the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which to this day underpins most land use ordinances in America and whose very foundation rests upon the theory that separating uses is the way to a safe and healthy city or town. As Jane Jacobs later showed us, it really isn't.

The federal government funded the interstate highway system, envisioned as a way to connect cities. But when it entered the city it caused open, ugly wounds to the urban fabric that continues to damage cities to this day.

It was the federal government whose rules for backing mortgage loans created the redlining that cut off access to credit for anyone who A) was black, or B) lived anywhere near black people, or C) was one of a variety of so-called undesirable ethnics, such as Mexican or Bohemian or D) lived anywhere near any of those so-called undesirable ethnics.

It was the federal government, again through its financing rules, that encouraged the sprawling, low-density suburban subdivision design that vanquished more urban dwelling forms.

Consider: The government is by the people, for the people and of the people. It's all of us. So maybe that worst urban thinker arrow should spin around and start pointing at all of us?

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

It should also be noted that there was some method to the medness of suburban sprawl. The Kennedy administration encouraged this during the cold war. The theory was that if a nuclear bomb was dropped on a city, more people would survive by being spread out than in one dense concentrated spot.

Anonymous said...

And a majority of the people have voted, in the polls and with their feet, for a more suburban lifestyle. What's wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

i wish we would revitalize ballantyne and knock it down and turn it back into woods.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

why can't charlotte be one giant south park mall???

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

An Endangered Native Species: Real Journalism

Anonymous said...

charlotte is hopeless just like the rest of the state. at least we aren't south carolina should be our motto.

Mary Newsom said...

Time for my occasional reminder about civility in comments.

Please refrain from insults and offensive language. This includes insulting me as well as insulting other commenters. Don't like my opinions, or those of others? Fine - say so and your comments remain. Your opinions are welcome, including contrary ones. Your hostility to others isn't.

Please refrain from troll activities, such as posting the same irrelevant comment over and over.

Jumper said...

"Eventually, the question you ask stops being "Who is John Galt?" and becomes "When will John Galt shut up?"

Jumper said...

Very Pogo-esque post. I like it.

We're somewhat skilled in our culture at dismissing so-called "information" as biased when it's blatantly disinfo from commercial hustlers. It's more difficult when it's something presented as unbiased; something on one of the homebuilding TV shows really driven by funding by vendors of crapola, for example. I guess the principle extends to all products including real estate; what is considered "popular" is a manufactured ethos not derived from bottom-up evaluation.

Anonymous said...

"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves" Henry David Thoreau

Anonymous said...

"Society is like a stew. If you don't stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.” Edward Abbey

Anonymous said...

This comment has been deleted by Mary Newsom.

Anonymous said...

So Mary, you must be so pleased that the CRA reversed that red-lining and resulted in $14K-a-year migrants buying $700,000 homes.

That REALLY worked out well.

"Smart growth" worsens housing affordability:

http://www.demographia.com/dhi-us8.pdf

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:54 You don't get it. It's never about housing being affordable. It's only about power and control.

Anonymous said...

I think anonymous does not have enough to do. But with regard to Corb, Gropius and the rest, I really do believe it is time to move beyond normative critiques of architects, albeit with a twist (its our fault). These types of dismissals make it too easy to forget to examine the complex settings and forces and opportunities and technologies that they reacted to. When the radiant city is done correctly it is not all bad and simplistic dismissals only lead to a type of arrogance on our part that we can not possibly be making any mistakes of our own given our hindsight. The city is not a singular idea with a singular form in 1929 or 2009. Corbursier, should not be defended simplistically, but neither should he be dismissed simplistically.

Phil Kabza said...

Anon pointed out that people vote with their feet - the "perfection of the market" argument. Jumper points out that "demand" in the marketplace drives what developers do, but that the demand is manufactured by the developers through control of the market. If developers control the range of choices, and people can only choose between those options, then the developers' arguments for suburban sprawl become self-fulfilling. Acres of houses, and driving two miles for a gallon of milk. Adding an arts and crafts front porch does not make sprawl into community.

Corbu and Gropius grew up a century ago in a wildly different circumstance, when the earth had less than a third of its current population. Their work shouldn't set the basis of our conversation; it should be given a proper nod as part of academic history, while we move on and engage in conversation about what makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Sprawl only produces affordable housing, if you think narrowly about a household's cost of living as just pure housing costs. Transportation costs are key too.

And homogeneous subdivisions built for socioeconomic segregation are as poor of an investment choice as putting all your eggs in one basket.

True neighborhoods close to employement and services, not isolated subdivisions hostage to the automobile, will continue to be the most resilient investment. Add diverse housing types and transportation choices, and you have a recipe for success.

Anonymous said...

"Sprawl only produces affordable housing" Isn't it a good thing when the market place caters to all specific income gruops? I don't understand when the statist get upset when the average person can afford a house. It just goes to show you that the statist don't want you to be self sufficient they only want to control you.

Anonymous said...

Someone should tell these monkeys that LE CORBUSIER WAS A EUROPEAN WITH A PRETENTIOUS FRENCH NAME!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Well, it may be those planners who really don't understand what Ms. Jacobs was talking about, are now co-opting ideas for mixed-use and creating top down, main street USA type development that is supposed to be as good as the real Greenwich Village thing that took decades to growth naturally, out of thousands and thousands of individual's plans.

Anonymous said...

Based on the description of Andres Duany's keynote speech, as described in the Northwest Hub on 9/17/09, I'd have to put the #2 "world's greatest urban thinker" on the list or "world's worst urban thinkers." He is described in that article as blaming the middle class for the current environmental crisis because of the way "we" consume land, transport ourselves, entertain ourselves, & because of our lifestyle choices. He states that there are too few wealthy to be a major contributor to the problem. How absurd & hypocritical!

jenthang said...

Mary, I just found your blog and am enjoying your postings. This one was particularly thought-provoking and I appreciate your reasoning. My concern is that our democracy has been captured to a great extent by corporate interests, particularly through our system of campaign finance and media control, that the "you" ends up being less We the People and more Big Business. I don't feel that we can take it for granted that ordinary people wield much control over their own government.