Thursday, May 15, 2008

Architectural Ego and Urban Messes

"Yet architects, whose buildings serve anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people, have the capacity to affect the surrounding streets and buildings and neighborhoods, and can last well over a century, are presumed to have the privilege of imposing their vision on the public regardless of consequences or the public's wishes."

Charles Taylor, "Wrench in the Machine of Living," Dissent (Spring 2008) book review of Nathan Glazer's From Cause to Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

In Nonprofit Leadership I celebrate the messiness of cities, markets, and politics -- and try to make the case that they are good for the soul. One enemy of urban messes is the "modernist" architect who has a vision, an idea, a commitment to straighten things out. They may think artistry but the result, too often, is simplification. A painfully amusing anecdote in Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land is how Soviet planners and architects were horrifed by the bleak patch of Robert Taylor Homes public housing in Chicago, itself now victim to the bulldozer.

Even today's heralded neotraditional villages and neighborhoods have the cool hand of a visionary designer behind the scenes constructing a Disney-like community ready for consumption if not engagement.

Like Taylor, I'm a firm believer in Jane Jacobs and her Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yet, over the years, I've grown to appreciate some monumental statements, simplifications in the fabric of city life -- like straightening the "S" bend on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, the Harold Washington Library, even Chicago's Milleniam Park, with Frank Gehry's bandshell.

Some of these monuments cost too much in the present and divert money from better and more important uses -- like fixing the schools, etc. In the long run, they add to the infrastructure and the physical capital of the city -- that's where they make their payback. Also, I've noticed, thankfully, that people trump design, not always -- especially if there are security guards -- but lots of times. Nothing like new immigrants to turn a dismal suburban-like shopping center into a marketplace.

Okay, the Frank Gehry in Chicago is going too far. I like the park, the landscape, the street life. It was a dead stretch. So, maybe the best outcome is a balanced back and forth between the "people's messes" and the ego of architects. Sometimes big cities require big answers.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I think the balance between haphazard development and the ego of architects is a good and necessary one. In Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, for example, you've got the best of both worlds. The New Deal era Union Terminal, in all its splendor, is located just blocks from miles of old rowhouses, reminiscent of 19th century Germany. After driving through the neighborhood to get to the museum for so long, either would seem out of place without the other.