Location Is Everything
Kunstler Offers Solutions
By Daniel Van Riper
We are living in "the national automobile slum. That is the human ecology of the United States."
Thus spoke novelist and reformer of architecture James Howard Kunstler, who returned to speak at the May 13, 1998 Save the Pine Bush dinner at 1st Presbyterian Church in Albany. Since we last saw him two years ago, he has been "lecturing across the country for high prices because Americans sense that they deserve better places to live." (From SPB, he graciously enjoyed a lasagna dinner.)
According to Mr. Kunstler, the problem with modern architecture is not style, it's the relation of buildings to the public realm. Buildings should "define" streets by being placed alongside them, which gives human beings a "sense of place", that they are actually somewhere. Instead, we have constructed for ourselves a landscape of roads cutting through parking lots, in the middle of which are miserable box buildings, which "do not honor the public space, and do not define the street."
Why have we done this to ourselves? "We have confused the distinction between the city and the country," said Mr. Kunstler. "It is a mess in our collective imaginations." Thus, landscaping around box buildings in the middle of parking lots usually consists of "bushes in bark mulch beds" which he calls "cartoons of the country." Often as a last resort municipalities will try to prettify the mess with fancy Victorian lampposts, which Mr. Kunstler said was "like hiding Godzilla behind a matchstick." We have done this for the convenience of automobiles, but to the detriment of people.
As an illustration of how this problem can be solved, Mr. Kunstler showed slides of recent construction around the country which followed the ideas of the New Urbanism Movement. These buildings are two or more stories, with commercial space on the ground floor and office and residential upstairs. They line the street side by side, defining the street, often set off by a colonnade of trees between the buildings and the street. Cars are out of sight behind them. Often the buildings are ugly modernism and "international style", but their appearance doesn't matter much if they are placed properly. The instant places created by them attract crowds of people from great distances to shop or just to linger, and the buildings command high rents because they are so desirable.
Now is the time to start redesigning our landscape, when so many older strip malls and other box buildings are falling apart, since they are "designed to die after forty years." Mr. Kunstler believes that we need to develop a national consensus of standards for our public spaces. Inside those standards much variation for individual expression is possible. Architects and planners have "forgotten the basic grammar of architecture." Architectural conventions (such as how to place a doorway so it can be found easily by a stranger) solve problems that were solved a long time ago.
Mr. Kunstler is currently working on a book about cities in the 21st century. We highly recommend his books The Geography of Nowhere, and the sequel in which he outlines solutions, Home From Nowhere, both published by Simon and Schuster.