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Gel conference, April 2004, New York City

Interview: James Howard Kunstler

Thursday, May 22, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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Experience is constantly shaped by our environment - the city or suburb where we live and work. James Howard Kunstler is the best person I know to talk about that aspect of experience.

Jim is the author of "The Geography of Nowhere," "The City in Mind," and other critiques of urban and suburban design. He also spoke at the Gel conference earlier this month.

Q - In your recent book "The City in Mind," you write about the architectural monstrosity that is Boston City Hall. You said that it "looks like the back office of Darth Vader's Death Star, a brutalist trapezoidal heap of stained beige concrete on a despotic brick podium... windswept, cold, vacant, cruel, petty, bland... a nightmare." How could a design that's so obviously *bad* actually get approved and built?

It was a combination of strange circumstances. We'd need a Bronowski-type connect-the-dots version of history to fully understand it.

In the 40s and 50s, some refugees from Bauhaus came to the US from Europe and were embraced by the left intelligentsia. Some made their way to Harvard and brought with them their modernist ideology. The fact is, a lot of it was just Marxist bohemian blather. A lot derived from the basic idea in Marxian thought, which permeated the arts and the bohemian scene, that to ring in a new golden age of equality and justice, you had to destroy everything in the old world, including all the existing cultural semiology that had been accumulated through five thousand years of culture - like art and architecture.

One of the consequences of destroying the past, or making it inadmissible, is that you end up not being able to know where you came from. And then you don't know here you're going, and you can't live in a hopeful present. The modernists destroyed that, and made it the heart and soul of their practice and their message. Americans regarded it as being sexy.

Q - Why would Americans regard a loss of history as sexy?

Because we Americans have a weakness for the idea of the cutting edge, and we're easily led into mystification. It comes from our hysterical Protestant Puritan national experience, which breaks out every 60 or 70 years, like the Great Awakening in the 1740s, Mormons in 1830s, hippies on 1960s. Americans like to by mystified, and they're easily impressed by obscurantists, wizards of Oz, people coming from Europe with their funny accents.

In Europe, architecture had social and political content, but when it came to the US it became just a matter of fashion. So you have all the practitioners in the post-war era doing this brutal architecture in which history has been eliminated, and the forms are brutal, and you have an additional problem: our cities are being tyrannized by automobiles. You're getting a wholesale degradation of public space. In one sense, Americans' public space is being systematically degraded, and on the other hand, the architecture being used to occupy it is becoming more and more degraded.

This was a main component of the Marxist hoodoo that attached itself to architecture after 1945: in order to be good, it had to shock and appall the bourgeoisie. That's us, normal educated people. When you say that normal people know that this is bad, they're reacting appropriately to buildings designed to shock them and injure their sensibilities. You're seeing buildings designed to shock, and it's still going on. Every seven or eight years it gets a new name, from "modernism" to "post-modernism" to "deconstructionism."

Q - What about strip malls? Those don't shock and appall people.

One of the other strange unforeseen consequences of the modernist movement was that it gave corporate America an excuse to build cheap and ugly buildings. When ornament has been outlawed and is deemed incorrect, you can just put up boxes. The more utilitarian the box, the less money you'll put into it. If you go back to a different culture, the Beaux Arts period in America a hundred years ago, even a businessman would be persecuted for putting up a building that wasn't attractive. Look at any business building put up in 1905: a beautiful building, beautifully decorated and proportioned. Even the fire houses. But it was all thrown in the garbage in the post-war years.

Q - You recently visited Savannah, Georgia. What did you think of it?

It's an incredibly beautiful place. Savannah is like being on another planet that vaguely has US characteristics, but you're not on the same earth. It's freaky.

The historic district comprises most of the city, not just three blocks [as in other cities], and people still live there. That's very important. Contrary to what the "diversity rainbow" people say, you need gentrification. You need wealthy people downtown, and Savannah has that.

One of the beneficial products of the South being depressed for a hundred years is that they were so depressed until the 60s and 70s that they couldn't afford to throw away their old civic buildings, like we did in the Midwest, where the economy was more robust in the 50s and 60s. A lot of older Southern architecture was preserved, like in the Garden District and the French Quarter in New Orleans. By the 50s, people got the notion that maybe we should buy it and fix it up. That was the first wave of preservationists, which was then institutionalized as "historic preservation" starting in the 60s and 70s.

Q - What do you think of New York City?

I grew up in New York. It's an amazing place. As a kid, all I wanted was to go bass fishing and go on dates with girls named Alice. The girls I went out with in New York didn't have vowels in their names.

Going back to New York City now, it's thrilling. You can look up at any block and see some wonderful building from 1907, anywhere downtown. Not to mention the people. The hardware and the software are great, and it's a great city. But a lot of the post-war architecture has no soul. The fact is, buildings built in the 60s all look like demoralizing packing crates.

Q - In contrast to New York or downtown Savannah, how would you describe the American suburban experience? You called it "the geography of nowhere" in your book by the same name.

Most of the nation is sleepwalking about this. There are a few people who are dimly aware, and there are others who are distressed their whole lives about the environments they live in. They dreadfully lack validation for their feelings, because these environments become the norm. Suburbia is normal for most Americans, and they think there's nothing wrong with it.

Q - What about the New Urbanists? Do you support their efforts to reinvent the suburb?

Yes. The New Urbanists came along in early 90s, some from alternative energy world, having gone through the trauma of 70s oil crisis. They began to understand that it wasn't a matter of houses being properly solarized, but rather that the communities s-cked. Some were architects and scholars, and they began to discover there was this buried lost culture of urban design that America had thrown in the garbage, and it was there to be referenced and restored.

They went to the dumpster, got the rules and regs, and started poring over them. The reason that these skills had developed over five thousand years of history was that they were based on trial and error, and the circumstances and conditions were time-tested and successful. Like why you'd want a courtyard house in hot climate - there are technical reasons for that. Or why it's important for a building to meet sidewalk in a certain way, and why it's not a good idea to put juniper shrubs between a store and the sidewalk.

They re-discovered all this stuff. Information about typology. Why different types of buildings are appropriate in specific kinds of places. Why it's not a good idea to put a bank building, which looks like a southern plantation, in the most important part of your downtown. It's a rural building, and putting it into an urban setting doesn't behave right.

The New Urbanists are applying this knowledge in a hybrid way, understanding that they're working within a market with certain expectations. Bankers have to be retrained to make loans for real estate ventures that don't fit into templates that they understand - strip malls and subdivisions. Home builders have to be retrained to put out a product different from packing crates with vinyl siding. Planning officials have to be retrained to recognize that the suburban development pattern is tremendously destructive, and that there's a better way of doing things. We don't know how to do it. Municipalities relinquished their authority in the 60s and gave it to the developers, and highway engineers, who then made decisions about things they didn't understand.

Q - What about a sense of history in these New Urbanist suburbs? They don't seem to have any.

In order to have that feeling of oldness, you have to be old. You can't have that if you were built four years ago. It's not a valid criticism that a place doesn't feel old.

Q - What do you think about Starbucks? A lot of people feel that a chain like Starbucks can dilute the unique feel of their community.

Starbucks does what it does pretty well. But it's not hard to run a coffee shop and make it attractive. In the small town where I live, we have a Starbucks, but also a locally owned shop that's probably more popular. This local guy is competing on a quality basis with a chain and he's doing just as well.

Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space. They provide a nice place for you to hang out, and you pay an excessive to ridiculously high price for their coffee product, for occupying space in their business. You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it's wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place. Coffee is the enabling mechanism.

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Jim Kunstler's home page:

Kunstler's "The City in Mind" at Amazon

One of the better-known New Urbanist suburbs is I'on, near Charleston, South Carolina. (The site also has a good reading list.)

The New York Times Magazine just covered a bunch of new architecture in a special feature called Tomorrowland.

Be sure to read Big Sponge on Campus, about MIT's newest and (in my opinion) ugliest dorm, which predictably is winning architecture awards.

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