Kunstler, Techno-Ambivalence, and the Social Arts

The City Rises. Umberto Boccioni (1910).

The American Conservative’s New Urbs section has an insightful new piece by James Howard Kunstler, entitled “The Infinite Suburb is an Academic Joke“. In a dryly funny essay, Kunstler takes on the group-think of elite urban planning schools for its one-sided techno-optimism (or, as he calls it, techno-narcissism). Among other errors, he cites the willingness to buy into an anodyne vision of driverless cars, drone deliveries, and “smart” suburban neighborhoods (whatever those may be), as the emerging vision of default American settlement patterns. He also notes a continuing obliviousness to energy considerations; and a subtle disdain for traditional urbanism (in spite of its time-proven viability). It’s an important piece, worth reading.

Like Kunstler, I find it increasingly difficult to abide the almost willfully-blind optimism of those who believe that the answers to humanity’s most profound civilizational challenges will be found through information technology. Faith that IT can be used to solve our most intractable problems is fast becoming the 21st century’s version of the faith in social science (and its attendant ideologies) that led to so many catastrophes in the last century. Both have a common origin: an intoxication with the recent achievements of human ingenuity supporting a fallacious belief that our technical genius can somehow (and soon!) be systematized into processes that will resolve human problems (e.g., individual psychology, law and culture, and political economy) that have always plagued civilizations; and that have always been best addressed through social arts that draw, in the words of Holmes, on experience — not logic.

Techno-optimism doubles down on the essential fallacy of the 20th century, while a close study of tradition — including traditional urbanism, in the world of planning — learns from the mistakes of the past. By no means would I advocate a blind adoption of past practices. But a conscious adherence to those that have worked is defensible. Techno-optimism, on the other hand, is the product of a broader fallacy of conventional wisdom in our time: one which holds that because we now have the tools to do things that people in the past have been unable to do (or, similarly, because we have access to information that previous generations did not have), we are ipso facto smarter than any generation that has lived before us. And yet, in fact, the opposite may be true: because information is so readily available, we commit less actual knowledge to our memories; and because we have advanced, technical tools that carry out so many repetitive tasks, we learn fewer hard skills, and fewer of the granular nuances of those that we do learn. A more cautious approach would acknowledge that the more rigorous demands presented by the technical limits of the past may have honed a more refined set of skills in the practitioners of those times, and that we may have much to learn from studying the time-tested arts of social customs.

The traditional Western social arts include law, religion, philosophy, rhetoric, fine arts (to an extent), politics, and (sadly) war. To these I would add business, which was not studied as an art in Classical or Renaissance/Enlightenment times, largely because it had not yet emerged as a topic of legitimate inquiry. Nevertheless, business clearly fits with the other social arts more than it does with any of the hard sciences. I use the term social arts here, intentionally, to make a point. These studies are much broader and more flexible than the modern social sciences. They are studies of how human behavior can be influenced, managed, or changed. They are understood to be skills that draw on long experience; the art in these fields consists of having gained the sophistication to intuit which tools to use for particular effects in a certain set of circumstances. It is presumed that their subject matter is too complicated to be understood with total precision, or to be addressed by a universal approach. In some ways the work of a social artist appears to resemble the work of a magician more than it does the work of a scientist. A judge’s gavel, an architect’s pencil, or a priest’s censer may seem more like a wand than like a tool. Legal, aesthetic, and religious doctrines may, at times, seem more like spells or superstitions than hard knowledge. And yet the practitioners who know something about their craft are able to achieve results. Urban planning, too, is a social art — not a first level social art, like those named above; but a subordinate hybrid of fine arts (i.e., architecture) and law. Today, because of zoning and other factors, politics and business have taken on much greater influences than they traditionally held. Religion has become an increasingly peripheral factor in Western planning. Nevertheless, the attempt to turn urban planning into a science gave us strip malls, cloverleaf interchanges, and Euclidean zoning; urban planning, properly treated as an art, gave us Pompeii, Venice, and the great cities of the Victorian period.

The abandonment of the time-tested wisdom of the social arts in favor of the radical, but more technical (and therefore apparently more sophisticated) experimentation with the social sciences was not entirely stupid or negative; it was likely a necessary step in the process of incorporating the sudden flood of new knowledge and experiences that had come with the rapid expansion of science and industry in the 19th century. But it was too one-sided, and it became a prime example of a proverbial baby being thrown out with the bathwater. At least some of the nihilism and anomie of the 20th century can be attributed not just to the pace of scientific change, but to the dumping of cultural knowledge that might have helped to ground individuals, communities, and their institutions while those larger technical changes were being processed. It is not an unrelated phenomenon that, over the same time, buildings devolved from cathedral architecture to Brutalism; or that governments devolved from kingdoms and representative democracies to include fascism, communism, and consumer capitalism. The danger of our current intoxication with technology is that we may go through a parallel, and perhaps greater, dumping of valuable cultural knowledge to the one that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The value of studying the traditional methods that have worked throughout history is that they can provide a context for processing rapid change.

Safety Codes, Politics, and the Crowding of Old Manhattan

‘Old law’ tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Theo Mackey Pollack.

My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.

A bunch of examples of pre-law, old-law (dumbbell/airshaft), and new-law (courtyard) tenements can be found in my photo galleries of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

On the Outskirts of Town

Casey Bill Weldon, 1936.

We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here.
I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire
That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.

The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?

In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!

It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.

New York City: A Century of Zoning

The Equitable Building from Nassau Street. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The last straw. The 1913 Equitable Building led to passage of the 1916 law.

Today is the 100th anniversary of New York City’s original zoning ordinance. In commemoration of a century of land use regulation (it was also America’s first zoning law), the local chapter of the AIA has published Zoning at 100, which includes a number of essays by top architects, planning officials, and scholars, looking back, and looking forward. (Thanks to H. for the link!) Authors include Robert A.M. Stern, Bill Rudin, Carl Weisbrod, and Gina Pollara. Looking forward to finding some time to read these.

Here are a few more pictures I’ve taken of the massive 1913 Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, which put the issue of development massing at the forefront of city politics, and led to the law.

Where Will it Flood as Sea Levels Rise?

We hear more and more about the threat to coastal cities from rising sea levels. But being able to visualize the local spatial implications of this phenomenon brings it home in an entirely new way. One of the most interesting tools is the Surging Seas Risk Zone Map, from Climate Central, a Princeton-based independent organization that promotes public awareness about climate change. Here, you can search for any location, and visualize the contours of new shorelines with sea levels that have risen in increments of feet and meters.

Here’s a map of what would happen in the Newark Bay basin by 2100 if sea levels rose by more than two meters, as envisioned by a recent analysis of the potential loss of significant Antarctic ice sheets:


Urban New Jersey, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

In this scenario, Newark Airport, the entire Seaport area, and much of the Ironbound has been flooded. In addition, Newark Bay appears to have swallowed up most of the salt meadows, and the blocks along the tidal portion of the Passaic River are under water. Finally, take a look at Hoboken and downtown Jersey City, on the far right: the Hudson River waterfront has essentially become a barrier island, while the blocks leading back toward the Palisades have been saturated.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at some of the coastal areas of New York City, under the same scenario:

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Coastal New York, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

The submerged areas on this map (e.g., the Rockaways, Coney Island, Howard Beach, Canarsie, Red Hook, and the South Shore of Staten Island) line up almost perfectly with the areas that experienced the most destruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Keep in mind that these maps offer a vision of what could happen with just a seven-foot (7′) rise in global sea levels, which is now being held out as a plausible scenario for 2100. Some of the projections to the year 2500 show global sea levels rising 49 meters.

Anti-Urbanism and Edward Hopper?

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

Should America’s Condo Laws be Reformed?

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

Does NYC Need Middle-Income Housing?

Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

Warrior Cops … and Democracy?

The Wall Street Journal has a disturbing piece by Radley Balko about the rise of military tactics in domestic US policing. While one can clearly see the need for certain police officers to be trained in these approaches to handle the occasional life-threatening crisis — say, an unfolding attack or a deteriorating hostage situation — there’s something sick about a legal culture that just sort of decadently slouches toward the use of military tactics for serving warrants or securing evidence against civilians, as a matter of expedience, or to reinforce its own psychology of power. What’s worse is the intimidation factor that these practices imply toward the general public. If the legal system needs to increasingly engage in this sort of violence as a matter of course, that seems like prima facie evidence that the system is no longer governing by the kind of consent and consensus that Holmes identified as the prerequisite of a legitimate body of law. Scary.

Le Corbusier at MoMA

This exhibition looks like it might be really interesting. It runs through September 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never actually seen a museum-curated show about Le Corbusier’s work, but he deserves one. In addition to his architecture, the show focuses on Corbusier and landscape. This is an aspect of his work that I haven’t given much thought, and it’s definitely got me intrigued about the exhibition. To me, Corbusier has always been a sympathetic character, albeit an often hopeless product of his crazy, driven time. And I think it’s no accident that the more mundane aspects of Corbusier’s vision came to influence the soul-numbing housing projects and office buildings of the mid-20th century, because Corbusier himself seemed to have a blind spot about others’ individuality, and the settings whose builders superficially imitated Corbusier’s forms were usually those in which individuals were reduced to mere cogs in a wheel, or numerical problems to be solved. Corbusier’s work is so perfectly emblematic of that modern Western insanity that tries to standardize and quantify everything, without doing the required qualitative analysis first, to see whether doing so even makes sense.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. “A machine for living in.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though I’ve never seen a museum exhibit on his work, I did read a great book called Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Fishman. The author gives a fascinating account of Corbusier’s life and works, beginning with the architect’s childhood in the Swiss watchmaking town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, on the western edge of the Alps, in the late 19th century, when the tradition of home-based artisans’ and craftsmen’s workshops was collapsing under insurmountable competition from heavy industry. Fishman then narrates Corbusier’s long career, in which he designed a world that increasingly seemed like a mechanized dystopia — where the most inherently human subjects of design, like homes and political buildings, were built in an industrial, impersonal, even brutal style. Of course, some of Corbusier’s designs were quite beautiful. But they were often pleasing in ways that allowed little room for the individual or the small community that used them to shape its own space; and they were attractive in ways that showed little concern for the human instinct for familiar forms. The ironies and psychological implications of Corbusier’s career are rich. Fishman’s is a great book — it also covers Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright — and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the human imagination, and some of its blind spots, in the early 20th century.

Slouching Towards Dystopia

Ross Douthat has a piece about the Euro and its impact on poorer members of the Eurozone. And Governor Florio recently had a piece in NJ Spotlight expressing somewhat similar concerns about the socioeconomics of the United States. I don’t know how long free societies can treat so many of their own people so badly without imperiling the stability of their institutions. The West is really living through a great period of political malpractice, as the center-that-hangs-on circles its wagons around a system that is chronically failing its people. Much of the present leadership seems to have missed an important observation by Holmes, which applies as much to the integrity of institutions and property rights as it does to the treatment of criminals:

The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.

I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach many days. How many others do?