Monday, March 23, 2015

More About the Reactionary Avant Garde

Here is another selection from Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde. For longer selections from this work in progress, see

What is Progressive?

Avant gardists claim that, because their architecture is futuristic, it is politically progressive, while traditional architecture is politically conservative or reactionary.
To make our architecture relevant to the key political questions of our time, we need to reject this way of thinking. In today’s technological society, the modernists support the status quo while the humanists are working for social change.

From Radical to Establishment

The avant-garde style began around the time of World War I, became generally accepted during mid-century, and has become today’s establishment style—which is why it is now “avant gardist” rather than genuinely avant garde.
Its gestures seemed radical a century ago, because they rejected the traditional society that dominated Europe and the United States at that time, when it still made some sense to believe that radicalism involved a total break with the past.
During the 1950s, modernism still had some of its early radical spirit. It was not only on the leading edge esthetically but also on the leading edge of progressive social reform. In 1950, the freeways and the high-rise housing projects were still part of the progressive project of getting the masses out of the slums by providing suburban housing for the middle class and providing sanitary public housing for the poor. Glass-steel-and-concrete modernism was still an exciting break with the past, symbolizing the rejection of oppressive traditions.
During the 1960s, the modernist vision was put into practice widely enough that everyone saw it was failing. Modernist housing projects became vertical slums that were worse than the old slums they replaced. Freeways spread sprawl and blighted older neighborhoods. There were citizens’ revolts against both of these modernist impositions on existing neighborhoods—and these citizens’ movements represented a new direction for progressive politics.
During the 1970s, it began to become clear that modernism was now the status quo, and it was oppressive. The glass and steel office buildings towering over the old downtowns of our cities, and the high-rise housing projects towering over the old slums, looked cold and impersonal—like the impersonal technological economy that produced them. Social critics said that we live in a technological society, where ordinary people are powerless. Environmentalists created a political movement dedicated to controlling destructive technologies.
In the 1970s, mid-century modernism was exhausted. The modernists’ glass, steel, and concrete boxes, which had seemed so striking in the 1950s, were now anything but new and different. Serious postmodernists began to look for ways to build on a more human-scale, while other architects searched for fresh novelties that could still shock and surprise people - leading to the ironic side of postmodernism and then to today’s avant-gardism.
Our avant gardists produce futuristic architecture, like the early modernists, but are no longer capable of the social idealism of the early modernists. The political meaning has disappeared because today’s avant-gardist architects are not responding to the needs of our time in the way that the early modernists responded to the needs of the last century. A century ago, the modernist esthetic fit right in with the progressive goal of building a technological economy that could eliminate poverty and sweep away traditional forms of oppression. Today, this technophilia has faded, and our avant-gardist architects create high-tech forms purely for the sake of novelty. They are not part of a larger progressive political movement, and they have no social ideal to give their forms meaning.
Modernism changed from a radical movement to the status quo because our society changed. The modernists criticized the traditional society of the early twentieth century in the name of technology and progress. But they have no critical insight into the new problems of today’s technological society.
The task of our time is to use technology for human purposes. The avant garde tries to create totally new forms, and it is so eager to reject that past that it rejects principles that were common to all traditional and vernacular architecture because evolution hardwired them into human nature. The avant gardists are not part of the broader progressive politics of our time, because they work against the key political task of our time, using technology in a way that is consonant with human nature.

Avant gardists as Conservatives

Today’s avant gardists keep the esthetic dogmas of early modernism—its rejection of historic ornamentation and its search for strikingly original designs—but their buildings no longer symbolizes any social ideal. Avant gardists sometimes play at being radical by claiming that their architecture is subversive, but their attempt to "subvert conventional ideas of what a building is" obviously have no effect at all on the real world of politics. They are just precious esthetes talking about subversion to other esthetes. They are not part of a larger movement to reform society, as mid-century modernist architects were part of the larger progressive movement of their time.
In fact, avant gardism is the preferred style of our technological corporate economy. It should have become clear decades ago that the glass high-rises of the mid-twentieth century modernists, far from being politically progressive, were symbols of the dominance of the modern corporation—towering over the city, expressing the power of the corporations that built them. And today’s avant gardists have inherited the modernists’ corporate clients.
London’s skyline was marred by boxy modernist office buildings decades ago, and now it is being ruined by even larger avant-gardist office buildings with nicknames that describe their strange shapes, such as the "gherkin" and the "shard of glass." The mayor of London explained to a journalist why he wants to build more high-rises in this style: 'In the global tussle between world metropolises for investment and jobs, he says, companies will choose London only if they can occupy "signature buildings." Despite their self-consciously radical posturing, these avant gardist high-rises are today's corporate architecture, just as boxy high-rises were the corporate architecture of mid-century.
The avant gardists' conservatism is most obvious on the rare occasions when they touch on real political issues—for example, when Ouroussoff talks about the beauty of cities built around the freeway. Freeway revolts were an important part of the progressive politics of the 1960s and the 1970s, and many progressive environmentalists today want to remove some existing freeways, with the Congress for the New Urbanism taking the lead. Ouroussoff is blissfully ignorant of the progressive politics of the last five decades, and he has moved backward to the thinking of Siegfried Giedion and Robert Moses.
But this conservatism also pervades their work more generally. Their designs express the idea that we should any flashy new technology that is available, no matter how inhuman, at a time when progressives are trying to control destructive technologies.

Humanism as Social Change

Unlike the avant gardists, the New Urbanists are part of a powerful movement to reform society. Environmental groups across America support New Urbanism and smart growth in order to fight suburban sprawl, to conserve energy, and to slow global warming. When environmentalists in Portland wanted to stop the Western Bypass freeway, they got the New Urbanist planner, Peter Calthorpe to draft a regional plan based on transit-oriented development, and they got other New Urbanists to design transit-oriented suburbs, such as Orenco Station.
The New Urbanists use models from the past, building developments that are like the railroad suburbs, streetcar suburbs, and urban neighborhoods of a century ago - and this is a real challenge to the modern economy, because it implies that Americans would be better off living more simply. Suburbia and the automobile were the mainstays of postwar American consumerism, and the New Urbanists are saying that we would be better off if we lived in homes that use less land and in neighborhoods where we have the choice of walking rather than being totally auto-dependent.
Environmentalists support New Urbanist design because it preserves open space and reduces energy consumption. The people who move to New Urbanist neighborhoods like them because they let you avoid the tension of driving in congested traffic on high-speed roads and because they have a stronger sense of community than conventional suburbs.
If New Urbanist neighborhoods are more livable than conventional automobile-dependent suburbs, that fact is a real challenge to ExxonMobile, General Motors, and Wal-Mart - while the radical posturing of the avant gardists does not challenge the modern economy at all. New Urbanism challenges the modern economy, because it implies that we should replace our single-minded focus on economic growth with a new focus on quality of life.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde

I am working on a book named Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde.

It is still a work in progress, but I have posted a few chapters on the web to get comments on them.  You can read them at

Here is a selection from Chapter 1:

Today’s avant-gardist architects consider themselves progressive, but they are actually reactionary: they have forgotten the lessons of the 1960s and the 1970s and have gone back to the technophilia of mid-century modernism.
Society in general has moved beyond modernism since the 1970s, largely as a result of the environmental movement. There are only two groups in today’s society that celebrate technology uncritically. One is the “drill, baby, drill” wing of the Republican party, which knows that it is conservative because it sticks with the technophilia of the 1950s. The other is the architectural establishment, which has somehow convinced itself that it is progressive because it is reviving the technophilia of the 1950s.
Today’s avant-gardism is a reactionary style, a cliquish taste that ignores the lessons that society began to learn in the 1970s. It is retrograde esthetically, a revival of earlier modernist styles. It is retrograde politically, coming at a time in history when it is vital to limit destructive technologies.

Humanizing Technology

This recent history of architecture and urbanism is important because it deals involves a key issue of our time: How should we use technology for human purposes?
Among mid-century modernists, the design centered on the technology. The dogma was that the design must be an “honest expression” of modern materials and functions—in other words, an expression of modern technology. The modernists’ designs were so striking visually that they helped spread technophilia through society.
Among the serious postmodernists and the New Urbanists, design centers on the human users. They are not against modern technology, but they are selective in their use of technology. They use modern technology when it helps to create good places for people.
For example, modernists designed cities around the automobile. They had faith that this new technology would improve our lives and, in any case, would inevitably dominate our lives, because you can’t stop progress. By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that the modernists’ theories had created an ugly, environmentally destructive suburban landscape of freeways, shopping malls, and auto-dependent subdivisions.
The New Urbanists take a more reasonable view of this technology, accommodating the automobile but not letting it dominate our lives. New Urbanist design centers on creating streets and public spaces that are attractive, comfortable places for people, and it accommodates the automobile ways that further this goal. They emphasize that their traditional urbanism can accommodate any style of architecture, and they mention Tel Aviv and Miami’s South Beach as examples of cities where good traditional urbanism is combined with modernist architecture, but their goal is to create good places rather than to design an “expression” of modern technology.
Modernists also designed individual buildings around new technology: the buildings were “honest expressions” of glass, steel, and concrete. By the 1970s, it was becoming clear that these buildings were cold, sterile and overwhelming. Serious postmodernists tried to design buildings that were attractive, comfortable places for people to be.
Yet today’s avant gardists have gone back to the sterile high-tech design of the modernists with added “artistic” touches. They often create very uncomfortable places for people to be.
The use of technology is a key issue of our time, because modern technology gives us more power and more freedom of choice than ever before.
We can use the power that technology gives us well or badly. Modern technology can be immensely beneficial; an obvious example is polio vaccination. And it can be immensely destructive; an obvious example is nuclear weapons. We need to use the beneficial technology and limit the destructive technology.
We can use the freedom of choice that technology gives us well or badly. For example, traditional agricultural societies had a limited variety of foods that they grew locally, they prepared these foods in a few conventional ways, and they lived with the constant threat of hunger. Modern societies have a greater abundance and variety of foods, which gives us much more choice about what we eat. Everywhere in the world, people can choose to eat the corn that was domesticated in the Americas, the rice that was domesticated in Asia, the wheat and barley that were domesticated in the Middle East, the spices that were domesticated in the Indies, and a vast number of other foods that originated in every corner of the world. We can use this abundance to eat a more varied and healthier diet than any society in the past, or we can use it to eat a diet that is heavy on processed food and high-fructose corn syrup, the diet that has made today’s American more obese than any society in the past.
It is easy to add similar examples. Modern technology lets us choose among a huge variety of drugs, which we can use to cure diseases or which we can abuse to feed addictions.
The same reasoning applies to architecture. Modern technology lets us choose among many different ways to build. Traditional societies were limited by the local materials and the relatively simple techniques available to them; their vernacular buildings were stylistically consistent because they did not have the choice of building in any other way. Today, we have a much greater choice of materials and of building methods. We can use this choice to design buildings and cities that are more livable than ever before, or to design buildings and cities that are more sterile and overwhelming than ever before.
The architecture establishment says we should build in styles that are “of our time” and that anyone who learns from traditional architecture is “nostalgic.” They should learn from the more sensible attitude that we have toward food. The best restaurants use locally grown, fresh ingredients because they produce healthier, tastier food. Traditional societies also used locally grown, fresh ingredients, but no one says that these restaurants are “nostalgic” and that they should use canned or frozen ingredients produced for the world market because industrial agriculture is “of our time.”
No one cares about this sort of precious esthetic criticism of food because we have very clear criteria for deciding which food are good: taste and nutritional value. The best restaurants use some new technology, such as sous vide cooking, but they use them because the food tastes better—not because they are “of our time.”
These criteria are based on human nature. Our bodies evolved to need certain nutrients. Our tastes evolved to make us enjoy food that helped our ancestors survive during the period of evolutionary adaptation. Evolution has hard-wired these needs and preferences into human nature, and chefs work to accommodate them.
Has evolution also given us preferences about the buildings that we live in and use? Are there aspects of human nature that architects should work to accommodate? We will look at this question in the next chapter.
Since the 1970s, the environmental movement has shown us that we must make a deliberate choice of technologies—for example, by choosing solar and wind power rather than coal to generate our electricity—but this movement focuses on limiting the most destructive technologies that pose grave threats to health or to the natural environment, such as global warming. Architecture and urbanism could do much more. Because they design the built environment that we live in, they could help society learn how to use modern technology in ways that are in keeping with human nature. 
Our avant gardists are designing the most dehumanized buildings ever built, but their approach is not inevitable. Just as mid-century-modernist architects helped spread faith in technology and progress, today’s architects could help spread the idea that we should use modern technology for human purposes.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Interview on is a national organization that promotes flexible working arrangements.

They just published an interview with me about my book The Politics of Simple Living: Why Our Economy Is Making Life Worse and How We Can Make It Better.

They also included an embedded video about the Berkeley Flexible Work Time initiative, taken from the initiative web site.

Check it out at this site - and if the spirit moves you, feel free to leave comments.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Meaningful Skyline

Visually, it is best for a city to have a height limit of no more than six stories for fabric buildings. This is the scale that gives visual coherence to traditional European cities, where the cathedral and perhaps the campanile stand out above the urban fabric. We have a similar coherent scale in Washington D.C., where the Capitol dome and Washington Monument stand out above the urban fabric. It is also possible for a city to be visually coherent with a height limit of as much as twelve stories for fabric buildings, if it has symbolic buildings or towers large enough to give it a strong visual identity. With fabric buildings much higher than twelve stories, though, a city is bound to be dominated visually by a crowd of faceless high-rises, like most modern American downtowns; it can still work well as a city, but it will not be visually coherent.
The cathedrals and government buildings that dominate the skylines of traditional cities symbolized the shared values of the people who live there – common religious, cultural and political values. The glass and steel high-rises that dominate the skylines of American cities today symbolize our shared belief in technology and economic growth; the modernists said they were symbols of purely rational decision making, but they look more like symbols of technology that has never been controlled, of a society where growth is not subordinated to human purposes. 
If a contemporary American city were built with a six-story height limit for fabric buildings and no limits on symbolically important buildings, it would not center on one religious building, like the cathedral of mediaeval cities whose life centered on a common religion, and it would not center on one or two government buildings, like Washington, DC, a company town where life is dominated by the federal government. It would be much more pluralistic. 
In the city center, the largest buildings of the city’s major religions would rise above the urban fabric: perhaps a cathedral, a mosque, a Hindu temple. Several different types of civic building would rise above the urban fabric: city hall, the main courthouse, major museums. There might also be a purely symbolic structure in the city center, such as a campanile or a obelisk. Out in the neighborhoods, hundreds of smaller buildings would rise above the urban fabric: church steeples, local library branches, local courthouses, community centers. 
These should be designed to make a distinctive mark on the skyline: even if the building proper does not have to be larger than the fabric buildings that surround it, it should include a tower or spire that rises above the fabric. In some cases, we already have conventions that let us identify the type of building from a distance – steeples for churches, minarets for mosques, classical cupolas for government buildings. We should try to create an equally strong visual identity for other types of buildings. 
The typical skyline of our cities today is a clutter of faceless high-rises. You cannot even tell by looking at them which are office buildings and which are housing. It is usually boring, because most high-rises look more or less the same, but it is even worse when developers pull in avant-gardist architects who design high-rises that are weird just for the sake of being different. It is usually meaningless, because it is made up of housing and offices, which have no symbolic value, but if one building dominates the skyline, it can create inadvertent symbolism: for example, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, by the well known modernist architect Cesar Pelli, towers over the usual clutter of faceless high rises, and the skyline very clearly symbolizes the fact that this city is so fixated on growth that the developers can do what they want and the bankers are in charge. (They themselves would say it symbolizes the “economic dynamism” of their city – but that is just another way of saying the same thing.)
The skyline of the city we are imagining would be interesting, with distinctive building types rising above the fabric, including some structures that are unique to the city, like the Duomo of Florence or the Campanile of Venice. This skyline would also be meaningful: the urban fabric represents the necessities of life, housing and business, and the buildings that rise above the fabric represent the things that people believe make their lives worthwhile – religion, culture, self-government. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Victory for Flexible Work Time Initiative

Measure Q, the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, won overwhelmingly, with 78.79% voting Yes - a margin of more than three to one.

Because this was an advisory initiative, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, getting a law passed in Berkeley and getting a bill introduced in the state legislature.

This is the first time that flexible work time has ever been on the ballot, and the overwhelming victory shows that this is an issue whose time has come. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order giving this sort of flexibility to federal employees. I expect the issue to keep becoming more prominent.

This is an issue that will change people's lives. There are lots of working couples who have trouble balancing work and family, and this sort of law will make their lives dramatically better.

We have made progress on our goal of getting people to see that work time is not only a family issue; it is also an environmental issue. If people choose to work less and consume less, they will also pollute less. Bill McKibben was one of the early endorsers of the initiative, and the Sierra Club and Green Party also endorsed it - as did the Democratic Party of Alameda County, showing that it is a mainstream issue.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Driverless Cars and Livable Cities

Most enthusiasts for driverless cars are not asking the right questions. They assume that our cities will not change and that driverless cars will make it easier for people to get around these cities. They focus on technological change and turn a blind eye to possible social change.

But when we start to ask how driverless cars can change our cities for the better, interesting ideas pop up.

For example, there would be obvious benefits to driverless cars that were programmed to observe the speed limit. There would have to be some sort of GIS telling the car what the speed limit is on each street it drives on.

We could not only reduce the danger of accidents by reducing speeding.  We could also lower speed limits drastically.

For example, we could lower the speed limit to 12 mph on bicycle priority streets, so bicycles can really share the road with cars rather than being forced to keep to the right. Today, most drivers exceed the speed limit. No one would obey a 12 mph limit, and in most states, it is illegal to set the speed limit lower than the actual speed of most drivers

If there were a significant number of driverless cars programmed to obeyed the speed limit, then the cars with drivers would also obey the speed limit - at least on roads with just one traffic lane in each direction, which are the best candidates for bicycle priority streets. The driverless cars would act as traffic calming devices that prevent other cars from going faster than the speed limit.

We could also create shared spaces, used by both pedestrians and cars, with speed limits as low as 5 mph.

Most radically, we could reduce speed limits across an entire city, so people would drive less, as I suggested in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices.

Even without lower speed limits, it is interesting to speculate about how driverless cars could affect busy urban streets, filled with cars and pedestrians. Today, some pedestrians sneak across these streets, walking through the jammed traffic.  Many would probably realize that the driverless cars are programmed to stop when there is a pedestrian in front of them, and some would be willing to cross the street even if it means walking in front of that are moving slowly and forcing them to stop.  It would be frustrating for the people in the cars, but the street would become a better place for pedestrians to be.

The conventional wisdom is that driverless cars would make driving quicker and more efficient.  But if we want to make our cities more livable, we would do well to use driverless cars in ways that make driving slower - and sometimes even less efficient.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Driving to the Poor House

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, claim that the city relies on traffic tickets for too much of its revenue and that tickets for lower-income people often turn into bench warrants and jail time.

For example, one man received a $100 ticket and had only $80 when he went to pay it, so the ticket turned into a warrant for his arrest.

The ticketing is obviously unfair and a hardship to many people, so I support the protests.  But I wonder why none of the news stories about Ferguson mention the deeper issue that underlies it.  Why do we design our cities so people have to drive?

That man who doesn't have $100 to pay his traffic ticket undoubtedly spends thousands of dollars on his car each year. The cost is a hardship even to middle-class Americans and much more of a hardship to the poor.  Yet most Americans live in locations where they cannot go anywhere without driving.

I myself am lucky enough to live in an older city where it is possible to get around without a car.  I have bicycled as my main form of transportation for all of my adult life.  When I was commuting by bicycle, I estimated that I spend less than $50 per year on transportation, which went to occasional bike parts and repairs - quite a contrast with the $7,000 per year that the average American spends on transportation.

If I had owned a car all that time, I would have only about half as much in my savings as I do.

Let's deal with the short-term hardship caused by unfair ticketing in Ferguson, but let's also deal with the much greater economic burden of automobile dependency by rebuilding our cities so it is not mandatory to own an automobile.

It reminds me of the old saying of Will Rogers: America is the first country in history where people drive to the poorhouse.