Wednesday, May 03, 2006

How Can Nicolai Ouroussoff Be So Backward?

Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote an article about Jane Jacobs after her death, and I posted this comment on Planetizen. You can find a link to the original article and to comments on

How Can Ouroussoff Be So Backward?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has devoted himself to a rear-guard defense of a dying style: mid-twentieth-century modernism. Because this school has nothing constructive to say about city planning, he spends much of his time sniping at planners who are more successful. He cannot even write about Jane Jacobs without veering off into an irrelevant attack on the New Urbanists.

This attack has no basis. He says that New Urbanists in New Orleans are "tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored," when the New Urbanists have actually focused very strongly on providing affordable housing (as well as on designing environmentally sustainable transit-and-pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods).

But if we really want to see how backward Nicolai Ouroussoff's thinking is, we should consider this criticism of Jane Jacobs:

"she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways ...."

At a time when global warming has already begun and when gasoline prices are rising rapidly, Nicolai Ouroussoff criticizes Jane Jacobs for admiring walkable cities rather than cities built around freeways!!

In Los Angeles today, they know better. Mayor Villaraigosa strongly supports smart growth with dense housing around transit stations to create walkable neighborhoods. In fact, the New York Times said in an editorial today [May 1] that we need "more efficient transportation systems as part of a larger smart-growth strategy." Why is the Times' architecture critic so much more backward then their editorial board?

This comment about freeways shows that Nicolai Ouroussoff doesn't think about how cities work in environmental terms or in human terms. As always, he thinks of cities as aesthetic objects, so he can look down his nose at anyone who doesn't share his cliquish taste.

But his aesthetic is so retrograde that he doesn't have anything to be snobbish about. The last person who wrote about the beauty of freeways, as far as I can remember, was Sigfried Giedion who wrote in 1941 about building cities at the "great scale of the freeway." In this article, Ouroussoff even tries to rehabilitate Giedion's favorite urban planner: Robert Moses! This sort of thinking was cutting edge back in 1941, but today we can only ask: How can Ouroussoff be so backward?

We live in a retrograde time. If we have an oil-man in the White House, I suppose it is not surprising that we have a freeway-man as architecture critic of the New York Times.


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