Thursday, June 16, 2011

Charles Waldheim, Landscape Urbanism, and Modernism

Prof. Charles Waldheim was invited to the nineteenth session of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU 19) to talk about Landscape Urbanism, a recent approach to urban design which some see as a rival to the New Urbanism. Waldheim coined the term “Landscape Urbanism” and is chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Waldheim gave some good examples of recent projects that show how landscape architecture can contribute to urban design, but he also tried to promote the modernist style of architecture and to rehabilitate the modernist style of urbanism. Waldheim revealed this larger cultural agenda when he said:

“Your cultural program vis-à-vis architecture is circa 1979. … For those who were at the foundational moment of the New Urbanism and those who are promoting a postmodern urbanism more generally, they hoped to build a kind of connection over the last 500 years to the western tradition of urban form in which the twentieth century was meant to be seen as a kind of historical anomaly. It was a kind of blip, and it was exceptional… But I think increasingly it is clear over the last ten or fifteen years that architectural culture has not in fact embraced that history … and to the extent that there is still as sort of latent or kind of core neo-classicism at the heart of the New Urbanism, I think there is kind of potential vulnerability there.1

As a model for urban design, he showed many slides of the Lafayette Park urban renewal project in Detroit, a mixed-income project designed by the arch-modernist architect Mies van der Rohe and others, which is one of the few mid-twentieth-century housing projects that has worked in social terms and that continues to attract people.

Lafayette Park: A Model for Urban Design?
(photo by Mike Russell)

Waldheim claimed that Lafayette Park meets most of the CNU’s criteria for good urban design; for example, it has shopping within walking distance of its housing. The only criterion that it fails to meet is that it has parking facing the sidewalks, and Waldheim claims that its success shows that the New Urbanists are too dogmatic when they say that shopping streets should not be interrupted by parking. You can look at this picture of shopping in Lafayette Park (which Waldheim did not show in his presentation) and judge for yourself whether it is as appealing as the old-fashioned Main Streets that the New Urbanists design.

This is one of the very few modernist projects that have been successful, while hundreds of projects in the modernist style have been so unsuccessful that they have been demolished under the HOPE VI program and replaced with traditional neighborhoods in the New Urbanist style. Isn’t it plausible that Lafayette Park is successful not because it is appealing but because most of Detroit is so forbidding that Lafayette Park does not look bad in contrast?

Waldheim over-simplifies the history of architecture and urban design when he says that everyone has moved beyond the theories of 1979, that now we now all know that modernism will endure.

What he says may be true of architecture. During the 1970s, post-modernist theorists such as Charles Jencks claimed that architects were rejecting modernism, but there was a modernist revival beginning in the 1980s. Modernism is once again the established academic style that is taught in almost all the architecture schools and that receives all the Pritzker Prizes (though the public still likes traditional architecture, there are a few schools that teach traditional architecture, and some noted architects, such as Robert A. M. Stern, David Schwartz, and Quinlan Terry build in traditional styles).

What he says in clearly not true of urban design. Because of the efforts of the New Urbanists, urban designers have virtually all rejected modernism in favor of traditional neighborhood design. There are still suburban sprawl developers who build in the modernist style, but it is so discredited that the New Urbanists’ traditional neighborhood design is now the dominant style of urbanism. In terms of urban form, the twentieth century is a historical anomaly,

Waldheim is trying to carry the modernist revival a step further. Modernist architecture has been revived, and Waldheim also wants to revive modernist urbanism by promoting Lafayette Park as a model.

As an academic, Waldheim is narrowly focused on his own field, and when he talks about 1979, he is thinking of the theories of Charles Jencks and other writers who are even less known to the general public.

He ignores the most obvious fact about 1979: It was the year before Ronald Reagan was elected president.

During the 1960s, criticisms of modernism became influential. For example, popular movements stopped the construction of many urban freeways, and there was widespread academic criticism of urban sprawl and of towers-in-a-park urban renewal projects.

During the 1970s, criticisms of modernism became much broader. The public’s faith in economic growth and modern technology was shaken by soaring oil prices and by books such as The Limits of Growth, which used computer models to show that growth would lead to collapse because of the earth’s limited resources and limited capacity to absorb pollution. These criticisms were so influential that, in 1979, a national survey found that 30 percent of Americans were pro-growth, 31 percent were anti-growth, and 39 percent were uncertain.2

Postmodern architecture was a hopeful development of those times. Though many postmodernist architects seemed to be most interested in being ironic and clever, many others were looking for a serious alternative to modernism. The mid-century faith in modernization and technology was not only leading to ecological collapse. Postmodern architects showed that it was also producing uncomfortable places for people to live. At the time, it seemed that they might develop a more humanistic architecture that could help us get beyond the myth of progress and build a more sustainable economy.

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and he promised to revive the economic growth and the optimism of the 1950s. Not long afterwards, academic architects began to criticize post-modernism and to revive the mid-century modernist architecture of the 1950s. Waldheim is trying to carry this retrograde trend further by reviving mid-century modernist urbanism.

Since Reagan’s election, the country has spent several decades trying to restore economic growth, but now the old 1970s’ criticism of growth is beginning to seem more relevant than ever. Oil prices have soared during the last decade, as they did in the 1970s, and they have become a major obstacle to economic growth. The massive wildfires in Texas and Arizona, and the drought in Europe should remind us that global warming has already begun.

Andres Duany has predicted that postmodernism is the next architectural style that is up for revival, but that it should be a postmodernism without the irony. New Urbanism and postmodernist architecture are part of a larger revaluation of the modern economy that is needed as a response to our current ecological crisis. Lafayette Park’s celebration of modern technology and progress can only get in the way of this revaluation.

Lafayette Park: A Celebration of Modern Technology and Progress
(photo by Mike Russell)

When Waldheim criticizes the class of 1968 and claims to speak for a younger generation, we should remember that he got his undergraduate degree as part of the class of 1986, during the Reagan administration - and he seems to have absorbed some of the 1950s-revival spirit of that time.

His talk to CNU 19 did include good examples of how landscape architecture can be integrated with urban design, which could be a useful addition to the New Urbanism. He shows a wonderful project on the lower Don river on Lake Ontario,3 including restoration of a river and development of a new neighborhood around it, which could be a very useful model for New Urbanists who want to design traditional neighborhoods around restored natural systems.

But his talk also included a retrograde attempt to revive the modernist urbanism of Mies van der Rohe, which can only get in the way of the revaluation of the conventional faith in technology and progress that we need to deal with the current crisis of growth.

Modernists tend to judge buildings on the basis of whether they are “of our time” - meaning that they reject all traditional models and celebrate modern technology - rather than on the basis of whether they are comfortable and attractive places for people to use.

Waldheim takes the same approach in his talk. In a very revealing statement, Waldheim said that the landscape urbanists decided not to organize a congress, similar to the Congress for the New Urbanism, because they considered the congress to be a “twentieth-century form.”

You might as well say that you refuse to read books, because you consider them a “nineteenth-century form.” During the twentieth century, you abandoned books and spent all your time watching movies and television, because they were “of the time.” And in the twenty-first century, of course, you spend all your time watching streaming video on the internet, because it is “of our time.”

No one says we should give up books because only streaming video is “of our time.” Likewise, no one should say that we should give up traditional urbanism because only freeways and parking lots are “of our time” or that we should give up traditional architecture because only glass, steel, and concrete are “of our time.”

If we ask whether we are designing good places for people, rather than asking whether we are building places that are “of our time,” we can develop a humanistic architecture and urbanism that helps to humanize the larger economy and to move us beyond our current fetishism of technology and of growth-for-its-own-sake.

1. See Waldheim’s talk at, 43:54.

2. Robert M. Collins, More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 164.

3. See Waldheim’s talk at,1:03:30


Blogger David Sucher said...

Very interesting and far too much is made of landscape urbanism -- "there is no there, there" and like stararchitecture, both will have no lasting impact.

But I do find it interesting that Waldheim does focus correctly on the relationship of parking (though he gets it wrong).

"The only criterion that it fails to meet is that it has parking facing the sidewalks, and Waldheim claims that its success shows that the New Urbanists are too dogmatic when they say that shopping streets should not be interrupted by parking."

In fact new urbanists (small caps) are correct.

4:40 PM  

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