Jane Jacobs Changed My Life… or, Modernists Should Die

What makes a good neigh­bor­hood? I’ve start­ed read­ing every­thing I can get my hands on regard­ing urban plan­ning and issues sur­round­ing sprawl, and I think it’s so inspir­ing that Jane Jacobs had it all fig­ured out in 1961. I think it would not be mag­nan­i­mous to say that she saved Green­wich Vil­lage from becom­ing anoth­er Robert Moses high­way. Check out this dis­cus­sion about Jane’s life and the state of urban plan­ning. (Real Audio)

As a design­er, I’ve always loved mod­ernist design — it’s big, it’s human­ist in the sense that it is utopi­an and egal­i­tar­i­an, and it shows off our won­der­ful tech­nol­o­gy. Look at Empire Plaza in Albany, NY, and you can’t help but think that we are capa­ble of amaz­ing things. How­ev­er, this HUGE plaza is most­ly use­less, except on sun­ny days dur­ing noon and 1pm, when work­ers might stroll out­side for fresh air. Nev­er­mind that there aren’t any delis or con­ve­nience stores with­in a 5 minute walk. Also, think of a place like this in the evening, or at night. Dead. I’ve been there! Prob­a­bly unsafe. But the 19th cen­tu­ry State Capi­tol is won­der­ful, and human-scaled. One might imag­ine shops or restau­rants on the sur­round­ing streets. It’s dig­ni­fied, and wor­thy of a civic build­ing. I think our post-60s mis­trust of gov­ern­ment makes us think that spend­ing the mon­ey and time to build last­ing mon­u­ments to pub­lic life is some­how waste­ful or bad. Albany Dan’s own neigh­bor­hood (not far from Empire Plaza) is a tes­ta­ment to How We Used to Do Things. It’s a mish­mash of income lev­els and uses. It’s won­der­ful too.

Urban renew­al is a fuck­ing sham. No news there. Look at Boston’s own place of civic activ­i­ty, city hall. Mod­ernist archi­tects can argue all they want about the ‘great­ness’ of build­ings and plazas like this, but I doubt any­one but a few intel­lec­tu­als actu­al­ly appre­ci­ate it as such. (Myself includ­ed) It flies in the face of hun­dreds of years of prece­dent and exper­tise, and yet we call it ‘bril­liant’. Lis­ten to the architect’s own words:

Kall­mann: ‘We dis­trust and have react­ed against an archi­tec­ture that is absolute, unin­volved and abstract. We have moved towards an archi­tec­ture that is spe­cif­ic and con­crete, involv­ing itself with the social and geo­graph­ic con­text, the pro­gram, and meth­ods of con­struc­tion, in order to pro­duce a build­ing that exists strong­ly and irrev­o­ca­bly, rather than an uncom­mit­ted abstract struc­ture that could be any place and, there­fore, like mod­ern man’ with­out iden­ti­ty or pres­ence.”

Does the build­ing and plaza cre­ate a good urban space? nope. The lan­guage itself is specif­i­cal­ly craft­ed to sound unin­tel­li­gi­ble, and to ele­vate the archi­tect to the sta­tus of some Ayn Ran­di­an demi-God. Even the weird geom­e­try of the plaza is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unset­tling, not to men­tion what I feel from the build­ing itself. There is some­thing pro­found­ly anti-social in a build­ing that is set back from the street so far with that much brick. The ‘style’, (if the mod­ernists let you call it that), is Bru­tal­ist Mod­ern, for christ’s sake.

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