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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