Minutes (Our Manifesto)

02-13-2005

Not a manifesto, not a “how to,” but minutes. Minutes are better than manifestos because they allow for conflict and irreverence, two things Interboro appreciates. As records of a conversation, minutes are suggestive, rather than didactic.

D: Did we decide to go with “Interboro Urbanism?”

C: I guess I’m still sort of skeptical.

D: About which part? Interboro or urbanism?

C: I guess I like Interboro. I’m not sure how I feel about urbanism. Doesn’t that word set off alarms? It’s like that manifesto, or how to or whatever on that fat website. Wasn’t the first rule for having a successful design firm to keep urbanism out of the name?

G: Marshall sure doesn’t like it. [Laughter] That was some rant.

T: What was up with him last night? What did he say? That he doesn’t trust ┬ápeople who call themsleves urbanists?

G: Right, he said it’s a meaningless word, and so it must be a meaningless profession. I actually . . .

T: I don’t know. I think that that is somehow the virtue of “Interboro Urbanism.” Urbanism is a meaningless word, but I think that that is liberating, no? You say so and so is an urbanist and what does that mean? Interboro is like that too. It’s very generic. Interboro Petroleum, Interboro Insurance, Interboro College of Business. . .

C: But Marshall’s point was that it’s like the word postmodern, right? That it means so many things to so many people that there’s no point in using it.

G: Right. I was going to say that I agree with Marshall. It’s not that it has no meaning, but that it has too many contradictory meanings. Like that book we read last month, what was it called? City: Urbanism and its End. I think the consensus was that the book was wrong to define urbansim so narrowly, and that if something ended, it was a particular strain of urbanism, in his case, the urbanism that characterized low-lying, coastal plain cities. Rustbelt cities. That’s a much different urbanism than you’d find in, say, Los Angeles, or those Peruvian hillsides that De Soto talks about. These urbanisms are alive and well, even though people like Rae, if his title is anything to go by, wouldn’t recognize them as such.

D: It’s true. There’s almost no consensus as to what counts as urban. To some it’s still a pejorative. To others it’s the opposite, an adjective that enhances whatever noun you stick it in front of. I like Marshall’s experiment. What was it? To never use the word urban in any of his projects?

G:I think he was talking specifically about his Atlantic Yards workshop, about the tendency to stick the word urban in front of everything: urban room, urban agriculture . . .

D: Who’s that French guy who wrote a novel without using the word “the”?

C: George Perec? You mean the guy who wrote a novel without using the letter “e”?

D: Yeah, it’s like that. Don’t let language go stale. For me, that’s the point about the word urban. After all, cities change, why shouldn’t the words we use to talk about cities? That’s the plea Amin and Thrift make: the equipment we have for making sense of what is happening to our cities is lagging far behind the changes. It sounds pretentious, but Amin and Thrift are right, we have to “reimagine the urban.” We have to update our equipment.

T: But we’d be up against the legacy of the metropolis. For better or worse, urban theory was most prolific in the early twentieth-century, when cities were the sort of dense, heterogenous, spatially-bound entities that were written about by Weber, Simmel, Wirth (and, for that matter, Rae), and that most people still imagine when they imagine a city. What can this lead to except nostalgia? If nineteenth-century Paris is your yardstick, of course you’ll come up short when you measure, say, Tyson’s Corner in Maryland. ┬áBut if you update your equipment, as Sudjic suggests, you’ll be less likely to say things like “what ever happened to urbanism?” With a better, more contemporary conceptual framework, you’ll be more likely to see that urbanism is still out there, even though it looks a lot different than it used to.

G: What’s that metaphor Kant uses? New wine in old bottles.

D: Exactly. William Mitchel write a book called “Urban Life, Jim, but not as we Know it?” That’s a silly name for a book, but it gets at what we’re saying.

T: That’s Margaret’s project, no? To look for traces of the urban where most people wouldn’t expect to find it. In shopping malls, on front lawns, in parking lots. . .

C: Margaret’s always accusing people of weaving “narratives of loss.” And she should. Why are people so nostalgic? Sure, there’s a laundry list of things that are wrong, and sure, there’s never been a bigger need for thoughtful planning. But why does this always translate into some New Urbanist fantasy? Rae’s book, despite its own narrative of loss, does one thing remarkably well: it exposes the contingency of early twentieth-century urbanism by showing how a city such as New Haven was a product of world events (inventions, policy prescriptions, demographic trends), that just as easily might not have transpired. Early twentieth-century urbanism was anything but inevitable; take away the conditions (for example, the invention, development and dissemination of steam power), and you wouldn’t have had, for example, the density or the heterogeneity that you had in a city like New Haven in 1900.

G: Yeah, Rae provides the best evidence against the New Urbanism that he himself wants to argue for. It’s so basic and yet it is ignored by so many people: for something to thrive, it has to have the right conditions. What we all admire about a city such as New Haven in 1900 are things that, today, would require an enormous investment in artificial support mechanisms. The New Urbanist approach is a variant on the Field of Dreams theory: build it and it will happen. But this isn’t the case. The conditions don’t really exist for the sorts of things they want to grow.

C: Some would argue that that’s why you have to change the conditions.

D: Some would. I think that planners try too hard; they make their lives way more stressful than they need to be. You know Marx’s line about how people make their own choices, but not under circumstances of their choosing? Planners are always trying to change the circumstances, always trying to go against the grain. It’s hard work. I’m not saying that there aren’t things that are structurally wrong with the way our built environment is shaped, I’m just saying that I don’t think planners are necessarily the people who should work at this structural level. Anyway we’re not about to.

T: I agree. Planners are by nature “do gooders,” and in certain ways this is laudable. But here I’m with the great Koolhaas. Maybe urban planning should be more of a gay science. Planning is not going to change the world, but that shouldn’t make it any less relevant. There’s plenty of other things to do.

G: For example?

T: You know that Venturi quip, “main street is almost all right?” So many things are like that. Like that site of the Density Competition. Where was that?

C: Westwood, MA

T: Westwood, MA. Here was this incredible mess of forty acres: a sprawling, concrete plateau that hosted, among other things, a McDonald’s, a Mercedes dealer, a pool supply store, a daycare center, a retail outlet, two or three single-story office buildings, an abandoned cement factory, and a distribution hub. Flanking one side of it was a train track. Flanking the other was a highway. Behind it was a patch of single-family houses. Running (trickling) through it was a creek.

An incredible assortment of stuff, to say the least. The problem was that none of the buildings conversed with each-other. Each was its own island, feigning its own ecology. The result was that it was very difficult for any positive externalities to accrue from these wonderful, unplanned juxtapositions. To cite a simple example, there was no path running through the site, even though one could easily imagine a pedestrian itinerary that started at one of the single-family houses, went past the creek towards McDonald’s, stopped at the bank and continued towards the train station. Each building had its own parking lot, its own landscaping (each a page out of the corporate design manual). Each property line was hard, and there was little ambiguity. The potential for urbanism was there, but because of this archipelago-like dynamic, it was very difficult for any sort of symbiosis to emerge; there were very few spaces for interaction and encounter.

As we saw it, what this site needed – despite what the competition said – were a few simple moves that would make it easier for these positive externalities to accrue. A few small interventions that could engender the synergy that was already latent in the site. Call it “planning in retrospect.”

D: Here’s another example of planners trying too hard. Despite its messy appearance, it was not as if the site was without plan. On the contrary, the placement of each building was well thought out. Do you think someone who is going to invest in a distribution hub is going to plop it down anywhere? Of course not. He’s going to look at proximity to highways and exit ramps. The same can be said for the McDonald’s. There’s plenty of logic to that site. Why would you want to destroy it? The point should be to harness it.

C: Yes! Endogenous development. Work with what’s there. It’s a lot easier.

D: Of course, to work with what’s there, you have to identify what’s there.

G: That’s why nostalgia is so pernicious. If you were a New Urbanist, you would look at that Westwood site without really seeing it. You’d just see what looks like a strip mall, and an alarm would go off and you’d say something about how ugly and wasteful this dignified old town has become. Remember art class in grammar school, when the teacher would get on your case for drawing your cartoonish idea for an apple, instead of the real apple on the table in front of your easel?

C: Architecture and planning schools certainly don’t help, the way they lock you up in those studios all day. If we ever taught a studio, a requirement should be that for every hour you spend in the studio, you have to spend two outside, observing what’s going on.

G: That’s why we’re thankful for people like Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, J.B. Jackson, Margaret Crawford, and Roger Sherman: they put a premium on empirical observation.

T: Would you call it dirty realism?

D: I don’t know what that is, but it sounds OK.

T: Didn’t someone describe our deadmall project in that way?

D: That was our most successful project, in part because we spent the most time observing the site.

G: The strategy was very similar. The whole scheme stemmed from our suspicion that there was a logic to the semi-illicit activities we ob-served growing around the remains of the mall (prostitution rings, flea markets, vending, cruising, driving practice), and that we might do well to emulate that logic. Again, endogenous development: development that identifies and takes inspiration from the urbanity that exists in a given place, however trivial it might seem. . .

D: Not to be a stickler or anything, but wasn’t this supposed to be a conversation about our name?

C: Are we any clearer about that?

G: I don’t know, I still think that it’s a tricky word, that urbanism . . .

 

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