Style over substance

Building on my previous post about Cargo Cult urbanism, I came to realize recently that one of the problems with the contemporary urbanist movement is that urbanists are largely architects. A few days ago, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The New York Times, tweeted that archtect Charles Harris said the “Great privilege of defining . . . skyline should carry with it the great responsibility of enhancing public life.”

This is the sort of absurd statement I’ve come to expect from architects. Like journalists and, for that matter, every member of every profession, they overvalue their importance and inflate their influence. One shouldn’t even have to watch The Shock of the New to understand that art and architecture have almost no influence on public life. The artists of Weimar Germany failed to stop Hitler. In a secular, pluralistic democracy, art can only offend. No one has ever come back from a museum thinking “I should stay better informed of the issues effecting my community and actively participate in adopting policies regarding them.”

More seriously for cities, statements like this evidence the absurd premise that good urbanism is the result of good architecture. It’s not surprising that this unspoken idea has become popular — many prominent urbanists, especially New Urbanists, are architects. The pioneers of urban planning were architects and most of the work on the subject has been done by architects. But this is a problem: the issues facing cities are neither architectural in origin and nor are they capable of being solved by applications of architecture.

Cities are economic phenomena. That is, when people live in close proximity to one another to take advantage of favorable geography, trading their surplus labor and production, you have a city. The setting, growth and long-term success of cities are all results of its economy. Indeed, Nathan Lewis has said that cities are the visible parts of the economy.

It’s easy to understand why people believe that cities are architectural phenomena: if you look at cities you see buildings and bridges and things that were designed by architects, not invisible hands and credit sluices — except that buildings and bridges are capital projects and carry or contain economic activity. But an architect cannot use architecture to make housing more affordable to provide more opportunity for the poor, just as a journalist cannot use journalism to get better at math.

Good architecture should come from good urbanism. Buildings should interact with the street because the streets are pleasant places to be, not because people should ignore reality in favor of ideology. Georgian townhouses were good at interacting with the street, but build one on a four lane road today and you need the buffer of a hypertrophic stair or at least a front yard or sidewalk simply because you would be killed the first time you left the front door.

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