Friday, February 06, 2009

The city in James Howard Kunstler's mind


Kunstler is our virtuoso scold of the manmade environment, a one-man death squad for the idea of suburbia. He not only believes our modern way of life is doomed, but that it deserves to be. Here he is writing about the "suburban outlands" he saw during a recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama:
Along the low horizon, mall followed strip mall followed "lifestyle center," book-ending the "one house" failed subdivisions of otherwise empty unsold lots in a cavalcade of floundering enterprise. It seemed at times as if the terrain was a kind of sea-like expanse, and all the retail boxes ghost ships drifting to oblivion. … So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can't recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future – and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.
Our present economic sinkhole, fears of "peak oil," and our dependence for much of our petroleum on good friends — of our dollars — in the Middle East have made Kunstler an intellectual rising star, especially (though not entirely) on the Left. I've read some of his online essays and found them rather one-dimensional and shrill: his extreme expressionism is suggested by the title of his blog, Clusterfuck Nation, within his Web site.


Okay, the man detests suburban development. It's not exactly a daring, bleeding-edge position. Most of us have experienced the sinking-heart feeling of driving through one of the monotonous landscapes of contemporary sprawl — malls lacking architectural character, big box retailers, the standard franchised fast food outlets, clogged six-lane highways, parking lots large enough to hold tank maneuver exercises in. While virtually no one defends this kind of design anymore, it wouldn't be fair to accuse Kunstler of attacking a strawman. After all, places like this continue to be built, or at least were until our recent economic paralysis began.

But wait. The commercial side of suburbia is only a part, maybe the smaller part, of Kunstler's "J'accuse!" What he really hates is the residential mode of suburbs. He is the enemy of
single-family housing. Those lawns and backyards — wasteful! Worse still, suburbs depend on a cultural bubonic plague, the automobile.
We need to begin planning right away for a transition away from automobiles, not in order to be good socialists but because Happy Motoring is at the core of our unsustainability trap. The car system is going to fail in manifold ways whether we like it or not, and it will fail due to circumstances already underway. For one thing, it will cease to be democratic as the remnants of the middle class find it impossible to get car loans, or pay for fuel, or insurance, and that will set in motion a very impressive politics-of-grievance setting apart those who are still able to enjoy motoring and those who have been foreclosed from it.
He may be right. I hope not, and for me, this kind of absolutism and probable exaggeration undercuts many of Kunstler's good ideas. He's a big-picture man, and although he's ideology-driven, at least it's his own ideology, not off-the-shelf cultural Marxism of the kind so popular in our academic pest houses. He was ahead of the curve in understanding what many people are coming, unwillingly, to understand: that an economy can't be based on endless "growth" and debt-spurred consumerism. We have to develop a steady-state economy that doesn't require endless artificial stimulation of the need to own more and more things. But to get back to the housing question, if Kunstler believes we should shoot our cars and exit the suburbs, where and how are people to live?


When I ran across his book, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition while browsing in the public library, I decided to read it to see if it might offer clues about his alternative to suburbia. (It should be pointed out that The City in Mind is copyrighted 2001, and doesn't necessarily represent his current thinking.) Does the man love cities as much as he hates suburbs? The answer would seem to be, he likes some cities and is disgusted by others. He likes some things about cities and dislikes others. He likes old cities and dislikes their modern disfigurement. Or perhaps, he likes the idea of cities, the city in his mind.

It was a little surprising, and pleasing, to find that Kunstler can express himself with a certain literary grace and touches of wit — qualities not often evident in his recent eco-sermons. I enjoyed the book, even where I thought he was off his head; more about that shortly.


The City in Mind contains chapters on Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston, and London, with occasional side glances at New York. He has spent time in all of them, researched their history, and gives just enough of their background to provide a thoughtful context for his judgments.

He is enthusiastic about Paris, celebrating Georges Eugène Haussmann's tremendous do-over in the 19th century, resulting in the wide boulevards, round points, vistas, and buildings of uniform height that have retained much of their beauty and charm even in the ultra-commercialized, automobile-centric 21st century. I agree with Kunstler that Haussmann's project was a spectacularly successful example of large-scale urban renewal ... and, I would add, virtually the only one.

No such enterprise would be possible today in a democratic country. Haussmann's enabler was France's last emperor, Napoleon III.


But Paris's re-creation was not without a cultural debit, which he ignores. The fabric of the pre-Haussmann Paris included large areas of housing dating from the Middle Ages onward, which Haussmann knocked down, sending their poor residents to live in the, er, suburbs -- a pattern of wealth in the center city with an outer ring of slums that continues to this day. Many Parisians at the time and since have lamented the destruction of so much of the city's history and architectural heritage. The razing of the old and planning of the new created a marvel, but such "rational" planning, beloved of urbanist theoreticians ever since, comes at a cost.

However, it's only partly the elegant streetscape that thrills Kunstler. He also sees it as an early exemplar of one of his favorite prescriptions for sensible modern life: population density. Paris adopted, or was forced to adopt, apartment buildings, which had been rare in the Western world since Roman times.
Londoners had a horror of sharing common hallways and stairs with strangers. The Parisians appreciated the convenience of apartment life and developed a supple social armor to deal with its surprises. The social relations in Parisian apartment blocks built under Haussmann followed the same hierarchical pattern as before his time. The lower floors remained most desirable. The upper floors and attic stories were occupied by the less well-off. The difference now, however, was that the buildings were brand-new, the middle class had grown enormously, and occupants of all ranks could benefit from modern domestic amenities and decent sanitation.
Convenience, high on the social engineer's scale of values. I don't have the ghost of an idea what supple social armor is, and it sounds uncomfortable to strap it on every time you enter the common hallways you share with strangers. Good sanitation and modern domestic amenities are pluses, in my opinion, but I fail to see why you must live in a human kennel to enjoy them. In fact, every suburban residential neighborhood that makes Kunstler see red proves that you need not.

Our author is good in describing the urban pathologies of Mexico City and Atlanta's failed development schemes. Surprisingly, Rome, which is the most endlessly fascinating city I know, doesn't seem to inspire him. His account quickly devolves into an academic treatise on classical architecture theories and their revival a thousand years after the fall of the Western Empire. The magic of the city eludes him. It's like explaining a great garden by a lecture on pistils and stamens.

Kunstler is funny in his word pictures of Las Vegas. But Vegas, of course -- the Strip and downtown -- is a target as big as a barn door. Everyone understands that it isn't, and never has been, a model of a city. It's a fantasy playground, an out-of-body and out-of-mind experience, a one-off that probably can never be duplicated (and I share his wish that it never will be).

But in Vegas, the former boom town now a bust town, people don't live in the casinos and hotels with mad architecture. They live in normal residential areas. Uh-oh.
... The plain truth is that the single-family detached house is an inappropriate building typology for the Las Vegas climate. [Or, in Kunstler's mind, for any climate.] It handles temperature extremes poorly. The attached courtyard house [get out your supple social armor!], of the type found in Latin America and North Africa, would make a lot more sense [for Latin Americans and North Africans], would take up a lot less space [the less space you have to yourself the better], would regulate heat and cold better with less artificial air conditioning, and built at high densities [his ideal again] with integral shopping [wouldn't it be convenient to live above a bagel store that opens at 6 a.m.?], would require a lot less compulsory motoring -- but, alas, the so-called stand-alone California ranchburger in a pod subdivision of identical ranchburgers, detached from the shopping and office pods, is what the builders are used to supplying to a market that doesn't want to consider anything else.
The boldfaced, bracketed interjections are mine, if you had any doubts.

Where to begin? How about at the end of Kunstler's fatuous paragraph? Builders will build what they think they can sell (currently, nothing). If people decide they want to live in 40-story replicas of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, developers will clamor straightaway for the services of Tibet's superstar architects.

He is scornful of homeowners who want California ranchburgers (huh? I don't get the metaphor), and he has every right to his own rejection of them. I know the kind of development he's on about, and have some reservations about it myself. But it's just condescension on his part to assume that "the market" doesn't want to consider alternatives. Could it just be that homeowners have considered alternatives, like Kunstler's efficient factories for living (Le Corbusier's phrase, and while Kunstler is rightly appalled by Corbu, his own belief system seems to be Le Corbusier Lite) and said no thanks.


Kunstler is clearly an intelligent man with a good ability to observe and reflect. But like so many intellectuals, he is a utopian who is frustrated by the unwillingness of others to conform to his rationalistic template. Some people are urbanites by temperament or upbringing -- Kunstler appears to be one -- and heaven knows they have plenty of urban environments to choose from. I have no quarrel with them until, like Kunstler, they insist that their preferences (overlaid with a dubious environmental rationale) become an imposed norm.

Most Americans, if they can afford to, still want to live in a house of their own, not an apartment building or Latin American hacienda. They like space around them. Even today, some prefer the relative quiet of suburbia compared with the noise of cities and apartments or condos that share walls with the neighbors.


Kunstler invariably plays what he thinks is his trump card, the running-out-of-oil scenario. If we're not persuaded by his utopian vision, then by golly he'll haul in environmental shortfalls and deputize them as enforcers. He dismisses alternative fuels or technologies, with no particular argument that I've read, just his own flat rejection.

Maybe we will have to abandon our cars and our houses and move into Blade Runner cities. Kunstler would look forward to that. As long as I have a car, house, or non-urban setting, though, he is going to have to come and try to take them from me.

Feeling lucky, Mr. Kunstler? Well, are you?


Mark said...

If Kunstler is so sure that living in suburbs is soulless and living in some other housing arrangement is soul-nurturingly superior, well that sounds like a great business opportunity for him. He should find some partners and go into the business of developing the sort of housing he thinks is so much better. Presumably people will flock to it, and he will start a new trend that other developers will follow.

I want a garden of my own. I can't have that with an apartment. I don't want a few tubs of dirt on a balcony - I want a garden. The human need to have some soil of one's own is ignored by Kunstler.

Also, it's ironic that he has such contempt for the suburban developments which are rows of identical houses, street after street, when that's all an apartment building is: rows of identical housing units, except packed closer together.

I also can't stand the man's vulgarity. The name of his blog alone disqualifies him from serious consideration.

He's another collectivist who has no faith that if you leave it up to the free market, people will choose what they want most and are willing to spend their money on. He knows much better than the rest of us what we need, and dammit, laws should be passed to force his vision on us.

Rick Darby said...

Also, it's ironic that he has such contempt for the suburban developments which are rows of identical houses, street after street, when that's all an apartment building is: rows of identical housing units, except packed closer together.

I wish I'd written that. A great observation.

Thanks for your comment. Obviously, we are simpatico about Kunstler and his like.

Anonymous said...

An enjoyable book-review + commentary. Thank you, Mr. Darby.

David said...

Apparently, Haussman's redesign of Paris was motivated in part by the desire to simplify the task of the authorities in suppressing popular rebellions. Wider streets were harder to barricade: straighter streets made it easier to fire on the insurrectionists with artillery.

Did Kunstler mention this in his book?

Rick Darby said...


Kunstler did mention it. The Communards in 1871 didn't know of the theory and successfully, for a while, barricaded many streets.