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Monument vs. Fabric

David Brussat reveals that not all New Urbanists are on the same page when it comes to civic beauty.

Imagine the face of Marilyn Monroe - on her cheek a big wet pulsating pimple, with hairs, reaching out to poke her normally delighted observers in the eye. She would have had it surgically removed, of course.

Marilyn Monroe,

Marilyn Monroe,

Imagine the face of our beautiful planet likewise besmirched. And yet we have not had the carbuncle surgically removed, even though it has spread throughout our built environment.

The only major organized group of people seeking such a solution - aside from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art - is the Congress of the New Urbanism. And neither advocates, strictly speaking, the removal of the hideous blotch of God’s wrath on the good green earth called modern architecture. No, they just seek the development, going forward, of cities and towns designed more or less as they were designed before the onset and metasticization of the blotch.

But not all new urbanists are in lockstep about the importance of beauty.

New urbanist Daniel Solomon is a founder of the CNU and longtime participant in the debate over whether new urbanism should embrace modern architecture. Of course it should not. Solomon’s recent essay, “The Thirty Years’ War: New Urbanism and the Academy,” seems to retreat from his usual openness to modernism by proposing what most trad-hugging new urbanists have advocated all along, but cloaking it as a sort of “third way” in urbanism.

He starts out by accurately describing how academia and the architectural establishment look down their noses at the new urbanism (as they do at new traditional architecture), tut-tuts at those of us who complain about it, and then asks “What if those linked-arm architects and educators, goose-stepping to the drumbeat of eternal novelty, are right?”

Monuments and Fabric. Leon Krier

Monuments and Fabric. Leon Krier

He defends modernism’s focus on the novelty of object buildings and its disdain for “fabric” - the background buildings that new urbanists see as equally important in successful city design. To do so, he criticizes as “simplistic” the famously influential cartoon by Leon Krier showing that monuments + fabric = city. (Hey, Dan! It’s a cartoon!)

Solomon then suggests that new urbanists surrender to the modernists by accepting reality – that cities are messy things, always changing, that you cannot always just plop a monument onto a perfect node of fabric in the real world. He proposes that new urbanists embrace what he calls “Buildings of a Third Kind” that are neither monuments nor fabric. “In these works,” he writes, “architects give expression and honor to special places, while simultaneously reinforcing the weave of city fabric that defines its streets and public places.” He uses two celebrated examples, both of them traditional – Borromini’s San Carlino alla Quattro Fontana, in Rome, and Arthur Brown’s Temple Emanu-el, in San Francisco.

Temple Emanu-el, by Arthur Brown, San Francisco (Public Square/CNU)

Temple Emanu-el, by Arthur Brown, San Francisco (Public Square/CNU)

But Solomon’s “Buildings of a Third Kind” actually are how traditional architecture normally behaves. His two examples show how monumental classicism naturally blends into its traditional background. That is, they epitomize what Krier’s cartoon means when it is accurately (and honestly) translated as a principle of civic design rather than as a misguided description of actual reality on the ground.

The digression by Solomon into lengthy analysis of his two traditional examples of “Buildings of a Third Kind” is, I think, intended to mask the purpose of his essay. which is to cover up the fact that he is wrong about modern architecture. Otherwise, why would he not use examples of modern architecture to make his point? Why not try to show how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Centre Pompidou fit into their urban contexts?

The answer is that they do not and can not. As usual, defenders of modern architecture traffic in the obviously not true and rely on modernism’s domination of the architectural establishment to block any criticism of the emperor’s new clothes.

Cover, The New Civic Art, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

Cover, The New Civic Art, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

Solomon’s frequent interlocutor in this debate over the years is Andres Duany, a fellow CNU founder and still the chief articulator of all things NU. Blame him for some of the confusion that reigns among CNU leadership over whether modernism has a role to play in the new urbanism. He co-authored a book, The New Civic Art: Elements of Town Planning, that featured the Bilbao monstrosity on its cover, and welcomes it as illustrating how modernist monuments can fit into new-urbanist fabric. Yet, even as residents of Bilbao have enjoyed the tourism money rolling in from architects who arrive in busloads to drool at the modernist icon, they recognize that it is a direct insult to the historic character of their ancient city.

Duany, and many others whose native good sense tells them that new urbanism and modern architecture are enemies, want to be seen as hip. But it comes at a cost. That cost is the evisceration of discourse. Modernists have no problem staking their claims for the truth of their stylistic conceits, but both the new urbanists and even the advocates of new traditional architecture often mix too much self-doubt into their support for the architecture of beauty. They embrace the popular academic relativism whose purpose is not to seek truth but to discombobulate meaning.

We cannot just surgically remove modern architecture, of course, from the face of the globe, but by reviving beauty as a vital factor in architecture, urbanism and city-building, we can make a start, as CNU already has. And we can rely on time to demolish the plethora of carbuncles as buildings with minimal lifespans begin to succumb, as they already are doing. Let them. Eventually, if this is allowed to continue, beauty will regain its historic advantage in the correlation of architectural forces. Preservationists, call your office.

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