James Howard Kunstler – The Zombies of Gund Hall Go Forth to Eat America’s Brains

  • Published on June 17th, 2013

By James Howard Kunstler

From the newly published book, Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City by Andres Duany and Emily Talen.

Long about the late 1990s, anxiety beset the mandarins in the architecture schools when a reform movement calling itself The New Urbanism began to excite interest around America, and elsewhere.

The New Urbanists proposed a revival of traditional city-making principles as a sovereign remedy for the practical absurdities, economic quandaries, ecological terrors, and spiritual disorders of 20th century land-use planning. What’s more, The New Urbanists functioned in the real world of property development and had gotten scores of new projects underway, beginning with the demonstration project of a new town at Seaside, Florida.

This anxiety was most acute at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the Vatican of Modernism. After more than seven decades and countless iterations of dogma, and a vast record of built mistakes, they had little left to offer but a pretense of ideological correctness, in particular that they represented “the cutting edge” of design innovation reaching toward an evermore technologically dazzling future.

The New Urbanism (NU) especially galled them, with its menacing porches and picket fences, those totems of bourgeois small-mindedness. Eventually, the GSD folk began to grok that the NU was about way more than these minor details, but rather a wholesale re-ordering of the human habitat into a coherent and comprehensible design theory that ran from the relations between buildings, to the ordering of streets, neighborhoods, and regions. Worse yet, the NU incorporated codes – the DNA of urban design – intended to be legible to both practitioners and their customers, ordinary people. The NUs were against mystification! How vulgar.

In elite architectural circles, mystification was the supreme weapon wielded by their warriors-of-the-cutting-edge. Harvard’s Aegnor at the time was Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect who used mystification the way Stanford White had used a protractor. Koolhaas viewed the predicaments of over-population, resource depletion, financial instability, and consumerism as fundamentally hopeless, and had adopted the career strategy of going with the flow of the entropic zeitgeist, with all its delirious confusion. Hence, the buildings he designed were intended to confound the people who used them or saw them, to produce a delicious sense of anxiety, the characteristic emotion of the era. Of course, many others in the starchitect firmament – Libeskind, Holl, Eisenman, Mayne, Hadid, et. al – were working along the same lines, toward the effect of making cities everywhere more incomprehensible and alienating. When Koolhaas was first hired to occupy an eminent chair at the GSD, he devoted himself to a study of consumerism and produced a book about shopping. The joke was on everybody.

Meanwhile, The New Urbanists gradually occupied, shall we say, the field of operations where so much of the normal stuff of everyday life got built: the places where people lived and carried on commerce. In the booming economy of the millennium – which was, in fact, the last great gasp of the cheap oil era – their services were in demand from ambitious developers skeptical of suburban sprawl and all of its dismal schlock components. Mainly, they strove to build mixed-use, walkable places at a scale agreeable to human neurology, with attention to regional tradition. The New Urbanists were ambitious, too, about reforming the crusty accumulation of planning and zoning law that mandated a sprawl outcome practically everywhere in the USA and made it nearly impossible to assemble a human habitat worth living in. These reformers sent forth potent lecturers into unfriendly quarters, such as the Harvard GSD, which regarded the NU agenda with diffident contempt. But the threat to the Mandarins’ ideological power put the fear of God in them.

They had done almost nothing for ages to address the manifest horrors and hazards of American suburban sprawl. How the folks chose to live out there in the “flyover” states was not their thing. The Mandarins’ thing was keeping up with fashionable theory within the rigorous parameters of the Modernist canon of styles. One of the reasons they objected so vehemently to the New Urbanism was that they only understood it in terms of style, and so the most trivial elements of the movement – the porches and picket fences – drove them crazy. This was to be expected as the dirty secret of Modernism’s American branch was that it had always been about style ever since it arrived from Germany with Walter Gropius in 1937 (who was hired straight off the refugee gangway by Harvard).

In the event, Gropius shed all his old Brave New World Bauhaus social engineering baggage at the immigration line and replaced it with an Horatio Alger kit-bag of personal ambition, in which Cambridge intellectualism melded with American razzle-dazzle hucksterism to create a market for a new intellectual fashion imported from Europe. Before long, Modernism successfully morphed from its original social program (housing for proles) to the official style of corporate America (glass-skinned office towers for the over-class). Architects could make a lot of money designing towers with big floor-to-area ratios, and corporations could get a lot of prestige for the buck from dressing their headquarters in the sleek new Modernist raiment, which required no costly ornament. In the post war era, it also helped that Hitler and Stalin had completely discredited anything neoclassical. After the allies defeated them, Modernism became the official architectural style of the Free World, representing democracy and decency.


Pretty soon, urban design – that is, the officialdom of planning – caught up with the architects when the long-fermented ideas of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (a.k.a. Le Corbusier), which had been laughed out of Paris since the 1920s, were adopted all over America. I refer here to the notorious piece of mischief, the Ville Radieuse or Radiant City, the “buildings in a garden” format, the basis first for the new public housing projects , quickly to become slums of vertically concentrated poverty. This bundle of ideas then went on to infect all other realms of city planning – especially as joined with the well-intentioned monomania of the traffic engineers, whose extract from “Corb” was to keep the cars comfortable above all other considerations. By the 1950s, these behaviors were becoming encoded in the post-war planning laws that would mandate suburban sprawl.


One result of this activity was the cumulative impoverishment of the urban streetscape. Between the sleek glass-box office buildings set back behind pointless landscaping displays or “plazas,” both of which discouraged ground-floor retail, and the widened streets with their traffic lanes all turned one-way (and on-street parking removed), which allowed the cars to go faster, downtown pedestrian life withered until it was below the necessary critical mass for shopping, which duly moved to the new suburban retail ghettos mandated under single-use zoning – the highway strip, and then the mall. The pattern was set and continued to proliferate until the collapse of the housing bubble starting around 2007.

During this period, the Mandarins in the elite architecture schools did nothing to oppose these practices. In fact, they sponsored them and taught them to their students who, in turn, went out into the officialdom and practiced all the humdrum duties of administering parking standards and doing statistical analysis – which was what remained of urban design with all the artistry removed. In academia, the art module was vested in the design of individual buildings and the cult of the individual genius-architects who conceived them. This program followed several parallel tracks.

One track was the aforementioned practice of maximum mystification. The more the genius-architect was able to confound the ordinary public with rhetoric, the more he/she would appear to be a wizard, a supernatural being, authorized by dint of superior powers of intellect to traffic in concepts beyond the ken of the common folk. Since narcissistic personalities were attracted to this racket, they naturally believed their own metaphysical bullshit, and easily derived support from both their fellow narcissists and the sycophants they attracted.

They engaged in generating ever more new intellectual fashions to support career movement in the Big Business that higher education had become after the troublesome social commitments of the 1960s were demoted to the Kennedy School of Government and its imitators elsewhere. New intellectual fashions were required in order to wade through the swamps of accreditation for the PhD and enter the sinecured ranks of tenured professorship. A striving young scholar in the doctoral marshes had to generate an original idea, and often an entire thought-system used to arrive at it, in order to soldier through the dissertation ordeal and qualify for a faculty job.

This racket was in turn supported by the ideological politics of the day, namely the struggles of females, racial identity groups, and homosexuals against the age-old domination of hetero Caucasian males. It hopped on the express bus of the Post-structuralism fad, which described all human endeavor in terms of “power relations” and all reality as “constructed” – meaning, if you wanted to change who was in charge of things, you could simply employ rhetoric to manipulate reality according to your needs. Under such a thought regime, reality was a fungible and chimerical commodity. The stresses of such obvious relativism might not be salubrious for the collective mental health of a culture, but it hugely benefited ambitious narcissist intellectuals who could claim that reality was whatever they said it was. And it did pave the way for management changes in the universities. Anyway, a great many ambitious hetero males were going into greener pastures of an over-financialized economy, so fewer were even competing for the plums of academe. The net result was that a lot of female PhDs manufactured in the Boomer Generation bubble landed in department chairs in the humanities, and the study of literature in particular entered a wilderness of Theory from which it has not since reemerged.

But the traffic in metaphysics affected all other quarters of the academic world, except for the hardest sciences, and it was especially suited to the architectural scene, another fairly low-paying vocation, like teaching, with all the additional hazards of small business, if you actually opened a practice. Anyone who succeeded in architecture in a major way became a kind of superstar, but there were very few of them. Many of the wannabe superstars gravitated to the superstar training academies, of course, where the metaphysical bullshit thickets were in full flower. Theory larded with mystification was the ticket to a thriving career in the building arts.

Another track that ran through the architectural programs of recent years was the obsession with technology. Computer-aided-design software (CAD) had made it possible to tweak and torque construction materials in just about any manner – at least on the screen – and emerging architects were using this ability more and more to make bold statements, to create forms that had never been seen before, swooping curvilinear facades, constructed amoebic blobs clad in exotic metals, and UFO-like fantasy structures for which there were no aesthetic precedents and no practical justification. This ability to shape buildings in any conceivable way played neatly into the cult of the supernatural genius-wizard insofar as one could endlessly innovate novelties – and nothing was more central to the cult than the ability to produce sui generis novelties – to wow the public (and mystify them, too). It was the very essence of the cutting edge, the place so far out that nobody had any reference for what was produced there. It left the practice of architecture in a kind of circus of wizardry.

These stunts depended on a particular kind of economy, too: the late stage crackup-boom economy of the Peak Oil era, which, accompanied by Peak Credit creation, had left huge pools of deployable money around for real estate ventures, especially for non-profit institutions like museums, symphony halls, and college libraries. These projects benefited from the staggering profits in innovative financialization (i.e. the racket in mortgage backed securities and their derivatives) as newly-minted billionaires and their cohorts vied with their checkbooks to have galleries and auditoria named after them. The Guggenheim Museum turned itself into a franchise and began replicating itself all around the planet like an especially fecund alien life-form, and every second-tier city got a new museum of this or that. Monumental buildings such as museums and college libraries were exactly the types that lent themselves to grandstanding, so each new one became an opportunity for an attention-getting architectural stunt. To be such a genius-wizard of innovative cutting edge forms, and to garner such superstar commissions, along with the superstar adulation, became the great aspiration of young architects, while the whole faculty and its programs were bent in the service of it. In the end, they managed to turn architecture into just another branch of the fashion industry.

Such ventures in metaphysics, high fashion, celebrity, and novelty ultimately redounded in the realms of pure status-seeking. The Ivy League outfits like Yale and Harvard obviously carried generations-long accretions of status. The name Harvard alone on a C.V. might denote a nice fat five million dollars additional expected lifetime earnings for an alum, on an actuarial basis. But it took some effort to maintain this status aura. Where status as attached to fashion is concerned, it is in the unfortunate nature of fashion that sooner or later it falls out of fashion. The audience or customer-base tires of it and yawns and then the mob is on to the next fashion, leaving the old mode du jour looking pitiful and its followers ridiculous. Thus, the pursuit of fashion, of novelty, becomes an exhausting process, a hamster-wheel of futility – even potentially humiliating, as when Mr. Koolhaas turned on the sycophants at Harvard with his prankish graduate program in… shopping, as if to say: here, you conclave of status-seeking, fad-following, celebrity-obsessed, boot-lickers is the one field-of-study worthy of your craven, tawdry, lost souls. At the time, given just how demoralized they were up at Gund Hall, the GSD headquarters, they were probably thrilled to bend over and take it up the rear from the exalted, demigodlike, uber-genius-wizard Koolhaas.

At this point of moral and vocational exhaustion, around the turn of the new millennium, some other things were going on in the world which even designers preoccupied with the trivia of fashion could not fail to notice, if only as peripheral annoyances. One, as averred to above, was this bizarre phenomenon calling itself The New Urbanism. For those engaged in millennial high architectural fashion, with its sleek, exquisitely tortured surfaces and reflective claddings, the NU’s work was laughable. Porches and picket fences were about as bygone as poke bonnets and hobble skirts. It must be some kind of joke perpetrated by a claque of backward- gazing, neo-conservative ape-people unacquainted with the concept of progress. This was, of course, a terrible strategic miscalculation on Harvard’s part. A few of them began to suspect that NU was onto something. It was hard, at first, to tell just what because the whole paradigmatic world-view at Gund Hall was focused on individual gesture buildings devoid of context. NU was all about the context, the human settlement as an integral organism of parts, elements, components, and programs (in which, by the way, grand architectural gestures played only a minor role). NU was about the one thing that all of America had ignored since the end of World War Two: how the things we build relate to each other and to the terrain on which they were located. It was also concerned with the deeper structure of principles in nature that could be employed in the design and assembly of human habitats that were worth living in and worth caring about.

This was really the crux of the matter. Any nine-year-old in America could sense neurologically the appalling failures of the post-war built environment with all its zones of alienation and anomie, its thoughtless, off-the-shelf, generic arrangements of boring-unto-death housing subdivisions, Big Box PUDs with groaning out-parcels of clown-like fried food dispensaries, and horizonless wastelands of free parking. These were the mere surface disturbances of a way-of-life so out of whack with the larger ecosystem that one could literally sense portents of apocalypse in it. Not to put too fine a point on it, American society had made a range of tragic choices in the late 20th century which, if not altered, were sure to make civilized existence impossible.

The GSD eventually began to catch onto this, and even sent some envoys to the annual convocations of The New Urbanists, who by then had formed a professional organization called the Congress of the New Urbanism, or CNU. The GSD folk brought the news back to headquarters and something started to ferment there. First, they realized that they were late to the game on this whole larger question of how the human habitat might be treated as a design exercise. All they could do was ridicule the NU for being so hopelessly retrograde and un-sexy as to look back in history for practices to emulate. History, all Modernists knew, was a dusty attic of full of obsolete claptrap that was nothing but an impediment to innovative genius at the cutting edge. To be “edgy,” indeed, was the great personal tribute of the moment. The NUs were anything but edgy. Their fuhrer, Andres Duany, wore pastel button-down shirts and plaid ties rather than the standard-issue all-black garb of the cutting edge, which flattered the edge-people to think of themselves as like unto the Viet Cong, indefatigable revolutionary warriors!

What nagged at them, though, was the suspicion that something about this context thing rang true. Wasn’t there something called Global Warming or Climate Change happening in the background of all the ribbon-cuttings for the countless new Guggenheim Museums? Wasn’t there a realm loosely referred to as “the environment?” (Many professors remembered it dimly from their own college days.) Was there not something cutting edge about it? Could one not assume a heroic, sexy position in defending this “environment?” And what was there in the residue of the praxis (a favorite jargon morsel at the GSD) that might point the way to some new, cutting edge approach to all this. The answer was: Ian McHarg (1920 – 2001) and his currently out-of-fashion manifesto from 1969, Design With Nature.

McHarg was a landscape architect who had settled into a nice job on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Landscape architecture, much as it sounds, is the practice (praxis) concerned with shaping a piece or property, generally to prepare a site for building, or in the design of parks and gardens. LA, for short, had been architecture’s muscle-bound step-brother for most of the 20th century, charged with the grunt-work that called for front-end-loaders and bulldozers to push dirt around. But as the late 1960s gave birth to the environmental movement, it took a new place in the order of things and found a voice in McHarg. Design With Nature was a call to action for respecting the planet at a time when many other such calls were issued and the public’s awareness was keen about keeping the Earth whole. LA was particularly concerned with directing water flows, hydrology, since water management is usually the most problematic site planning chore. It also happened that the biggest environmental preoccupations of that day were air and water pollution. McHarg’s larger philosophical agenda revolved around the notion that human activity was something in opposition to nature, a toxic alien presence on the planet, the footprint of which needed to be minimized. He came to refer to humanity as a “planetary disease.”

From Design With Nature sprang hundreds of PUDs (Planned Unit Developments) of garden apartments nestled in bosky, natural settings and sheathed in environmental-looking cedar, and scores of university housing “complexes” bermed into the terrain (with plenty of free parking), and, to be fair, a set of water management methods that worked their way into the now-substantial body of law that regulates environmental permitting. In any case, 40 years later, McHarg’s work was the lost signpost that the GSD had been searching for in its quest to get off the hamster-wheel of futility that was the starchitecture racket and into something fresher, newer, edgier, with more sex appeal – and finally to shake off the growing embarrassment over its failure to address the larger context of the built environment – territory occupied by the hated The New Urbanists.

The Harvard GSD found its avatar in Charles Waldheim, an associate dean at the University of Toronto, a sedulous contributor to the professional journals and an especially deft theorist conversant with all the post-structuralist lingo that had infested the humanities and fine arts programs since the 1970s. He had conveniently coined the term “Landscape Urbanism” as a way to make the profession seem more up-to-date, edgy, and sexy and in him Harvard found the perfect field marshal to carve out some of its own territory on the battlefield of urban design where, so far, it had been subject only to humiliation. Waldheim was anointed dean of the GSD’s Landscape Urbanism program in the summer of 2009.

He came out swinging immediately with an overt declaration that his new field was “a critique of the disciplinary and professional commitments of traditional urban design and an alternative to ‘New Urbanism.’”[1] He accused the NU of failing “to come to terms with the rapid pace of urban change and the essentially horizontal character of contemporary automobile-based urbanization across North America and much of Western Europe.” This enfilade exposed foremost a bizarre feature of Landscape Urbanism’s purported ethos: while supposedly predicated on sound ecological discourse, LU had no conception whatsoever that the suburban development program of the past 90-odd years had reached its sell-by date, that the last thing you would want to do as an ecologically-minded urban designer (i.e. of human habitats) was promote the idea that we could continue living a car-dependent lifestyle, or that we would even want to, given the grotesque diminishing returns involved. Waldheim assumed that the horizontal spewage of sprawl would continue indefinitely, and that there was no need to arrest it, merely a charge to refine and improve it. He showed next-to-zero awareness of the global energy resource quandary, or its relation to the disorders of capital formation, and all the related dilemmas of epochal economic contraction. In essence, he was enlisted to serve Harvard’s chief institutional aim: defense of the status quo, that is, the cherished old dogmas of Modernism. The giveaway was in his statement that LU amounted to “a critical and historically informed rereading of the environmental and social aspirations of Modernist planning and its most successful models.”

In point of fact, Modernist planning had no successful models. It had only a long record of failure embodied in the 1972 demolition of one of its signature projects in the USA: the Corbu-inspired Pruitt-Igoe subsidized housing complex in St Louis, Mo., a mere 18 years after the 33 towers-in-a-park opened for business. Modernist urban planning had amounted to repeated, cruel experiments on the poor with untested building typologies delivered in unprecedented mega-quantities with the explosive results of massively concentrated poverty: crime, drugs, family disintegration, misery. What remained of Modernist urban planning beyond that was little more than traffic management. Indeed, one of the reasons that Landscape Architecture had discredited itself in recent decades was that most of its remunerative work came from the decoration of parking lots with bark mulch beds and juniper shrubs. Waldheim showed what he had been hired for when he unabashedly defended the pantheon of Modernist demigods: Gropius (the first GSD director), Mies (a.k.a. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, designer of the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue), and especially José Luis Sert, the GSD’s dean in its long heyday from 1954 to 1969, whose contributions to urban design in the USA were scanty to nil.

In the spirit of the reigning ideology of the campus, with its incessant prattle about power relations between the sexes, the classes, and the ethnicity cohorts, Waldheim inveighed against “privileged” groups and “wealthy elites” – as though wealthy elites had never been seen around Harvard. (The NU project at Seaside, Florida, was a constant target of attack by GSD profs, who regarded it as an affront to decency for being an exceptionally successful beachfront real estate venture – as if some programming error had prevented it from becoming subsidized housing for the indigent or a retirement village for coal miners.)

Waldheim’s chief ally was James Corner, chair of the LA program at a sister university, Penn, where Ian McHarg had roosted back in the day. Corner was an even more florid metaphysician than Waldheim – where Waldheim merely strove for obfuscation, Corner achieved nearly complete opacity. Corner was preoccupied with the “imaginative and metaphorical associations” lurking in the underlayment of landscape studies, which was another way of stating that it might represent whatever anyone said it was, a tactic straight out of the post-structuralist playbook where an ever-shifting reality could be manipulated by means of rhetorical narrative. Hence, the title of Corner’s seminal text: “Terra Fluxus,” an opposition to the age-old notion of terra firma. Consistent with these shifting sands of reality, and the primary axioms of post-structuralism, was his assertion that terms such as “landscape” and “urbanism” were “contested,” that there was some question as to what each meant, especially in relation to each other. (Indeed, one of the chief consequences of the suburban fiasco was the loss of any clear distinction between the rural and the urban, an unfortunate condition that had a great deal to do with the pernicious incoherence of American planning-and-zoning law.) Corner’s narrative intention was simply to wrest the territory of urbanism away from the detested traditionalists who revolved around Duany and The New Urbanist forces, and re-occupy it for the axis of Modernism. In short, Landscape Urbanism, in its full-dress metaphysical uniform, was designed to allow the Modernists pretend that they were interested in things urban…

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Landscape urbanism, James Howard Kunstler




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