By Ryan McGreal
Published January 26, 2012
this blog entry has been updated
If you haven't watched it yet, James Howard Kunstler's February 2004 TED talk is a hilarious, offensive and insightful rant against the waste and alienation of sprawl.
Off the top, Kunstler lays out his thesis on the role of architecture in enabling civic life:
Your ability to create places that are meaningful, and places of quality and character, depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are. The public realm ... has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the quality of the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there.
It was with Kunstler's words ringing in my ears that I read today's report in the Spectator on the proposed design for the new Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) head office near Mohawk Road East and Upper Wentworth Street.
Proposed Board of Education building
Kunstler explains how to design and build a city:
[T]his pattern of building downtown blocks all over the world is fairly universal. It's not that complicated: buildings more than one storey high, built out to the sidewalk edge so that all kinds of people can get into the building, other activities are allowed to occur upstairs, you know, apartments, offices, and so on. You make provision for this activity called 'shopping' on the ground floor.
After eviscerating an inept attempt to replicate traditional downtown building design, he points out a bush in front of the building and notes:
To make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it.
Kunstler goes on to rage against the idea that the solution to bad urbanism is to retreat into a pastoral ruralism - or, more often, an ersatz pastoral suburbanism.
I call them nature band-aids because there's a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains. That's not good enough: we have to do good buildings.
He goes on:
One of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, the urban and the rural. They're not the same thing, and we're not going to cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city.
It's particularly astonishing that the HWDSB - our civic organization overseeing public education - is gearing up to retreat into the ersatz country of a suburban business park only now, at a time when the rest of the continent is already busy rousing itself from the 70-year fantasy of suburban living and returning to cities.
Update: Here is the site plan of the proposed Board of Education building:
Board of Education Building proposed site plan (Image Credit: HWDSB)
Thanks to RTH reader George for linking to it in the comments.
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