By Ryan McGreal
Published October 02, 2006
After a recent and unfortunate foray into international politics in which he tried to position himself outside the framework of "progressive" vs. "conservative" US politics by appealing to the chauvinism of each side toward the other, James Howard Kunstler is back in form with a new essay titled A Reflection on Cities of the Future.
Followers of his work will recognize Kunstler's ruthless assessment of the school of Modernism, with its contempt for history and context. "Modernist ideology", he writes, goes
back a hundred years to Adolf Loos's declaration that ornament is crime, [and] has worked to decouple contemporary practice from what [Modernists] regard as the filthy claptrap of history.
Kunstler delights in finding hypocrisy and perversity, and his keen eye is in evidence:
Of course, Modernism itself has self-evidently become historical in its own right, and the more this is true, paradoxically, the more its defenders insist that history does not matter. Whatever else this represents in the form of intellectual imprudence, it at least promotes a discontinuity of human experience which cannot be healthy.
If possible, he holds the post-modernists in even deeper contempt, decrying:
a new generation of mojo architect savants such as Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas [who] are retailing an urban futurism that is basically warmed-over Corbu [le Corbusier] with an expressionist horror movie spin, featuring torqued and tortured skyscrapers, made possible by computer-aided design, clad in Darth Vadar glass or other sheer surfaces, with grim public spaces exquisitely engineered to induce agoraphobia.
Kunstler sees a modest way forward in the much-maligned New Urbanist movement, with its emphasis on prudent, human-scaled developments defined by the relationships between buildings rather than the buildings themselves.
[New Urbanists] are not interested in the biggest this or that. Their plans are typically scaled to the quarter-mile walk and rarely include super-sized buildings. The cutting edge holds no attractions for them in and of itself. They want to create neighborhoods and quarters, not intergalactic space ports. They want the streets, squares, and building facades to provide decorum, legibility, and even beauty,
in contrast to the "edgy", anxiety-provoking innovations of the Modernists.
From here, Kunstler launches into a broad look at the next hundred years through the lens of his contention that "we face severe energy problems in the decades ahead and they will not be ameliorated by any combination of alternative fuels or schemes for running them."
As the suburbs become increasingly unlivable and their value as collateral dissolves, Kunstler believes the future holds "an epochal demographic shift, a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people moving from the farms and rural places to the big cities." Cities will shrink commensurate with the reduced traffic of their goods transport infrastructure - shipping and rail.
Some places that currently have no intrinsic need to be where they are may cease to exist. Southwestern cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas will revert to being uninhabitable when motorized transport and universal air conditioning are no longer affordable.
There's a reason Kunstler likes New Urbanism, with its humble claims, its historical leanings, and its small, livable scale: he believes the long emergency of declining energy availability will push us to revert to the historic living arrangement of small cities and "a reactivated productive rural landscape outside them, with a hierarchy of hamlets, villages, and towns in between, and some ability to conduct commerce and manufacturing."
Kunstler concludes that it may not even be possible to re-create sustainable, coherent places in the wake of what he calls "physical disaggregation of civic life" that has replaced towns with sprawl and cities with vertical decay.
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