09 February 2006

"increasingly undemocratic in both style and content"

MICHAEL SORKIN RETURNS to the pages of Architectural Record this month with a scathing critique of the New Urbanist coup of Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts. Sure, you can call Sorkin an ageing remnant of the 1960's lefty vanguard, but you must also admit that with regard to what's going on in Mississippi and Louisiana, he's absolutely right on the mark. In addition to pointing out the incredible shortcomings of the recent report issued by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) -- a document that he accurately describes as aesthetically prescriptive while environmentally / socially / economically ignorant -- Sorkin describes with joyous irony how the CNU's authoritarianism has come to mirror that of the Modernism so loathed by New Urbanists. The article is not posted online yet, so bear with me as I quote at length:

I am not the first to observe that the CNU -- as an ideological and orgnizational construct -- is remarkably (and deliberately) similar to the Modernism it so acerbically criticizes for cruel formalist monomania and self-important manifestoes.... The issue with such prescriptions is not the superiority of one uniformity over another, it's the uniformity itself.... The New Urbanists' ideal subject may be a happy consumer committed to traditional family values but the fallacy is the same: the idea that architecture is not to be designed for people in all their messy, sqaulling, and delightful difference but as a means of assuring that they converge into behavioral sameness.
Yet despite his valiant and undying critical outlook, Sorkin nonetheless fails to offer a viable alternative -- or even any example of a concrete counter-solution -- to those being offered by the New Urbanists. Isn't there some kind of progressive reaction -- a redirection, a re-harnessing of the forces already at work -- that can somehow offer a better future for the Gulf Coast?

I could go on and on... but instead (since it isn't yet online), I recommend reading the article in the actual magazine itself. That way you could understand Sorkin's critique within the wider context of our profession, as represented by the editorial staff at Architectural Record, who somehow deemed it appropriate to sandwich within Sorkin's piece an advertisement for a cavity wall system that (and I quote) "[helps] prevent mold-induced asthma." Maybe I'm reading too much into the arbitrary nature of magazine advertising practices, but doesn't it seem more than a bit callous to insert a plug for mold-reducing products into the middle of an article about an entire region still suffering the effects of devastating floods? I think it's clear that we as architects need to do a lot more than circle "34" on our Architectural Record Reader Service Card in order to prevent the spread of mold, not to mention the other myriad miasmas that plague our Gulf Coast cities.


Anonymous said...

"a document that he accurately describes as aesthetically prescriptive while environmentally / socially / economically ignorant"

The ignorance all belongs to Sorkin. He either missed or ignored the Mississippi Renewal Forum's reports on social issues, environment, regional planning, retail and economic recommendations. The extensive recommendations for supporting affordable housing and re-establishing regional industries that were elaborated in the Governor's Commission report -- they all seem to have sailed right by the oblivious Sorkin.

As for authoritarianism, the new urbanist plans were funded by private, charitable grants and have zero legal force. Whether the plans succeed or fail depends entirely on the desire of local communities to discuss and adopt them. More and more it's looking like the majority of the communities are enthusiastic about implementing many of the features of the new urbanist plans.

progressive reactionary said...

Perhaps you can cite examples of calls for social justice and environmental sustainability in the CNU report? I would be interested to see what the specifics are.

And with regard to the authoritarianism of New Urbanism, I think Sorkin's point was less about the political power to implement such plans and more about the authoritarian nature of the New Urbanist vision. In other words, it's the ideology itself that recalls the top-down attitude of Modernism -- and Sorkin was relishing in the irony that New Urbanism has degenerated into exactly what it initially hoped to remedy. (Indeed, not a progressive reaction at all-- merely a reaction.)

I, however, would go (and have gone!) even further than Sorkin by claiming that those who practice an authoritarian ideology render themselves authoritarians. I believed I've already covered this in a previous post, and I would be happy to go into greater detail if the need arises.

Anonymous said...

Mississippi Renewal Forum plans and the Governor's Commission report are posted at http://www.mississippirenewal.com

It's funny that critics ascribe the power of environmental determinism to new urbanist designs. That's the sort of talk usually gets laughed out of serious discussions, and rightly so. Any link between social networks and urban designs is tenuous at best.

Kinch said...

We don't need a new "mold resistant" cavity wall. We just have to keep our old walls dry.

Oh, and know where the dew point falls in the wall and put the moisture barrier there.

Anonymous said...

As you'll notice from your quote, Sorkin is all assertion and no fact.