From Prologue: The Victory Disease
One dangerously sunny morning in April 1994, six guys were sitting around the attic porch of a house in the Florida panhandle swapping theories as to why the everyday world in America had become such an abysmal mess. All of them were architects except me. It was the day after the annual Seaside Prize had been awarded and some of us were still a little woozy from the festivities. The prize recipient, Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language and other influential books, was there. So was Andres Duany, one of the designers of Seaside, the town we were in; Witold Rybczynski, the writer of graceful books about cities and buildings; Peter Calthorpe, the California architect and planner; and Paul Murrain, a young British landscape architect. The house was one designed by Leon Krier, the architectural theorist and, it is probably accurate to say, godfather of the movement to repair the damage done to our world by Modernism. Krier was present only in the spirit of the house, but his was a palpable presence.
Calthorpe had the floor. Lean and urbane, Calthorpe, forty-five, was in a humorously expansive mood. He proposed two theories. The first was The Stroke Theory. World War Two, he said, was so traumatic that it had caused the same kind of damage to western civilization that a cerebral hemorrhage can wreak on a human mind. It had made the advanced nations of the world lose some of their most important abilities, to forget their own history and culture, as a stroke victim loses his powers of speech, his memories, the particulars of his education. All the ghastly office buildings, banal dwellings, crappy commercial structures, and other common architectural garbage of our everyday world, Calthorpe proposed, were like the inchoate squawkings and bleatings of a stroke victim who had lost the ability to express himself. This theory met with such general approbation that Calthrope went on to propose a second.
This was The Stupor Theory. World War Two, he said, was the high tide of our fathers' generation. All these American men in the full bloom of youth had marched off to a terrible war against manifest evil and won a decisive victory for democracy and decency. In the process, many of them had the adventures of a lifetime moments of heroism, romances with grateful foreign girls, days and nights enjoying the spoils of liberated castles, profound friendships with army buddies, and, finally, the worshipful reception of the folks back home, with a sweet package of emoluments upon return to civilian life, including free college tuition and low-interest home mortgage loans.
These young men, Calthorpe went on, were immediately absorbed into postwar corporate life, fitting well into large hierarchical organizations. Corporate life was familiarly regimented like the army, where so many of them had lately enjoyed their heroic exploits. They knew how to give and follow orders, and patiently await promotion.
The downside was that their greatest adventures were over, that life on the commuter platform with hundreds of other guys in gray flannel suits was in some elemental way an awful comedown. What was there to look forward to? Selling ten million units a month of Oaties breakfast cereal for decades to come? How did this compare to drinking seventy-year-old cognac in an Alsatian castle with a pistol strapped to your leg and a seventeen-year-old French curie in your lap, having spent the day slaughtering Nazis? Of course, there would be the compensations of family life, a nice house in those new suburbs, a shiny new car, the fabulous panoply of washers, driers, Mixmasters, TVs, hifi's, and power mowers, autumn days teaching Skippy to throw a football, winter nights at the school auditorium watching Princess dance in her toe shoes, summer evenings presiding over the backyard barbecue, and ... wait ... was that all? Is that where it ended? Flipping hamburgers and wieners in a joke-bedizened apron and a clownish chef's hat?
Well, yes, for a lot of them. This was what life had to offer after the stupendous adventure of World War Two. A whole generation of heroes slipped into a permanent semicoma, soothing their boredom and anomie with heavy doses of hard liquor their beloved martinis and living out the rest of their days in an alcoholic fog. This, Calthrope said, explained why the world they built for us the suburban sprawl universe was so incoherent, brutal, ugly, and depressing: they didn't care about what they were building. They were drunk most of the time, in a stupor. (This also, he added with wicked parenthetical glee, explained feminism: a whole generation of daughters raised by emotionally remote, perpetually plastered fathers.)
These theories admittedly veer into burlesque, but there is still much to admire in them. The Stupor Theory especially comports with the phenomenon known among historians as The Victory Disease, the condition in which a nation's military triumph carries within it the demoralizing seeds of its own later destruction. In The Geography of Nowhere I argued that the building of suburbia as a replacement for towns and cities in the United States was just such a self-destructive act. I attempted to describe the tragic process. I argued that the living arrangement Americans now think of as normal is bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually. I identified the physical setting itself the cartoon landscape of car-clogged highways, strip malls, tract houses, franchise fry pits, parking lots, junked cities, and ravaged countryside as not merely the symptom of a troubled culture but in many ways a primary cause of our troubles. I stated that all reasonable indications suggest we will not be able to continue this pattern of living, whether we like suburbia or not, and I sketched some of the remedies that were then just beginning to present themselves.
I wrote The Geography of Nowhere as a layman attempting to make sense of a national condition that seems at best complicated and at worst incomprehensible. My approach was that of a citizen-observer, not of a design professional. It seemed to me that the country was full of normal people, including plenty of intelligent ones, who were distressed by their surroundings but unable to articulate their feelings. My intention was to give shape to those feelings, to turn inchoate emotion into coherent thought. Since then I've come to understand one of the chief impediments preventing us from comprehending the tragedy of our everyday environment: American culture is very abstract. Suburbia fails us in large part because it is so abstract. It's an idea of a place rather than a place. The way you can tell is because so many places in this country seem like no place in particular, and a lack of particularity is the earmark of abstraction.
Our knowledge of cities is increasingly abstract, too. Fewer and fewer Americans have any experience living in good ones, or in any city at all good, bad, or mediocre. Historically, American cities at their best have left much to be desired, an issue of great significance which I will discuss further. In any case, few American cities today even function in any normal sense and many are virtually empty shells. What Americans know about city life these days often turns out to be secondhand or worse. We read in the newspapers and magazines about urban war zones we would never dare to visit. Our images of the city come from cop shows and rap videos on MTV or old Warner Brothers gangster movies. It happens that I grew up in Manhattan, in one of the few fully functioning cities in America, so this book includes a discussion of that singular place (Chapter 11) and its meaning visa-vis the rest of America.
Because our notions about place have become so abstract, our remedies for the problems of place have tended to be equally abstract. The "urban renewal" schemes of the previous generation stand as disastrous abstract fantasies that managed to rebuke nearly everything known about human behavior and embedded in civic design up to that period. On the more ordinary level, we have today's remedies for the depressing banality of the suburbs: a fake fanlight window in a tract house is the supposed solution for the problem of a house designed and built without affection for nobody in particular. A Victorian street light is the supposed cure for overly wide, arbitrarily curvy streets that are poorly defined by tract houses. This book seeks to identify those failures, and it necessarily contains a good measure of ridicule, which is the inescapable fate of the ridiculous.
But it also attempts to investigate the nature of successful design. I believe that certain physical relationships work well because they are consistent with human psychological needs that are probably universal and haven't changed over time. A consideration of these issues leads ineluctably to the condition we call beauty, which for too long has been dismissed as an insoluble mystery of "taste," or worse, relegated by the academic avant-garde to the dumpster of irrelevance. When intellectuals take the position that beauty is a subject beneath discussion, it seems to me that a culture is in real trouble. I wish to readmit the discussion of beauty to intellectual respectability, and in Chapter 4 I will attempt to do so in the context of what used to be called civic art.
I wrote The Geography of Nowhere without any formal training in architecture and town planning, which should not be taken as an apology or an excuse but as a plain statement of fact. In the period since then, I have had the chance to move around the United States, to see more places, and to consort with many architects, planners, and designers who very graciously undertook to fill the holes in my education a process hardly completed. I still write as a citizen-observer, but a better informed one than the last time around. For instance, I can now state with more precision the historical and cultural origin of the suburban house, and why it is such a problem for us. If I seem to retread some ground in this book, it is either to furnish a coherent historical bridge between points of discussion, or to bring a fresh angle to a subject touched on in The Geography of Nowhere and inadequately treated there. The heart of this book is an argument for raising our standards in respect to our ordinary surroundings, along with some very explicit technical suggestions for accomplishing it.
Many of the people I have met between these two books are working to design a human habitat of much better character and quality than the mess we're actually stuck with. They even incorporated themselves into an architectural reform movement called the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and held a series of meetings around the nation. The New Urbanism aims to reinstate the primacy of the public realm in American life. In the chapters ahead I will discuss the nature and the meaning of the public realm in detail. The physical form that the New Urbanists envision is at once deeply familiar and revolutionary: the mixed-use neighborhood in increments of villages, towns, and cities. It is familiar because it is the way America built itself through most of our history, really until the end of World War Two. It is a physical form that complies exactly with many Americans' most cherished notions about our nation at its best. And yet the New Urbanism is revolutionary because it starkly contradicts the world of suburban sprawl that has become the real setting for our national life, and the source of so many of our woes. In doing so, the New Urbanism contradicts most established rules and methods for building things, particularly our zoning laws.
This movement, in my view, is one of the most hopeful developments on the national scene. I share the belief of its members that if we can repair the physical fabric of our everyday world, many of the damaged and abandoned institutions of our civic life may follow into restoration. If nothing else, I think we stand to regain places to live and work that are worthy of our affection. And since a great many good things proceed from affection, I believe some of our desired social aims might naturally follow.
This book is not a technical manual, however. The fields of architecture and town planning have their own professional associations, including the CNU, and contain plenty of agitators working for technical reform within them. My aim is the popular consensus, the bond of agreement between ordinary citizens about what is good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. The old towns and old buildings that we cherish are great not necessarily because architects were so much better trained in 1848 or 1908 though it may be so but because a consensus demanded better work, and especially work more respectful of the public realm. This book seeks to restore those standards at the popular level. Our great-grandfathers didn't have to argue about the basic need to embellish buildings in order to nourish the human spirit. The need to do so was assumed, agreed upon on a broad popular basis. In terms of the larger cycles of history, I believe we are ready to revive standards of work and orders of design that might be described as classical as in coherent principles based on what is already known about human needs, in distinction to the despotic experiments conducted by heroic-genius-artist-revolutionaries on human guinea pigs that have characterized the architecture and planning of our age. Every age considers itself modern. It is the special ignominious fate of Modernism to have chosen a name for itself so inanely inhospitable to the judgment of history.
Finally, we arrive at the recognition that civilization needs an honorable dwelling place, and that the conditions of making that place ought to depend on what is most honorable in our nature: on love, hope, generosity, and aspiration.
Copyright © 1996 by James Howard Kunstler