The Urban Future That Failed

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City by Nathan Glazer (Princeton University Press, 292 pages, $24.95)


Nathan Glazer's new book is a reminder of how distant even the recent past can seem. From a Cause to a Style collects 11 essays that were mostly written in the 1990s yet continue to reflect a disillusionment with modernist architecture rooted in the 1960s.

A sociologist long interested in urban planning, Glazer has two primary concerns: the twin failures of modernism as public architecture and as urbanism. Observers of the contemporary scene will encouragingly note that architecture has learned from modernism's mistakes and moved on. Given his commitment to the social agenda of architecture, Glazer might well be heartened by the goals of landscape urbanism and other new approaches to urban design. These essays are productively read as historical responses to a bygone era, not as fresh responses to recent trends. Nevertheless, the core worry of the book remains pertinent today: how to relate architecture and planning to the aims of social policy. And it is valuable to hear the voice of a public intellectual reinsert architecture and urban design into social criticism.

The argument in the first section of the book, "The Public Face of Architecture," hinges on a formalist critique of modernist architecture. Glazer believes that the stripped-down elements of the International Style and its offspring -- the flat roof, undecorated cornice, unarticulated window and entrance -- cannot fulfill the symbolic requirements of monuments and in particular of memorials. He approvingly quotes the critic and historian Lewis Mumford: "If it is a monument, it is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument." This view was most relevant in the mid–20th century, and it is telling that Glazer's examples are situated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a very particular context. Not only has the aesthetic power of modernist architecture been amply proven, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the defining memorial of our times, solved the problem formulated by Mumford.

Glazer's preoccupation with style seems misguided. As the evolution of the September 11 memorial at Ground Zero suggests, constituency concerns and budgetary pressures now shape monuments in more powerful ways than the designers do. But peeling away Glazer's antimodernist bias to get at the core values animating these spirited essays, you find an important humanist value: a belief in the rhetorical power and symbolic presence of buildings. A monument, he writes, is meant to celebrate, to recall, and to honor. Agreed, and to this list we might add a range of other emotional effects. Yet one suspects that in his criticism of modernist architecture, Glazer is mistakenly equating a set of physical forms that he calls the modernist style with a social dynamic, namely the disinvestment in and erosion of the public realm.

The second axis of the book concerns the failure of modernist architecture to design an attractive city and to match the complexity of the historic urban fabric. "If modernism rejected the monument," he writes, "would not its role in the rebuilding of cities, in the expression of the public's desires, be sharply reduced?" Here, I think, Glazer takes an illogical step in his reasoning; in retrospect, we can say that modernism superbly handled the problem of monumentality, but not that of urbanism.

In making his case against modernist urbanism, Glazer overstates the power of design and discounts other factors determining how designs are realized and inhabited. Public policy sets funding and tenant-eligibility requirements. Reduced budgets and high labor costs result in poor-quality construction, inadequate maintenance, and no landscaping. Government regulations, despite bureaucratic language, shape housing projects, as Federal Housing Administration requirements certainly did. The architect's choice of ornamental language is far less important than these influences. The key problem is the inadequate investment in public architecture, not how the buildings look. Though Glazer knows this, his essays emphasize style and treat architectural decisions as the critical ones. Faith in the power of architecture drives his critical perspective, notwithstanding his disillusionment.

Glazer holds that public housing undermined the social aims of architectural modernism. He evokes the tragic and by-now-familiar arc from social optimism in the 1930s, when public housing was first built to improve slum conditions, to defeat, marked by the demolition of housing projects beginning with Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 and propelled by the federal HOPE VI program.

But the essay "What Happened in East Harlem" offers a timely alternative reading of this history. Glazer grew up in East Harlem, where the tenement blocks he called home were replaced in the 1940s by a superblock and public-housing project. On a visit to East Harlem, rather than nostalgically longing for a lost home, he is impressively clear-eyed about the changes in his old neighborhood. Though critics attack the lavish provision of open space in housing projects, Glazer sees a successful low-income community with well-maintained open spaces. He shifts attention from physical design to the broader economic and social forces that affect the built environment. Although implicitly sympathetic to Jane Jacobs' model of urbanism, Glazer is disappointed by the modest urban strategies -- preservation, New Urbanism, and community advocacy -- it bequeathed. In East Harlem, where rehabilitation has allowed for creeping gentrification, he anticipates a not-so-distant future when middle- and upper-middle-class residents will encircle the public-housing projects. No longer seen as symbols of urban failure, public housing will enable East Harlem "to hold onto its working-class character in the midst of a changing city."

This perspective has surfaced in recent months regarding other large-scale projects such as Stuyvesant Town and Starrett City, and it marks an important shift. Instead of denouncing them as overscaled, single-income enclaves, critics are now championing the projects as havens of low- and middle-income housing in a city rapidly outpricing the working class.

Glazer's progressive values emerge most forcefully in the book's closing essays, where he laments the professionalization of planning, its abandonment of social vision and turn to bureaucratic procedure. Planners have not always been quite as invisible as he indicates. In the 1950s and '60s, urban renewal gave rise to a cohort of big-picture, high-profile planners, men such as Edmund Bacon and Edward Logue armed with ideas and federal subsidies. In recent decades, though, planning has become less visionary and ambitious, and nowhere has that retreat been more evident than in New York. Glazer argues that despite its reputation for remaking itself, New York has become an old city, which casts a smaller shadow on the American scene than it once did because it has failed to plan and make the infrastructural improvements that are essential for a world city -- no subway expansion, no new bridges, no water mains. The oldness of New York is certainly striking in comparison with the megacities in South America, Asia, and Africa where raging urbanization has outpaced infrastructure.

But a new wind is blowing in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his planning team of Daniel Doctoroff and Amanda Burden have resurrected the public face of planning and infrastructure with an initiative called PlaNYC 2030. Although the political system does not reward long-term projects, New York may be on the threshold of a turnaround. And if that effort can succeed in New York, there may well be new receptivity elsewhere to Glazer's plea to revitalize planning and his desire to "unleash the productive forces, but then govern them by a larger sense of the public and common good."

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