22 May, 2008

Random Thought About Urbanism

Where does urbanism end and aesthetic criticism begin? Urbanism can't be about judging the particular contents of any street or building. The essence of the city is change. Get the rules right and let the market do its work.


Elliot said...

I think they overlap, and that aesthetic criticism is very important. Its part of getting the rules right, rather than micromanaging every building that goes up. Aesthetic criticism asks: how does this structure interact with our ideas of beauty and utility? But it also plumbs deeper, it seems to me, and asks why we have those ideas in the first place, and how they have evolved given the rules and incentives we have in place.

I guess the justifying quality that moves aesthetic criticism past just oppressive "good taste" is its ability to generalize and systematize its observations about particular buildings to the broader reality of our culture, society and government. That sort of criticism is an agent of change. And it can often begin with mundane reflections on why this particular street corner is ugly and no one uses it.

spencer said...

My concern is that the genesis of the most destructive ideas in urban planning has been aesthetic criticism. Ebenezer Howard looked at Britain's rough, dirty cities and thought they'd be more beautiful if they were covered with parkland. Le Corbusier looked at Paris and, in his "futuristic" vision, saw massive skyscrapers with highways ferrying people from place to place. Many, many neighborhoods were razed because of these ideas.

Of course my aesthetic of the city runs directly against Howard and Corbusier. I want a city that is bustling, walkable, and densely packed. But I also recognize that attempts to create such a city by planning have largely failed. There's a big difference between setting out rules (high price of driving, wide sidewalks, lax zoning, lots of transit) and seeing how they play out and thinking "let's put a coffeeshop here, a bookstore here, a grocery here" and so on.

Who are we to say that that Safeway doesn't belong? It's there because people use it. If we've set up the rules correctly, we can be confident that individual decisions are working toward the general good. Aesthetic criticism seems to imply that the observer knows what is best for each individual street corner and that she should control its function and appearance. But this is stifling in a world where things should be constantly changing and city structures and ways of living must be given a chance to emerge from the choices of its inhabitants.

Now, in most situations we haven't gotten the rules right, and aesthetic criticism can, in these circumstances, be used to galvanize people into demanding change. But it is still a double-edged sword. It can just as easily lead to Le Corbusier's City of Tomorrow as it can to Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village.

Elliot said...

Its just important to recognize, as I think you just have pretty explicitly, that each conception of what those rules should be are informed by an underlying aesthetic of what you want the city to be. Your aesthetic (and mine) is the bustling, dense, walkable city, and we advocate for policy based on that aesthetic.

There is no such thing as an aesthetic-less set of policies. That aesthetic might be incoherent, it might be rigid and totalitarian, or it might be creative and individualistic. It might push the incentives towards large groceries such as Safeway, or towards small, local farmers markets, or some combination of the two. But its always there. And so aesthetic criticism should seek to investigate what aesthetic the current set of rules is producing, and create a conversation about whether or not those rules are optimal.

I think that is exactly what we are doing right now, and exactly what urbanism seeks to do. That is, argue for a different urban aesthetic - and then, as a function of that aesthetic, it argues for a certain set of policies that we argue creates that aesthetic.

But don't fall into the trap of thinking that because our aesthetic is decentralized that its not there. Our policies would destroy a certain aesthetic of the city just as certainly as Howard and Corbusier's aesthetic destroyed what came before. We just argue, like the planners before us, that our vision is better.

Indeed, it takes a developed sense of aesthetic criticism to articulate why Corbusier's vision was wrong, and present an alternative vision.