Tag Archives: Books

REVIEW | Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

dead_end_Benjamin_RossREVIEW | Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism | Benjamin Ross
Review by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

The first half of Benjamin Ross’ Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (2014, Oxford University Press) is a majestic masterpiece of objective, clear, and concise diagnosis about the political, economic, and social origins of suburban sprawl in the United States with particular emphasis on the legal and regulatory pillars (restrictive covenants and exclusionary zoning ) perpetuating  suburban sprawl to this day. It is required reading for anyone interested in the seemingly intractable problems of suburban sprawl we face today in building a more sustainable future for our cities. Chapters 1-10 (first 138 pages) of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism warrants a five-star plus rating alone.

However, Ross’ book becomes more problematic with the transition from diagnosis to prescription, beginning with an abrupt change in tone in Chapter 11. This chapter titled “Backlash from the Right” is, in particular, so politically strident that it reads as if the staff of Harry Reid’s Senate office wrote the text (the political left’s favorite boogeymen, the Koch Brothers, are even mentioned); or perhaps, the text of this chapter sprouted wholesale like Athena from the “vast right wing conspiracy” imaginings of Hillary Clinton’s head. This is unfortunate. In the second half of the book, Ross starts to squander most – if not all – of the trust he earned with readers during the exemplary first half of the book. It is doubly unfortunate because: first, it is done solely in the service of political dogma as Ross unconvincingly attempts to co-opt Smart Growth as a wedge issue for the political left in the United States; and second, it unnecessarily alienates ‘natural’ allies on the conservative and libertarian right sympathetic to Ross’ arguments for strong cities and good urbanism.

In the process, Ross tends to ignore or paper over blatant contradictions littering the philosophy of the political left in the United States when it comes to cities. Of course, this is a common Baby Boomer leftist tactic of absolving their generation for the collective disaster they’ve helped to create over the last half-century by confusing ideology for argument (and hoping no one will notice there’s a difference). For example, if you want to see what the policies of the political left look like after three-quarters of a century of dominance, then look no further than East St. Louis, Illinois. What has happened to that once vibrant city is absolutely criminal; literally so since several state and city Democratic officials and staffers have been sent to jail for corruption for decades.

EastStL
Downtown Today in East St. Louis, Illinois.

During the second half of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, Ross also promotes the classic Smart Growth fallacy that public rail transit is the ‘magic bullet’ for reviving our cities. Indeed, public rail transit is important but too often Ross – like many others – comes across as unconsciously applying Harris and Ullman’s multi-nuclei model of city growth, which conveniently holds almost any function (in this case, rail stations/lines) can be randomly inserted almost anywhere in the fabric of a city without repercussions as long as land uses are ‘compatible.’ Of course, this is the ex post facto theoretical underpinning for the very ideas of Euclidean zoning and the common umbrella providing regulatory cover for all sorts of disastrous decisions in the name of “economic development.”

This is a potentially dangerous self-delusion shared by many in the Smart Growth movement. For example, what Ross attributes as the cause for the failure of some rail stations (lack of walkable, urban development around these stations due to the over-provision of space for ‘park and ride’ lots in catering to the automobile) is often really a symptom. The real disease is these stations were put in the wrong location in the first place due to local opposition, regulatory convenience, and/or political cowardice (i.e. that’s where the land was available). There is an inherent danger in approaching pubic rail transit as a cure-all panacea for the city’s problems. If our leaders, planners, and engineers take shortcuts in the planning, design, and locating of rail lines/stations, then we leave the fate of our cities to happenstance. It is far too important of an issue to approach in such a cavalier manner, as some Smart Growth advocates appear so inclined.

In a general sense, this is not really different from the arguments made in Dead End but, specifically, it is an important distinction that is glossed over or not properly understood when drilling down into the crucial details of Ross’ prescriptions. That being said, there are some interesting tidbits and ideas in the ‘prescription phase’ of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. However, the reader has to be extremely careful about filtering out Ross’ political agenda from the more important morsels. For example, Ross correctly points out Americans’ disdain for buses is rooted in social status. However, he fails to point out – or perhaps even realize – that this peculiar American attitude is indoctrinated from childhood due to the expansive busing of kids to school in the United States (e.g.. only the poor and unpopular kids take the bus). In order to change this attitude, you have to radically change public education policies, something contrary to the invested interests of the political left. In fact, Ross has very little to say about schools, which seems like an odd oversight.

Too often, Ross’s prescription for building coalitions comes across as the same, old political activism of the counter-culture Baby Boomers that doesn’t really rise above the level of gathering everyone around the campfire and singing “Kumbaya, My Lord” (absent the “My Lord” part in the interests of political correctness). In the end, this suggests Ross has a well-grounded understanding about the historical, political and social impact of legal and regulatory instruments at work in our cities (exemplified by the first half of this book) but only a superficial idea about the design and function of cities and movement networks (including streets and rail) as witnessed by the lackluster second half, which is barely worth a two-star rating. Because of these strengths and weaknesses, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism is a four-star book in its entirety but you might be better served by reading the first half of the book, ignoring the second half, and having the courage to chart your own path in the fight for better cities.

four-stars-clear-background

dead_end_Benjamin_RossDead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism
by Benjamin Ross
Hardcover, English, 256 pages
New York: Oxford University Press (May 2, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0199360146
ISBN-13: 978-0199360147

Available for purchase from Amazon here.

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FROM THE VAULT | The Ideal Communist City

ideal-communist-city-v2“The physical planning of the new city reflects the harmony and integrated nature of its social structure. A unified planning approach assigns to each element a role in the formation of human environments.”
– The Ideal Communist City

FROM THE VAULT
The Ideal Communist City by Alexei Gutnov, A. Baburov, G. Djumenton, S. Kharitonova, I. Lezava, and S. Sadovskij (Moscow University), Translated by Renee Neu Watkins, Preface by Giancarlo de Carlo

First written during the 1950s and translated from Italian to English in 1968, The Ideal Communist City (1968) is very much a product of its time. This does not only mean the ideological struggles of the Cold War (Capitalism vs. Communism… SPOILER ALERT! Capitalism won). It also means the symbolic height of propagating and implementing the principles of Modernist architecture and planning around the world. The principles discussed in The Ideal Communist City are merely a reformulation, repackaging and, yes, redistribution of these same ideas found in the new towns model (referred to here as the “New Unit of Settlement or NUS”) of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow, housing models of Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM), and Harris and Ullman’s multi-nuclei theory in collusion with Euclidean zoning/modern transportation planning, which conveniently tells us almost any urban function can be randomly inserted almost anywhere in the city as long as ‘incompatible’ land uses are segregated.

New Unit of Settlement (NUS) diagram from The Ideal Communist City
New Unit of Settlement (NUS) diagram from The Ideal Communist City

Of course, the key difference is the authors’ explicitly state the failure of these ideas to “reach their full potential” in Western societies is due to the corrupting influence of capitalism as a political and economic system. This is a conceit that has been badly exposed with time. If anything, capitalism more ruthlessly exploited the economic potentials of Modern ideas by taking them to their logical and, ultimately, extreme conclusion; probably more so than even most devoted CIAM architect ever imagined. The real danger about The Ideal Communist City is that younger readers (Millennials and generations thereafter) without any first-hand experience of the Cold War might make the mistake of thinking they are reading something original and entirely different because it’s wearing Soviet-era clothing. However, it is the same, tired planning paradigm we have been hearing about and (unfortunately) living with over the last 80+ years. To be fair, another key difference in this book is the desire of Soviet-era planners to adopt a model that segregates land uses from one another while still actively promoting manufacturing, mass production, and industrialization. Younger readers might also think this represents a somewhat unique perspective from the point of view of architecture and planning. However, it is really only evidence of Soviet preoccupation – even obsession – with Western societies’ manufacturing prowess at the time. In this sense, Soviet failure to compete with the success of Western capitalistic societies contradicted the ‘means of production’ arguments underpinning Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Das Capital; that is, direct evidence that communism was a flawed political and economic system based on totalitarianism masquerading as a false ideology

Having said all that, The Ideal Communist City is an important historical document that anyone interested in town planning should probably be exposed at some point, as long as the book is placed within its proper context for readers, especially post-Cold War ones. There are, in fact, relatively few flights of fancy in this book; the most amusing one being the common idea in science fiction that cities will eventually be covered by climate-controlled plastic domes (see Featured Image of this post at the top). The authors’ statistical projections of urban populations are way off, hilariously so. Early in the book, the authors project that 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by the year 2000 when it fact we only passed the 50% threshold in the last decade (due to the corrupting influence of capitalism, no doubt). The model of the NUS stretches believability despite the authors’ best – though somewhat halfhearted – efforts to address accommodating population growth during the transition period between one NUS being occupied and the next one being constructed. This is because these Soviet-era planners ultimately have a static view of the city. In hindsight, one might fairly argue the communist NUS model has already been better implemented and realized in cities such as Milton Keynes in England, the Pilot Plan of Brasilia in Brazil, or perhaps even some areas of America Suburbia, despite the problematic nature of such places as extensively discussed elsewhere in the literature. In the end, the Ideal Communist City is perhaps best at asking some interesting questions about cities but the answers provided are all too familiar and depressing to seriously contemplate. As Christopher Alexander famously said, “a city is not a tree.” It seems the same is as true for communist cities as it ever was for capitalistic ones. In the end, human nature is always more pervasive than any political ideology.

ideal-communist-cityThe Ideal Communist City by Alexei Gutnov, A. Baburov, G. Djumenton, S. Kharitonova, I. Lezava, and S. Sadovskij (Moscow University), Translated by Renee Neu Watkins, Preface by Giancarlo de Carlo
Hardback, 166 pages
1968, Boston: George Braziller, Inc.

You can download a PDF of the full book for free here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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FROM THE VAULT | Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Spirtual_in_Art_CoverFROM THE VAULT
Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

“It is the conviction that nothing mysterious can ever happen in our everyday life that has destroyed the joy of abstract thought.”

Students and aspiring artists will find the entirety of Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky a fascinating read. Throughout, Kandinsky attempts to lay out a theory of art through analogy to the composition of music. In doing so, Kandinsky is explicitly seeking to promote the inner expression or spirituality of the artist in the creation of a truly abstract art. For architects, urban designers, and urban planners, it is likely that they will find particular sections of Concerning the Spiritual in Art more useful to their own area of interest than others in the book; in particular, page 21-45 on the psychological effect and language/form of color. As might be expected from an artist of Kandinsky’s standing, he has some very interesting and insightful ideas about the use and mixture of colors in composition. It seems like some of these ideas might prove useful application in the built environment, especially for those who find themselves constrained in an oppressive world of beige. Certainly, the use of color in the built environment appears to be a poorly understood subject, especially in the United States. It couldn’t hurt for some professionals to better understand the topic.

Vassily-KandinskyAbout Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (December  16, 1866 – December 13, 1944) was an influential Russian painter and art theorist. He is credited with painting one of the first purely abstract works. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky spent his childhood in Odessa, where he graduated from Grekov Odessa Art school. He enrolled at the University of Moscow, studying law and economics. Successful in his profession, he was offered a professorship (Chair of Roman Law) at the University of Dorpat. Kandinsky began painting studies (life-drawing, sketching and anatomy) at the age of 30. In 1896, Kandinsky settled in Munich, studying first at Anton Ažbe’s private school and then at the Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to Moscow in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I. Kandinsky was unsympathetic to the official theories on art in Communist Moscow and returned to Germany in 1921. He taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture from 1922 until the Nazis closed the school in 1933. He then moved to France, where he lived for the rest of his life, becoming a French citizen in 1939 and producing some of his most prominent art (Source: Wikipedia).

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky
Paperback (76 pages), English
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 11, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-1453627426
ISBN-10: 1453627421

You can purchase Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky on Amazon here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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FROM THE VAULT | The New Architecture and the Bauhaus

new_architecture_bauhausFROM THE VAULT
The New Architecture and the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius
By Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

The first 97 pages of The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (MIT Press with Foreword by Frank Pick) by Walter Gropius (published in 1965 but mostly written by Gropius earlier in 1923) is a virtuoso essay on the education of the architect in the modern era, which is must-read material for anyone interested about the educating of architects, urban designers and planners in today’s world. As is often the case with Modern architects, Gropius’ arguments begins to fall apart in a rather obvious way, in hindsight, over the last 12 pages when he attempts to extend his theories to the urban level. The less said about these last 12 pages, the better. Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities has already – and better ably – tested the urban ideas of the International Style to destruction.

However, unlike many advocates of the International Style such as Le Corbusier, the writing of Gropius is clear, concise and easily understood in even layman terms; likely this is due to his German upbringing. In this book, Gropius spells out his ideas about architectural education within the context of the International Style’s preoccupation with industrialization and means of mass production. Nominally, these ideas are in reaction against the Beaux Arts academy model of architectural education during the 19th century. However, while spelling out his differences with the Beaux Arts in the promotion of the Bauhaus model, Gropius is also very careful to place the Bauhaus within the same, larger tradition of architectural education. This makes The New Architecture and the Bauhaus a very important book for the contemporary student/educator to better understand how our model of architectural education today also fits and complements the same tradition. This makes The New Architecture and the Bauhaus a richly rewarding read that is also easy to digest. The entire book can be read in one or two sittings.

440px-WalterGropius-1919About Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius, in full Walter Adolph Gropius  (born May 18, 1883, Berlin, Germany and died July 5, 1969, Boston, Massachusetts, USA), was German American architect and educator who, particularly as director of the Bauhaus (1919–28), exerted a major influence on the development of modern architecture. His works, many executed in collaboration with other architects, included the school building and faculty housing at the Bauhaus (1925–26), the Harvard University Graduate Center, and the United State Embassy in Athens, Greece.

new_architecture_bauhausThe New Architecture and the Bauhaus
by Walter Gropius with Foreword by Frank Pick
MIT Press Paperback, 112 pages
March 15, 1965
ISBN-10: 0262570068
ISBN-13: 978-0262570060

You can purchase The New Architecture and the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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Author Spotlight | AiA | July 2015

mark_v3The Outlaw Urbanist founder, Mark David Major, is featured in the “Author Spotlight” on the Association of Independent Authors (AiA) during the month of July. The Association of Independent Authors (AiA) represents, advances, promotes and supports independent authors globally.

Excerpt:

Mark David Major is the author of several titles – fiction and nonfiction, literature, poetry and plays – including Mars Rising (science fiction) and The Persistence of Memory and Other Plays.

Mark’s latest titles – Poor Richard, An Almanac for Architects and Planners (I & II) – are a testament to his 20 years’ experience and professional background as an architect and urban planner. Mark is currently Vice President, Business & Planning at Starr Sanford Design and Chief Operating Officer of Starr Style. He is also the founder of the architecture and urbanism blog, The Outlaw Urbanist.

You can visit the AiA website to read the Author Spotlight here.

You can download a PDF to read the Author Spotlight here.

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPoor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners by Mark David Major
Foreword by Steve Mouzon, AIA
Paperback, 140 pages (5″ x 0.3″ x 8″, 7.4 ounces)
Forum Books (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First edition)
November 30, 2014
English
ISBN-10: 150290182X
ISBN-13: 978-1502901828

Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2 of the Poor Richard series) is available for purchase from CreateSpace, Amazon, iBooks, and other online retailers around the world. Be sure to check the online store in your country/currency (USA stores available below).

Purchase from CreateSpace here.
Purchase from Amazon here.
Purchase from Kindle Store here.
Purchase from iBooks Store here.

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