Monday, December 8, 2008

Modernism verus New Urbansim: Nobody has it right

Different facets of Modernist planners and New Urbanist planners are completely correct and horribly wrong. Neither of them have struck a perfect balance of ideas.

Modernists, following Le Corbusier's legacy, have a sublime understanding of materials. Their strict adherence to 'form follows function' is their highest achievement. Their blunder, though, was in their use of landscape urbanism. Carrying this idea of an omnipotent Master Planner along with a tide of technology worship (automotive transport), their buildings are isolated from city; tombstones of concrete on greenfields. The result is urban wastelands.

New Urbanists follow a doctrine of neo-traditionalism wherein the compact city is embraced. Their strength lies in city planning which stimulates non-motorized transportation and "the good community". Their downfall is their clinging to traditional forms. New Urbanist towns are more kitsch than the tacky wall hangings of a chain restaurant. Jill Grant, a New Urbanist, faced these criticisms, "Others see these places [New Urban communities] as upgraded suburbs mired in the aesthetics of another time and place: cloyingly nostalgic anachronisms." I couldn't agree more.

While I admire the contributions of both Modernism and New Urbanism, I am reluctant to align myself completely with either group. A combination of the two, something like "Modern Urbanism" which uses Le Corbusier's philosophy that a home is a machine for living in and the New Urbanist blueprint for compact, mixed-use communities is a target worth shooting for.