Philip [Johnson] was always a perfect gentleman of the old school. But once I saw his wit and grace take an almost grandfatherly form.
It was at the end of a splendid fall day that I had spent with him at New Canaan, reporting an article I was writing for Vanity Fair. My wife and children arrived to pick me up. As he came out of the Glass House to greet them, casting long shadows in the golden, late afternoon sun, my then-four-year-old daughter surveyed the Empyrean scene and its ancient, white, wizard-ish lord.
“At last,” he replied, taking her two little hands in his, “someone who ‘understands’ me.”
He welcomed her, and she looked up at him and earnestly asked, “Were you here when the world first started?”
TWO VERY DIFFERENT DEVELOPMENTS from the early 1980s are important landmarks in the recent history of urban design and street design. Battery Park City, a ninety-two-acre extension of Manhattan in the Hudson River that was built on landfill from the construction site of the World Trade Center, has office towers, mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings, and stores. Seaside, Florida, an eighty-acre development on the Florida panhandle, is a resort built in the form of a town. What the two places have in common is that their streets were designed with many of the placemaking principles outlined in this book. Both projects were a radical departure from the conventional practice of the time. The histories of both demonstrate how auto-centric regulations across the country hinder the making of good streets.
It wasn’t that people didn’t understand the principles; by the early 1980s, they had been talked about and praised for at least two decades. Jane Jacobs wrote the enormously popular The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Bernard Rudofsky published Streets for People1 (also very popular) in 1969, and William H. “Holly” Whyte had been publishing his influential studies of how people use urban space since the late 1960s.2 Despite professional acceptance of the theories, however, most of the sprawl in America was built after the publication of Death and Life. Many planners endorsed these works, but the American Planning Association and its members continued to promote regulations based on an auto-centric separation of uses, with road standards established by the engineering profession’s anti-urban functional Classification system. “The pseudoscience of planning,” Jacobs wrote, “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and to ignore empiric success.3Continue reading →
Urbanism takes time. Fifty years might pass before the last streets, parks, or buildings drawn in a master plan are completed. Or, during those fifty years, there might be two new master plans. Most of us involved in urban design will be dead before any of our plans are fully built out.
The Seaside plan was drawn in 1981. When Progressive Architecture visited in 1984, forty buildings had gone up, which is less than 10 percent of the final number.5 As we write this in 2013, there are still a few lots that haven’t been built on, and the downtown is less than half complete. Continue reading →
The debate continues over how to make New York City’s streets less crowded, safer and better for people as well as cars. Some, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, call for congestion pricing in Manhattan, although so far the New York State Legislature has not allowed that. Mayor Bill de Blasio and groups such as Transportation Alternatives promote Vision Zero, aiming for zero traffic deaths in New York City by 2024.
It’s worth looking at European cities, which have led the movement to make city streets that are as good for public life as they are for driving. In recent months, I’ve visited four of the cities with the most innovative street designs: London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Continue reading →
TOM WOLFE died last week. Here’s a story about a kind thing he did for me over 25 years ago.
I was in the lobby at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, where I had been invited to speak at an architecture conference. The keynote speakers were Tom Wolfe and James Howard Kunstler, but Jim had to cancel, and he recommended that they invite me to speak in his place.
When I got there, it was clear that they were wary. I was young, they didn’t know me, and this was a big day for them.
I was standing at the registration desk, feeling awkward, when Tom Wolfe walked in.
“Hi Tom,” I said, “Do you remember me?”
“JOHN MASSENGALE,” he said, in a large stage voice, “the man who taught me everything I know about architecture.”
A LONG TIME AGO, I turned on “All Things Considered” just in time to hear someone talking about suburban sprawl. He spoke for about a minute, succinctly saying things I was thinking about but had not said as well or concisely.
“We have been speaking with James Howard Kunstler, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York,” the announcer said, and I called information to get his phone number (which shows how long ago this was).
I called him. He answered, and I started to introduce myself.
“Take your amnesia pills, John,” he said. “You’re in the book.”
Civil Rights Act & Inner City Riots > #BlackLivesMatter
Civil Rights Act & Feminism > #MeToo
Student Marches Against Vietnam > #MarchForOurLives
Medicare > Obamacare
Immigration Act < #Dreamers
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring, 1962
Betty Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 1963
Malcolm X & Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965
Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Catalog, 1968 Continue reading →
New York City’s Historic Districts and Landmarks Are Under Siege
Have you noticed how many ideas and movements from the 1960s are back in a big way? Feminism. The civil rights movement. Streets for People, which was the title of a book Bernard Rudofsky wrote in 1969. New York’s own Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 and protested the demolition of Penn Station in 1963. In 1965, New York City passed its historic Landmarks Preservation Act and created the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Continue reading →
Jane Jacobs wrote 12 wide-ranging, brilliant books. In them she wove together ideas about cities, city life, politics, economics, and social and cultural issues, so it’s hard to succinctly summarize her contributions to tonight’s topic of affordable housing in New York City. The most directly relevant writing was in her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which came from her experience of living in Greenwich Village. As you can see on YouTube, President Obama agrees that was “the most important book ever written on cities.”
By the way, her last book, written in 2004 and called Dark Ages Ahead, predicted the possibility of a President like our President Elect. [PS*]
Jacobs wrote about affordable housing in Death and Life in a chapter she called, “The need for aged buildings.” Good cities need old buildings, she said. That’s because the cost of new construction requires landlords to charge high rents to cover their costs, rents that only wealthy tenants and the most profitable businesses can afford.
THIS IS a difficult building to photograph, and a Northern Italian Renaissanc church with a loosely Byzantine interior wouldn’t normally be my favorite. But it is so well done. The perfect proportions, the details in the entrance in antis, the powerful interior space in the Latin Cross under the dome, the Guastavino vaults and light iron details…all work together so well, convincing anyone with eyes that this is a great building. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, take a look.