Great architects are the enemies of history. They aspire to erase the visible past and to superimpose their own vision of the future. Ever since Baron Haussmann declared war on the back alleys of Paris in the mid-19th Century, replacing them with wide boulevards and uniform, iron-balconied buildings, architects and their powerful allies, city planners, have dreamed of overhauling major spaces.
Luckily for us, there is another species in the urban genus: the architectural critic, who stands up for the general public and typically takes the side of preservation. America boasts a formidable line of these: Lewis Mumford, who stood against the tide of urban sprawl; Jane Jacobs, who delivered the death blow to ill-starred urban planning; and Tom Wolfe, who cracked a contagious smile in the face of somber modernism.
Mark Kingwell's "Concrete Reveries" reads like a truce between such critics and their targets. Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, is skeptical of the unfettered egos of architects, but he is not content to treat cities like museums. His book stresses the political and philosophical implications of architecture, especially its threats to democratic values. "Public spaces, so often colonized and banalized by commercial hawking," he writes, "have ceased to be sites of public discourse." For a world that exercises its plurality more comfortably online than in the town square, Kingwell's project almost seems novel, but we are left to wonder what sort of spaces he has in mind.
Kingwell begins by indicting modern architecture's rage for order. He traces it back to Descartes, who compared his own blank philosophical starting point to an architect's need for a clean building site. Just as Descartes avoided any reference to previous thinkers in his pursuit of truth, so the rationally planned city pays no heed to the structures that preceded it. L'Enfant's plan for Washington, New York City's grid, Le Corbusier's boxes in the sky—these ordered visions are all the products, in Kingwell's view, of a hyper-rational "Cartesian" way of thinking. Even more troubling to him is the way that urban planners design their projects without taking ordinary citizens into consideration.
There is truth in this indictment, but coldly calculated urban planning has rarely had a free ride. Jane Jacobs championed "the culture of congestion." For her the jumbled blocks of Greenwich Village, with their density of shops, offices and residential buildings, were the pinnacle of human achievement. She argued that paternalistic planners such as Robert Moses—who abhorred crowded spaces and dictated zones for recreation, living and work—were not only antidemocratic but dangerous. They depopulated streets and made residents more vulnerable. Jacobs took this view so far, Mumford complained, that "her ideal city is mainly an organization for the prevention of crime."
In the confrontation between order and congestion, Kingwell places peacemaker. He agrees with Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect whose notorious 1978 manifesto, "Delirious New York," sought to encourage the stand-off between planning and chaos. Koolhaas argued that, by having a rational layout in place—the two-dimensional discipline of the grid— Manhattan scared off the most heavy-handed planners and invited "three-dimensional anarchy." But even anarchy may need to be organized. "Without planning," Kingwell asserts, "people's desires quickly succumb to the spirals that create exurban sprawl and automobile-dominated cities."
Kingwell does not always keep his thoughts abstract. Halfway through "Concrete Reveries," he leaves his armchair to go on a walking tour of New York. He reveals to us that the city is "no longer an incubator of dreams" and has become "a spectral colony."
Is he not aware that people have been administering Last Rites to the city for more than a century? Kingwell celebrates the solidarity of the 1980s, when the "I Love New York" T-shirt was worn in defiance of the city's reputation as a cesspool. But were such T-shirts ever in more demand than after the attacks of 9/11? Well, yes, Kingwell concedes, but he cynically surmises that pity is now New York's stock and trade.
But it is not clear that Kingwell has been to boroughs besides Manhattan. Instead of recycling cliches about New York, Kingwell might try reading Joseph O'Neill's recent novel, "Netherland," which follows a disillusioned Dutch oil-futures analyst who haphazardly joins a largely Caribbean Staten Island cricket league. It must be among the most moving tributes to the city's democratic vitality in recent years.
If New York is not the 21st Century's leading city, what is? Not surprisingly, Kingwell chooses Shanghai, the ultimate architect's playground. The city is "a fantasyland of architectural grandiosity where any drawing, no matter how insane or adolescent, may come to life almost instantly, without the citizens' committees, building restrictions and expensive labor." He is awed and amused by Shanghai's Pudong-district skyline, but also deeply critical of the political process it represents.
The allure of building in China is so strong that officials there can ask prospective builders to check their principles at the door. The same Koolhaas who once believed the building committees of New York to be a democratic check to outrageous urban planning, now, with his $664-million CCTV tower going up in Beijing, suddenly sees the advantage of the top-down approach. "Communism in the form of a state can still have a purpose," Koolhaas recently intoned to The New York Times, like some new Manchurian Candidate.
Kingwell doesn't have much patience for architects who kowtow to power, but he comes perversely close to valuing the hollow new edifices of Shanghai precisely because they don't pretend to offer genuine inspiration. "The Chinese know what we don't," he writes. "Western individualism is a myth of significance in a world where you're really nobody and nothing."
But individualism was born in cities. And Western individualism, at its core, is not false consciousness. Rather it is the perpetual resistance to utopian planners, star architects and authoritarian governments who want one-size-fits-all solutions. Even when our individualism takes ideological shades, it is still preferable to enforced collective harmony.
Many people complain about the years of squabbling that have delayed the rebuilding of New York's Ground Zero, a decision that would have taken weeks in Shanghai. But surely all that bickering has a point—it is the lifeblood of public discourse.
In a world where cities are on the rise, where the world is becoming a city, it behooves our leading architectural critics to structure our new needs into a solid argument. But Kingwell has given us theory when we need blueprints and reveries when we need concrete.
Concrete ReveriesBy Mark KingwellViking, 292 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun