James Howard Kunstler on

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In James Howard Kunstler‘s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

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(photo of water tower with smiley face, caption: “The National Automobile Slum”).

The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible. We can’t overestimate the amount of despair that we are generating with places like this. And mostly, I want to persuade you that we have to do better if we’re gonna continue the project of civilization in America.

By the way (referring to smiley face on tower), this doesn’t help. Nobody’s having a better day down here because of that.

There are a lot of ways you can describe this, you know I like to call it the national automobile slum, you can call it suburban sprawl. I think it’s appropriate to call it the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. You can call it a “technosis externality clusterfuck”. And it’s a tremendous problem for us. The outstanding- the salient problem about this for us is that these are places that are not worth caring about. We’re gonna talk about that some more.

(slide: old engraving of colonial or Victorian town, caption: “A Sense of Place”)

A sense of place. Your ability to create places that are meaningful and places of quality and character depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings, and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms, and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are.

The public realm in America has two roles: It is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life, and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there. The public realm comes mostly in the form of the street in America, because we don’t have the thousand year old cathedral plazas and market squares of older cultures.

And your ability to define space and to create places that are worth caring about all comes from a body of culture that we call the culture of civic design. This is a body of knowledge, method, skill, and principle that we threw in the garbage after World War Two and decided we don’t need that anymore, we’re not going to use it. And consequently we can see the result all around us.

The public realm has to inform us not only where we are, geographically, but it has to inform us where we are in our culture. Where we’ve come from, what kind of people we are, and it needs to- by doing that it needs to afford us a glimpse to where we’re going- in order to allow us to dwell in a hopeful present. And if there is one tremendous- if there is one great catastrophe about the places we’ve built, the human environments we’ve made for ourselves in the last 50 years, it is that it has deprived us of the ability to live in a hopeful present.

The environments we are living in, more typically, are like these.

(photo: typical suburban intersection near big box retail stores, caption: “Places Not Worth Caring About”)

You know, this happens to be the asteroid belt of architectural garbage two miles north of my town. And – remember- to create a place of character and quality, you have to be able to define space, so how is that being accomplished here? If you stand on the apron of the Wal-Mart over here, and try to look at the Target store over here, you can’t see it because of the curvature of the earth. That’s nature’s way of telling you that you’re doing a poor job of defining space. Consequently, these will be places that nobody wants to be in. These will be places that are not worth caring about.

We have about 38,000 places that are not worth caring about in the United States today- when we have enough of them, we’re gonna have a nation that’s not worth defending. And I want you to think about that when you think about those young men and women who are over in places like Iraq spilling their blood in the sand, and ask yourself what is their last thought of home? I hope it’s not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store! ‘Cause that’s not good enough for Americans to be spilling their blood for.

We- (applause)- need better places in this country.

(photo: street open air market scene, caption: “Public Space Worth Caring About”)

Public space- this is a good public space. It’s a place worth caring about. It’s well defined, it is emphatically an outdoor public room, it has something that is terribly important- it has what’s called an active and permeable membrane around the edge. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s got shops, bars, bistros, destinations, things go in and out of it, it’s permeable. The beer goes in and out, the waitresses go in and out, and that activates the center of this place- it makes it a place that people want to hang out in. You know, in these places in other cultures, people just go there voluntarily, ’cause they like them. We don’t have to have a craft fair here to get people to come here. (laughter). You know, you don’t have to have a Kwanzaa festival. People just go, because it’s pleasurable to be there. But this is how we do it in the United States:

(photo: boston city hall plaza, caption: public space failure)

Probably the most significant public space failure in America, designed by the leading architects of the day, Harry Cobb and I.M. Pei, Boston City Hall Plaza. A public place so dismal that the winos don’t even want to go there. (laughter). And we can’t fix it because I.M. Pei’s still alive and every year Harvard and M.I.T. have a joint committee to repair it. and every year they fail to because they don’t want to hurt I.M. Pei’s feelings.

(photo: rear of building, caption: “The Winner”)

This is the other side of the building. This was the winner of an international design award in, I think 1966, something like that- it wasn’t Pei & Cobb, another firm designed this. But- there’s not enough Prozac in the world to make people feel OK about going down this block. This is the back of Boston City Hall, the most important significant civic building in Albany- excuse me- in Boston, and what is the message that is coming- what are the vocabularies and grammars that are coming from this building and how is it informing us about who we are?

This in fact would be a better building if we put mosaic portraits of Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and all the other great despots of the 20th century on the side of the building because then we’d honestly be saying what the building is really communicating to us. You know, it’s a despotic building, it wants us to feel like termites.

(photo: civic center, saratoga springs, new york, caption: “What’s the Problem Here?”)

This is it on a smaller scale. The back of the civic center in my town, Saratoga Springs, New York. By the way, when I showed this slide to a group of Kiwanians in my town, they all rose in indignation from their cream chicken. And- (laughter)- they shouted at me and said “it was raining that day when you took that picture!” Because this was perceived to be a weather problem.

You know, this is a building designed like a DVD player. Audio jack, power supply… and- look, you know these things are important architectural jobs for firms, right? You know, we hire firms to design these things. You can see exactly what went on 3 o’clock in the morning the design meeting, You know, 8 hours before deadline, four architects trying to get this building in on time, right? And they’re sitting there at the long boardroom table with all the drawings, and the renderings, and all the chinese food caskets are lying on the table, and- I mean, what was the conversation that was going on there? Because you know what the last word was. What the last sentence was- of that meeting. It was: “Fuck it”. (laughter and applause)

That- that is the message of this form of architecture! The message is- we don’t give a fuck! We don’t give a fuck.

So I went back on the nicest day of the year, just to- you know, just some reality testing. And in fact, (shows picture of policeman walking near same building as last photo) he will not even go down there because- it’s not even interesting enough for his clients, you know, the burglars, the muggers, it’s not civically rich enough for them to go down there. OK.

The pattern of main street USA- in fact this pattern of building downtown blocks, all over the world, is fairly universal. It’s not that complicated- buildings more than one story high, built out to the sidewalk edge, so that people who are- you know, all kinds of people can get into the building, Other activities are allowed to occur upstairs, you know, apartments, offices, and so on, you make provision for this activity called “shopping” on the ground floor. They haven’t learned that in Monterey. If you go out to the corner right at- the main intersection right in front of this conference center, you’ll see an intersection with four blank walls on every corner. It’s really incredible. Anyway-

(shows picture to audience that is not shown in the recorded presentation)

This is how you compose and assemble a downtown business building- and this is what happened when- in Glens Falls, New York, when we tried to do it again, where it was missing, right? So the first thing they do is they pop up the retail a half a story above grade to make it sporty. OK. That completely destroys the relationship between the business and the sidewalk, where the theoretical pedestrians are. Of course (laughter) – they’ll never be there, as long as this is in that condition. Then because the relationship between the retail is destroyed, we pop a handicapped ramp on that, and then to make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it.

I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower-beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know, that’s not good enough. We have to do good buildings.

(photo: two pictures of tree lined pedestrian paths, caption: “Role of ‘Green’ In City Center Is Formal”)

The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it. To spatially denote the pedestrian realm, to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way, to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings and to create a ceiling -a vaulted ceiling- over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees. They’re not supposed to be a cartoon of the north woods, they’re not supposed to be a set for The Last of the Mohicans. You know, one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not gonna cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.

(new photo, unshown on screen)

Here you see on a small scale- the mother-ship has landed, R2D2 and CP3O (sic) have stepped out to test the bark mulch to see if they can inhabit this planet .

(photo: crowded early 20th/ late 19th century street scend, caption: “The Horror of the Industrial City”)

A lot of this comes from the fact that the industrial city in America was such a trauma that we developed this tremendous aversion for the whole idea of the city, city life, and everything connected with it. And so what you see fairly early, in the mid-19th century, is this idea that we now have to have an antidote to the industrial city, which is going to be life in the country for everybody. And that starts to be delivered in the form of the railroad suburb-

(slide: 19th century engraving of country manor house, caption: “Suburbia- First Incarnation)

-the country villa, along the railroad line, which allows people to enjoy the amenity of the city but to return to the countryside every night. And believe me, there were no Wal-Marts or convenience stores out there then. So it really was a form of country living.

But what happens is, of course, it mutates over the next 80 years and it turns into something rather insidious. It becomes a cartoon of a country house, in a cartoon of the country.

(photo: nasty suburban house with attached garage, caption: “Suburbia- Advanced Mutation”)

And that’s the great non-articulated agony of suburbia, and one of the reasons that it lends itself to ridicule. Because it hasn’t delivered what it’s been promising for half a century now.

(photo: suburban house on giant tract of land with no windows on the side wall, caption: “What’s Really Going On Here?”)

And these are typically the kind of dwellngs we find there, you know, basically a house with nothing on the side, because this house wants to state, emphatically, “I’m a little cabin in the woods, there’s nothing on either side of me, I don’t have any eyes on the side of my head, I can’t see….”

So you have this one last facade of the house, the front, which is really a cartoon of a facade of a house. ‘Cause- notice the porch here. Unless the people that live here are Munchkins, nobody’s gonna be using that. This is really in fact a television, broadcasting a show 24-7 called “we’re normal.” “We’re normal we’re normal we’re normal we’re normal we’re normal, please respect us we’re normal we’re normal we’re normal.” But we know what’s going on in these houses, you know. We know that little Skippy is loading his Uzi down here, getting ready for homeroom, we know that Heather, his sister Heather, 14 years old, is turning tricks up here to support her drug habit, because these places, these habitats, are inducing immense amounts of anxiety and depression in children, and they don’t have a lot of experience with medication. So they take the first one that comes along, often.

These are not good enough for Americans. These are the schools we are sending them to:

(photo: fenced in prefab one story school, caption: “What Message Does This Building Send?”)

The Hannibal Lecter Central School, Las Vegas, Nevada. This is a real school! You know- but there’s obviously a notion that if you let the inmates of this thing out, that they would snatch a motorist off the street and eat his liver. So every effort is made to keep them within the building. (referring to a lone dry, dying bush in front of the school) Notice that nature is present! (laughter)

We’re gonna have to change this behavior whether we like it or not. We are entering an epochal period of change in the world, and- certainly in america- the period that will be characterized by- the end of the cheap oil era.

(photo: “dead end” sign at the end of a rural road, with pipeline pipes scattered around it, caption: “Where Is This Culture Going?”)

It is going to change absolutely everything. Chris (sp?) asked me not to go on too long about this and I won’t. Except to say there’s not going to be a hydrogen economy. Forget it. It’s not going to happen. We’re going to have to do something else instead. We’re gonna have to down-scale, re-scale, and re-size virtually everything we do in this country and we can’t start soon enough to do it.

We’re gonna have- (applause) we’re gonna have to live closer to where we work, we’re gonna have to live closer to each other, we’re gonna have to grow more food closer to where we live. The age of the 3,000 mile Caesar salad is coming to an end. we’re gonna have to- we have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. We gotta do better than that.

(photo: village-like urban downtown center, caption: “A New Urbanism”)

And we should have started two days before yesterday. We are fortunate that the new urbanists were there, for the last 10 years, excavating all that information that was thrown in the garbage by our parents’ generation after World War Two. ‘Cause we’re gonna need it if we’re gonna learn to reconstruct towns. We’re gonna need to get back this body of methodology and principle and skill in order to re-learn how to compose meaningful places- places that are integral. That allow- that are living organisms in the sense that they contain all the organs of our civic life, and our communal life, deployed in an integral fashion.

(slide: planner’s rendering of an urban center, caption: “More than the Sum of Its Parts”)

So that, you know, the residences make sense deployed in relation to the places of business, of culture, and of governance. We’re gonna have to re-learn what the building blocks of these things are. The street. The block.

(slide: rendering of civic square, caption: “The Street and the Block”)

How to compose public space that’s both large and small. The courtyard. The civic square. And how to really make use of this property.

(slide: rendering of plan for indoor shopping mall, caption: “Fixing This Mess”)

We can see some of the first ideas for retrofitting some of the catastrophic property that we have in America. The dead malls. What are we going to do with them? Well, in point of fact, most of them are not gonna make it. They’re not going to be retrofitted, they’re going to be the salvage yards of the future.

(slide: rendering of previous plan with street & block overlays, caption: “The Organic Growth of Civic Tissue”)

Some of them we’re going to fix though. And we’re going to fix them by imposing back on them street and block systems, and returning to the building lot as the normal increment of development.

And if we’re lucky-

(slide: rendering of previous plan, but as a conception of a finished town, caption: “The Result-If We’re Lucky)

The result will be revivified town centers and neighborhood centers in our existing towns and cities.

And by the way- our towns and cities are where they are, and grew where they were. because they occupy all the important sites. And most of them are still gonna be there, although the scale of them is probably going to be diminished.

(photo: Wal-Mart facade, with smiley face, caption: “The Law of Perverse Outcomes”, tag line: “People Don’t Get What They Expect, But They Get What They Deserve”)

We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not gonna be rescued by the hyper-car, we’re not gonna be rescued by alternative fuels- no amount, or combination, of alternative fuels is gonna allow us to continue running what we’re running, the way we’re running it. We’re gonna have to do everything very differently. And America’s not prepared. We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can. Life in the mid-21st century is going to be about living locally. Be prepared to be good neighbors. Be prepared to find vocations that make you useful to your neighbors and to your fellow citizens.

One final thing- I’ve been very disturbed about this for years, but I think it’s particularly important for this audience. Please, please, stop referring to yourselves as ‘consumers.’ OK? ‘Consumers’ are different than citizens. Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities, and duties to their fellow human beings. And as long as you’re using that word ‘consumer’ in the public discussion, you will be degrading the quality of the discussion we’re having, and we’re gonna continue to be clueless going into this very difficult future that we face.

So thank you very much. Please go out and do what you can to make this a land full of places that are worth caring about, and a nation that will be worth defending.