I was browsing the archives of loud paper a couple days ago, and a (somewhat older, though I’m not sure exactly how much older) article by Kazys Varnelis, “Teen Urbanism”, caught my attention. In it, Varnelis drags a couple of insights out of Louis Wirth‘s “Urbanism as a Way of Life”, a seminal sociological essay from the early 20th century, most notably the idea that urbanism is defined most fundamentally not by structure and infrastructure, but by practice, action, and thought-process. This suggests something quite important and equally fundamental about how designers ought to go about interfering with cities, something which Varnelis argues architects have failed to understand:
If for Wirth, urbanism referred to a way of life, for architects, urbanism is synonymous with urban design. I’d like to suggest that rather than thinking of this as a case of a word having multiple meanings, Wirth’s argument denotes a shift in what is the proper object of urbanism. We can say so long to the drawings of Camillo Sitte and Daniel Burnham. After Wirth, a city’s objects remain only important as symptoms: radically new ways of life developing within real urbanism. For their part, architects have paid no notice to this development. Even the most remarkable urban projects that these self-styled urbanists came up with in the latter half of the twentieth century-think, for example, of Archigram’s Walking City, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Berlin Hauptstadt, or OMA’s Euralille-all suffered from object fixation.
While I’m wary of harsh dichotomies as a general rule (and has it not always been true that urbanism is a way of life, not just a collection of structures in varying arrangements, even if that truth had not been articulated so clearly before Wirth?), this ‘object fixation’ is still a defining characteristic of mainstream practice, in both architecture and landscape architecture. And so I am inclined to agree as Varnelis then discusses the implications of such a re-definition for architects:
So what’s an urbanist to do, then? With the end of the plan and the grand gesture [mammoth note: which procedes not just from a redefinition of urbanism, but also from structural shifts: the power of NIMBYism which Varnelis has so ably described elsewhere, the failure of modernist planning to produce the utopias it promised as often described by the landscape urbanists, et cetera], a new way of engaging urbanism is necessary. I suspect that, given the conservative nature of the profession, architects will see the idea that urbanism as they knew it has come to an end as a pessimistic argument. This seems rather bizarre and nostalgic to me. More than anything, urbanism after the city makes it possible for architects to take on new, more exciting roles.
This is indeed exciting. But to take on those roles, designers must understand the new problems of such an urbanism — what Jack Self calls “fear of digital dislocation”, for instance, or the complex psychological reactions generated by consistently being surrounded by others who are absorbed by screens that you cannot easily read. The pressures and fears generated by urbanism as a way of life are no less real than the need for natural relief from the smog and choke of the industrializing city which motivated Olmsted and generated the great urban parks of the twentieth century, but they are quite different. A failure to acknowledge this shift in design problem will quickly become a failure to be relevant, if it has not already.
[The reasons that cause object fixation to remain a defining characteristic of architectural practice are not unrelated to the reasons that architects and landscape architects have developed an excessively narrow disciplinary territory, as previously discussed by mammoth here and here; Wirth's full essay is available here, and worth reading.]