object fixations – mammoth // building nothing out of something

object fixations

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.]

15 Responses to “object fixations”

  1. faslanyc says:

    Nice series of posts. I’m not entirely sure how I missed the first two back in October, but I’m glad you referenced them.

    I imagine that to some degree I am only hearing what I want, but these ruminations on methods of the practice of landscape/architecture strongly resonate with a theme I am trying to work out.

    I also think there is some connection between what you are discussing and projects like Safari 7 which seeks to demystify the practice of intervention in the built environment while at the same time educating and enabling, albeit in a playfully facetious manner.

    To get back to and expound upon my earlier point of this slightly schizophrenic comment, I would propose that landscape/architects hold the potential to act as enablers/educators of players traditionally marginalized or demobilized. And not in a “noble” way a la Randy Hester or Walter Hood (though I am a fan of their ethos) but to enable/educate like Google/Facebook/Wikipedia enabled users/consumer/producers of content (I apologize for the slashes- I haven’t the imagination to find a better way right now).

    I don’t exactly what that means yet, but I think it has something to do with a shifting focus from vast, elaborate, sexy projects to small, dirty, effective ones. To be clear, I am NOT saying big sexy projects or traditional methods of practice are obsolete. But there is only so much opportunity for them. If landscape praxis focused on enabling millions of practitioners (layered on top of the historical and still relevant foundation of academics and professionals) the impact would be far greater than simply hashing out theoretical semantics. Or not. I’m not sure yet.

    Great post.

  2. I’ve also been thinking about this lately in hopes of finding good ways of generating momentum behind democratic and consistent improvement in cities.

    Yesterday I was reading about some of the methods of the City Beautiful, Garden City, and Arts & Crafts Movements, as practiced by Charles M. Robinson, J. Horace McFarland, Barry Parker, Raymond Unwin, and the landscape architect Warren H. Manning. A few things that stood out were the use of photography to inspire people to engage in civic improvement (persuasive images of attractive and unattractive urban settings), the move away from materialism towards simple craftsmanship, a kind of reverence for natural landscapes (ie those not produced by humans), and a perhaps exclusive, prescriptive tendency towards noblesse oblige.

    I wonder if Manning might be a good example of a designer working to improve social conditions in cities through small scale projects? What do you think of him? I’m really interested in figuring out why his philosophy didn’t become the prevailing approach to urban development. How might we bring back certain parts of it in a way that would be appropriate for our times?

  3. namhenderson says:

    Nice post

    Faslanyc, i think this comment [ibut to enable/educate like Google/Facebook/Wikipedia enabled users/consumer/producers of content (I apologize for the slashes- I haven’t the imagination to find a better way right now).[/i] hits on something i was going to say.

    And i don’t mean to harp on urban informatics, but this seems to be key. For this kind of work allows one to generate simple data which then can be used by people to interact with the cities existing structures, or new ones, in new ways.
    However, it seems as if there has been a bit of souring amongst urbanist re: informatics and the tech side of things. I don’t need another reason to sit in front of a computer.
    The other direction i suppose is to get into policy or planning/advocacy which is the route i am interested.
    Architecture/urbanism as enabler, not creator/designer.

  4. rholmes says:

    Thanks for the great comments, guys. There’s not much that’s more rewarding than having people respond to your thoughts in (helpful) ways you didn’t anticipate (the last thing I expected to hear in response was “and how do you think this relates to the Arts & Crafts Movement?”, though I think that’s a great question).

    First, you should all check out faslanyc’s most recent post, if you haven’t already.

    Intuitively, a shift towards (or, at least, the emergence of) “small, dirty, effective” projects seems like a very healthy evolution. Though as I think about it, obvious problems start to pop out at me. For instance, what do you do when you’ve got lots of unskilled “practicioners”, working at opposing ends? How do you harness their energies and still move in helpful directions? In the US, half the population is convinced that there’s no such thing as anthropogenic climate change. What happens when you set up a city as an unvirtual Wiki and unleash that half (or any other portion of the population whose foundational assumptions about urban arrangements you disagree with) on it? What if they want to remake Brooklyn in Long Island’s image? I’m not sure that the consequences would be worse than the consequences of locking them out of the design process, but it seems like a question worth asking.

    I also find it a bit hard to visualize what these projects are like, or how they manage to have an effective macro-impact on an urban system despite being guided generally by emergent processes (which might be to say not at all), but, as I said over at faslanyc’s place, Eve Mosher’s Seeding the City helps. A brief but nice write-up of that project is here.


    I’m afraid I’m not really familiar at all with Manning (and woefully underread with regards to design movements in the pre-war period in general), but what you say about him intrigues me. Where have you been reading about him?

    My quick guess about why his philosophy, if it was about working through small projects, didn’t take would be that there was a general cultural trend towards totalization and rationalization at the time, which produced very fertile ground for grand utopian schemes, but not so much interest in incrementality or emergent process. But that’s ridiculously broad and simplistic.

  5. I also just learned of Manning a few days ago, while reading a thesis about an Arts & Crafts neighborhood that he helped design and develop.

    Afterwards, I found that he has a really interesting Wikipedia page, Warren H. Manning — worked with Olmsted, designed landscaping for the Chicago Columbian Exposition (but didn’t buy into the monumentality of City Beautiful ideas), helped found ASLA and the National Park System, much more.

    The thesis shows his steady commitment to designing for civic improvement, often at very small scales. For example, what prompted me to read the thesis was a walk through that Arts & Crafts neighborhood in Ithaca, NY. I’ve posted some pictures of it here, along with a few thoughts inspired by your post.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thinking on this and helping me keep in mind some of the challenges in more participatory approaches to urban development.

  6. Oh, I forgot the link to the pictures. Here it is: Cascadilla Park.

  7. faslanyc says:

    I must confess that I also don’t know enough about Manning (and other forerunners such as AJ Downing) to add anything to the conversation. I’m glad you brought him up though, Peter, and I also enjoyed your subsequent post on the subject at Polis. It is telling, I think, of the heavy legacy of Central Park on the modern imagination and conceptualization of public urban landscapes in North America that we don’t reference Manning and Downing more.

    Nam, I’m not a huge fan of urban informatics- it strikes me as quantifying human intuition (at best) and I simply value getting lost at times, or having to deal with weather that I’m not prepared for. Nonetheless, I think your characterization of architecture/urbanism as enabler concisely says what I intended and needed about 80 words to say. That phrase was key for me, though what form it takes (be it informatics or community design or some other mutant model, I’m not sure).

    Rob, thanks again for the post. I don’t have many answers to your points but they are good questions that would have to be addressed. Again, I’m not entirely sure of how the roles differentiate themselves yet. And there certainly would be unintended consequences, half bad half good likely. However, the decentralized ghettos and favelas- while disgusting and dangerous- are teeming with street life and operate non-consumption economies (of course, they are also built wherever, and so are usually destroying flood plains or fragile eroded hillsides). I would not argue that the old ways of practice are obsolete, but rather that the practice of landscape is bifurcating/should bifurcate.

    At the end, I would sum up my stance as that of a landscape architecture apologist- we need more landscape architecture, people need to be more a part of the process, and not solely as a third party, and it needs to be widely practiced on a variety of temporal and spatial scales. We need to adapt our service/business models to do that. But I’m not sure yet how.

    Provocative posts recently…

  8. faslanyc, That’s an excellent summary of what is needed, I agree. I really enjoyed your recent post on possible ways of making these things happen. True about Downing as well. Although he was such an influence on Olmsted and the creation of Central Park, he also worked at smaller scales and was a great champion of public space. Maybe his ideas on morality as a function of environmental conditions, or his rustic aesthetic, or possibly that he wasn’t a proponent of urban density, make him less attractive to contemporary urbanists. Whatever the case, his ideas have left us with some of the greatest city landscapes, the kind that remain great over time.

  9. Rob, I just realized that I didn’t fully answered your question on where I found the original information on Manning. The thesis is “Cascadilla Park, Ithaca, New York: Arts & Crafts Patronage as an Expression of Urban Reform,” by Seth Bergstein, Cornell University, 2001. I found it incredibly interesting and well written, with quite a lot of relevance for contemporary urban development. Unfortunately it isn’t online, but it is in the library and archives. Seth is now running a business called PAST Consultants in the Bay Area, in case anyone is interested in finding out more on this subject.

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