Sunday, November 28, 2010

Taliesin West Bakersfield

"Meanie". Originally posted at
Daniel, the always observant (and now well-schooled) follower of urbanist dialogues, sniffs a subtle hankering amongst us landscape urbanists for reverting seriously to Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian idyll: Is Broadacre City Worth Reviving?.

What Daniel (following Michael Mehaffy) is spotting is the long-standing Hegelian allure for "mashing" agronomy and urbanism as evidenced by American intellectuals hankering for Wright's (Jeffersonian) Usonia.  I would add Corbu's centralized (Hamiltonian) Voisin plan to the list.  While, in the fist-fight between these modernist utopias (or "paradises", as William McClung appropriately calls them),Wright's model apparently proved victorious in the last half-century, Voisin has never really left us either (and, in fact, as Witold Rybczynski points out in Makeshift Metropolis, Wright's own oeuvre did not evade it either).

Might the garden + city movements, in their various ideological camps and manifestations, essentially be a part of the American cultural condition?  Wright's nativist idealism may be an irreducible part of our American mental model for ideal living, as American as cranberry sauce, even if hardly any Americans ever own a pair of overalls.  This much Wright got right about his fellow Americans.  To swing our urbanist scimitars at American Gothic, like Corbu did, would be to alienate us forever from our fellow Americans (Canadians too) and that would do us no good.  We designers then have no choice, essentially, but to shrug our shoulders and try to sublimate it.
Full disclosure: I am myself a product of the academy, which, though we never claim it outright, holds the movement towards a landscape urbanism, or landscape +  urbanism, if you will, with a venerable light not reserved for New Urbanism.  Vehemently so.  But, at least I will admit here that my love for landscape+city+semiotics is essentially a romantic one (er..., blushing evidence here and here).  I am, yes, aware that the way we use landscape (for recreation, ecological regeneration, or agriculture) is primarily a cultural question that the designer can engage (and perhaps influence) but never quite control. All design, let's face it, is a utopia.  The reason that landscape urbanism appeals to us urban designer types is the way it engages the fourth dimension in the planning challenge, in pointing us to the ecological and changing conditions of the city. It is a relaxed and appealing view of urbanism. Sometimes, it too loses track of society and reality and economics, but that's design.  That's life in fact.

While I don't consider Wright's "democracy in overalls" essentially realistic, I have always admired how robust and undiluted in spirit Wright's infrastructural vision was.  People seem to miss this subtle attribute of Usonia.  I would like them to squint more carefully at the models and notice that Wright's Usonian roads, bridges, and ramps are nothing like the flimsy and dispersed and decapitated infrastructure of today's suburb.  The suburb has never replicated the soaring infrastructural heart of Usonia, grided and resilient and direct and exorbitantly expensive as it was relative to what it served.  This is not the amorphous and flimsy and branched infrastructure of today's suburb.  That is the constant mistake of urbanist paradises: to essentially get the economics wrong at the outset.  They always have to transmogrify to lesser versions of themselves.  Simply, Usonia can not support that kind of dispersed infrastructure with an agricultural-based economy of one acre per farmer.  Wright's Usonia was never replicated because it made no industrial sense whatsoever.  It did not scale.  The problem with landscape/agronomic urbanism since Wright and Corbu has always been that sticky implementation piece.  Van Valkenburgh's wilderness in the wharf and New Urbanism's Serenbe, GA are sort of our alternative responses to this problem.  One focuses on implementation with high-stakes public projects and one takes advantage of Americans' market preference to seek out a quietude in (essentially suburban or small town) community life.  Both of these responses seem somewhat limited and situated and ineffectual blips.  But what is the alternative?  How else do you support agriculture at an industrial scale in the urban fabric that makes sense?  What is the soft (social and market) infrastructure that you need?   

So, while I'm at it, let me point out one place where I do see Jeffersonian Usonia as feasible in an industrial scale. That is in the anti-federalist pot-growing communities that are now forming in the edges of urbanized California. Essentially, what you have in Cali is a great condition for a great resurgence in a "democracy in overalls" which actually gives economic incentives for agronomic production with small-scale farms.  Watch, oh fearful planner, what happens when Cali eventually adopts the "100 square feet" per grower rule.  Suddenly, you have the economic leverage you need for single families to buy up those foreclosed homes in the Valley's grided landscape, which seems ready-made for the spirited Usonian infrastructure of Wright's vision.  Taliesin West Bakersfield!


Daniel said...

Eric, how did I miss this until now? I like the way you capture the American story of attempting to reconcile these two impulses (and needs). Maybe there will always be a struggle. Back to the ancient Greeks - pre-socrates even - Heraclitus saw reality as the flow a river, never the same thing twice. All process and flux, with not enough stability to notice patterns and rationally predict the future. I sense this as the current trend in design schools. Parmenides saw the world as a stable whole, with all things interconnected and fitting together in a way that is discoverable by humans (through reason, of course, these are philosophers after all, not chefs or dancers!) I don't think anyone has been able to fit these together in any coherent way. They've always been in tension.

Eric Orozco said...

That's a great reference, Daniel... That tension must be at the crux of much of human-setted enterprise. Funny how it situates itself in streams and schools of thought within any singular field and endeavor.

There are your flow people and your rational fixers - the synthetic re-organizers. How apt this is to categorize the foremost schools of urbanism today. The Dutch-freeformers/landscape-urbanists vs. the New Urbanists.

In my view, Chistopher Alexander's "Pattern Language" approach is one of the closest attempts urban theorists have come to integrating the human art of city making into a balance between Haraclitus and Parmenides. In Alexander's human-centered frame of reference, urban design is an art initiated by humans adapting in time and space to their built environment.

Alexander's cosmological pattern language is intensely synthetic, but, what is always striking about it when I come back to read pieces of it, is that you are always navigating "form" from the frame of reference of the human subject - the one who experiences and employs the pattern. The individual simply uses the "language" as a point of mediation to create with the eddies and currents of the world.

Contrast with the attempt of the New Urbanist's to literally pin down the "language" of form with their new encyclopedic tome, The Language of Towns and Cities (boy, what values are literally screaming at you in the subtext of this title, bad landscape-urbanist!, bad landscape-urbanist!...). Setting the language aside really, to create your "visual dictionary", is a bit like examining the the beautiful patterns on the carapace of a turtle shell, while failing to remark on the living creature within.

In my first degree, I observed the same divergent pull in my Second Temple Period Judaism studies. So your Heraclitus-Parmenides framing of this schism finds strong resonance with me. Broadly, the development of Jewish thought can be categorized in that time frame as a schism between those whose frame of reference to the Law was fundamentally a living conversation between the community and God. And there were those who simply insisted on reconstituting the entire Jewish frame of history wholesale, by narrowly defining the language and giving it apocalyptic clarity. This conflict does not tend to bode well for the language-stabilizing Parmenidians, I'm afraid. The river-minded Rabbis gave us modern Judaism, but the dancing desert Therapevtae and the Dead Sea Secessionists are, well, lost to the sands of history.

Kevin Lynch warned us we must always question the values implicit our lexical codes for the city. Thanks Daniel for always being sensitive to the values crouched in the background of our statements.