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am 15. Mai 2000
If anyone has the capacity to let it sink into the average American suburbanite's head (at least those born in the postwar era) that that gleaming new boxy/plate-glass convenience store or massive-warehouse-style mega-mart (as well as all that tract housing) is *not* incredibly beautiful to either our eyes or our psyche, Kunstler has the gift of the pen to do it. Kunstler is unquestionably correct in pinpointing the automobile as the primary target of what has been wrought upon our new and ugly built environment (although other writers have also pointed this out as well). He pinpoints villains ranging from corporations to politicians in allowing this to happen; he's basically on target here as well. However, while Kunstler does hint at the following, it would do well to remind the reader in unmistakeable terms that it was ultimately the *American people* that allowed this to happen. When faced with a choice between aesthetics and convenience, we postwar Americans gave a huge bear-hug to convenience -- and in effect said, "Let's bring on the six-lane speedways slicing through the middle of town -- and if you make that fast-food joint gaudy enough, we'll be able to spot it as we drive towards it so we can get to it on the next exit ramp." The author also points out the Disneyesque phony-ness of much of today's "trendy" architecture (which seems to be a confused antidote to that six-lane monster and panoply of crud that surrounds it). Kunstler, like a number of others, pinpoints New Urbanism-type solutions as a very plausible antidote to all this ugliness and phony-ness. However, while a noble attempt to overcome the sins of the recent past, New Urbanism does have its critics (I confess to be one of them); it can perpetuate some of that theme-park fakeness that Kunstler deplores. Just how do you design an attractive, infectious community (or part of a community) that realizes that our appetite for cars, Whoppers, Super Wal-Marts, etc. is not going to go away anytime soon, and also is designed with a sense of architectural and functional *validity* to it? It seems that literature that addresses this entire question is hardly to be found. If Kunstler can expertly answer this in a future book, he'll earn a secure place in architectural and planning history.
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am 26. November 1999
This is something of a sightseeing tour through the depredations of modern urban design. Highly anecdotal in its approach, choppy in style, it covers no real new ground. It is, however, a useful survey of current criticism of urban planning. I was distressed to see his bibliography contained no mention of Jane Jacob's 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities'-- the seminal work taking to task the concepts manifested in suburban wastelands and decaying inner cities. Kunstler's approach swings between vague economic, historic and philosophical tracts and some fairly well traveled material on building and urban design theories. The most prominent villain in this take is the car. This really doesn't provide a useful starting point for designing more livable cities. Not unless you acknowledge that the car is here to stay, and that urban design will have to come grips with its presence and still aspire to build cities which provide intense community centred cultures.
Urban design reflects directly our values as a society. Answers as fundamental as Kunstler is proposing cannot be broached successfully without changing those values. That is an idealistic and realistically futile prospect. The vocal and activist polarities on this issue, the utopian and maudlin pragmatic, dictate the limited attention and action it gets in the political reality. Railing against the automobile, corporate priorities, environmental inattention or our alienation from the homogenous communities of our past will finally relegate the issue to a few academics and misanthropes. The real solution, such as one exists, is going to have to come from a consensus which realizes that population growth, economic realities, automobiles, and social heterogeneity are going to be part of our future and have to be incorporated in a far from perfect outcome. But one which will hopefully ensure human and community values have a presence and priority in planning decisions. The potential trap is that a new paradigm replaces the last with some faddish design manifesto completely inappropriate to many local conditions, imposing some sentimental pastiche on problems which are not primarily architectural in nature. Like environmentalism, city design works best at the involved community level, where unique urban aspirations can be iterated with economic and ergonomic necessity.
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As a general study into the well documented shortcomings of contemporary cities (suburbia/automotive society), Kunstler has done an excellent job of expressing his turmoil. His wit and poise in a literary setting are helpful in describing a plight that many have unknowingly settled for. As such, I would highly recommend the book for those of varied backgrounds who are academically unfamiliar with the past century (+) of urban design misfortunes. For those, like myself, who come from a design background, the text is more enjoyable for its wit than it is for its intellectual significance. This is not to say that I found the book to lack poise or effort, but rather scope and insight. In particular, I found the author's overbearing Neo-Traditionalist opinions to be misplaced and ignorant. As an example, I only need to point to his summary chapter which claims to examine recent trends in urban thoughts. Here, we see such examples as Duany and Plater-Zyberk's Seaside and Peter Calthorpe's Pedestrian Pockets. There is no mention, however, of more innovative, yet quite similar studies as those of Michael Sorkin or Steven Holl. My fear, I suppose, is that the nostalgic tone (that to his credit he doesn't hide) is almost irrelevant to contemporary discourse as it is posed. In fact, projects like Seaside are still continuing the 'progressive' mentality of development. Constructive urban planning needs a more holistic approach to the past (whether we value it or not) including the last 60 years. Suburbia, cars, television and fast food are here to stay. We need to focus our thoughts more towards evolving the existing fabric in all its manifestations.
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am 20. November 1997
James Kunstler has the advantage of the skillful writer of novels, which enables the more brilliant and satirical passages found in his description of our automobile wasteland. There are no serious attempts to construct answers. The rhetorical approach - "I know what a viable community looks like when I see it"- mimics the day to day planning literature produced by many less talented communicators. Kuntsler's book is no less necessary, of course, but one wishes for the same dramatic effect when the planning or "zoning" process begins in the city or town hall. When will the professionals learn to sell their worthy product without indulging in the language of dictatorship and the mechanics of taking?
Kunstler does make one important point. The best of the small town or city neighborhoods are and were not planned. He demonstrates that we could expect viable communities if the automobile were eliminated from the scene. Attempts to regulate the automobile should in the long run survive serious legal challenge, perhaps more successfully than the notion that we can corporately deprive people of their land.
Kunstler is not an urban planner, of course, but those who are might learn to sell their ideas by avoiding legalism and coercion and talking the language of the poet or novelist. Attractive neighborhood streets with real people on them may be the result.
Tom Johnson
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am 6. Juli 1997
Starting from the first colonial settlements continuing to the present day,
Kunstler examines the evolution of the built environment of the United
States with a critical and satirical eye that rings convincingly true.
At once stimulated by the industrial revolution, and
advanced further by the proliferation of the private automobile, Kunstler
charts the degradation of the human qualities of American
cities and towns--resulting in the "generica" so prevalent in urban America
today: endless tract home developments, strip mall madness, faceless and
soulless architecture, and decaying inner cities juxtaposed with burgeoning
suburbia. Kunstler's analysis goes beyond the mere aesthetic, exposing
the profound social and economic ramifications of a "throwaway society"
that, giving no thought to creating places worth living in, has created a
land of "unplaces"--a "geography of nowhere". A sobering read that is destined to inspire Americans to rethink and reshape their communities for a more sustainable and aesthetically satisfying future.
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am 10. Februar 2000
No, this book isn't the most scholarly approach to urban planning. But is a much needed book. One of the problems with the myriad of books that have emerged lately on the topic of modern urban design is that they are written in academic speak, not readily understandable by the layman or laywoman who is attempting to make a difference while serving on town boards. Although no one has mentioned it in these reviews, it was gutsy of the author to propose that a building could be objectively ugly. This is important to those of us who are sick and tired of trying to tell developers that we don't want another McDonalds because the golden arches don't relate to the spacial relationships of our sidewalks. Damn it, we have the right to reject it because its plug ugly. His comments on Disney were wicked, accurate, and entirely true. Read this book.
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am 8. April 1999
This book is a treat. It's one of those books that helps give you words for what you've always felt, but haven't articulated. Kunstler approaches the topic of why America is so GoshDarn ugly from many different perspectives. The parts of the book that focus on the histories of human habitats are not as thigh-slappinlgly funny as the parts in which he describes (with a dead-on accuracy that might make you cry) our own late-twentieth century American (ridiculous) landscape, but are compelling nonetheless for the sheer volume of information. Certain passages in the book are so elegantly written you will read them out loud to friends. Others are so funny you will laugh to yourself. Read this book with a pen to underline all the good stuff. It will no doubt change your perspective.
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am 11. September 1998
Mr. Kunstler writes about the rise and fall (and glimmerings of a new rise) of our urban landscape. In beautiful prose he provides overviews of important American events (my husband loved his two page synopsis of World War II) to explain why our communities lack a sense of community, why houses,buildings and streets built before World War II are charming, and why those post-WWI are not and what some people are doing about it. Reading this book made a passionate New Urbanist out of me - I haven't felt this way about an issue since I picketed the draft board in the early 70's. Buy one copy for you and one for your friend who develops strip malls, 7-11's and Big Box stores. Up against the wall, bauhaus!
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am 14. September 1999
If you grew up in a suburban tract house, you may have hated it. I know *I* did. I wasn't sure why, I just knew that something was *wrong*, something was *missing*. This was truly one of the most important books I have read (and I read *a lot*) because it provided immediate insight into what really *is* all wrong with those tract houses and the "neighborhoods" where they stand. Granted, some may criticize Kunstler because he is not an architect or city planner. On the other hand, his outsider status gives him the insight to proclaim "The Emperor has no clothes!"
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am 19. März 1997
I am so glad I read this book. Kunstler has identified and explained why strip malls, cars, and vast paved areas can never compete with more traditional (i.e., high density) town design. Why are Paris and San Francisco, or even the traditional American small town, so much more appealing and human than where you live now? Because they are designed for people, based on well-understood, time-tested principles, instead of being designed for cars! This book explains things that have been nagging at us for years but have been hard to quantify or nail down
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