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Le Corbusier's Revenge
Brutalism in London. Photo by ben patio.

Brutalism in London. Photo by ben patio.

Conventional wisdom on urban history states a few things exceedingly clearly. Perhaps the most axiomatic belief about cities is that brutalist architecture is not only ugly but thoroughly destructive. Boston’s City Hall Plaza is perhaps the most loathed example in the United States, though there are plenty of hated Brutalist buildings right here in D.C. Besides calling Brutalism ugly, I think that the most common complaint about it is that it is inhuman.

That’s why I had so much fun reading this somewhat inscrutable, a bit crazy but possibly brilliant piece by Owen Hatherley. It argues that Brutalism is in fact the most pedestrian-friendly architectural movement there is. He writes:

“the car is no longer ‘progressive’. In any sensible society it would be all but obsolete, a privatised mode of motion which not only carries rates of death in its wake that would never be accepted on any other kind of transport, but which carries in its train a landscape of endless sheds, retail parks and malls which, for all its cold fascination, is not one which even its defenders can be bothered to make a serious case for.

Brutalism’s most retrograde element, its attempt to ‘recreate’ a city for the pedestrian, must now strike us as its most progressive aspect – especially as it is precisely in these pedestrian spaces that Brutalism created a genuinely new space, a new way of moving around the city. Rather than the idealised main street bafflingly turned into a model for all to follow (see this atrocity for a case in point), the Brutalist city of skywalks, under and overpasses and lakeside cafes makes the mundane act of getting from A to B exciting.”

It’s an argument that might just be crazy enough to be right.

Pedestrian space on the Brutalist Royal National Theater in London. Photo by bbodien.
Pedestrian space on the Brutalist Royal National Theater in London. Photo by bbodien.

At nearly the same time, I read this piece in the Financial Times by their architecture critic, Edwin Heathcote. Working off the thought of the Situationist Guy Debord, he argues that contemporary urban space is defined by rigidly controlled commercial space, not unpredictable public space. Heathcote writes, “But what if, rather than easily measured profits, chance meetings, conversations, coincidence, offers of help and civility, the considerate negotiation of crowds, flirting, greetings, games of hopscotch, football, chess and tag could be counted?” and more interestingly, “The architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas once said that shopping was the last civic activity left in the west, but he was just being provocative. Wasn’t he?”

At the center of Berlin, Potsdamer Plotzs private mall. Photo by Dalbera.
At the center of Berlin, Potsdamer Plotz’s private mall. Photo by Dalbera.

The juxtaposition reveals something connected about the two (and by the way, you must read the whole things). Both still believe that architecture can successfully create public life. If you build a walkway, pedestrians will use it. If you build a plaza, crowds will flirt. While Heathcote might protest that the Brutalists were too enamored with modernist vision of control, while he supports the unpredictability of urbanism, both his goal—public life—and his mechanism to achieve it—unprogrammed public space—are the same.

In their heterodoxy, these two articles are surprising. But in their presence, they are not. They are obvious responses to the current vogue in planning: New Urbanism, just-plain urbanism, traditional neighborhood design and all the related movements calling for human-scale, street-level, privatized space ( I’ll sloppily call these all New Urbanism for the time being, though it’s in many ways an unfair slur). When all the best planning of today calls for walking along a fine-grained, mixed-use street, there will be a call for a return to monumentality, to grand public spaces and futurist plans. When all the best planning calls for ever more private control of space, there will be a call for a return to parks and plazas. These responses are wrong, of course. It’s not a theoretical question. We have tried these before; they failed. What each piece does, though, is reveal a paradox that underlies and destabilizes New Urbanist thought.

Hatherley’s claim that Brutalism is the most pedestrian-friendly architecture isn’t empirically true; Brutalism is unpleasant for most pedestrians. This is exacerbated by the movement’s coinciding temporally with an auto-friendly age in terms of planning that conflicted with pro-pedestrian architecture and by the style’s easy lapse into an architecture not of progressivism but of strict social control, which perhaps starts to exonerate the architects themselves. Even so, it is strange, to say the least, that pedestrians are best served by being next to cars. Elevated walkways may not be the answer, but as sustainable transportation advocates push more and more for car-free streets, we turn back to Le Corbusier’s belief that the automobile and the pedestrian must be kept apart. Given that most buildings will still need automobile access—though that might just be for emergencies, deliveries, taxis and carshares—you can imagine a world in which we return to a newer version of elevated walkways due to a movement made explicitly in opposition to Corbusier, Brutalism and the like. A Radburn-type plan, with an entire network of streets behind buildings and another entire network of car-free spaces in front of them, connected by underpasses, seems like it would be very much supported by sustainable transportation types, even as it is a central example of what the New Urbanist city is supposed to reject. This exposes the paradox of making spaces that are not for pedestrians—streets—the centerpoint for pedestrian life.

The Radburn Plan with its separated pedestrian and automotive paths.
The Radburn Plan with its separated pedestrian and automotive paths.

Similarly, Heathcote’s argument reveals the paradox of the public in New Urbanist thought. New Urbanism claims, as part of even its shortest mission statement, to be providing “leadership in community building.” The reconstitution of a public sphere is critically important for everyone working towards traditional neighborhoods; sprawl is consistently (and correctly) accused of isolating and atomizing households. However, the solution is nearly always to increase private control of space. Sometimes this happens at the corporate level. Many of the more suburban New Urbanist developments are entirely privately governed. But even the most laudable New Urbanist projects involve the privatization of space. At the Diggs Town housing project in Norfolk, Virginia, New Urbanist architect Raymond Gindroz took communal lawns and put porches and fences in, turning the lawn into individually controlled yards. Creating this defensible space helped create the safety necessary for community. However, the Disneyfication of our urban spaces is a real problem; Heathcote isn’t wrong to attack the fact that corporations control an inordinate amount of how we experience urban space. The paradox here is that to support the public sphere, we must remove public control, with an additional layer of difficulty in that once ceded, the private sector does not easily give public space back.

These paradoxes help me to understand what the planners of the 50’s through 70’s were trying for. Without the historical examples of those periods, if you wanted to create pedestrian environments and promote the public sphere, you too would separate pedestrians from cars and give chunks of land to purely public use. These ideas are even encoded deep within the responses to the planning failures of those decades, because they make a certain kind of sense. We only reject them because we have seen them fail. These paradoxes also serve as a critical reminder that urbanism must remain rooted in empirics rather than ideology. Our current ideology is in the end an incoherent mish-mash, supporting that which it rejects. That’s OK; it helps us muddle towards good projects and good policies. It just means that today’s manifestos should be read very, very skeptically. It sometimes takes a blast from the past—someone supporting Brutalism!—to remind us of that.

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  • Noah Kazis

    Lisa and Kaid, I just don’t agree with you. In many places and in many older suburbs particularly, the developer built some houses, sold them to individuals, and was gone. Where I grew up in the suburbs, I wouldn’t have even known what a covenant was. There is a model of private development where the developer builds the house and then gets out. Control over your individual lot remains private, but the entire public sphere, whether infrastructure, open space, or the relationships between buildings, is purely public. You’re entirely correct that NU isn’t unique in accepting the paradigm of private control–I think that PCC’s comments are spot on–but it is complicit in that paradigm while uniquely using a rhetoric that uniquely embraces the notion of the public. It’s rather uninteresting to point out that many conventional subdivisions are entirely privately controlled; that New Urbanists are exceedingly willing to participate in that system is much more revelatory.

  • Pingback: Privatization is not NU « west north()

  • Lisa is right. Private developments of all sorts take one kind of private space and convert it into another. In Kentlands, it was Kent Farm before it was bought and developed into Kentlands. The new development has probably been subject to more public regulation and certainly has more public access than the old property. That doesn’t meet anyone’s definition of “privatizing.” To the extent you have a legitimate gripe, it is with all land that is privately developed, not with NUist projects in particular.

  • Le Courvoisier

    Owen Hatherley is right,

    It’s a question of circumstances. But in hindsight, there has been no recipe that’s succeeded EVER. If there was, we’d still be at it. I guarantee that we’ll be adding New Urbanism to the list of experiments that failed. In the end it leads to dense townhouse communities in the sprawl. It’s like the auto suburb but without the lawn and while continuing the trend toward ever-greater privatization. Downtowns as uncovered malls.

  • PCC

    Noah and other critics conflate New Urbanism with the broader but contemporaneous neoliberal trend towards privatizing space. This is perhaps understandable, but neoliberalism well predates New Urbanism by many years. The plazas or lawns surrounding Modernist office buildings, the golf courses and greenways that wrap around Houston tract houses or Arizona retirement homes, the atria of 1980s shopping malls — none of these are New Urbanist in any way, and all arguably predated New Urbanism, but all involve private governance of what would otherwise be public space.

    Diggs Town is a curious example. I don’t know the specifics there, but here in Chicago, the public sector had more or less abdicated control over the common spaces within and around the buildings. Without any clear understanding of who was in charge of these spaces, they fell into deep neglect, with dire consequences. Redevelopment of these sites places a clearer boundary around such spaces, either enclosing them into the private realm of yards or creating actual parks. I’m not sure how that “privatizes governance that was not previously private” so much as assigns governance over that which was previously ungoverned.

    The false notion that New Urbanist subdivisions have stricter or more nefarious homeowner covenants than conventional suburban subdivisions is an unfortunate result of Celebration — which, I might point out, has CC&Rs that are in many ways less strict than many comparable Florida golf-course PUDs.

  • Lisa Bell

    Noah, you seem to be confusing the term New Urbanism with the term Home Owner Association (HOA). HOA’s (and Condominium Associations) maintain the open spaces within their master planned communities (MPC). These are maintenance issues, not exclusivity issues. Therefore, NU is no worse than any other MPC in this respect as grass must be cut and equipment must be cared for. But NU greenfield projects like Kentlands are not gated and anyone, resident or otherwise if free to use the open spaces. In fact, NU does better than suburban subdivisions as many of these projects deed some land to municipalities to be used as public parks (see Lakelands Regional Park next to Kentlands), it is owned and maintained by the City of Gaithersburg. In fact, read Andrew Miller’s work Valuing Parks. Much of his work and others surveys public parks inside New Urbanist communities.
    In terms of infill, you are quite incorrect. Fountains, plazas, squares, and other open spaces – new or revitalized – under NU schemes are all public spaces.
    Your issue is not with New Urbanism but with HOAs and COAs. Quite the opposite, NU seems to resolve the privatization issue you have because these are places everyone is allowed to enjoy.

  • Noah Kazis

    It privatizes governance that was not previously private. So that might be the fences put in at Diggs Town, privatizing lawns. It might be some of the stricter covenants you have to sign about what you can and can’t do with your house. It’s Boards of Trustees gaining power over town councils. The land might be publicly accessible, but it isn’t controlled by mechanisms in the public sphere but rather the private sphere.

  • Noah, are you saying that new urbanism privatizes space that was previously publicly owned? I’m not aware of that. What I think those projects are doing is taking privately owned space and maintaining it in private ownership, while converting parts of it into publicly accessible areas. That’s exactly what has happened in Kentlands. Where’s the beef?

  • Brutalism and the American auto suburb are alike: They were both glorious experiments meant to improve humanity, and they both failed miserably.

    I don’t think it can be denied that the brutalists and the suburbanites had good intentions. I wonder what the more famous among them would think today, given all the proof that their experiments were failures. I have to think that Corbusier, who was a genius, would think differently about cities had he lived today.

  • Thanks for the link and the interesting post…can’t resist responding.

    The problem as I see it is that all ‘build it and they will come’ public spaces hinge very much on the area, the particular uses of space in that area, and frequently their place in the urban pecking order. So, if you want to see Brutalist pedestrian spaces that are as popular as any Renaissance piazza, go to the South Bank of the Thames, where the windswept plazas and inhumane walkways of the Hayward Gallery, National Theatre etc are perhaps the most popular pedestrian spaces in the capital, both for tourists and, unusually, for Londoers. Meanwhile, on the edge of the city in Thamesmead, the same architects used many of the exact same spatial ideas in social housing to far more bleak effect. For almost clunkily obvious reasons, one works and one doesn’t, and it has very little to do with concrete or whether the architecture is ‘unwelcoming’. You can say that if it works it is ‘despite’ rather than because of the architecture, but I could say the same about any more classical space that is actually used by pedestrians.

    By the way, my target in the original post was only partly the New Urbanism – apart from Poundbury, even by NU standards an astoundingly conservative place, we don’t have many examples of it. I was attacking more the idea of ‘Urban Renaissance’ that has been very popular in gentrifying British cities, especially via the Urban Task Force, Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers – obviously more modernist figures than James Howard Kunstler or Leon Krier. The eventual upshot of it was lots of piazzas with attendant coffee emporia, some of which were popular, some not, but all of which were lacking in terms of architectural excitement – a rather underrated factor nowadays except in terms of showy signature one-off buildings.

    Finally, on Brutalism…I suspect it is a very different beast on each side of the Atlantic, and I was very much arguing in favour of the (fairly anti-Corbusian) Brutalist planning of Alison and Peter Smithson, rather than, say, that of Paul Rudolph or Boston City Hall. Modernism is a very broad church, and so was Brutalism, and the pedestrian spaces it created can, at least in London, be found working very well in some cases, appallingly badly in others. There was certainly a determinism there, but to call it ‘totalitarian’ is deeply silly.

  • Noah Kazis

    Kaid, I think that it is fair to say that New Urbanism privatizes space. Kentlands has lots of open and communal space, but it isn’t public. The land is owned and controlled by the developers. The first citizen (rather than developer) to serve on the Board of Trustees was only elected in 1992. It’s not Celebration (but what is?), but like nearly all NU developments I can think of, control of space isn’t ceded to the public sphere. This often works well, but it is an important difference.

    On the Brutalism and pedestrians claim, I agree, they don’t go together. But it is fascinating that Brutalism so badly wants to welcome pedestrians.

  • This is certainly a very provocative post, but I’m not sure that it is fair to equate new urbanism with privatization of public space. The creation of pedestrian-oriented public space is one of the movement’s key tenets, embedded in the Charter of the New Urbanism. Many new urbanist HOPE VI projects, for example, have great public spaces (see Seattle’s High Point). Kentlands, although at the other end of the market, has lots of public space. I think there are many fair criticisms of new urbanism (notably an indifference to the claiming of greenfields for suburban expansion), but this isn’t one of them.

    Meanwhile, the claim that brutalism is good for pedestrians and public life (which I realize is not your own) is patently ridiculous. Life around the FBI building exists in spite of its unwelcoming architecture, not because of it. Walk through the UDC complex sometime when school is not in session. Compare both to almost any city neighborhood. I do think suburban shopping malls create a sort of auto-dependent public space, but I don’t equate many of them with brutalism. They are sort of a different (and dying) breed.

    Now your point about monumental architecture and small-scaled architecture being reactive to each other may be valid. I don’t have anything against monumental buildings and, in fact, I suspect we may need some of them – National Cathedral, Union Station, and the National Building Museum are all monumental, but they are also among my favorite spaces in the city. The Lincoln Memorial isn’t too bad, either. So it’s certainly true that new urbanism doesn’t have all the answers. But it has some of them, including a worthy template for creating pedestrian-friendly public spaces.

  • Thank you. As many lessons, good and bad, that we may still be able to learn from brutalism, and however remedial the new urbanists may have been to these totalitarian mid-20th century projects, I still find something problematic and unsettling about the totalizing nature of private spaces and whole-cloth architecture in many NU developments.

    As insistently as NU practitioners argue that “The Truman Show” was entirely a media critique and nothing but, there’s something to be said for the fact that the director and set designer chose Seaside as a backdrop for a story about Disneyfication borne out to a surreal degree.