America's Greatest Builder?

Critic Paul Goldberger suggests that New York planner Robert Moses may deserve another look at the "sheer scale of his achievements." Goldberger reviews the forthcoming book, "Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York".

"For a generation, the standard view of Robert Moses has been that he transformed New York but didn't really make it better. This view was shaped by Robert Caro's epic biography 'The Power Broker' -- published in 1974 and in print ever since."

..."Caro called Moses 'America's greatest builder,' and perhaps the most distinctive service of the exhibition is to bring home the sheer scale of his achievement to a new audience. There are models of many Moses projects and exceptionally elegant color photographs, by Andrew Moore, showing the current state of those projects. The photographs are so beautiful that they make you yearn for a time when enhancing the public realm was a serious calling."

..."Ballon and Kenneth Jackson, a prominent historian of New York based at Columbia, have put most of the visual material from the three exhibitions, along with several strong essays, into a forthcoming book, 'Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York' (Norton; $50). The title is an obvious retort to Caro's subtitle, 'Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,' and the book presents itself as a cautious corrective to Caro's view."

..."Even more significant, perhaps, than Moses's productivity is the fact that he was one of the first people to look at New York City not as an isolated urban zone but as the central element in a sprawling region. In the early nineteen-thirties, he would charter small planes and fly back and forth across the metropolitan area to get a better sense of regional patterns."

..."In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses's method of building by decree. It may not have been democratic, or even right. Still, somebody has to look at the big picture and make decisions for the greater good. Moses's problem was that he couldn't take his eye off the big picture. He was so in tune with New York's vastness that he had no patience for anything small within it."

Full Story: Eminent Dominion

Comments

Comments

Paul Goldberger

I always thought the New York Times Architectural Critic was an elitist, modernist, avant-guarde apologist. His comments mean nothing in the real world of planning and development.

He only adds more confusion to the REAL debate.

And by the way, he has never even practoced architecture. He is merely a Vincent Scully wannabe.

Saint Moses????

Why are so many critics, professors and curators set on whitewashing and deifying Robert Moses? All I have heard about Moses in the last month is what a wonderful person he was, how great his achievements were and how he was mistaken for so long. I've seen 2 of 3 three exhibits already and they completely talk up his projects, gloss over anything negative he did, and dismiss his critics. The Crosstown Manhattan Freeways... "oh we cant criticize Moses for those plans, it was a product of the times." B.S.

Is this nostalgia for anything of the mid-century modern era brought on by magazines like Dwell? Already contemporary architecture is a time warp back to the 1950s international style with just a green roof plopped on top. Now I see there is a push to take planning back to the urban renewal days.

Back to the 1950s

Goldberger seems to be living in the past.

The last article I saw by him was about Philip Johnson's glass house.

This article is about Robert Moses.

I expect his next article will say that he has "discovered a French architect with exciting new ideas about city planning: Le Corbusier."

Charles Siegel

The point to take from R.Moses

The point that modern development is horribly held up by planning procedures has some value. The dismissal of quite valid criticisms of Moses does not. However, it is not the huge projects ala Moses that cities need; they need more small projects from small developers. They need more renovation projects, not more massive projects to clear away useful structures - tossing away millions in amortized capital - and barfing up a new shopping center. But these small-scale projects become much less profitable in the face of year-long reviews and negotiations with the city and community, leaving only massive McDevelopments profitable to the private sector.

I have sort of gotten off point. I find Robert Moses horrifying; but I think many miss the days when things "got done" and didn't spend a year in committees being watered down. The solution, I think, is to find new methods to speed up development review and encourage small developers (e.g. form-based codes), not to install a new dictator or return to the days of huge expressways wiping out swaths of the city, pointless monuments, and isolating residential towers.

Modern development and economics

It would seem that the 'modern financial economy' is more suited to concentrating capital for large-scale projects than to evaluating the risks/benefits of encouraging smaller and more incremental developments. Then again, far more people have access to funds than at any time in the past....

Personally, I think that it is our obsession with a short-term planning horizon which feeds this problem. If a project does not pay for itself within 10 (or whatever) years, then it is not worth investing in. What happens after that time? The developers and investors have made their money, so who cares what happens to the project. If on the other hand, we consider a longer planning horizon - say 100 years - then the economics of an investment can look quite different.

Our tax system offers predominantly short-term investment incentives (to encourage more consumption and spending), while our banks will not give out a loan that will only be paid back in 100 years.... And everyone knows that "in the long run we're all dead"! How can this be changed? Flexible building codes might help, but it still takes money to build things (and people willing to assume the risks)....

Whether we like Moses' vision or not, at least he had one. And he found a way to implement it!

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