Modernism: A Step Towards Enlightenment?

The events of September 11th have served as a vehicle to attack skyscrapers, urbanism and development in general. Yet, does 9/11 really change anything about planning?
February 11, 2002, 12am PST | Christian Schock, AICP
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Christian D. SchockA Chinese proverb notes that to forget one's past is to be a brook without a stream or a tree without a root. Unfortunately, some have utilized the World Trade Center disaster as a vehicle for their own pet causes: attacking skyscrapers, urbanism, transit, modernism and development in general. While the destruction of the WTC had nothing to do with planning or architecture, we have resorted to declaring an "end" to everything from urban density to modernist design. While we must acknowledge the misgivings of modernist structures and those of the WTC, it is important that we also realize that modernism is part of our roots and an evolution of our field. It is inappropriate to ridicule development schemes and planning proposals of the past under the guise of our newfound enlightenment. Hindsight is always 20-20 and the modernist focus on personal automobiles, elevated separations and lack of streetscape was, by all accounts, a mistake when viewed in the current context. Yet this context and knowledge base is only potent because of the modernism experiment, which challenged the profession and sparked the debate.

The skyscraper is an American architectural icon; one that inspires hope, energizes people with a sense of accomplishment and symbolizes the freedom and power of our civilization. Architecture must remain a vehicle of hope and not of fear, we should never mandate cities or buildings to be terror proof nor should we ever accept that we have to. While we chide the WTC for its poor planning and integration, there are also good examples, such as the Seagram Building -- made famous from William Whyte's time-lapse movies -- of modernist design that is pedestrian friendly and "successful." The role of planning following the attacks should not be one of defensive and argumentative commentaries, but rather the engaging of the neighborhood to build upon the successes of the WTC and incorporate new improvements.

Perhaps Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's remarks to the Fall Meeting of the Urban Land Institute said it best when he noted that while many say that the world has changed following September 11, 2001 he felt that "...we must not give in. We must learn not to say 'oh my God, what happened' nothing happened...September 11th doesn't change a civilization and we are a civilization."

It will be a sad day when bold thinking is only answered with ridicule and pessimism. The courage shown in grand plans and schemes, must be applauded and appreciated. While we should vigilantly try to mitigate future problems and negative externalities, we will not be able to gage every factor of future development needs or wants. It is in the discourse and debate of those grand visions that the profession has truly matured. Robert Moses' parkways and public housing projects sparked Jacobs' and Mumford's scathing critiques. Olmsted's and Howard's suburban style developments seemed a perfect answer to the urban blight they faced, yet today seem sterile. John Portman's infamous Renaissance Center in Detroit (the original version, GM has improved many of the problems) is the epitome of bad planning. It is literally walled off from the city with huge poured concrete turrets, elevated plazas and lacks even a semblance of place. But it does eloquently show the sentiment of architecture, and indeed of our society, to the fear of cities in the early 1970's. The castle-like structure encapsulates the compelling sentiments of his time; whether it is good design or bad, it is a testament to that time in the city's history.

All under the banner of progress, these pioneers contributed to the built environment, but a marvel of one generation may be the scorn of another. Architecture and planning are fickle professions hopping from one trendy "ism" to another like Madison Avenue executives. Someday, planners and architects will laugh at the faddish and provincial current sacred cow called "new urbanism" when they have devised a new, more enlightened understanding of development. While we have now a better understanding of people's interaction with space, community involvement techniques and the art of planning as a tool- this did not happen overnight nor could it have happened had it not been for the reaction and response of people to the "old" ways.

We should never rest to improve those projects, spaces and plans that have failed to serve the public but we must also tame our arrogance to assume that what we propose today will not cause the same or another negative effect tomorrow. We carelessly chide the World Trade Center as a teenager pokes fun at their frumpy parents who are simply not "hip" or "with it." We must remember that the vision of those before us was the energy for our activism. Our vision of the world will thus also be a call to future generations to again change the development paradigm, push the envelope, and continue the evolution of architecture and planning along the way to enlightenment.

Christian Schock is a native of Cleveland views the world with hopeless rustbelt optimism. An avid student of urban economics and a professional planner for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, an international associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute, an associate member of the American Institute of Architects and a member of the Urban Land Institute. He holds a bachelors and masters in urban and regional planning from the University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning.


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