09/03/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Coherent Metropolis? More in Response to the Book Urban Design

In the three articles I have written for Huff Post in response to the book Urban Design what I have been arguing against is not the need to plan cities, nor the importance of good urban architecture, but the notion that the city not only can be "designed," but also that it needs to be designed to attain coherency. By "designed" I mean in this context what José Luis Sert, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, meant in 1956 at the first Urban Design conference when he spoke of Urban Design as "the most creative phase of city planning," where "imagination and artistic capacities can play a more important part," for the purpose of creating cities with "greater harmony, greater unity of scale, a greater continuity of spirit."

Sert was saying that we would need this harmonizing creativity to create urban utopias; my argument is that this is not how great cities come to be or how they flourish.

Which brings me to two paragraphs in the book in which the issues are crystallized. The two paragraphs were written by Richard Sommer in an essay entitled "Beyond Centers, Fabrics, and Cultures of Congestion: Urban Design as a Metropolitan Enterprise." Sommer's essay is the most spirited defense in Urban Design of the classic (1950s) notion that Urban Design is what's needed to create a coherent city; this should not be surprising given that when Sommer wrote the essay he was the director of the Master of Architecture in Urban Design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. (He has gone on to become dean of the school of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.)

The two paragraphs (which are on pages 145-46 of Urban Design) appear in a section of Sommer's essay where he considers the impact of Colin Rowe and the "Cornell School" on Urban Design. Sommer focuses on the impact of Collage City, a book Rowe co-authored with Fred Koetter, in which they, broadly speaking, argue for a more incremental and context- and content-based urbanism as an alternative to the design-oriented convulsiveness of Modernist urbanism.

While giving Rowe (and others) credit for leading the way to a more nuanced architecture than that allowed for by Modernism, Sommer in the first of these two paragraphs argues that Rowe's work justified a "retreat from any effort to design the metropolis as anything but a series of loosely related parts", which in turn justified "the liberal city of real-estate speculation and competing political interests."

My comment in response is that it is hard to fathom how Rowe can be criticized for recognizing something real: how many metropolises are or could become something other than series of loosely related parts? In particular, should Rowe be criticized for identifying a reality if that identification results in the recognizing ("justifying" is Sommer's ideological spin) of another reality: that cities are shaped by real-estate speculation and politics?

In the second paragraph Sommer extends his argument by saying that Rowe's "great rhetorical sleight of hand" convinced "talented young architects that the problem of the modern city could be reduced to the reversal of figure and ground in Le Corbusier's urbanism" and that "'Modernism' (i.e., Le Corbusier) was responsible for ruining the postwar city." (For those not familiar with the concepts of figure and ground, what Sommer is saying is that Rowe argued that the Modernism of Le Corbusier inverted the proper urban relationship between buildings ("figure") and streets and other non-built upon spaces ("ground"), and however sophisticated Rowe's arguments were, "talented young architects" used the building/street relationship as a lowest common denominator in their attack on Modernism.)

Sommer follows this with two sentences that are breathtaking in how (i) one of them is so false that you have to wonder about Sommer's credibility as an observer, and (ii) the other is so true that it restores Sommer's bona fides at the same time that it invalidates the Urban Design project.

In the false sentence, Sommer says that the urbanism of Le Corbusier (by which he means Modernism) was limited in the U.S. to "a few urban renewal projects--some civic spaces but mainly public housing." It's hard to believe that an urbanist could make this statement. The impact of Modernist urbanism is pervasive -- from glass and steel office and apartment towers (public and private) in the city, to expressways slicing through and around city cores, to towers in office "parks," to the omnipresent hierarchy of one-dimensional streets and highways from expressways down to the cul-de-sac.

Yet in the true sentence, which follows immediately after the false one, Sommer describes the fundamental truth about Urban Design: that it has been irrelevant on any scale other than the local. He states in the sentence that the belief that Modernist urbanism, the Ur-text of Urban Design, ruined the city was "an almost total misreading of the material history of urbanization in the United States, in which suburbanization, industrial disinvestment, racial segregation, and the popularity of the automobile played infinitely more decisive roles in the dissolution of centralized cities than Corbusian aesthetics."

Precisely. This sentence is the truest in the whole book Urban Design, and could be the truest of many other books about urbanism. One could substitute for the words "Corbusian aesthetics" any form or program of what might be called "Urban Design," adjust for different non-design factors, and the sentence would still be 100% correct, for the past and for the future.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.