Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Reading Jane Jacobs

I'll confess I've never read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here are the thoughts of someone who has:

Like many people, I’d made plenty of assumptions based on second- or thirdhand readings. For instance, because Jacobs is repeatedly cited in Suburban Nation, the New Urbanist tract by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, I assumed that she would have been a willing accomplice to that movement. It seems logical that Jacobs—with her reputation for advocating “close-grained” detail and mixed use—would support the calibrated street life meted out by Duany and his ilk. But as I read Jacobs it became clear that she never intended her ideas to be applied to smaller suburban settlements. She was writing only about big cities, with all their native grit and mess. Moreover, she consistently ridiculed the Garden City movement of the nineteenth century, the clearest precursor to New Urbanism, attributing to it the notion of “harmony and order imposed and frozen by authoritarian planning.”

[. . .]

Like many absorbers (as opposed to readers) of Jacobs, I had long thought that she wanted cities to look and behave like her beloved little block on Hudson Street. And I’d always assumed the knee-jerk opposition to anything new that inevitably surfaces at community board meetings—along with the plague of “contextual” faux historical architecture—could somehow be traced to her town-house door. Now I don’t think so.

Yes, Jacobs was articulate about her contempt for Le Corbusier and his vision of the Radiant City, which, she wrote, “had a dazzling clarity, simplicity, and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement.” Her target, however, was not his architectural style per se but rather the idea that vast stretches of green space were automatically beneficial to urban life, that Corbu’s brand of reductive thinking could produce a genuinely urbane place. I was delighted to find that Jacobs didn’t have a problem with new construction or contemporary architecture as long as it was well integrated into the urban fabric. She praised the new office towers of Park Avenue, such as Lever House and the Seagram Building, calling them “masterpieces of modern design.”

[. . .]
The mistake made by Jacobs’s detractors and acolytes alike is to regard her as a champion of stasis—to believe she was advocating the world’s cities be built as simulacra of the West Village circa 1960. Admirers and opponents have routinely taken her arguments for complexity and turned them into formulas. But the book I just read was an inspiration to move forward without losing sight that cities are powerful, dynamic, ever-changing entities made up of myriad gestures big and small. The real notion is to build in a way that honors and nurtures complexity. And that’s an idea impossible to outgrow.

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