Online Edition: Spring 2002

The City in Mind by James Howard Kunstler

The City in Mind

Notes on the Urban Condition

James Howard Kunstler

The Free Press ($25)

by N. N. Hooker

It is doubtful Kunstler enjoys being lost in Tokyo or Mumbai. His aesthetic is Old European rationality. Kunstler is an entertaining and lucid historian who balances detail and the sweeping statement. He deftly relates how Louis-Napoleon and his architect Haussmann transformed a Medieval shanty town with no working sewers or clean water into the enduring glory of the Second Republic that millions of tourists still seek out--broad boulevards, intimate little parks, small rows of trees, ornament. Paris is the mix of commonsense, ingenuity and taste Kunstler believes will make future cities worth caring about.

Kunstler can be a surprising writer. He sets up the strange and horrible history of Mexico City by revisiting Julian Jaynes's provocative idea that the underdeveloped consciousness of the New World suffered a personality crisis when confronted by the Spaniard's more evolved sense of self. The collapse of an entire civilization reads like a cosmic nervous breakdown. Other surprises are less momentous, but equally compelling, such as a short history of air-conditioning and an attack on the open-space movement in Missoula, Montana.

The overall structure of the book swings between European and American cities. Throughout, the evils of urban life are the automobile, Modernism, and our hubristic denial of non-economic costs. Kunstler's disgust is one of his charms.

the system had clogged up like the porkfat-lined vascular system of a baby boom Bubba behind the wheel of his beloved suburban utility vehicle (SUV)

But the predictable glories of the past and obvious horrors of "Modernism" blur any momentous theme. The prose glows like neon, but what's inside? Kunstler asks "Can the Classical Rescue Us?" and answers Yes. "We don't have to reinvent the idea of beauty (or even Beauty), we just have to restore it to intellectual respectability." And "Necessity may prompt us to once again think of buildings as things that ought to last more than a couple generations, and therefore ought to be memorable because they are beautiful." It is odd that Kunstler succumbs to such romantic thinking. Elsewhere he clearly nails capitalism and architecture:

Up to this point, then, the cycle of putting up and casually tearing down relatively large buildings, after a short period of use, has been economically rational--consistent with a particular period of American economic history: the age of national economy as Ponzi scheme.

A Ponzi economy based upon cheap petroleum, real estate speculation, and a gullible/desperate public. But this scenario makes all-too-much sense. Wal-Mart is economically rational. Not seeing that American hell is the result of too much capitalist rationality leads Kunstler to some odd, untenable conclusions. Looking to Paris, he asks if it will take an autocrat to repair our cities, but what neighborhoods need is less top-down authority. Most oddly Kunstler imagines Boston, that most European of American cities, as the hope of the future. Yet, the Big Dig is essentially an investment in the automobile. Harvard Square has morphed into an outdoor shopping mall with landmarks like the Wursthaus and the Tasty diner becoming an Ambercrombie & Fitch. Kunstler needs to at least frame the big questions: how might the economy be revolutionized to support a more "humanist" aesthetic? Why do people enjoy repetitive experience? What drives our defiance of nature? What world will punish Burger King? To fall back on the laws of nature is to court the apocalypse. If anyone can construct some answers to the problems of capitalist architecture it will be a momentous achievement. And it won't look at all like Paris.

Click here to buy this book at Amazon.com

Spring 2002 Table of Contents