This series of essays by a practicing architect and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism illuminates the author's fierce determination to re-orient thinking about buildings and cities around human experience and a sense of place.
Solomon uses metaphors to crystallize fundamental concepts. For example, in Part I of the book, he covers local cultural practices ("Measure the Night with Bells"), local agriculture ("Peaches"), tenacious grass-roots advocates ("Alice"), and modernism itself ("The Monster"). As such, I found this book to be an excellent overview and vivid encapsulation of concepts I've read about in books such as Suburban Nation, The Wealth of Cities, City-Building in America, The Great Good Place, Geography of Nowhere, and Home from Nowhere. In addition, Solomon presents some insights I've never read described so well before, namely, insights about the crucial nature of the space between buildings and the connective urban fabric in which buildings sit.
Much of Solomon's writing centers around his personal reaction to the personalities, politics, ideas, and skullduggery that haunted 20th-century architecture. Solomon's deft tone crystalizes the many dilemmas architects face as students and later as practitioners. For example, he summarizes architectural education at Harvard in 1937 under Walter Gropius: "his students had only to learn to draw or model widely spaced white boxes [and] carefully not learn anything about architectural history..." (p. 55). Solomon personifies the challenges facing practicing architects in terms of a "Tribunal of Grand Inquisitors" who obsess about marketing, code enforcement, and misguided cost control (p. 116).
But Solomon shines not just in confronting ideas, but in providing specifics, like this checklist for keeping buildings and towns vital (pp. 193-194):
- Windows that open
- Glass you can see through
- Daylight that is nuanced and related to weather
- Floor plans that don't bury people in the middle of a flourescent-lit maze that smells of carpet glue
- Places to walk
- Encounters with others, particularly others who are different or not totally predictable
- Real air
- Materials that feel the way the look and are assembled the way they look like they are assembled
- Knowledge of what town you're in and where you are in town
- The sight of farms and wilderness now and then
Solomon seems flummoxed by those who just don't get it [New Urbanism] or who still seem hypnotized by sprawl or take part anything to do with "the [evil] monster [of modernism]" (p. 25). It may be that he has absorbed and lived his craft so thoroughly that conceiving of how to think otherwise is impossible. Thus, landscapes outside of his identity and social context (he is academic, urban, professional, West Coast) are unworthy of revealing anything about what people want or how they adapt to lanscapes (similar to Bettina Drew denigrating the American Midwest in Crossing the Expendable Landscape).
The rhetoric of New Urbanism can sound like an ideology every bit as smug and dogmatic as the old moderns', but Solomon sometimes evades this trap when he gets down to specifics. He describes Addison Circle and other projects in Plano, Texas (of all places, he tartly observes) that are not theoretical, but actual, operating places that reflect well on urbanism and earn his accolade: "satisfying in many of the same ways as the historic centers of European towns" (p. 232). More examples like these would be more convincing than any amount of rhetoric.
Solomon's discussion seems most powerful when he connects specific building plans to human needs. He describes participation of "a contingent of public housing tenants" (p. 218) who provided vigorous critiques of a Housing and Urban Development project, showing evidence of designers interacting with users who have specific needs and concerns, a crucial step in making things that work for people. By thus focusing on people, New Urbanism joins a stream of thinking in user-oriented design which has informed and improved practices in other areas like industrial design, technical communication, and graphical user interface design.
Perhaps New Urbanism could further examine and listen--without smugness or eyeball-rolling dismissal--to what people and businesses see in landscapes that are antithetical to and even outside the social context of New Urbanism practitioners and enthusiasts. Why do people live in edge cities? Why do people sometimes prefer "fake" cities, suburbs, exburbs instead of neighborhoods? What troubles people about current urban neighborhoods and frightens them so much they don't want to consider them? I don't believe all this human experience can be dismissed as part of an unspeakable conspiracy of "evil" (p. 25) that cannot be contemplated.
As Solomon and others have so bitterly observed, the moderns were so sure they were right they steadfastly ignored the failure of their products for decades, even unto death. Getting involved with users of cities and buildings--and genuinely listening in a non-judgemental way--earlier in the process seems like it would have been a good idea. Perhaps the moderns might have rediscovered human needs and could have re-oriented their work along timeless ways of building.