Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gehry the Dinosaur and Why Landscape Architects Make for Better Cities

The city is a social object that dialogues with a society not with specialists." Françoise Choay
Recently, I have had the Independent's interview of Frank Gehry sent to me several times, each with the attention grabbing headline of, "Gehry says Planning is Dead." OMG! When was the funeral.
Look, I went to city planning school at Harvard and I discovered that you never got to change a fucking thing or do anything. Urban planning is dead in the US."
For a while, I struggled with finding a suitable tone to take when discussing this, beyond "dumb dumb, poopy head." In what was somehow simply a throw away line, also happened to be one that was very telling into this man's worldview.

Frank, planning isn't dead. Your conception of it is.

Gehry is a child of a different generation. His formative years were spent in the same world that is now unwinding, a world of intentionally reduced complexity; of imagined control. Following the lead of industrialism and Le Corbusier's cheerleading of building as a machine, this idea was then projected more broadly, if to channel George Costanza, "why limit myself to a building if i can design an entire city."


Unfortunately, this mindset is that of an adolescent, Corbu, Gehry, and George Costanza. I bet you never thought you would see that comparison. The mega project is what is dead. What happened is that assembly line turned urban planning produced brittle monocultures that become diseased, whether they be plantings or cities.

Gehry is off his Atlantic Yards project. I see little hope in his Grand Avenue project in LA. I can see why he would be bitter. It isn't your fault, Frank. Those projects just happened five years too late or they would've been built.

Now, it is a wiki world, one that I think is a step in the right direction, where the citizenry molds their city with the guiding hands of planners and architects. The key is letting go of some control. The future of city development (in the near term anyway - and excluding any major public efforts like new highways (or removing them) or the various forms of public transit) will be more incremental. The role of urban designers will be to provide patterns consisting of the regularities of positive urban elements for smaller-scaled developments, to overcome thousands of years of collective amnesia.

In many ways, a building is like a cell in an organism. It has to provide shelter for its inner workings, so that the cell can, in turn, provide its function and participate in the overall whole. However, where architects get into trouble is projecting their field of study and sculpture citywide.

There is a time and a place for an iconic, sculptural element. But not everywhere.

This is where the background study of biology and ecology comes into play, where landscape architects are stronger and where economists are discovering gold. Nature still flies far more efficiently and produces stronger material in the digestion system of spiders than two hundred years of industrial process and innovation.

The 20th century was one defined by specialists. It is why Biomimicry is an emerging field of study, as well as any other that bridges the gap between two seemingly discriminate fields. Complexity and cross-pollination between fields will define the 21st century.

Landscape architects don't see the forest for the trees to use a cheap cliche; understanding that complexity produces values greater than the sum of the parts. Their background in biological sciences gives them, at the least, a more intuitive understanding of cities, and I would recommend to all architects and urban designers/planners to catch up on their reading.

Skylines are interesting but they are merely a postcard. Think of cities and the street level and you'll be on your way to a better city.