Like Jane never happened

As part of the research I’m doing for The City, I recently picked up the catalogue for the Van Alen Institute’s 2005 show “Open: New Designs for Public Space.”

It’s a pretty enough catalogue, dense with what certainly look like thoughtful essays from folks like Deyan Sudjic and Enrique Peñalosa. It came in the mail, I added it to the pile of research materials that’s threatening to eat the living room, and thought no more about it until last night, which is when I pulled it off the pile and started to leaf through it.

I have to admit to being a little shocked at what I find on page 74: a case study devoted to Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. No matter what direction I come at it from, I’m just not able to conceive of this museum as in any way meeting a reasonable definition of “public space.” It’s a heavily branded private collection to which you must purchase admission, located on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper devoted to the greater glory of Mori Building: you tell me where the “public” is in any of that.

What’s truly astonishing to me is the following paragraph:

Since Le Corbusier first wrote about the “vertical city” in 1931, architects have increasingly striven to push the limits, with all facets of life city from business to pleasure located high above ground: a “city within a city.” The Mori Art Museum and viewing terraces…activate the tower long after the offices have closed and provide Tokyo with a major contemporary art institution, a unique destination and spectacular lookout point.

No acknowledgment here that every notion bound up in Corbusian city planning has been but-thoroughly discredited in the, let’s see, eighty-five years that have passed since Vers une architecture. (Actually, “discredited” doesn’t quite convey the state of affairs properly. “Smashed”? “Shattered”?) No acknowledgment that “city in a city” is a profoundly antiurban stance, one that has been demolished theoretically – most obviously in The Death and Life of Great American Cities – as well as literally, time and time again over the last half-century. Half-century! It’s not as though this is breaking news.

Mr. Mori is known to be a Corb fan, however, and since he’s the one writing the checks, I guess the copywriters and PR folks working on his behalf are bound to repeat the great man’s assertions, however thoroughly debunked they’ve been otherwise. It’s not a job I’d want to have, that’s for sure.

The sad part is the shadow of dubiousness these two pages now cast on the entire volume. I’m going to take each essay on its own merits, of course, and otherwise mine the book for whatever inspiration I can find in it, but I must say Mori’s inclusion has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Fortunately, a new broom has swept through the Van Alen since “Open,” and I have no intention of taking the current management to task over two pages of a catalogue three years old. But the point stands as a more general warning, even if it seems founded on the worst sort of nitpicking: I cannot overemphasize the damage an institution’s credibility suffers in my eyes when it blithely reproduces braindead PR flackery like the above.

2 responses to “Like Jane never happened”

  1. Abe Burmeister says :

    Jacobs strongest arguments really are about Le Corbs, parks and highways that isolate the towers, no? Her case against high rise always seemed like her weak link. There are plenty of reasons the 5-6 story limits she advocates make for great neighborhoods, but it directly conflicts with her much bigger idea, that the city is a vibrant ever evolving space.

    When a city grows there are few options, grow upward, sprawl out or kill growth. Urban sprawl can work, the outer boroughs work, and London works. But there are limits and the dense points of convergence still remain the most vibrant. Which makes a vertical city pretty much an inevitability. The challenge is how to make it work. Jacobs punted on that challenge and Le Corb just can’t be trusted in my book.

    I have no doubts that Mori probably failed in his attempt, but there really is no option to say that a vertical city is discredited. It’s here now and it’s almost certainly growing rapidly. It just lacks it’s own Jacobs and William H Whytes…

  2. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Corb can’t be trusted? I don’t think he ever wanted to be trusted. Sure, there are plenty of urban design schemes that may have been influenced by Corb, but his urban design schemes were often limited to the pages of L’Esprit Nouveau or Urbanisme. The whole park/highway system is much more an output of C.I.A.M./G.A.T.E.P.A.C.-type functionalist planning. And there are some places where the tower/greenbelt/highway stratification actually worked. The example I am thinking of at the moment is Berlin’s Hansaviertel for the 1957 Interbau competition. Situated next to the Tiergarten, the scheme features buildings by Alvar Aalto, Oscar Niemeyer, Walter Gropius, Arne Jacobsen, and others.

    On the other hand, La Defense and the LCC’s Plan for London are as abominable as Corb’s Ville Radieuse, Plan Voisin, or Plan Obus … but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize these later projects as Corbusian or Corbusoid.

    In fact, I would say that many of the more hated modernist planning schemes are not Corb-influenced as they are derivative of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s ideas. Look at Hilberseimer’s and Mies’ Lafayette Park development as an example of the tower-and-garden approach gone (almost) horribly wrong.

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