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The Geography of Nowhere

first posted: 2024-01-17 04:54:52.688809

Geography of Nowhere

In 1993, author James Kunstler published The geography of nowhere, a book about the decadence of modern city landscapes. A picture taken in a modern city shows dreadful buildings that lack personality and franchised stores that could be anywhere nationally.


Diagnosis of the failures of modern urbanism

While admittedly that there are countless ways to build something beautiful, his point is that modern cities are consistently avoiding them, and a consensus seems to have settled on building dreadful and dystopian places.

  • oversize roads are creating a hostile environment for pedestrians and fostering car dependence
  • huge parking lots are put in front of the stores create building islands
  • modern building lack style: using materials that do not age gracefully, and box shapes that are uninspiring
  • ornamentation is being disrespected and signals architectural anomie: he mentions seeing a gothic style shed made of plastic on a car parking, or the statue of a boy and dog urinating on a building's wall. These are supposedly fun, but showing a lack of respect for the traditions and the craft of building.

The book makes a compelling case that modern american cities built after ww2 are ugly. This contrasts with traditional architectures, which result in beautiful cities in Italy, UK, Germany despite having diversity. Movements, such as the City Beautiful promoted rules such as having public buildings and landmarks on prominent lots, and less ornamented private ones. This has worked wonders in every town in Europe, as well as in some beautiful american cities Washington.

The underlying reasons of the problem

Kunstler is not just another grumpy old man, longing for a future that be more like the past. He makes the valid point that new cities are subject to many more rules, and that creating and maintaining these rules to create a beautiful environment is difficult.

His point is that it is not just a result of cost-saving, one of the problem is a lack of good rules for every modern city urbanism departments: a building code produced in the 50s is widely available, it lays out the wrong rules, pushing for car dependence, and not promoting a city center that is walkable in most of America.

Kunstler is advocating for this rule book to be rewritten to instill a sense of purpose for american urbanism. He explains that the private sector would be more than happy to follow good rules. The need to change the rules needs to be acknowledged first.

Another angle: design patterns

This ties up with a 1977 book by architect Christopher Alexander. He suggested that traditional patterns go well together and show be reused within the same environment. You can get a beautiful medieval european city, or a beautiful traditional Japanese city, but it is best not to mix the styles too much.

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