Utopia just isn't what it used to be
In a continuing, thoughtful analysis on community planning, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan wrote a couple of weeks ago in Gizmodo about Celebration, Florida:
From a planning perspective, New Urbanism and Celebration appealed to something pretty simple: Common sense. But it was interpreted by many as deeply artificial—partially thanks to the fact that planned communities smack of socioeconomic segregation.
But Celebration's attention to detail, in the eyes of many, came off simply as over-engineering. Architects spurned its "style book" of homes—Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival—while urban advocates criticized its lack of "authenticity." Bierut himself has a fascinating defense of the town, though, and one that rings true more than ten years after he made it:
But authenticity is a slippery thing. I live in a 1909 house that the realtor said was Victorian but I'd more accurately call Craftsman Style. Far from "authentic," to me it looks like it was built by someone who had seen some pictures of Greene and Greene houses and thought one might look good in Westchester County. It's surrounded by equally inauthentic hundred-year-old houses, all of which look swell today because they're so old. New Urbanists often say that nostalgia is the Trojan Horse in which they deliver their radical planning ideas: small lots, mixed use, limited parking. Jacque Robertson once said in Celebration's early days, "This will look great when all these trees grow in." I suspect he's right.
If it had been built just a few decades before, the artificiality might have played differently. In reality, Celebration's synthetic architecture was no different than any of the other millions of McMansions popping up across the country.
The article reminded me of something I'd read earlier, regarding some wealthy individuals and their corporate interests in planning a new, planned community wrestling with socioeconomic segregation:
...it's an experiment in planning, one grounded in idealistic thinking.
...the plan, particularly at the regional scale, must develop in accordance with the realities of the people and related issues of economy, environment and culture. It is in this adapting to the circumstances that the importance of the larger landscape and regional networks becomes even more intriguing.
...to understand the idea without fully understanding the scale of the project is reductionist at best, futile at worst.
I've seen the place they're referring to, and it's also rife with historicist architecture and artificiality. The town plan is based on principles from Roman town planning (are we Rome?) and is littered with imported architecture and buildings that surely won't stand the test of time.
Oh wait - that's actually Savannah, GA, and the utopian Oglethorpe plan that created it in 1733. Here's a link for more.
There's nothing easier in the world of journalism and especially design journalism than taking a shot at Disney and Celebration. I mean, it's DISNEY after all - everything they do is a stage set and fake, right? And for fun, it's even easier to take shots at people who honestly are trying to make the world a better place and solve contemporary problems.
Celebration is not perfect and has flaws! Huzzah! What an amazing revelation!
Instead of a thoughtful review and analysis that could suggest a way forward, how to make it better, how to take a "common sense" idea (that wasn't so common in the 80's and 90's) and scale it to other places, we get snark. It's not "authentic," whatever that means this week, or it's "creepy" or "Stepford-esque."
Maybe, just maybe there's something else at work here. Maybe a bunch of architects or designers (could it be?) love to take shots at something they couldn't pull off themselves. Maybe some people don't have ideas of their own, so they love to tear down others.
In actuality, it's not that architects and designers dislike utopia. Ever heard of Brasilia, Brazil or Chandigarh, India or Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City? All were utopian ideas, it's just that they were championed by architects who were "daring" or "modern" so those attempts get a free pass by way too many architects. The latter was never really built, though one could argue it was a prime influence on suburban sprawl in America.
Do we really have suspicions of planned communities? Millions of people live in planned communities, and many of those were very idealistic in nature to begin with. The very nature of planning something ahead of time means a person or people have given a great deal of thought as to a good way to live. Are we now fetishizing not doing any planning at all?
Here's an uncomfortable reality: new construction is expensive. Therefore, those who can afford new construction by nature have more money than the average person or lower-income person. Any new place will then reflect the demographics of who is wealthier in a society.
Over time, that changes. Buildings get old and go out of fashion. Places diversify and accommodate a much broader range of people than when they were first built. That's the study of, well, most everywhere.
Time and people ultimately change every plan and original intentions. But does that mean that somehow by extension we shouldn't have plans, shouldn't have ideals, shouldn't strive for excellence? I'm all for real critiques of places like Celebration (or any community) as something that can point developers, builders, designers, planners and more toward a better way of building community.
Celebration is now a community that over 8,000 people reside in. By comparison to just about anything else built in the US in the 1990's, it's very well designed. I think it's about time we start getting away from silly, cheap talking points and barbs. Let's talk specifically about how to make it better, and how to make all of our other cities and suburbs better.