Tuesday, May 24, 2005

New Urbanist Willies

Karrie Jacobs writes in Metropolismag.com about why a New Urbanist retail village in Cape Cod creeps her out:

. . . as I walked out of the theater I was already feeling uneasy--then I noticed that I was not in a normal mall. Rather I was in a fake downtown, an overtly cheerful place with individual brick and clapboard storefronts lined up along something a lot like actual streets. I was in a fabrication--a carefully crafted faux history implanted in the suburban landscape. . . .
Sounds a bit like The Streets at Southpoint in Durham, doesn't it? She goes on . . .
This was yet another episode in my ambivalent relationship with New Urbanism. Honestly the New Urbanists--the Duanys, the Plater-Zyberks, the Calthorpes--make good places. I can't fault their planning skills, but there is something about their need to use the past as a sort of architectural tranquilizer that gives me the willies. I see it as a form of cultural brainwashing, a strategy that doesn't solve the problems we've created so much as teaches us to forget them.
Jacobs goes on to visit Rancho Cucamonga, California, a suburb that just decided to build an urban center, though it had never had one before:

I was impressed by the care that has been taken to craft proper streetscapes. I admired the different architectural styles and materials. I took note of the fountains, street trees, gently modern streetlamps, and occasional grassy squares. I even liked the food hall (designed by Altoon + Porter), a daylight-filled shed that is supposed to resemble a fruit-packing warehouse. Victoria Gardens was not bad--except that there is so much faux memory grafted onto this place that it makes the villains in The Manchurian Candidate seem like lightweights.

Read the whole thing.

She's got a point. Some New Urbanist creations can be creepily Disney-worldish, especially if they're tarted up with lots of faux-historic geegaws. (But millions of people love Disney World, don't they? I just don't get that.)

Of course one obvious way to avoid that effect is to preserve a city's real historic character, and then integrate new development into it, using a little taste and imagination.

You know, we had a chance to do that here on West Friendly Avenue here in Greensboro, but I guess we blew it. I mean, we blew it up.


Anonymous said...

The new urban malls with all of their faux storefronts are American versions of the Potemkin villages.

(For those of us who are not David Whartons and can't keep the definition of every word and expression filed neatly in our head), a Potemkin Village is-- as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary online at Bartleby.com--

a NOUN phrase:
Something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance: “the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity” (Lewis H. Lapham).

ETYMOLOGY: After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.

Anonymous said...

Hey! What's wrong with DisneyWorld? I LOVE DisneyWorld! Since 1992 I've been there 10 times. It's a place where you can go to get away from real life - spend a week in a fantasyland. It's a wonderful escape. When you return to the real world, you feel refreshed. At least I do. Love Disney! I wouldn't want to live in the Disney Main Street, as it's obviously fake, but it's a great vacation.