I want you to take a look at Conrad Heiney‘s photographs. The cities depicted are medieval, but almost every structure in them is modernist. Not just contemporary: Modernist. And yet, for all the myriad complaints about how modernist design is necessarily atomizing, every one of these buildings is designed for pedestrian scale in context to the buildings around them.
They’re also designed with respect to the scales of the natural environment and integrated into an historic context. Trees, hills, an ancient mossy-walled riverbank. And yet, so much of it unabashedly Modernist.
Not that there aren’t buildings in a traditional or historic idiom. But again, they’re contiguous with unabashedly and unashamedly Modernist buildings, all of which share a necessary respect for pedestrian context and integrated streets.
Even dead, dying, supposedly all-killing spaces under railways and highways are put to use, vibrant – alive. Urbanized, even. (I can immediately think of at least half a dozen spaces in greater Washington that could be given this sort of treatment.)
“Ah, but that’s Japan,” one might say. “It’s necessary there.”
Which is true; the Kansai region has nearly the population density of New Jersey. We are in the habit of underestimating ourselves, underestimating the surprising universality of the urban condition, and the necessity of living in sustainable configurations of the sort that promote walking and doing without the sort of resources that are becoming increasingly scarce.
And yet there is a uniqueness to Japanese and other east Asian places, a romance in the incongruity of historical mash-up. But this incongruity demonstrates the continuum of design, that tradition cannot stagnate or be held up to some kind of standard of constructing and reconstructing cargo-cultic set pieces.
Neo-trads like to use the word “rape” a lot to describe po-mo and Modernist buildings, something that trivializes (and suggests remarkable indifference to) sexual assault and the nature of it, much of which occurs in public spaces, some of which are quite neotraditional and quaint. There are two charitable assumptions: that they are suggesting modernist spaces create rape, which is simply putting the cart before the horse; or, less charitably, that modernist design or planning is inherently a “rape of the senses”, which is a comparison that implies rape is something aesthetic, something that “uses up” the victim, which should outrage anyone that was genuinely raped – but this is beside the point that it isn’t.
Planning isn’t about the imposition of this or that building style or architectural idiom. It’s about the preservation of quality in the spaces between places – creating spaces that become places worth being in, that aren’t inherently threatening or demeaning, that are liberating rather than oppressing.
And when those spaces are truly beautiful, there’s room enough for everything under the sun.