Sense And Sociability

Upon her retire­ment, a col­league gift­ed me a run of Land­scape mag­a­zine from fall 1960 to win­ter 1968. Revis­it­ing them this year, I was struck think­ing that the look of Land­scape – a com­pro­mise between mys­tic DIY and high-style design, part Har­ry Smith and part Archi­tec­tur­al Review – is almost a bet­ter expres­sion of the magazine’s mis­sion than its writ­ten con­tent. Edi­tor J.B. Jackson’s defens­es of the ver­nac­u­lar of the Unit­ed States still have the pow­er to star­tle today, being that they are as res­olute­ly uncon­cerned with the greater good as they are with good taste. In their orig­i­nal con­text, his pieces jump out from the square pious­ness of most of his con­trib­u­tors, who despite their vary­ing fields all fall solid­ly into the post­war lib­er­al consensus.

The review sec­tion through these years hosts a remark­able series of new pub­li­ca­tions: The Poet­ics of Space, Silent Spring, Design with Cli­mate, The Hid­den Dimen­sion, The­o­ry and Design in the First Machine Age, The Machine in the Gar­den, Com­plex­i­ty and Con­tra­dic­tion in Archi­tec­ture, Archi­tec­ture With­out Archi­tects – a series of mono­liths we still live among. Today, when the con­ver­sa­tion in the field, inso­far as it exists, is ded­i­cat­ed to reflect­ing larg­er social cur­rents, it is easy to be jeal­ous of a time when each month brought a new method, a new out­look on the built envi­ron­ment; all the more so when a fig­ure like Jack­son was around to cut across the pieties that yoked those out­looks together. 

On the oth­er hand, it was not an acci­dent that Jack­son pub­lished a long series of high­way improvers and super­fi­cial anthro­pol­o­gists; it is remark­able to look close­ly at what he did share with them. In the win­ter issue of 1961 – 1962, Jack­son mulls the recent Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities. Grant­i­ng Jacobs’ point over­all, Jack­son insists on his expe­ri­ence of the val­ue of a city with­out side­walk choreography:

Some­one had bet­ter record those mem­o­ries before they are van­ished: the tree-lined down­town streets that you could cross wher­ev­er and when­ev­er you liked, the side­walks broad and emp­ty enough for aim­less wan­der­ing, the lights that went out at ten o’clock in the evening; no stand­ing in line at bus stops or the­aters or restau­rants, and res­i­den­tial streets stretch­ing for block after block with­out a sin­gle parked car. […] Those were none of them hap­py years, but they did allow us…to see the urban land­scape with­out the intrud­ing pres­ence of peo­ple; we could still fall in love with the city as a work of art. The beau­ty of Paris, they say, was nev­er so appar­ent as dur­ing the mis­er­able years of the Ger­man occu­pa­tion, and Lon­don, light­ed only by the mov­ing search lights in the sky, was to its inhab­i­tants a new and mar­velous place.

What a thing to say! You could imag­ine slip­ping it rue­ful­ly in a nov­el, but It Will Not Do com­ing from a com­men­ta­tor weigh­ing in on What Is To Be Done. If you zoom out from that view­point out to Jackson’s larg­er project, it appears in a dif­fer­ent light: a man who passed as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al because of his sub­ject mat­ter appears instead as a com­mit­ted aes­thete, cob­bling togeth­er wood­cuts and adobe garages into his own encom­pass­ing vision of neat stuff, cita­tions and oth­er nui­sances be damned. The scrap­book of Land­scape, then, has much less to do with faith­ful­ly pre­sent­ing the inhab­it­ed world, and much more with speed­ing through pic­turesque things; in the same way that many of Jackson’s cor­re­spon­dents thought of research as the thor­ough process of scratch­ing their own aes­thet­ic itches.

So, let Jackson’s desire for empti­ness stand as one mark­er; and then, on the oth­er end of the spec­trum, con­sid­er that the crowd can as eas­i­ly be con­ceived as an instru­ment for one onlooker’s plea­sure. In her recent book The Inven­tion of Pub­lic Space, Mar­i­ana Mogile­vich makes a remark­able obser­va­tion about Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: that Whyte’s defense of urban socia­bil­i­ty was a mat­ter of help­ing the city com­pete with already-dom­i­nant sub­urbs, a fea­ture that could attract cor­po­rate head­quar­ters and that pro­vid­ed humane respite to their employ­ees on their lunch breaks.” [page 119] Once you see it, it shows up clear­ly enough in Whyte’s book and film: Harlem streets are on the far periph­ery of the cen­tral action at Sea­gram Plaza, and you are invit­ed to share in the diver­sion of the salary­man dan­gling his Oxfords off the ledge, watch­ing the human zoo file past.

I had a tremen­dous feel­ing, the first time I saw Gor­don Cullen’s Town­scape: this is the kind of thing I’m into.” Most peo­ple who feel that way trans­late it, sen­si­bly enough, into the desire to trav­el once a year or so to prop­er­ly pic­turesque places, Camil­lo Sitte places. But oth­ers of us feel the urge to make more town­scapes, here, there, and every­where; that every­one should have a town­scape, or maybe, that peo­ple like us should have ready access to town­scapes when we want them, able to sketch and pho­to­graph end­less town­scapes here, there, and every­where, town­scapes where we sit back at a safe remove and watch the world go in front of us. You can have com­pas­sion for that desire, up to the point where it con­fus­es itself with being part of the crowd, or being con­cerned with the wel­fare of the crowd – who may have some­thing dif­fer­ent than aes­thet­ics on their mind for the moment. 

(July 2021)