Emily Talen, Co-editor, Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City


Michael Sorkin sounds tired, and who can blame him? This master of critique has made a career out of eviscerating buildings, architects, fellow writers, and anyone who rubs him the wrong way. How unexpected of him to now propose a why-can't-we-all-get-along harmony when so many are already lying dead on the Sorkin battlefield.

We too would like to move on from this old and distracting debate. Unfortunately, while Mr. Sorkin tries to reinvent himself as the great peacekeeper, billions are wasted on efforts to ruralize the city.

As Michael Sorkin discloses (as if the more pro-Landscape Urbanism essays in the book snuck in without our knowing), this books offers more than one perspective on the topic. From the junkyard dog viciousness that Mr Sorkin seems to think he owns, to the sympathetic assessment that he recommends, this book takes a hard look at a serious debate that is not over, however much Michael Sorkin wishes it were.

Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, one of the leading firms in the New Urbanism movement, designed a master plan in 2012 for Costa Verbena in Brazil. The designers say the plan respects the site's topography and its sensitive ecosystems, while applying a traditional street grid.
Image courtesy DPZ & Company
Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, one of the leading firms in the New Urbanism movement, designed a master plan in 2012 for Costa Verbena in Brazil. The designers say the plan respects the site's topography and its sensitive ecosystems, while applying a traditional street grid.

Andres Duany, Co-editor, Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City

I offer the following response to the collection of personal tiffs you cobbled together as a review.

First, you misconstrue what you believe to be my personal obsession with Harvard: I am well aware that in your New York‑ish discourse, all things are personal; you resolutely support a hothouse of friends, and you stab enemies in the back whenever possible. But do not extend that intimacy to my field of concern, which is the state of 20th-century American urbanism—mostly in the "flyover country." In the broader discourse, Harvard’s influence has long been the source of many of the most dysfunctional concepts: from the 1930s through Sert, to Landscape Urbanism. One simply cannot engage our current suburban problems and not include the serial troublemakers of Harvard. I have personal friends up there, so I wish there were the option to "all get along" as you suggest, but there is not.

Regarding the group hug that you suggest, and which so surprised Emily Talen (see her letter above), you seem to think that Dan Solomon's essay alone supports that. How superficially you report (or read) the others. The essays, with the sole exception of Kunstler's, criticize the omnivorous claims of Waldheim's version of Landscape Urbanism, but also grant as much credit as is warranted—and most, including both of mine, propose precise technical syntheses with New Urbanism. You might approve of what appear to be Dan Solomon's conciliations. But read again. Dan is sharp, with none of the intellectual exhaustion of your generalized plea for peace. You have again confused the wisdom of age with a geriatric unwillingness to have an uncomfortable debate. It's just words, you know. No blood is spilled. 

And regarding Jim Kunstler, rather than lazily dismissing him, you might have hesitated long enough to consider why this careful researcher chooses to deploy argument in such an incendiary manner. Consider at least this: Why are Kunstler’s writings (which largely overlap with yours in their concerns) so much better known than yours in the larger political and practical world? Just, perhaps, he knows his audience; and the inclusion of this anomalous essay in the collection is a way to reach out into our (not your) world. Looking out of the window on the flight to LA does not qualify as expertise of the places where Landscape Urbanism and New Urbanism must be implemented if they are to be ecologically effective. You should attempt to grasp that there is a continent unknown to you that Kunstler masters with his prose. Read his recent Too Much Magic and see why.

There is no way to avoid countering the cheap shot that is the essence of your critique. Emily Talen and I were surprised by the authors’ bottled-up enthusiasm to engage the subject, which led to the statement that this book "should have been written 15 years ago." Your taking that as evidence that this debate is an issue long past its sell-by date is bogus. As you well know, there has been no previous coherent critique of Landscape Urbanism's claims. That statement is confirmed by the response you gave when you were invited to contribute an essay: an all-in "It's about time!" We then concluded that because we already had a surfeit of excellent material in hand, a review by you would be more interesting. I would have thought an old relativist warrior like you, open to all sides of every argument, would be more careful to keep track of the stories he tells each group—if only to avoid becoming an obvious liar.

If that is too personal, then let’s consider the debate over the High Line, which you reduced to a comparison between expensive built-in benches and Adirondack chairs. The essence of the extended internal debate was whether the High Line was en route to becoming the next "Bilbao," the latest iteration of architecture's search for the fabled silver bullet. Beginning with Seattle’s Space Needle, the "catalytic project" has gone through a pathetic succession of aquariums, convention centers, baseball fields, river-walks, and Bilbaos. In each case the first instance of success was specific to its place and circumstance, and subsequent attempts to mimic that success have become black holes of expense. Another characteristic of the silver bullets is that they allow architects a place at the urban-design table without requiring the patient, cooperative work that fosters actual functioning urbanism. Of course the High Line works in Lower Manhattan. But what if there weren’t the density or the budget per linear foot, or even the elevated armature to support it? This book is the sole engagement with the High Line that does not wholly participate in the quasi-religious panderfest to this urban miracle. That alone is remarkable.

And, of course, I cannot ignore the vicious little swipe at the Transect. Here we have Michael Sorkin, who has written and published a model code that no one in practice has heard of in the twenty years of its existence, telling another man, whose Transect-based codes are the official guiding documents of hundreds of cities all over the world, to just drop the operating system because it offends his relativist sensibilities. I cannot just drop the Transect any more than I can withdraw the hundreds of codes legally implemented by dozens of planners. Fair warning: there is an entire book with dozens of essays and images of the Transect coming out soon.

On the reputation of Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: the only danger is that the dullness of your review might taint the book with an aura of boredom. There is considerable friction between the practices of New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism. That would be neither new nor interesting if Landscape Urbanism were not the first serious attempt by the academy to share the playing field with the New Urbanism. The issues engaged are so vital at so many important levels that it is futile to provide evidence by means of extending this letter. Rather, I provide links to three chapters from the book. Readers should judge for themselves—not through the tired or jaded eyes of the review's author.