Rybczynski and the Fear of Good Architecture
The High Line. Courtesy: The Artblog
Witold Rybczynski does not like modern architecture much. Usually, that doesn’t matter that much, as his screeds are confined to either, Slate, that failed relic of the dot-com
bubble communication confusion, or The Atlantic, the even-more-ancient remains
of great journalism. On May 14, however, The New York Times gave him a chance to vent his spleen on its op-ed pages.
Rybczynski’s target this time is the High Line. Now, I had thought that project was about as
controversial as the proverbial mom and apple pie, but our backward-looking
critic sees many problems. First, he
believes the designers see it as a “model for a new form of town planning,
dubbed “landscape urbanism." Now it is
true that James Corner—whose firm Field Operations co-designed the High Line
with Diller Scofidio + Refro—is an advocate of what I think is an altogether
sensible approach to urban planning, but I do not think that he would say that
the High Line is a model of such a form of planning. It is, as Rybczynski goes on to point out, an
exceptional project in a very particular location.
The critic points out that several other cities are looking
at their own projects to reuse elevated tracks, and states his belief that they
will fail because they are not in situations as dense as those of
Manhattan. I am not sure that is the
case for all examples, but even if it is, why so gloomy? It reminds me of someone who only sees everything that could go wrong when a new project
comes up. The sky might fall, but it
could also frame some great new public spaces.
The problem is threefold, Rybczynski says. First, neither landscape urbanism nor the
idea of an elevated, linear park on a former railroad track are new, and both have
been tried before. Why this is bad or a
problem, I have no idea.
Second, not all situations will be perfect. True. They rarely are.
Third, the High Line is expensive. Also true, but then any physical operation in
New York involves an absurd outlay of money. Rybczynski doubts that many cities will be able to raise such money, and that
is also true. But perhaps they can raise
the money to create either examples of landscape urbanism or ways to reuse
infrastructure for public space (not the same thing) that are appropriate for
their situations, and they may find inspiration and a concrete example to show
funders in the High Line. So that is
bad? And would we not much rather spend
money on great public spaces than on, say, subsidizing New Urbanist enclaves at
the edge of sprawl?
What really gets Rybczynski is that he sees the High Line as
a project that might entice other cities to try a “quick fix.” It might be a model that, like skywalks or
monorails, festivals or stadiums, might not work everywhere as an urban
revitalizer. Many things might not work, Mr. Rybczynski, but this is one
project that has worked in one location, and should be celebrated, rather than
held up as a warning sign. I think the
author’s real agenda is that the High Line represents the kind of architecture
he dislikes, and so he is jealous of its success. I would say to him, wake up, smell the wild
dandelions: We are seeing a renaissance of public space designed by good