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St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. When the city demolished the project in 1972, some modernist dreams imploded, too.
St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. When the city demolished the project in 1972, some modernist dreams imploded, too. (Bettman/Corbis Photo)


Sociologist Nathan Glazer argues that today's leading architects learned the wrong lessons from modernism's mistakes, and need to re-engage with the life of cities

Modernist architects, who reigned from the middle of the 20th century into the 1970s, roughly, created no shortage of stirring buildings. But their attempts to rewrite the rules of the modern city were about as successful as the Hindenburg, with which modernism shared German roots.

The nadir -- and architects are really sick of this story by now -- was the attempt by American cities to remake slums according to the principles of such leading modernists as Le Corbusier: Crisp high-rise housing projects sprouting out of green yards announced a new era in America's treatment of its poor. Yet by the late '60s these buildings were widely seen as disasters -- hyperconcentrated loci of crime and despair-- and in 1972, when St. Louis dynamited its massive Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki (the World Trade Center was also his), some modernist dreams imploded, too.

Boston had its own infamous brush with tragic clean-the-slate modernism when it demolished much of the West End, filling the area near Massachusetts General Hospital with the sterile high-rises of Charles River Park.

Still, give architects like Le Corbusier and Yamasaki points for trying, suggests the eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer in his new book, "From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City" (Princeton). As an official in the Housing and Home Finance Agency in the Kennedy Administration, Glazer, now an emeritus professor at Harvard, studied ways to fix Pruitt-Igoe before the situation got unmanageable.

Despite such familiarity with the problems created by the architectural "solutions" to substandard housing for the poor, Glazer credits the modernist generation for their interest "in good sanitary housing, in green space, in access to air and light, in more living space" -- in creating a more livable city. They often failed to see how their plans would intersect with, or crash into, reality, but at least they were engaged.

By contrast, today's architects create stirring additions to cityscapes -- like Boston's new Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, or Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT -- but shy from a broader engagement with cities.

"You wouldn't want a city made up of buildings by Gehry, [Rem] Koolhaas, or [Daniel] Libeskind," Glazer says in an interview, invoking three of today's leading-light architects. "That would be a World's Fair. It wouldn't be a city."

. . .

The idea that contemporary architects have abandoned urban design wholesale is something of a polemical exaggeration. "Especially in developing countries, there are architects who are interested in building flexible structures and low-cost housing for the poor," says Susan Fainstein, a professor of urban design at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. "But in terms of the United States and Europe," she says, echoing Glazer, "the so-called starchitects reign supreme" -- and their goal is largely to create singular works of art.

The swing away from the austere modernist credo -- form follows function, all else is decadence -- was inevitable, Glazer concedes. But that aesthetic development didn't have to be combined with a flight from urban planning, although the two issues are intertwined in complex ways.

For one thing, persistent public ambivalence toward modern and postmodern architecture -- despite some popular successes -- has spawned an unproductive elitism in the design profession, Glazer contends.

In a review last summer of large-scale European public projects by Rem Koolhaas, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for The New Republic, detected a touch of "disdain" on Koolhaas's part for the people who would actually live in or near his buildings. When some people pointed out that a major public project in Lille, France, clashed with its surroundings and included no public pedestrian space, he responded only with oracular banalities: "What is important about this place, is not where it is, but where it leads and at what pace -- in other words, to what extent it belongs to the rest of the world."

At the other end of the glamour spectrum from Koolhaas is the "new urbanism," a design movement that has made inroads in cities but which many architects dismiss as kitsch. Associated with the Miami-based architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, new urbanism -- whose principles have been embraced by Hope VI, a federal program that finances low-income housing -- draws on comfortably traditional kinds of small-scale architecture, like row houses, and emphasizes amenities like porches and private gardens. Glazer finds it promising but of limited use outside certain low-rise neighborhoods.

Brooklyn, meanwhile, will not too long from now see something very much like a small city of Gehry buildings: Gehry is the designer of the $4 billion, 20-plus acre Atlantic Yards project, brainchild of the developer Bruce Ratner, that will include a basketball arena for the NBA's Nets and residential towers, 17 structures in all -- including the tallest building in Brooklyn.

Is this not like the old modernist city-shaping? Glazer says no: Atlantic Yards was "not a Gehry-designed project. It was more or less designed by the developer." Gehry adds his signature touches, but most of the program -- the number of housing units, the density -- grew out of a purely commercial calculus. (He also thinks the project is too big, but that's a different issue.)

"I'm talking about people who were thinking about how to create a better city," Glazer says. And from that important conversation, Glazer says, architects have been missing.

Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail