Monday, November 22, 2010

NU v. LU: It's all Copacetic

You may or may not have heard of the recent dust up between proponents of “New Urbanism” and “Landscape Urbanism”.  Jason King over at Landscape+Urbanism has been following the proceedings and we suggest you check in there if you want to read a thoughtful, well-written series about middle-aged, elitist white guys lobbing softballs to one another to drum up interest in their particular political game:

- ok, Charles, here you go.  Now remember what we rehearsed.
- got it, Andres.  I’m sending it right back to you. 
- just be sure not to pop out to shortstop like last time.
[andres duany, devastating all landscape urbanists with his chiseled features]

It’s not that interesting.  Though each side brings up their points (and each side has good points) it’s less an academic debate and more an awkward slap fight between pubescent boys that leaves passersby befuddled and confused.  Whenever the game heats up this way (and by “heats up” we mean gets extremely GSD-centric, old white man-centric, hermetic, and anti-septic) we look for a way out, preferring instead to spend our days exploring urbanism’s nether regions.  Two of our favorites, which we hope to see more on, are the idea of “landscape ruralism” and F.A.D.’s “embodied urbanism” (this one in particularly is exciting, capturing a lot of new urbanism’s relevant ideas about scalar relationships between the built environment and the human body without the over-reliance on formulaic application of concept, without privileging sentimentality, and without proposing the city as a series of spaces and experiences to be consumed).

But today we want to head in a different direction- Magical Urbanism.  That’s right.  Now, you might think this has to do with the Kafka-esque literary genre.  Perhaps you would expect a drug-addled Don Roman pontificating about the relevance of Cortázar, Borges, and Bolaño to contemporary urbanism, or the magical wonder that Huell Howser brings to the world.  Or maybe you are thinking H. Willis Montcrief will weigh in with a landscape critique of the influence of the Fania All-Stars on urbanism.  All valid points; but today we wanted to take a look at what the painting of Neo Rauch might bring to the topic.
[what does Roberto Bolano know about urbanism?  Plenty]

Magical Urbanism is, of course, the blending of the fantastical and the real in pictographic mythologies that are strange yet familiar.  Expressions of power, hate, beauty, toil, industry, and nature all find purchase here.  Characters from the past- strange men in uniforms, old wash maids and beggars- spring to life to intimidate the office worker or dress the business man.  Yet, this urbanism is not so pedantic as to formulate anything, relying instead on a methodology that:

views the process of urbanism as an extraordinarily natural form of discovering the world, almost natural as breathing.  Outwardly it is almost entirely without intention.  It is predominantly limited to the process of a concentrated flow.  I am deliberately neglecting to contemplate all of the catalytic influences that would have the power to undermine the innocence of this approach because I would like to express a degree of clarity in these lines by way of example.  [note- I substituted "urbanism for "painting" in the first sentence of Rauch's quote]
[is this urbanism?  it's definitely landscape]

[old urbanism?  landscape urbanism?  nope-  Magical Urbanism]

As a method for painting, the effect is obvious- prolific, striking, and haunting.  As a method for urbanism it is perhaps a bit more dubious, but instructive nonetheless.  As noted in the excellent essay by Peter Connelly, one of the defining characteristic of landscape is the notion of openness, increased connections, and new relations between historical realities and new possibilities.  As a professional methodology this is extremely difficult to construe; it barely works for painting, where only someone like Neo Rauch seems to be capable of pulling it off.  Perhaps landscape urbanism currently comes closest, but there are serious limitations to how it is practiced, as New Urbanists everywhere will be happy to point out. 

Nonetheless, as noted by Peter Reed a recent piece for Topos, the field of landscape urbanism is still not fully defined and may yet evolve new methods, strategies, and concepts.  Of course, we could probably get there faster if fewer of us were fighting over the scraps from the table of civil engineers, developers, and politicians, and embraced the possibilities in landscape architecture for defining urbanism and intervening in the landscape.


  1. This morning, while searching for books on informal settlements in developing countries that might discuss strategies to providing affordable, higher quality housing and sanitation in these areas (interested in Namibian informal settlements), I came across a book called Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City, by Mike Davis. It doesn't look like Davis' Magical Urbanism is the same as yours, though, for whatever that's worth.

  2. Interesting. I'd never heard of it! That is a great tip, however, and ties into some other things we try to examine on the blog from time to time. I'll look it up. Thanks for passing it along!

  3. Good stuff here. You might want to check out my website,

    My website was inspired by Mr. Davis' book, thought the topics I cover are more related to design and cities, rather than the Latino experience in urban America.

  4. Hi Mike-
    great catalog of interesting topics and project. thanks for sending it along; I'm enjoying poking around on it.

    I've got to get that Mike Davis book...

  5. I like Neo Rauch's paintings very much. Most of his paintings are based on stories. I am learning his painting style recently. Hope to discuss with the people who are also interested on his paintings. My painting website is: Greetings from China:)

  6. I really love these paintings very much. thanks for share!