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PopTech – James Kuntsler – sarcastic eye for the urban landscape guy

By October 24, 2003Uncategorized

I’m still posting my notes about speakers at PopTech. Now we’re into the ones who I found so entertaining that I couldn’t blog about them easily at the time. Much thought and editing were required. Hence, the delay.

Jim Kuntsler takes the stage and struts across its length with the confidence of a man who is carrying a bullwhip. His sarcasm fills the room with an audible crack, and the audience instantly shifts into a precise frenzy of laughter and shock. On the mega-screen behind him are images that are pathetically plain and desolate: a rural highway intersection next to a gas station, a concrete slab building, and a forlorn strip mall.

He turns and laser points to the highway intersection. “What is going on here?” he asks, waving a bright red dot around the traffic lights that are suspended from a transected wire rigging. Off to the right –and out of view– is a Wal-Mart. And out of view, on the left, is a K-Mart. He spins to face the audience and bellows: “if you stand on the apron of the K-Mart and you look in the direction of the Wal-Mart you can’t see it.” He pauses to allow the audience to wonder why and then he answers. “That’s because of the curvature of the earth.” Then he adds: “this is nature’s way of telling you that you aren’t using space effectively.” Gales of laughter, slowly replaced by uneasiness. The audience is ready for more.

He flashes more desolate pictures of concrete wastelands as he proclaims that we have become a “Parking Lot Nation” or a “National Automobile Slum.” But perhaps there is a better name for this apathetic use of architectural space. He pauses and then bellows again. “I call it ‘technosis externality clusterfuck.’”

Jim Kuntsler is revved up now and he calls up a picture of a bland street that runs behind a featureless concrete building near Boston Commons. It is devoid of people. Only a few parked cars break the monotony of the scene. He flashes a new picture of the same scene, but now we see a patrolman walking down the street. Kuntsler pipes “there aren’t any people on this street. Just a patrolman. But he has nothing to do here because not even the criminals are willing to venture into this space.”

Next up is a large concrete school building surrounded by a tall chain link fence which is topped off with large bands of barbed wire. Kuntlser stares for a long time and then turns slowly toward the audience with a sardonic grin: “and this ladies and gentlemen is where we send our children to be educated.” Pause. “The Hannibal Lecter Middle School. Inside of which, if we were to dare to venture inside, we would find roving bands of emotionally disturbed children, quite heavily armed. The fence is there to protect the passing motorists so that the kids can’t attack them, and consume their livers.”

In the foreground there is a little patch of greenery. He almost forgets to mention it and has to back up the slide to point out its significance. “Oh, and this,” he says while placing his red dot on a little square block of shrubbery, “this is what I like to call a ‘nature band-aid.’” Kuntlser then observes “our urban planners skillfully use these band-aids of greenery to remind us that nature is ever present in our lives.” By now some people are doubled over in laughter.

Kuntsler employs examples of European architecture as a contrast. Boulevards lined with trees that provide shade, and closely drawn squares where business and pedestrian traffic are harmoniously brought together. Kuntsler, who is clearly American, is cynical about our ability to understand the finer points of European living. “If you go to Heathrow airport, do you know how to spot the Americans among the crowds?” He pauses. Then raises his voice: “First of all, they are six times the size of the other travellers. Another way you can spot them is that, as they make their way through the crowds, you’ll see them pulling large carts of cheese doodles behind them.” Another pause, then: “you can never be too far away from your snacks…”

Kuntsler is not the sort of person that you book for a speech at the local Rotarians’ club. But, even so, he is really not putting down America or Americans. He thinks we have lost touch with proper approach to architectural design. And he is not suggesting that we have no native American architecture that is worth using either. In fact, he calls attention to something called “the New Urbanism,” and an organization called the Congress for the New Urbanism. Their website lists development projects in each state that are examples of proper use of space and architecture. Kuntlser’s message is simple, if sharp. We Americans deserve a better sense of place than we are getting. Maybe he’s right. As long as we have enough space in our dwellings to store our cheese doodles…

If you are interested in Kuntsler’s ideas, which are obviously provocative (perhaps to some people they are offensive), I recommend you check out The Geography of Nowhere and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.

Also, check out his website.

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