Sunday, January 27

Borgmann on Modernity and Cities

Here's something from University of Montana philosophy professor Albert Borgmann from Crossing the Postmodern Divide:

"Cities became truly modern through the catalyst of the automobile. Architects and city planners never favored the car, yet they found its modern logic irresistible. The passenger car, if anything allowed the individual to conquer time and space by means of a universal device. Thus the automobile became the vehicle of modernism, the force that empowered builders to reorder the untidy and irrational structures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since classical antiquity, streets and city blocks had patterned the fabric of urban life. The street had always been a complex of functions: living space, playground, stage, worship, bazaar, transportation link. Such ill-defined complexity offended the modern intellect at the outset and eventually was overtaxed and upset by automobile traffic. This gave architects license to tear up and discard the traditional urban fabric and to replace it with freestanding high rises at the center and with endless suburbia in its surroundings. The various parts were connected by limited-access expressways.

The assault of the modern project on the urban setting displayed the ruthless zeal of a frustrated revolutionary parent. In this instance, modernism did not set out to raze ancient traditions of conquer untamed nature; it turned upon its firstborn children, the cities that had grown up as modern creatures but had failed to measure up to the standards of a rational and enlightened order."

This was written about fifteen years ago. It may no longer be fashionable to speak in such broad terms of "modernism" and "postmodernism," but Borgmann certainly offers a compelling account of what has happened (and is continuing to happen) to cities in the United States.

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