Sense And Sociability

Upon her retirement, a colleague gifted me a run of Landscape magazine from fall 1960 to winter 1968. Revisiting them this year, I was struck thinking that the look of Landscape – a compromise between mystic DIY and high-style design, part Harry Smith and part Architectural Review – is almost a better expression of the magazine’s mission than its written content. Editor J.B. Jackson’s defenses of the vernacular of the United States still have the power to startle today, being that they are as resolutely unconcerned with the greater good as they are with good taste. In their original context, his pieces jump out from the square piousness of most of his contributors, who despite their varying fields all fall solidly into the postwar liberal consensus.

The review section through these years hosts a remarkable series of new publications: The Poetics of Space, Silent Spring, Design with Climate, The Hidden Dimension, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, The Machine in the Garden, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Architecture Without Architects – a series of monoliths we still live among. Today, when the conversation in the field, insofar as it exists, is dedicated to reflecting larger social currents, it is easy to be jealous of a time when each month brought a new method, a new outlook on the built environment; all the more so when a figure like Jackson was around to cut across the pieties that yoked those outlooks together.

On the other hand, it was not an accident that Jackson published a long series of highway improvers and superficial anthropologists; it is remarkable to look closely at what he did share with them. In the winter issue of 1961-1962, Jackson mulls the recent Death and Life of Great American Cities. Granting Jacobs’ point overall, Jackson insists on his experience of the value of a city without sidewalk choreography:

Someone had better record those memories before they are vanished: the tree-lined downtown streets that you could cross wherever and whenever you liked, the sidewalks broad and empty enough for aimless wandering, the lights that went out at ten o’clock in the evening; no standing in line at bus stops or theaters or restaurants, and residential streets stretching for block after block without a single parked car. […] Those were none of them happy years, but they did allow us…to see the urban landscape without the intruding presence of people; we could still fall in love with the city as a work of art. The beauty of Paris, they say, was never so apparent as during the miserable years of the German occupation, and London, lighted only by the moving search lights in the sky, was to its inhabitants a new and marvelous place.

What a thing to say! You could imagine slipping it ruefully in a novel, but It Will Not Do coming from a commentator weighing in on What Is To Be Done. If you zoom out from that viewpoint out to Jackson’s larger project, it appears in a different light: a man who passed as a public intellectual because of his subject matter appears instead as a committed aesthete, cobbling together woodcuts and adobe garages into his own encompassing vision of neat stuff, citations and other nuisances be damned. The scrapbook of Landscape, then, has much less to do with faithfully presenting the inhabited world, and much more with speeding through picturesque things; in the same way that many of Jackson’s correspondents thought of research as the thorough process of scratching their own aesthetic itches.

So, let Jackson’s desire for emptiness stand as one marker; and then, on the other end of the spectrum, consider that the crowd can as easily be conceived as an instrument for one onlooker’s pleasure. In her recent book The Invention of Public Space, Mariana Mogilevich makes a remarkable observation about Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: that Whyte’s defense of urban sociability was a matter of helping the city compete with already-dominant suburbs, a feature that could “attract corporate headquarters and that provided humane respite to their employees on their lunch breaks.” [page 119] Once you see it, it shows up clearly enough in Whyte’s book and film: Harlem streets are on the far periphery of the central action at Seagram Plaza, and you are invited to share in the diversion of the salaryman dangling his Oxfords off the ledge, watching the human zoo file past.

I had a tremendous feeling, the first time I saw Gordon Cullen’s Townscape: “this is the kind of thing I’m into.” Most people who feel that way translate it, sensibly enough, into the desire to travel once a year or so to properly picturesque places, Camillo Sitte places. But others of us feel the urge to make more townscapes, here, there, and everywhere; that everyone should have a townscape, or maybe, that people like us should have ready access to townscapes when we want them, able to sketch and photograph endless townscapes here, there, and everywhere, townscapes where we sit back at a safe remove and watch the world go in front of us. You can have compassion for that desire, up to the point where it confuses itself with being part of the crowd, or being concerned with the welfare of the crowd – who may have something different than aesthetics on their mind for the moment.

(July 2021)