Home from Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler

Posted: September 28, 2004 at 9:16 am in nonfiction

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I quite liked The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler’s previous book about civic planning, so when I happened to see this in the library while picking up Infinite Jest, I grabbed it. Unfortunately, because Infinite Jest took so long to read, I had to slam through this book because they’re all due today. Fortunately, Home from Nowhere is a quick read.

It’s basically a restatement of The Geography of Nowhere, decrying how the car-based lifestyle has destroyed the essence of towns and cities throughout the country. Kunstler believes strongly in mixed-use neighborhoods, where all necessities are available within walking distance. As I noted in my previous review, I totally agree with him. Probably even more so now, since traffic has gotten worse in the Bay Area.

Home from Nowhere is meant to be a prescriptive book, where Geography was more descriptive, but I didn’t really see much new here. He does mention the rise of organizations dedicated to designing such human-scale communities, organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism. He spends a chapter restating some of the principles he identified in Geography. The rest of the book is devoted to listing case studies of various success stories, where new neighborhoods were designed with these principles to the happiness of all.

He did make two observations that I really liked. One was about charm, and what it is.

In terms of human behavior and self-consciousness, charm is the quality of inviting us to participate in another pattern, for instance, to glimpse the pattern of another personality through the veil of manners, customs, pretence. When we say that a person is charming, we mean that he makes himself permeable, and, in so doing, invites you to do likewise, so that the two patterns of your personalities may intersect for a while. I think the same principle is true of the things around us. As Christopher Alexander has ably pointed out, what we perceive to be things in our everyday surroundings – buildings, walls, streets, fences – are more properly understood as patterns intersecting with patterns, relationships between other relationships.

I like this concept. It ties into ideas about user interaction design, as described by Don Norman or Alan Cooper, where the goal is to give the user all the controls they need to accomplish their tasks, and invite them to play with the controls. Don Norman uses the term “affordances” to describe ways in which people can interact with objects. I think Kunstler is pointing out that buildings and towns can have affordances as well; a downtown area with shops that push out to the sidewalk, with large display windows at eye level, provides a completely different interaction than a strip mall, set back 100 feet behind a parking lot.

The other observation I liked was how the concept of pure moral relativism which arose after World War II has destroyed design in this century:

…the idea that some things might be better than other things, or that some people might better than other people – an obscene notion in the aftermath of Auschwitz. To protect society against future political obscenities, American intellectuals of what was then called the political left led a revolt against elitism that was strangely consistent with the psychology of mass consumer culture. The revolt soon featured a campaign against standards in the arts and humanities, including a ban against “value judgments”, which led to an inability to make distinctions in the quality of anything, and a paradoxical devaluation of intellectual excellence itself. …Cultural relativism beat a quick path to cultural despotism, the dictatorship of the mediocre.

In other words, since all forms are valid, the ones that are easiest to build might as well be chosen. He draws the somewhat shaky connection between cultural relativism and the rise of Modernist architecture, where large concrete boxes dominate the landscape. I’m not sure I entirely buy that extension, but the idea of postmodern relativism coming out of the horrors of WWII is pretty interesting. I also like his point that we have thrown away hundreds of years of design and experience in how to build physical communities for the sake of an ill-conceived design movement, where we can’t say “That’s just wrong and stupid” without being declared a philistine or unappreciative of truly modern or post-modern design. If there are no value judgments, then there is no difference between a Walmart building and a beautiful Gothic church. And Kunstler doesn’t buy that. And neither do I.

Anyway. Not a lot here that wasn’t in his previous book. Some of the case studies were interesting, especially the ones showing how several different people came up with similar principles at the same time. All in all, I’m glad I grabbed it from the library rather than buying it.

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