Sneak Peek: The Writings of Josep Lluís Sert, Edited by Eric Mumford

We’re looking forward to the publication this season of The Writings of Josep Lluís Sert, a volume that provides new insight into Sert’s role as the founder of urban design, and offers an intellectual context for his work as an architect.  The book is edited by Eric Mumford, Rebecca and John Voyles Professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, who also introduces the ex9780300207392cerpt below.

This lecture was given October 23, 1953, at the American Institute of Architects Mid-Atlantic Regional conference in Washington, D.C. This was shortly after Sert had been appointed dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The event was organized by Washington planner Louis Justement, and listed speakers included two other architecture deans, George Howe (Yale) and George Holmes Perkins (Penn), as well as former Tennessee Valley Authority planner Tracy Augur, by then director of the Urban Targets Division of the federal Office of Defense Mobilization and a strenuous advocate of postwar urban decentralization for national defense reasons.

This lecture appears to be Sert’s first use of the term “urban design,” which had been used occasionally by Eliel Saarinen at his Cranbrook Academy of Art. It marks the point when Sert began to attempt to link the ideas that he had advocated in CIAM, about the importance of pedestrian urban life to cultural and political life, to American urban issues. In it, he echoes Lewis Mumford in emphasizing that postwar culture was “a culture of cities, a civic culture,” as well as Le Corbusier’s insistence, derived from earlier Germanic directions, of the need for a three-dimensional approach to urban planning.

I am honored and happy to be here with you tonight. I’m sorry that, because of my work at the Graduate School of Design, I was unable to join this conference before, as the subjects of your seminars—“The Architect and Urban Design and Urban Redevelopment”—are, I believe, especially interesting and timely. At the risk of being repetitious, as I am sure that previous speakers must have made interesting comments on the subject, I should like to make some comments of my own on the architecture of the city. Washington is one of the few cities with an architecturally planned center. It is a civic city, designed and built by men of foresight and courage. It is a well-chosen place for such talks. Here we can appreciate the importance of the civic in architecture, of having buildings related to one another and to the open spaces around them, conceived and built in a planned environment. This, it seems to me, should be one of the highest aspirations of both architects and city planners.

We hear very frequent and justified critical comments on life in cities—their inhuman scale, the traffic congestion, the air pollution, the overcrowding, etc.—all adding up to a serious case against the city and a civic way of life. By contrast, we are presented with the better living conditions in the suburbs and more rural areas.

Reacting to these conditions, the last generation of planners has tried to solve the problems posed by the city by turning their backs on what we can call the city proper. There has been much more suburbanism than urbanism. All means have been devised to get away from the city as an undesirable place to live in, bad for children and bad for grown-ups—the children get run over, the grown-ups get drunk. [It’s] a place you should leave as soon as you finish your day’s work—get out of it as fast and as far as you can.

As a result of these trends in city planning, and the previous failure of both planners and architects of academic “beaux arts” background to consider the altered conditions of our lives due to the radical changes brought to our cities by the industrial revolution, civic architecture declined and civic design has been practically forgotten.

Figures indicate that a great number of cities in this country have now reached maturity. The explosive growth period seems to have given place to more normal, slower growth; the attitude of the people toward their cities has changed lately. They have become conscious that bigger does not necessarily mean better, that it takes more than size and population to make a beautiful city. It is time to pause and reflect.

One of the greatest challenges for architects is the carrying out of the large civic complexes: the integration of city planning, architecture, and landscape architecture, the building of a complete environment. This is a vast and ambitious task.

We should be aware of that fact and of all the barriers and limitations that lie in between—such as inflated land values, great vested interests, etc. But, on the other hand, it is increasingly evident that, as conditions in central areas of cities become worse, these same vested interests will eventually recognize that drastic changes will result in benefits to the city as a whole and will help to stabilize and protect land values. The moment to plan has come.

As far as the architect is concerned, we should recognize today that the architectural housecleaning of the twenties and thirties, which did away with the use and misuse of “historic styles,” was only a good start in a long race and that contemporary architecture as a style is still in its beginnings; that the search for a more complete architectural vocabulary, a more satisfactory architectural expression, should continue; that the development of such a style is not the job of a few men—no matter how talented they are—but, as it has always been in the past, both in architecture and city planning, the laborious result of the persistent creative efforts of several generations.

I am talking here of style in the broadest and truest sense of the word, as when it is applied to Gothic, Romanesque, or Baroque, for instance, rather than the sense in which fashion people use it, where it can be one man’s profession to be a “stylist.”

Architects should decide, together with the city planners, to invade the no-man’s-land of civic design. It is a joint job that is required—a teamwork job, where both architects and city planners need the advice and the technical help of many other specialists.

I call this field a no-man’s-land because contemporary architecture and planning have not developed in it, and it offers no really full-size example of a complete civic complex that can give us a picture of an entire civic environment where architecture is at its best, in true relation to open areas and traffic networks that can be shown as examples of what the city centers of our time can be.

Up to now, contemporary architecture has produced at best a few scattered good examples of isolated buildings. But much of the more recent work—like that of the twenties, which I had an opportunity to review in Europe after the last war—will be absorbed by an overpowering, hostile environment: the chaotic streets, the creeping blight and slums of our cities. I saw what were once sensational buildings, which made very good magazine pages in the twenties and thirties, now decayed and looking very poor in form and spirit. In no way could these be considered a satisfactory expression of our times.

They look primitive and crude, no matter how functional. They have the merit of a new start,
a great transformation in architecture, a break with the past. They have historical interest but, in many cases, no emotional qualities.

We should understand that functionalism does not necessarily mean that only the functional
has a right to exist: the superfluous is part of our system—it is as old as man. Let us not
forget that man decorated the roofs of his cave dwellings before he knew how to build a roof.
Why not use elements that are not strictly functional if they do not conflict with function—
and make buildings more beautiful?

But the value of great architecture and city planning—a great civic complex—lies in order,
classification; a true relationship of space and form, in light. . . . The whole resulting in
harmony, which has the same basis and roots of the natural structures in the world around
us—minerals, plants, animals, and man. For in all works of art, man has to find part of himself.

Man has put most of himself in the cities. They are his greatest achievement. In them his
effort and his spirit are concentrated. Fly over vast continents, as we do today, and imagine
cities disappearing; what would remain as an expression of our culture? This culture of ours
is a culture of cities, a civic culture. It is in the central areas of cities where the landscape is
really a man-made landscape that the past shows many examples of civic beauty; civic landscapes
sometimes built in the course of centuries, where city planning and architecture are at
their best. No isolated building can compete with them. They are a miracle repeated through
the ages—the Acropolis, the Piazza San Marco, the Place de la Concorde, etc.

Why should we not today, with more means at hand and the same ancestral need for
humanly scaled meeting places, build our new civic centers? Let city planners consider their
role incomplete if some of them, at least, do not become physical planners in the full sense of
the word, with a broad, three-dimensional approach. Let the architects be ambitious enough
to search the means of solving one of the biggest and most difficult problems of our times—
the rehabilitation of the central sectors of the hearts of our cities.

If we believe in our times and in the great possibilities of modern techniques, if we believe in
the vitality and power of this great country and in a better future, the miracle may happen . . . . and
the centers of our great cities may become places of beauty—a proud testimony of our times.


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