Monday, March 27, 2006

Not Buying It: What is Reed Kroloff Thinking?

For those people interested in the nexus between architecture and politics, the post-Katrina aftermath offers much it and more. Since natural disasters are feared for their material destructiveness, buildings being the overwhelmingly biggest material casualty, it’s a given that the politics of recovery is more often than not an architectural question. What should be rebuilt? How should it be rebuilt? Who are we as a community and what relation does our architecture reflect our reality? Charismatic architects and academics have no trouble making their positions on such questions known, and are eager to promote their agenda as vigorously (and sometimes shamelessly) as any politician.

I’ve written on the emerging philosophical rift taking place as the reconstruction of the Gulf coast is underway. The New Urbanists, led by architects and planner Andres Duany of Florida seem to have the upperhand in the Mississippi, as the governor there is all to happy to enlist their advice and design proposals for the afflicted areas of his state. In New Orleans, Reed Kroloff, the dean of the Tulane School of Architecture has taken on the responsibility of acting as the primary opponent of the New Urbanists. He believes that the rebuilding poses an opportunity for the city to completely remake itself by addressing its preexisting social ills with a more ‘progressive’ architecture. The blog Building Big Easy chronicles the contentions of both sides from the New Urbanist point of view, while Progressive Reactionary does a good job in presenting the issue from the modernist perspective. But another blog, The Gutter, links and comments on the Mr. Kroloff’s latest salvo in the defense of his progressive views:

I've been black for four months, one week, and five days. I'm still not used to it, and that's kind of a funny thing since I grew up Jewish in Waco, Texas. Believe me, you know what it means to be different when you grow up Jewish in Waco. But over the last four months I've learned that being black means more than just being different: it means being forgotten. It means being ignored. It means being in-sulted. It means being stripped of your dig-nity repeatedly. It means being the object of mistrust, ignorance, and fear. It means many, many unpleasant things.

Why does a white Jewish man in a relatively privileged position (being Dean of any Architecture School is a pretty plumb position) suddenly declares his solidarity with blacks? If you read Kroloff’s article further, what he is really doing is summarizing the general sense of neglect and resentment New Orleanians feel these days. Beginning with the failure for the government at all levels to competently respond and be accountable for its incompetence, it’s apparent that the people of this great city are in no festive mood but instead are angry at everybody. But I think Kroloff is being patronizingly arrogant in appropriating black identity for his own cause. One can be modest in trying to imagine what a black person feels while also being mindful there are many different points of view that blacks hold beyond Kroloff’s simplistic definition of black identity. He makes assumptions about an entire group of people based not on reality but on his intellectual prejudice. Kroloff is guilty of painting too broad a brush in describing people with which he has little in common, since he is a part of New Orleans’ elite and has been conferred actual power in the city affairs without ever being elected. Waco might not be the most cosmopolitan of environments (from the few visits I’ve made there to see my friendly in-laws), but growing up Jewish in that city can’t compare with the hardships experienced by blacks throughout New Orleans’ history. Little does he understand what many blacks go through than does he understand what blacks want. I can bet you that few blacks are sympathetic to modern design solutions, since they have borne most of the brunt of dealing with the architectural and urban planning experiments of elites similar to Mr. Kroloff.

The truth is that Modernist design solutions are rarely, if ever, the result of a democratic process. Such schemes are often implemented by a bureaucracy that is sympathetic Modernism’s claims of technocratic efficiency. But when it comes to assembling the actual residence within the community, the consensus that emerges is a desire to return to tradition, to a welcoming sense of place, one that is not austere or alienating. New Urbanism has cleverly tapped into these important concerns and has provided a consistent and practical system that ensures what most inhabitants desire in their communities. Progressives like Mr. Kroloff cannot accept the fact that most people will ignore their enlightened prescriptions no matter how practical their proposal is. Many like myself wish that rebuilding the structures in Louisiana would resemble the striking houses of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. New Orleans is by contrast very urban and as steeped in tradition as any other American city. Reinvention is its last priority, while preservation of the historic fabric is of primary concern. There other cities that are open to constant redefinition, that embrace the new and untried, but New Orleans is about the reverence to a certain way of life and the stubborn refusal to make the changes necessary to make the city viable in all kinds of disciplines. Sorry, Mr. Kroloff, but you’re in the wrong place to consider imposing your progressive schemes to the city.

I’m sure the man knows this, but that doesn’t prevent him from wearing the cloak of victimhood to advance his agenda. I often find those who exploit the plight of the most vulnerable to be disingenuous about their real intentions. By making common cause with the suffering of an oppressed group, Kroloff hopes to instill a collective consciousness towards the implementation of his own plan. To accuse his New Urbanist opponents as bringers of Disneyfication is a means of pointing out the false consciousness that grip a whole class of people who should know better. Kroloff borrows his approach straight from the Marxist handbook. My general impression of his article is the author’s sense of desperation. If things don’t go your way, the most drastic response is to simplify the nature of the opposition and generate conflict based on a rationale designed to instigate the passions of the mob. The New Urbanists have been mostly busy at work, diligently generating schemes in response to meeting with the inhabitants, while ingratiating themselves to the powers that be. They have yet to employ Marxist tactics to paint their opponents as they are too busy going about the business of redesigning the Gulf Coast. Maybe there's something to be learned when the whining stops and the work gets underway.

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