This is part 2 of a panel discussion with James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros. In part 1 Kunstler and Salingaros discussed peak oil, the religion of the automobile and the New Urbanism, among other topics.
In part 2 they talk about September 11th and skyscrapers, the fallacy of LEED certification, the fate of major urban centers, and the need for humility among architects and urban planners.
LP: Jim and Nikos, in the wake of September 11th, the two of you co-wrote an essay in which you said “this terrible event expresses and underlying malaise with the built environment” and you predicted that “no new megatowers would be built”. Are you surprised by the continued effort to build the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan?
JHK: Well, I’m not personally surprised by it. I think that there are forces in our culture that perversely demanded it to be built. And when I wrote that article with Nikos, it was never a clear point in my mind that we would build absolutely nothing in terms of tall buildings again. In fact I would have probably, if pressed at the time, said sure, there’s going to be a residual kind of building of more of this stuff before we really have to reckon with the problem.
The problem really is more a logistical and practical problem in that we’re going to have a lot of trouble running skyscrapers in an energy-scarcer economy, particularly one that is challenged in natural gas resources, because we’re really coming to a crisis in North America with our supply; and you tend to get the natural gas on the continent that you’re on. Otherwise it’s much more expensive to bottle it up and move it in special ships and offload it, etc. etc. So a lot of this implies trouble with the electric grid and trouble with heating in the years ahead.
Now if you look at the history of the skyscraper, which is very short, and you actually look at how these things were serviced, it tells an interesting story. The first great skyscraper city, New York City, was originally basically a coal-based energy economy. And what you had at that time, in the period of let’s say between 1890 and 1920, is a lot of guys shoveling coal in basements in furnaces. And from that you get all the jokes about the ash-man in the cartoons in The New Yorker Magazine of the 1920s, of the guys throwing the ash-can down the alleyway. Those buildings were, for the most part, under 20 stories, except for a handful, like the Woolworth building, etc. Mostly what you had there was 15, 17 story buildings.
Then, beginning after the First World War, you start to get oil furnaces. And it’s much easier; you don’t have to have these massive deliveries of coal, and it’s much cleaner. The truck comes in, pumps a little oil into a reservoir, and you’re ready to go. You don’t have to have a guy shoveling. Or a whole shift, or crews of guys. So that’s simpler. And then, after World War II, finally you get natural gas piped all around the city. There’s no delivery as you get with oil; it’s just there all the time, coming through the pipeline. It’s all automatic. Well, this is all going to be coming to an end, because the natural gas supply in North America is very endangered, and is probably going to deplete very very steeply in the next ten years. We have no idea how we’re going to heat these buildings. We have no idea what we’re going to do about the electric grid because almost all the power stations we built after 1980 are natural gas fired, and it’s going to be a huge problem. And I maintain that the cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers are going to have an extra layer of liability as we move further into the 21st century.
LP: Do you think that those cities are worse off than cities that are mostly . . .
JHK: They’re going to have special set of liabilities. There was an article that was very misleading that was published in The New Yorker Magazine about three years ago, and what it said was that New York City was the most ecologically sound city because you could stack so many people on such a small building footprint, and therefore that was a superior living arrangement. Well, what we’re going to find out is that is that the stacks, the physical stacks that we’re employing, are probably going to fail us; we’re not going to be able to run them that way. And if we’re wise—which is unlikely—we’re going to realize that there’s an optimum and maximum height that we can expect from urban buildings, probably not in excess of seven stories.
LP: One of the issues that comes up is that people will say that in order to avoid sprawl, we need a higher degree of density in our cities.
JHK: Well you can get very high densities at seven stories. But it’s not necessary to have 20, 30, 100 story buildings. This is simply a holdover, from the previous era of cheap energy, and it represents now a form of grandiose thinking.
LP: Nikos, what do you think about . . . do you advocate the four-story limit that’s in the New Urbanist Charter?
NS: Well, approaching the topic scientifically, as I have done in my articles and books, there is an optimal size and shape for every complex system. Sprawl is just as unsustainable, because of energy wastage, as skyscrapers are. Going up vertically wastes energy the same as going out randomly. All this tremendous energy—James put his finger on it, it’s the energy, the problem is the energy. We don’t have the energy, and when the energy price doubles, triples, goes up to a hundred times or a thousand times what we pay today, sprawl will be unsustainable because it will cost too much. He’s also right in that the skyscrapers are totems.
So governments and corporations will pay exorbitant amounts of money to keep these skyscraper’s going. And they’re so extremely expensive. We have tried to make clear in our separate articles that a place like New York City sucks in energy, not only from a circle 100 miles around it but from many places in the world, it just sucks in that energy and those resources and wastes it, and consumes it. So New York City is not an efficient city. It’s efficient when you look at the geometry, superficially, like you see a movie, “oh, it’s efficient because it’s going up”. But no, what’s coming in? All the networks that are supplying New York City just reach out all over the place, and it’s always one way. And it’s coming in.
It’s very expensive, but I would not be surprised if we continue to build skyscrapers, because people are essentially stupid. And they’re willing to up the ante and pay more and more and more and more. Suppose we run out of oil tomorrow. Well, we’ll build nuclear power plants, which is a separate point . . . because as James says, with natural gas there’s only a finite amount in the United States. So, okay we’ll build nuclear power plants so we can produce enough electricity, it won’t surprise me if we waste this extremely expensive new electricity to maintain skyscrapers that are totally inefficient.
We have to fight also the very sharp contemporary architects who are manipulating the media, and talking about new, hundred story skyscrapers that have a few solar panels on them, thus they label them efficient, thus they get a label, a gold star on it, and they say “oh, this is certified efficient.” Well all that’s baloney, it’s just a ruse to maintain their own careers, and they will go down in history as being just as devious and disingenuous as Le Corbusier was. But for the moment, there are conferences and books written about sustainable giant skyscrapers; it’s just an old confidence trick.
LP: So I take it Jim, that you’re also not a fan of LEED certification?
JHK: Well, I put that in the category of what I call “blowing green smoke up our ass.” I saw a fantastic example of that last night. In a commercial break from Iowa caucus returns, there was a commercial from General Motors for a hydrogen car, and the story they were trying to put across was, “we’ve already invented this, and you can go out and buy it tomorrow.” Which is complete nonsense. We don’t have any hydrogen cars, we don’t have a fleet of hydrogen cars, and we certainly don’t have any network of hydrogen filling stations conceivably even on the drawing boards that would service these things. So the whole thing was just an exercise in unfortunately bending and twisting the reality of the American viewing public. And we do an awful lot of this.
There’s a larger thing here that I feel that I need to discuss. Unlike a lot of other people who are looking at the scene with the cities, and trying to make sense of this, I have a real contrarian view. I think that what we’re about to see is an epochal reversal of the 200 year old trend of populations moving from the small towns and the farms to the big cities. That is going to reverse, and we’re going to see big cities contract substantially, and people moving back to the smaller cities, the smaller towns, and indeed to an agricultural landscape that is going to require a lot more human attention to make productive.
What I think this is really about is the metroplexes and megacities that have come to seem normal to us in our time—I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that they’re going to sustain themselves and as Nikos says, it’s all a matter of scale. The energy resources of the future will not permit places like Orlando, or Houston, or indeed any major American city at it’s current scale to stay the way it is. Now, something will be in almost all of these places, because almost all of them occupy important sites. There are some that don’t. I’m thinking specifically of Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. These places will simply dry up and blow away, because they’ll have additional problems on top of energy problems, of not being able to produce food locally, etc. And water problems. But all the other major American metroplexes are going to contract, and it’s only a question of how disorderly this process is.
NS: Can I interject something? I want to defend the LEED certification in the following way: I think it’s a very positive response of the society, that represents the public conscience, to take these steps. What I’m criticizing is not the concept, what I’m criticizing is unscrupulous architects who see this as an opportunity to make even more profit and go through the steps of LEED certification, and then make a horrible building and they they say, “aha, it’s LEED certified, so I’m being a good architect.” That’s baloney.
JHK: Well I also have a problem with the idea that you can design a solar building that will be certified and yet it will have terrible urban characteristics.
LP: So, in dealing with these various issues, and maybe there’s no clear answer here, but what would you say, each of you, is the highest priority in going forward in terms of urbanism, energy, and this whole complex that we’ve been talking about?
JHK: My highest priority is that we have got to revive, repair and restore the American passenger rail system. There’s no project that would have a greater impact our our oil use; it would put tens of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs; the technology already exists and doesn’t have to be invented. In fact, we need to start at a less grandiose level than the people who are pimping for mag-lev and high-speed rail. We need to demonstrate that we can do it on the Bulgarian level, because we have a rain system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. We have to get up to that level first.
The fact that we’re not even discussing this in any forum whatsoever, politics, culture, whatever, shows how unserious we are as a culture. It’s dreadfully important. It’s important for an additional reason. We need to do a project as a nation that would demonstrate to ourselves that we’re capable of facing the difficulties that are coming down at us in the future. And this is one that is at least doable because most of the infrastructure is still lying out there rusting in the rain. And if we fail to do this, we’re going to find we’re in a situation where not only are we faced with an array of much more difficult problems all converging and ramifying each other, but we’re not going to have any confidence in facing these things.
LP: Do you think that when the energy situation gets bad enough we will go ahead and rebuild our rail system?
JHK: I don’t know if we’re going to be an orderly enough society and economy to do that. That’s the big question for me, is, is there a threshold point, or a tipping point, where the problems in your nation become so great that there’s simply not enough order left to direct the resources to solve a problem? And we’re approaching that point. And by the way, this goes to that point I made earlier, that we’re much more liable to see a delusional campaign to sustain suburbia and all of its motoring entitlements, and imagine all the resources that will go into that at the expense of rebuilding the passenger rain system, and the transit systems.
LP: How about you Nikos, do you have any highest priority?
NS: I support Christopher [Alexander’s] latest efforts in The Nature of Order. The last volume of The Nature of Order is a deeply spiritual work that talks about human beings' connection with the universe in almost religious terms. This is close to genuine religions, and totally opposite from pseudo-religions like the motorcar and the skyscraper totems.
I would like—and I don’t know how to do it—I would like people to regain the lost spirituality that human beings have, and that would solve many problems simultaneously. That would bring us into better contact with nature.
As soon as soon as we realize that our inner geometry—the genetic geometry of human beings—has a strong basis in the geometry of other living things—trees, plants, animals, ecosystem complexity—our geometry inside, our brain, or organs, our lungs, our circulatory system is the same geometry we see in trees and in ecosystems.
As soon as we realize that, then we can appreciate nature better, we can appreciate the need for preserving natural environments, which now we argue from the outside. We say, “natural environments are nice, it’s a good thing to do.” No, it’s not a good thing to do, it’s part of us, it’s like our fingers. We’d better take care of our fingers, because if we cut them off then we become less able to do things. That would lead us immediately to see the city as an extension of that geometry, and to appreciate the small-scale.
And then building on top of that, we could see, “oh, wait a minute, we have all these rail lines, lying around already, we could use them, all they need is a little upgrading.” And that would immediately increase . . . our transportation system. I think that’s a strong enough power—coming from a different direction, coming from outside urbanism, coming from a new spiritual understanding of human beings’ role in the universe—that would be strong enough to overcome the government’s inertia at doing this.
And then I would immediately jump in and support James. I would propose the Brazilian solution, where in these towns in Brazil people have come up with cheap ways . . . like in Curitiba, the mayor Jamie Lerner just put together a nice system of public transport; okay, it’s cheaper than the monorails. These are cheap ways that get tremendous payback.
But at the same time, I work a lot with Latin America. On the one hand, they’re developing phenomenal economical solutions that we can copy. And at the same time the adjoining city is copying the unsustainable solutions that we have built here. So one hand is creating, the other hand is breaking down, which is sad to see. But I agree with James that the solution lies in small-scale technology and low-cost technology, conserving what we have, like the rail lines.
In New York now there’s a new project, the Atlantic Yards project, where a world famous architect is proposing to tear up all the rail lines, and they’re going to do that, and someone is going to make billions of dollars. And in 30 years, people will say, “My God! We had rail lines here! They were entering New York City! Now we can’t possibly afford to put rail lines in. Where are we going to put them? We have to put them on the water.” Catastrophic short-sightedness to dig up existing rail lines.
LP: Do either of you have any final comments?
JHK: Well, I would advertise my forthcoming book, which is actually a novel, that takes place in America’s post-petroleum future. It’s coming out in March of 2008, an its title is World Made by Hand. The publisher is the Atlantic Monthly Press.
NS: I wish that people would look at the key players who are shaping the built environment, both on the architectural scale and the urban scale, and spend some time to notice a fundamental difference. I have a group of friends—Christopher, James, Andrés Duany, the New Urbanists, Leon Krier . . . we are a loose group of friends. If you notice what we do and how we operate, no one can fail to notice a respect for humanity, a value system; a moral system and a value system that respects something there, that respects some tradition, that respects nature. Altogether you have to dig through our writings and see that there’s a respect, and somehow a humility.
And then you go to the other side, to the star architects and the star urbanists who are fast destroying China, bulldozing down 16th century cities that have worked sustainably for decades, and putting up monstrosities of glass and steel and highways. I think you will not fail to see that these people are driven by ego and gain, gain at the expense really of running everything into the ground so they can make something. It is distasteful and ugly. I would like observers to note those differences. And then maybe they will appreciate the different types of products that the two groups propose for the future of the built environment.