Power to the People

Event: Modernism and the Public Realm with Nathan Glazer
Location: The Museum of the City of New York, 11.28.07
Speakers: Kent Barwick — President, Municipal Art Society; Nathan Glazer — Sociologist, Critic, Author of From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City; Fred Siegel — Senior Fellow, Progressive Policy Institute and Columnist, New York Post; Susan Henshaw Jones (introduction) — President/Director, The Museum of the City of New York
Moderator: Hilary Ballon, Ph.D. — Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Associate Vice Chancellor, NYU Abu Dhabi, and Curator, Robert Moses and the Modern City
Organizer: The Museum of the City of New York


As more large buildings are built in the city, the more its vitality is lost.

Jessica Sheridan

“The difficulties in producing an attractive urbanism constitute perhaps the greatest problem for Modernism,” argues sociologist and critic Nathan Glazer in From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City. He takes planners and architects to task for their apathy toward social consciousness. The impact of iconic and gigantic buildings has led to a lack in diversity and livability in cities. “There should be a diversity of functions (uses), and there should be an interest in neighborhoods,” continues Glazer. Successful streets depend on planners, architects, developers, politicians, and the public. The political culture and economic forces need to be examined to restore life to the streets.

Coupled with the current exhibition, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York at the Municipal Art Society, and Glazer’s book on Modernism’s failure to cities, a recent panel debated how to salvage the city’s vitality and fabric. “Big cities are the natural economic homes of immense numbers and ranges of small enterprises.” (The Life and Death of Great American Cities). However, the contemporary urban fabric does not permit the diversity so sought by Jacobs.

To accommodate increased density, larger buildings are being constructed, and NYC is moving farther away from Jacobs’s ideal, claimed Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society. Larger buildings create empty streets. Lexington Avenue is a case study showing that certain neighborhoods are dense and full of vitality, while others consist of Modernist buildings and vacant sidewalks, an audience member pointed out.

The number of iconic buildings is now what defines modern cities. For example, the Atlantic Yards development will change a large section of Brooklyn, adding a number of new high rise buildings designed by Gehry Partners, yet it was not planned or discussed with its residents, stated New York Post columnist and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute Fred Siegel. Atlantic Yards will not benefit Brooklyn residents, he argued. It will only mark the skyline — something that will feed into politicians’ egos, and not much else.

Questions remain about what should be done to preserve the city’s vitality while maintaining economic growth. The real estate industry is one source for jobs and is essential for economic growth. But we do not fully take advantage of other resources NYC can offer, contends Siegel. Civic culture is an instrument that can impact the city as well. Every voice needs to be heard when making major urban decisions, not just a powerful few.