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A call to arms against chaotic development

By Michael FainelliSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2002

One day, James Howard Kunstler set up his easel in a Burger King parking lot and began to paint the McDonald's across the way.

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As an architectural critic, he has blasted scenes of suburban sprawl like this in such strong language that he has been likened to an Old Testament prophet. But on this occasion, the garish yellow of the golden arches mingled with the natural light of the sky in a way that struck him as beautiful.

It wasn't to be a peaceful session with paints and brushes, however. The manager of the Burger King, sensing trouble, appeared and ordered the prophet to skedaddle. "I told the manager to call the police or buzz off," says Mr. Kunstler in an interview. "I think it disturbed his sense of normality."

Disturbing others' sense of normality is something Kunstler does well.

His first book, "The Geography of Nowhere" (1993) was a polemic against the suburban building spree. It transformed him from a small-time novelist to the Thomas Paine of "new urbanism," a movement emphasizing walkable neighborhoods and beautiful public spaces.

His second book, "Home From Nowhere," has become required reading in urban planning classes at many universities. His newest effort, "The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition," published last month, focuses on eight prominent cities that he alternately pans (Las Vegas) and praises (Boston).

Depending on whom you ask, he is a breath of fresh air or a mudslinger, but everyone who knows his work acknowledges his power to wake up a crowd.

"He speaks to a much wider audience than architects and urban planners. I was taken with the fact that he could say, 'The way you're feeling about these buildings is not wrong,' and speak in a no-nonsense way," says Christina Wilson, director of public programs at the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., where Kunstler has lectured.

The case for gentrification

"I'm in favor of gentrification," he declares. "If you're against gentrification, you're saying, well, we don't want the well-off to come up and fix up this property in the city. Are you simply going to say, the well-off have no business fixing up urban property at all? Are they morally restricted to living somewhere else? Where is that somewhere else? The suburbs? Because that's were they are."

Kunstler believes in an ordered universe full of hidden patterns and rhythms that civilizations render visible by producing lasting, well-proportioned architecture. "Neurologically, people have a need to feel oriented," he says, "to know where they are, not just in terms of a compass and not just in terms of geography, but in terms of their culture and history. To be informed about where they're coming from and to have some glimpse towards a hopeful future."

In sapping our sensitivity to this grace, the suburbs are not merely ugly, he says, but a blight on the whole culture. He argues the United States has become "a clown civilization" and "a wicked people that deserve to be punished," the wealthiest nation, but tragically, the unhappiest.

Even before Sept.11, he was raising the alarm about dependence on a foreign energy supply controlled by unstable political regimes.