A call to arms against chaotic development

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

"The quality of life of European cities and towns of almost any size make life in America look not just like a joke, but a sick joke, a horror movie," he says. "But I'd rather stay involved and do what I can to make this a better place than move to the south of France and enjoy the good life."

The gadfly of Saratoga Springs

The city of Kunstler's affection is Saratoga Springs, a spa town in upstate New York where Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Whitneys once flocked to bathe in the mineral waters. Mayor Ken Klotz calls Kunstler the premier gadfly in the scene of today's local politics.

"Jim abrasively expressed his dismay several years ago that the city didn't have design standards for buildings," says Mr. Klotz. At Kunstler's prodding, the planning board established new standards, requiring buildings on Main Street to be three stories tall, for instance.

Kunstler also delivers a speech every year on the state of the city to his fellow citizens. He writes a free monthly newsletter, "Civitas." That was the forum he used to rail against a proposed CVS drugstore until the company agreed to upgrade from a one-story box to a two-story building with windows and a brick fa├žade that is in harmony with the neighboring architecture.

"My first impression was that he was a counterproductive loose cannon," says Jeffrey Pfeil, a local developer. "But he brought it to people's attention that the CVS design was inappropriate. He gets people to think, 'Hey, this is a neat community we live in. We don't have to settle for second-best here architecturally.' "

To expedite the approval for a mixed-use development, Kunstler bounced early plans off his friend Andres Duany, a founding father of the Congress of New Urbanism and principal in the architectural firm that is building the well-known New Urbanist community of Seaside, Fla.

Kunstler's career path has been long and winding. He got terrible grades at the elite public school he attended in New York City, but he cultivated his own tastes on solitary excursions to the movies and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It was a good cultural education," he says, "but not guided."

As a theater major at the State University of New York at Brockport in "the apple country" upstate, he developed a gift for impersonations. Today in conversation he can morph suddenly, for dramatic effect, into a Scottish Highlander, a little old lady, or an obtuse real estate developer.

He later worked for a string of newspapers in upstate New York and then for Rolling Stone, before quitting to write novels full time. In 1976, he settled in Saratoga, supplementing his income with odd jobs. In 1987, he started writing about land development issues for The New York Times Magazine, a series which led to a book proposal for "The Geography of Nowhere."

Today, he gets at least one letter from a stranger every day and responds personally to all of them, usually within 24 hours. "It's a gratifying thing to have your ideas taken seriously," he says, mindful that he has no formal training in architecture. "It makes you feel like you've accomplished something in the world."

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