PRINT November 1987


Weocracy, weography, on PWeS.

AFTER ROBERT STERN'S NOSTALGIC hymn of praise, Pride of Place, a televised avoidance of the critical issues in architecture, the pressure was on for Spiro Kostof s public-television series, America by Design, really to enter architecture, to do more than take us on a tour of the life-styles of the rich and Anglo, which is what Stern did. There was reason to believe Kostof could pull off something decent: he is a gifted historian, and it seemed he could be the one to highlight the connective tissue between our mental and our physical geographies. So what went wrong? Why did such superficial things as Kostof's changes of clothes offer the viewer more heterogeneity than his changes of scene? How did we get from what looked like content to five hours of lines that sounded like ersatz Charles Kuralt, such as “The American house is much more than a house. . . . It is the American dream”; and “Main Street, of course, is much more than a place name. . . . It is a state of mind”; and “American workplaces. . . represent that special bond between work and self, our place in the scheme of things.” Many of these lines were spoken to the accompaniment of muted trumpets, which should have instantly signaled trouble. The bad news should also have been loud and clear from the title of the show (and its accompanying book), America by Design.

“We are all designers of America,” our host says at one point. It is We who have laid down the roads and tracks, squared off the fields and city lots, etc. Well, if all you have is a few minutes, a jug band, and a couple of people left at the bar, a rousing chorus or two of “This land is your land, this land is my land” may be just the ticket, but in 1987, with five hours of prime time, three years of preparation, and what sounds like a full symphony orchestra, the trumpet of We is a tragic instrument that drowns out the dignity of us.

One would have thought that the example of Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker, a study of Robert Moses, the city planner who exercised tremendous control over the physical development of New York City through several decades of this century, would have dispelled for all time, or at least for Our time, the kind of thinking reflected in statements like “On all of us falls the blame for what is ugly in our surroundings, what is inhumane and derelict. To all of us belongs the credit for the beauty we fashion.” Caro’s story is precisely that it was not the We of the New York population as a whole, and not inexorable fate, that condemned certain areas to blight, it was Moses, the politicians who feared him, and the newspaper owners who fawned over him. Accountability matters. The blame belongs to Moses; the credit belongs to the people who stood in the path of his bulldozers. We may all be in this together, but we’re not all doing the same things.

In Kostof's segment on “Public Places and Monuments,” We is really out of hand. Why can’t We build monuments any more, like the picture-postcard ones in Washington, D.C.? Because of the “cynicism” and “confusion” that arose in the ’60s, Kostof says. In other words, we are judged free from cynicism and confusion only when we shut up. Kostof adopts a position not unlike that of another Spiro, Spiro Agnew, in his attack on the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” “In the old days,” Kostof says, “we would know what to do.” Call out the guards?

To be fair, Kostof does give passing acknowledgment to the use of public space to stifle the public voice. About the urban park, for example, he notes that

[Frederick Law] Olmsted’s attitude was moralizing from the start. Yes, the purpose of the park was to allow urban folk to enjoy an unadulterated rural experience. But what he really intended to do with his park designs was to wean the working classes away from their ethnic neighborhoods, away from the adventures of city streets, and to make proper Americans of them.

Unfortunately, despite his obvious awareness, television seems to have produced precisely this effect on Spiro Kostof.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduates Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.