The Art of Classic Planning: Building Beautiful and Enduring Communities, by Nir Haim Buras

James Stevens Curl is thrilled by a guide to how we can recover the essential principles of creating liveable cities

February 20, 2020
Source: Alamy

Well into the 19th century, “medical practitioners” used to bleed people who were actually in need of blood, thereby killing them. They advocated exploding gunpowder over graveyards to dispel “miasmas” supposed to carry cholera (cucumbers and frogs were also blamed), and persecuted and ridiculed scientifically minded investigators who argued that the disease was caused by organisms carried in drinking water.

When we can actually see what an unholy mess has been made of the environment by believers in doctrinaire, puritanical, joyless Modernism, ruining lives, making people ill and eschewing grace and beauty, it has always puzzled me why those “uglifiers” (as the late Sir Roger Scruton called them) are still employed and vociferously defended to give us more of the same or even worse. Some are even identified as “starchitects”, part of the odious “celebrity culture” that is nothing less than idolatry. It is the architectural and planning equivalent of orthodox medicine’s exploding gunpowder in graveyards and blaming frogs and cucumbers in relation to cholera: any rational society should ensure that the perpetrators of such assaults on what is around us are sent packing and made redundant.

Nir Haim Buras’ highly intelligent and comprehensively illustrated blockbuster of a book is packed with celebrations of what make beautiful, successful, agreeable environments that people can actually enjoy (and which actually work), warning against the pursuit of the tabula rasa and the arrogant discarding of studies of suitable precedents (labelled “historicism” by those with vested interests in destruction). Given current urban problems, it seems clear that cities today are at a tipping point. More of the same, which has obviously failed, will not do, and neither will empirical “problem-solving”, number-crunching methodologies (of which cost-benefit analysis was one of the more fatuous). There is evidence that declining cities become ever more fragile, degenerating into feral areas where the rule of law is replaced by gang-anarchy, requiring fortresses within them where some modicum of civilised life can still be enjoyed, but at a price. It is possible that our times will be viewed with astonishment in the future because of our inability to exercise critical judgement concerning the architectural tinkering with the urban habitat, tinkering irrelevant in relation to pressing contemporary problems, for it is only empty show, ignoring context, gobbling up money and having no meaning other than as assertion of overweening self-importance.

Healing our wrecked urban fabric should be high on the agenda of any responsible government, exalting life rather than diminishing it with ugliness, dysfunction, squalor and obscene gaps between rich and poor. Buras correctly states that nearly everything we treasure in the world’s most beautiful cities was created more than a century ago, yet much of the knowledge and practice behind successful city planning has been jettisoned over the past hundred years, all because of the adoption of ill-considered theories that became irrational beliefs, like some quasi-religious cult, brooking no dissent. In this great book, Buras documents the tested practices and sound principles that informed urban design before they were denounced, ridiculed and bullied out of existence. His is a humane, civilised and thoroughly documented argument for the restoration of sanity in urban planning and architectural design, long corrupted by myopic, unscientific dogma that has manifestly failed to deliver what was promised.

James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism was published in 2019. In the same year, he was honoured with an Arthur Ross Award for Excellence in the Classical Tradition for History & Writing by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in the US.

The Art of Classic Planning: Building Beautiful and Enduring Communities
By Nir Haim Buras
Harvard University Press, 496pp, £76.95
ISBN 9780674919242
Published 28 February 2020

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