In this interview, we asked writer and editor Matthew Stadler to speculate on urban “sprawl” and its potential as the next creative development frontier.
Alan Maskin As The Stranger’s first book editor, you reviewed Zwischenstadt by German urban planner Thomas Sieverts. What about his assessment of sprawl (“the in-between city”) influenced you?
Matthew Stadler I came to Sieverts because I was unhappy with existing language for what we call “sprawl.” These landscapes are a dominant reality, rich and nuanced, yet we lack any vocabulary or meaningful descriptions of them. I first noticed and could name my unhappiness in 1994 during a conference in Rotterdam on the subject of bliss. I was asked to comment on Rem Koolhaas’s then-recent manifesto, “Bigness, or the Problem of Large.” My response was an essay called “I Think I’m Dumb” in which I described the positive potentials in sprawl landscapes where I lived — Seattle and the West Coast.
AM What led you to describe spraw las an urban zone suffering from “the absence of an idea?”
MS Our images of a dense, urban city and a green, pastoral countryside are ideas. We take the most complex conditions – for instance, Portland’s truly suburban character, its remarkably low densities – and experience their pleasures through the lens of a powerful organizing idea — our idea of “the city.”
Similarly, highway-laced, overcrowded greenbelts or patchwork farm landscapes can fill us with relief because we bring to them a powerful idea of “the countryside” — an idea that helps us overlook flaws and organize scant realities into an ideal. By contrast, sprawl, with all of its despicable, incoherent mess, defeats us because we have no useful opinions to impose on it. We have only revulsion and this ugly, lumpy word, “sprawl,” to toss over it like an old piece of carpet.
AM Historians and planners are sometimes caught up in a dialogue about the merits and faults of urban sprawl. Are they having the wrong debate?
MS It is worthwhile to start as naturalists would: by cataloging how and where we live now. The discouraging noise is the passionate denunciation (by James Howard Kunstler) or praise for these new landscapes based on old ideas of city and countryside. They’re a remarkably dated, narrow set of judgments, yet we still expend huge political and cultural energy debating them.
I would like to see urbanists think through other historic contexts, not just the European discourse rooted in Marx. How did indigenous people live in our region over the past thousands of years? What does that teach us?
Sieverts’s arguments are nuanced. He asks urban planners and architects to work with art, literature and open-ended processes that give agency to non-professionals, to bring their expertise into dialogue with an emergent urbanism that cannot simply be calculated and applied by the planner. But planning cannot come from ceding the task of urban design to nonprofessionals or some illusion of democratic process. The profession is important, but its usefulness now depends on planners working in what have always been very uncomfortable positions, such as in discourse and shared agency.
AM It has been 12 years since the initial publication of Sieverts’s book and six years since you reviewed it. How have artists and writers shaped the “in-between city” since then?
MS I rely on Sieverts’s analysis to help create a cultural dialogue that writers can benefit from. Literary writing continues to evolve superb new tools that help me with my root problem of imagining and discussing sprawl, including a growing vocabulary that describes this prevailing condition, such as the work of Lisa Robertson, Diana George, Danielle Dutton, Howard W. Robertson, Susan Briante and Sam Lohmann, among others.
If Sieverts is right, these advances in literary production will return benefits to planners, too. The issue of ARCADE that I feature-edited in 2001, “Hello My Delicate,” was an effort to do just that: bring literary intelligence back into the hands of the professional design community.
AM Isn’t it poor and low-income artists and writers who will actually move into the “in-between,” unplanned territories first?
MS Many people enact these same ideas spatially. Some are urban planners, others are community gardeners, artists, skateboarders, etc. I’m a writer, and I work with language, not ideas. I’m interested in language as material idea, nothing else. And yes, many of the people living “where we live now” act on their landscapes—not just artists, but anyone, everyone, with a restless mind.
Remember, a key part of Sieverts’s insight is that there is no “city” or “country,” or a third ugly thing (sprawl?) that’s “in-between.” Everything is only the in-between. We all live in this condition—even those of us easily fooled by old European ideals of “city” and “countryside.” I don’t believe the material and the idea are separable.