Had we known then, what we know now . . . .

Had we known then, what we know now . . . .
Had we known then, what we know now . . . .

. . . or click on the link here for Audio Player – American Forum – The Future Of The American City – April 1956 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when rural culture gave way to urban sprawl, the question of just what kind of future was in store for the American City had been the stuff of lively and often acrimonious debate.

Some saw the City as a meeting place of all things cultural – where people who normally wouldn’t mix, came together and shared the experience of the City and each others cultural and ethnic differences and became better and more understanding as a result.

While others saw it as Hell on Earth – a crowded, stifling environment, bent on eradicating those cultural differences and creating a society of zombies, ruled by corporate whims and corrupted by political vagaries.

And somewhere in the middle the truth has emerged – though not in any way anyone could have imagined, certainly not in 1956 when this episode of the radio program The American Forum aired. Two figures, diametrically opposed, and leaders in their own fields; Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and land-developer/real-estate mogul William Zeckendorf, squared off over the question “What was the future of the American City?”.

Wright, one of the legendary figures in Architectural design of the 20th Century felt the City was a hell-hole – that its clogged streets, massive skyscrapers and disregard for human beings saw it as the sign of decay on a Biblical proportion.

Zeckendorf saw the City as an optimistic place; where cities expanded and grew. Where Skyscrapers were testaments to Human achievement and the City was the place of continued growth. But he also saw the City as a place which needed to stay current, that cities like New York were mired in aspects of the “horse and buggy” days and that the City needed to be a place of streamlined and continuous progress.

Needless to say, sparks flew from the first 10 seconds – and the moderator was rendered helpless to contain the battle of wills between two strong individuals.

However, as a piece of history – this program sums up what our problem has been, and continues to be today. Both Wright and Zeckendorf accuse each other of being naive – that our reality has dictated a different set of circumstance than what they both had envisioned in 1956. The population of the U.S.in 1956 was a little under 170 million. By 2014 that number had doubled. With that many people, the sparse, bucolic environment envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t practical. But neither was the streamlined, constantly changing environment of William Zeckendorf – mostly because those in positions of influence have abused that influence and our infrastructure has suffered greatly because of it. Our society in general has been motivated by the bottom line, resulting in cut costs, shoddy construction, gross over-value and urban decay.

So Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision was impractical because the sheer increase in population made it impossible to achieve. And Zeckendorf’s vision was impractical because of an assumption that Real Estate Development and Urban Planning had a Common Good in mind. Truth of the matter is; for every fair-minded and common-good thinking developer, there are a hundred who care nothing about people and are motivated entirely by greed and maximum return on investment – and that is doomed to miserable failure.

But in 1956 they were talking about solutions and talking about ideas. Different though the problems are now, they were still being addressed then. In 2015, not so much.

Here is that discussion from The American Forum of April 1956 featuring Frank Lloyd Wright and William Zeckendorf.

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