Fred Siegel
Subtraction by Subtraction
Modernist architecture has failed American cities.
13 April 2007

 From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the
American City, by Nathan Glazer (Princeton University Press, 300 pp.,

Nathan Glazer, East Harlem native and now professor emeritus of
sociology and education at Harvard, has written brilliantly about cities
for more than half a century. He became famous with his pathbreaking
1961 study of ethnicity, Beyond the Melting Pot, coauthored with Daniel
Patrick Moynihan. But there’s much more. Writing in Commentary in the
1950s and 60s, Glazer was the first to warn that the intersection of
entrenched interest groups and an unaccountable bureaucracy was making
New York City “ungovernable.” In the 1970s and 80s, Glazer, both as a
thinker and as the coeditor of The Public Interest, played a key role in
explaining why the Great Society’s social programs for the urban poor
had backfired. In the 1990s, writing in City Journal, he explained how
New York’s tripling of public expenditures since the 1960s, during a
period when its population was stable, was leading it to ruin.
In recent years, modernism has come under sustained assault from
preservationists and “new urbanists,” who recognize the need for an
architecture that reflects the public’s sense of beauty. Their efforts
to return grace and vitality to urban life have borne considerable fruit
in Providence and Portland, among other cities that have preserved old
office buildings. But unless architects working in these new styles get
broad-scale commissions, the way modernists have and do, we can expect
to inhabit cities whose architecture repels at least as much as it attracts.