Special Subject: Architecture Studies — On Whose Terms? The Language of Model Cities Than and Now

Permission of instructor
Limited to 12

In 1966, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed an experimental program to address the stark inequality between the nation's prosperous suburbs and its decaying cities. In contrast to federal urban renewal programs of the past, the "Model Cities" program proposed a "coordinated and comprehensive" approach to "improving the quality of life in cities." Instead of subsidizing "slum clearance" and new construction, which rarely benefited those who were displaced, Model Cities sought to connect housing and education, job creation and health care on the basis of "widespread citizen participation."

Model Cities enabled over 100 cities across the country to develop experimental programs to address urban inequality. Cambridge and Boston were among them, and critics remarked on Cambridge's "refreshingly offbeat" proposal that sought to "erect a battery of legal barriers against real estate speculation and insane market pressures."1 Across the river, Boston launched an "infill housing program" to test concrete prefabrication on small, vacant infill sites in Roxbury and Dorchester.2Although Model Cities was premised on calibrating the social, economic, and physical aspects of urban life, many cities sought to challenge established notions of housing design and development, and housing would come to domimate the program's trajectory.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon terminated Model Cities, in large part due to a lack of tangible deliverables. Ever since, Model Cities has been abbreviated as a failure and has received little scholarly attention. This is striking, given that socio-economic and spatial inequality bedevil US urban development today just as they did fifty years ago.

The seminar takes the theories embedded in Model Cities as a point of departure to question hat has changed, and what has remained the same between theories of urban planning and architecture then and now. What were the basic assumptions that underlay Model Cities? How did the writers of the program understand them, how did the municipal politicians who responded interpret them, and how did the residents who got involved do so? How have these assumptions changed, or not, fifty years later? What are the implications of using the same terminology across place and time?

We will use the terms used in the period of Model Cities as a point of departure for this reading and discussion seminar.

1 Priscilla Dunhill, "Little Plans are Better Than None," Architectural Forum, December 1967: 36-37.2 http://bostonlocaltv.org/blog/2011/09/the-infill-housing-program-1968-1973