Campanella Finds Lost Histories in the Built Environment

Thomas J. Campanella

Campanella under the old Culver Line elevated, now the F train in Brooklyn. photo / Nancy Borowick

October 1, 2014

A Profile of Thomas J. Campanella, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning

"I really have my parents to thank for giving both me and my brother a powerful interest in place," says Associate Professor Thomas J. Campanella, CRP.

A historian of the built environment, Campanella joined the faculty in 2013, after a journey that took him from Brooklyn to forestry school, Cornell, China, MIT, Rome, Chapel Hill — and back to Cornell again. He teaches and writes about planning and landscape history, seeking to explain the forces that have shaped urban landscapes around the globe. But his early interests were markedly different, and began with a passion for the natural world.

"I grew up on the very edge of Brooklyn," says Campanella. "We were city kids, but we also had nature close at hand. Around the corner was Marine Park and just two blocks away was an inlet of Jamaica Bay, a semi-wild place where we would fish for snappers, go crabbing . . . it was a forgotten bit of wilderness right there off Avenue U. And it only existed in that wild state because plans to develop the area into the largest formal urban park in America were canceled. It was really my first exposure to a failure of planning, of big visions for a place."

Deciding to follow his love of nature and forests, Campanella did his undergraduate work at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he discovered landscape architecture. During summers he worked as a wildland firefighter in the western U.S. and Alaska.

"I had a real curiosity about the American West," says Campanella, "which actually began in the city with childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History. I was thrilled by the museum's dioramas of western landscapes, and knew these were places I had to see. Fighting forest fires was a way to fully experience that world, in all its wildness."

Campanella was with his fire crew, the Midnight Sun Hotshots, in Fort Yukon, Alaska, when he learned that he had been accepted into Cornell's master of landscape architecture program. "I still remember receiving the letter," he recalls. "It was signed by [Associate Professor] Leonard Mirin.  It was all dirty and smudged, handed to me at mail call one afternoon. I still have it."

Campanella's time in the M.L.A. program at Cornell, which he says was "the beginning of my adult life," introduced him to the history of built environments and the planning and design of cities. He credits Mirin with sparking a passion in him to pursue that interest. "He really fired me up," says Campanella. "He became my mentor, and helped form me intellectually. He also grew up in Brooklyn, not far from me, and that gave us a real bond. It means a great deal to me to be back here on the faculty with him."

After receiving his M.L.A., Campanella went on to receive a Ph.D. at MIT, where his thesis fused his love of nature with what he was learning about the history of American planning and development. A painting in the Hall of North American Forests at the Museum of Natural History — The Elm in Northeastern United States — stimulated his interest in a tree that was fast vanishing from the landscape in the 1970s, the American elm. It became the subject of his doctoral dissertation, eventually published as Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm  (Yale University Press, 2003). The book tells of the elm's transformation from a fast-growing weed into a regional and national icon, and shows how "Elm Street" satisfied America's yearning to reconcile nature and the city since the time of Jefferson. It was named a "top ten" nonfiction book of the year by the Boston Globe, and later won the Spiro Kostof Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.

MIT also led Campanella to China. "I was offered a TA position for a summer urban design studio at Tsinghua University," says Campanella. "And I almost didn't take it. I had to prep for my exams. I knew nothing about China, had no interest in China . . . I didn't even like Chinese food. But I decided to go, and it changed my life."

China in 1992 was at the outset of the greatest building boom in history. On his first day in the border town of Shenzhen, Campanella's group was invited by local officials to have lunch in a revolving restaurant atop the city's tallest skyscraper. As far as he could see in any direction was construction. "It was the like seeing the building of Chicago before my eyes. And it was a watershed moment, only months after Deng Xiaoping made a historic trip to the very same restaurant, firing up the economy by telling the people it was okay to get rich and build," he says. Campanella spent a total of five years in China, including one as a Fulbright fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His work there eventually led to his most recent book, The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).

But Campanella's time in China hardly diminished his interest in the built environments of North America: "It was always there simmering on a back burner," he says. After returning from China, Campanella went to visit his parents in Brooklyn and was struck once again by his childhood haunt, Marine Park. "No one had written about Marine Park," he says. "So I decided to pursue not just that project, but a larger project on Michael Rapuano, who designed the park. I had received the Rapuano Medal when I was at Cornell, so this really brought it all together for me." Knowing that Rapuano had spent time in Rome, Campanella applied for a Rome Prize and received a fellowship in 2010–11. He spent his time there following Rapuano's steps and tracing the influence of his Italian studies on the parks and parkways of New York City.

Campanella's time in Rome is feeding one of his current book projects — a monograph on Rapuano and his partner, Gilmore D. Clarke, Designing the American Century. Clarke and Rapuano were among the most powerful landscape architects of the 20th century, working alongside Robert Moses for 40 years. "They were really the brains and visionaries behind some of the greatest public works projects of the time," Campanella says. "They designed nearly all the parks and parkways we usually attribute to Moses — the Henry Hudson Parkway and Riverside Park, the Brooklyn Heights promenade, Bryant Park, the United Nations complex, both World's Fair grounds, and Flushing Meadows Park. I also think it's fitting that I'm writing about Clarke here, as he was the founder of the Department of City and Regional Planning and later dean of AAP. It's like I've come full circle."

Campanella's Brooklyn heritage is also the muse for another book project, Brooklyn: A Secret History, which will be published next year by Princeton University Press. The book explores the "afterlife of great plans" in one of America's most popular but understudied places. "It explores three centuries of dreams and schemes that never came to pass or have long been forgotten," Campanella says. "Failure is fascinating, and failed plans probably reveal more about us as a people than the things we actually build. I love searching out traces of these failed dreams in the built environment. The book is an archeology of stillborn ambition, and will really be a tribute to my hometown."

An interest in the sometimes hidden history of the built environment is something Campanella hopes to provoke in future urbanists as well. As the newly appointed director of undergraduate studies, he is hoping to impart to the next generation of urbanists some of what his parents inspired in him.

"I want them to really see and experience the things they've been looking at all their lives — malls, bridges, skyscrapers, highways, houses, fences, street trees, the front lawn," he says. "Endowing these bright young minds with urban spatial literacy, the ability to explain the city, to understand its formal evolution, to appreciate its extraordinary richness and vitality . . . that is really my ultimate goal."

By Rebecca Bowes

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