Critic Speaks on Urban Design at Trancik Retirement Event

September 24, 2020

Architecture critic Robert Campbell believes that "cities are better designed by generalists, by amateurs," rather than by experts.

Campbell's Sept. 12 talk, "Do Cities Need Designers?" in a packed Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall, honored the retirement of Roger Trancik after 27 years as a Cornell professor of city and regional planning and landscape architecture, and 12 years as professor of urban design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

CRP professor Rolf Pendall introduced the lecture as a "celebration and commemoration" of Trancik's long history at Cornell and Harvard.

Trancik, who has been named professor emeritus, said: "Someone suggested a retirement party, and I resisted -- I just wanted to ride off into the sunset. But we settled on an event with some content." Campbell, he said, has been a longtime friend and "he's inspired me throughout my career."

"Critics don't answer questions," Campbell said. "We ask questions, and then we tell you if you're right or wrong."

He addressed his topic by looking at urban design in Buffalo, Boston and Albany, among other cities. He showed slides comparing his dining room table with Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and said the Empire State Plaza in Albany was "a still life for giants -- there's no human scale."

"[Buffalo] in 1900 had more millionaires per capita than any other American city," he said, thanks to electrification centered in nearby Niagara Falls, and Buffalo being a major shipping and transportation hub.

"It's a museum of architecture -- the WPA style, Richardson, Wright, Olmsted -- but Buffalo is now a synonym for frozen weather and lost jobs. My view about Buffalo is it should shrink to greatness. Colin Rowe [the influential architecture scholar who taught at Cornell from 1962-90] called it one of the best-designed cities in the country."

Campbell's work as architecture critic of the Boston Globe won a 1996 Pulitzer Prize. He also is an architect, consultant, magazine writer, poet and photographer.

"Every other critic is a consumer guide, whether for a movie, a restaurant, a play," he said. "If a critic pans a play, it closes the next day. If I bomb a new building, they don't tear it down. ... The job of the journalist is to mediate between the necessarily confused expert and common sense. As a critic, your job is to participate in a lifetime conversation with the public on what makes a good environment."

Campbell said the era of "funny shapes" in modern architecture is ending. "To make funny sculptures of buildings is just hateful," he said. "Like this thing Rem Koolhaas is building [in China]. Any child can come up with a new shape."

Following the lecture, Trancik was honored at a reception in the History of Art Gallery. His daughters, Anika Trancik '94 and Jessika Trancik '97, read e-mail wishes sent by his former students, including Ken Reardon, former chair of city and regional planning and now at the University of Memphis.

Trancik established and directed an international studies program in Denmark for Cornell landscape architecture students; he has taught in the United States, Sweden, Denmark and Italy.

He is the author of "Finding Lost Space: Theories of Urban Design" and "Hamlets of the Adirondacks," among other books. His honors include the Paramount Professor Award for Excellence in Teaching at Cornell, and national awards from the American Planners Association and American Society of Landscape Architects, which elected him a national fellow in 1990. He was appointed a Fulbright scholar in 2004, completing an interdisciplinary heritage planning and conservation project in Panama for Latin America and the Caribbean.

By Dan Aloi

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