Shortly before I began working at Chaco I read The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. This short book, published in 1960, was one of the foundational texts of the then-emerging field of urban design. In it Lynch presents a not-very-rigorous methodology for analyzing urban form and a resulting theory dividing a city for analytical purposes into a set of elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. These interact in various ways to form cityscapes that either work aesthetically or don’t. Lynch concludes that while some American cities work better than others, they all have problems, and a properly designed city is imaginable but has not yet been created. He also notes that in the modern era the proper scale of urban design is not the city in a narrow, traditional sense but the metropolitan area, a social unit on a scale beyond anything yet incorporated into architecture or city planning. While he concedes that nothing like this is even close to happening in real life, he notes the possibility of using the aesthetic principles he has outlined in this book to form the basis for a system of design principles to be used to make the metropolitan area, a thing unimaginably vast and disturbing by the standards of ordinary human perception, into a comforting and aesthetically pleasing environment.
When I arrived at Chaco and began learning about it in detail, it soon occurred to me that while Lynch’s vision of large-scale design had not been implemented in any modern American city, the principles he outlined were strikingly relevant to the ancient canyon. Indeed, it seemed almost trivially easy to take Lynch’s methodology, apply it to the remains of the Chaco system, and conclude that the design of Chaco approximated a realization of Lynch’s ideal city much better than any actually existing modern American city does. When I first began to conceive the idea of starting this blog, in fact, one of my first ideas for a potential post was to do just that.
As it turned out, I was not the first to come up with this idea, and I realized not long after I started working at Chaco that it had already been done. The context was an edited volume, arising from a conference, called Anasazi Architecture and American Design. This conference and the resulting book were intended to bring together archaeologists, historians, architects, planners, and others to discuss and reflect on the connections between past and present. I bought this book and read it eagerly, because this is a topic of considerable interest to me.
I won’t say it was a disappointment, exactly, because there’s a lot of good stuff in the book, but I would definitely say that it could have done a much better job of what it purports to do. The most interesting and useful chapters are those by archaeologists, including Michael Marshall’s description and interpretation of the Chacoan road system and David Stuart’s presentation of his evolutionary theory of prehistoric southwestern cultural change. The chapters by planners and architects, in contrast, are surprisingly superficial and often seem to miss the most important points. Many seem determined to harness evidence from prehistory to support preordained conclusions about the best ways of designing communities in a modern context; the worst in this regard is Paul Lusk’s chapter on site design, which makes extraordinary efforts to use Anasazi practices as evidence for the superiority of New Urbanism. Stephen Dent and Barbara Coleman’s chapter applying Lynch’s urban design theories to Chaco falls into this same category.
It’s not that Dent and Coleman are wrong, exactly. In fact, they apply Lynch’s theories to Chaco in pretty much the exact same way I was thinking of doing so. There’s a really striking lack of depth or context, however. The overall tone of the chapter is one of wonder at the achievements of the Chacoans and hope that we might be able to learn from and emulate them. This is hardly surprising, since as I mentioned before Chaco clearly shows a coherence of design unmatched by any modern city. It’s problematic, though, because the implication is that the Chacoans had it right and we should strive to imitate them as much as possible. They authors don’t really grapple with what I would say is one of the most important thing about Chaco: its impermanence.
Chaco was quite impressive in its day, but in the greater scheme of things its day was quite short. The Chaco Phenomenon, whatever it was, only lasted for about a hundred years, and it seems to have fallen apart rather suddenly and spectacularly. All the focus that Dent and Coleman, along with the other planners and architects who contributed to this volume, put on Chaco, the perfection of its planning and architecture, and the importance of emulating it to create sustainable communities ignores the fact that Chaco itself, however sustainable it may have been in theory, was in practice not sustained. (This attitude is even more problematic when applied to Mesa Verde, as is done in some other chapters.)
The archaeologists get this. While the planners and architects tend to focus intensely on the well-known sites at Chaco and Mesa Verde, the archaeologists are more familiar with the broad sweep of southwestern prehistory and the way these cultures developed and adapted to changing circumstances. Probably the most useful chapter in the book is Steve Lekson’s, in which he gives some context and shows that focusing on Chaco and Mesa Verde results in a dangerously skewed perception of what is typical and important about southwestern prehistoric cultures and their legacy.
It’s unfortunate that this book and conference couldn’t have done more to develop an interdisciplinary synthesis of the important lessons to be learned from Chaco and their application to modern problems. I think such a synthesis is both possible and desirable, but it requires a much more serious effort on the part of modern practitioners to seriously grapple with the confusing and difficult archaeological record and the limited but telling glimpses it gives of past societies, their problems, and the solutions they devised, some of which were clearly more successful than others. There are useful lessons for modern America to learn from Chaco, but for the most part they aren’t in this book. Anasazi America, David Stuart’s later development of his ideas, despite some problems of its own, is a much more serious and useful book for these purposes. I hope there will be others in the future, incorporating the perspectives of modern practitioners as well as archaeologists, but founded on a deep and meaningful understanding of the past.