Not Brasilia

What Makes a Masterpiece of a City?

12.11.12 12:38 PM ET

Norman Foster offers a statement on the work of Oscar Niemeyer:

It is said that when the pioneering Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin visited Brasilia he likened the experience to landing on a different planet. Many people seeing Niemeyer’s city for the first time must have felt the same way. It was daring, sculptural, colourful and free – and like nothing else that had gone before. Few architects in recent history have been able to summon such a vibrant vocabulary and structure it into such a brilliantly communicative and seductive tectonic language.

The trouble is, this isn't really much a compliment. Cities are not backgrounds for the exhibition of architectural masterworks. They are places in which people must live. Half a century after Jane Jacobs published Death and Life of American Cities, it seems bizarre that there is any jolt of novelty remaining in restating such truisms. But they are resisted not because architects have not heard them before, but because they are too arrogant to heed them.