Book CoverI’ve finally gotten around to reading McDonough and Braungart’s influential Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and within the first few pages, I can immediately understand the book’s street cred.  The book itself is a polymer–composed of plastics, rather than paper.  Its waterproof, and 100% recyclable.  However, given McDonough’s obsession with practicality–redesigning simple items like carpeting and shoe soles–I was surprised and disappointed by his willingness to retreat into utopianism.  

How can one be forward-thinking without being utopian?  I don’t know frankly, but I can tell the difference between productive utopianism, and counter-productive utopianism.  McDonough (and Braungart; I don’t want to neglect our co-author) manages to do both.  

In terms of public policy, Cradle to Cradle is, in a word, spectacular!  The idea of legislating waste by requiring manufacturers to dispose of the products they produce(a utopian idea, to be sure), I’m certain, if it were ever established, would greatly reduce the amount of heavy metals going into our landfills, and would conversely reduce the amount of virgin materials that we need to expurgate from the earth.  Relatedly, I’m afraid that his semi-Orwellian guarantee that landfill mining will be a major growth sector in the coming years is spot on.  In addition, the collaborations that he has worked on to produce materials such as recyclable carpet, etc. are noteworthy.  

His argument against so-called “recyclable” plastics is stunning.  Though I had never actually thought about it, I didn’t know the vast qualitative differences that exist between the recycling potentials of glass and plastic.  Glass can be melted down and reconstituted forever, essentially.  A plastic bottle of water, on the other hand, cannot under any circumstances return as the same plastic bottle.  Each time it is melted down and reconstituted, its quality is reduced.  Therefore, when you recycle a water bottle, it doesn’t come back as a water bottle; it comes back as a parking cone, or a playground apparatus, or some such thing.  In short, the degradation of plastics is absolute.  And, when you consider the equally absolute law of the conservation of matter, the frightening realities of our reliance on virgin plastics hits you (or at least it hit me) like, well, a parking cone to the face.

All that said, I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth after having finished this book, and McDonough’s excitement over what I would call architectural utopianism, is the sole culprit.  

In graduate schools across the country, the great utopian thinkers of modern architectural and urbanist thought are taught not as shining examples of forward thinking, but instead are off-handedly guillotined every semester in our graduate classrooms as examples of large scale planning gone horribly awry–Corbousier, Ebeneezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, even Olmstead to a certain extent (see Riverside, IL, not Central Park, NYC).  In fact, I would argue that the most infamous of all urban planning quotes was Daniel Burnham’s “Make no small plans.  The lack the ability to stir men’s souls” (or something to that effect; I’m too lazy to play factchecker right now).

And yet, generation after generation of urban thinkers are prone to the large plan.  Its just so glossy, and new, and the answers are so clear and concise, and, “consarnit”, even revolutionary!  But, every time, within a few decades, the big plans (Cabrini Green; Civic Centers across the country; cul-de-sacs; pedestrian malls) are exposed as careless, under-nuanced and over-funded, and prone to political or social collapse.  And, yet the circle continues as McDonough has fallen into the same glittering trap.  

Instead of towers in the park and garden cities, McDonough gets all twitterpated about his grand plans for sustainable cities: huge plans for huge cities, sweeping changes, a new paradigm for urban design, lots of fancy graphs and artistic renderings of perfectly manicured green-roofed cityscapes and aerial views.  And ooh, look at that fancy powerpoint!  I wanted to just stand up and say (despite this being a book, and there being nobody to complain to) “How?”  In China, where one of his major projects is located, he flings up these fancy pictures on the page, and doesn’t bother to mention basic political hurdles such as, I dunno, land ownership, cost, or god-knows-what-else.

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

A front-porch clad, New Urbanist House

I guess I just don’t trust that kind of thought.  Its one thing to plan a perfect city in your head where everyone acts rationally, and you can save the world through urban design, but to implement it verbatim frightens me.  The new urbanists (the darlings of progressive urban planning theory in the mid-nineties) are learning this fact now.  You can require front porches in newly built neighborhoods (and they look mighty fancy!) but nobody is going to sit on them.  Nobody is going to sit on their stoops, because there’s no reason that people should.  The fall of close knit communities was not linked to the departure of the front porch from American architecture; it was caused by two primary inventions–television (the lesser of the two) and air conditioning.  And new urbanists suggest that people can keep their TV’s and sir conditioners, just as long as they have sidewalks and front porches.  Its a joke!  

The only thing worse than a house without a front porch is a house with a front porch that’s never used.  That’s the problem with McDonough.  All of his micro-analysis is wonderful, but his translation from treatise on waste to manifesto on the future of architecture doesn’t reflect the political, social or economic complexities of urban environments.  

In short, I’ll recommend this book to anyone.  However, I will recommend that they put the book down when McDonough unveils his bright, shiny, perfect sustainable city.  I generally avoid things that are bright and shiny to begin with; things that are perfect are outright dangerous.