"This is going to be an ordeal," urban planning critic and author James Howard Kunstler said as he began a talk entitled, "Can America Survive Suburbia??," before a standing-room only crowd in a large lecture hall in Buffalo State College's Bulger Communication Center.
"As a result of this presentation," he continued, "you will never look at your town the same way again. Almost everything that I'm critical of, the solution will be self-evident in the criticism. You will leave here understanding what's going on in your surroundings."
Bold, blunt and balding, Kunstler bulldozed through the past 50 years of development in America and declared it an unmitigated disaster.
"Americans are suffering from living in terrible, low-grade surroundings all over the country," he declared, "and their distress is tremendous."
In his Thursday evening appearance, he illustrated his points with color slides, praising the sensible use of public space shown in 19th century photos of downtown areas and ridiculing late 20th century architecture and planning as impractical and ugly.
"One of the primary characteristics (of good planning) is that it's a place worth caring about," he said. "Here's a place that's not worth caring about."
The audience roared with laughter at a photo of a suburban commercial strip outside Chicago, choked with traffic and presided over by a giant water tower painted with a smiley face.
"This is the face of a wrathful deity," he said of the water tower's smiley face, "saying 'you are wicked people, you deserve to be punished.' The problem isn't that it's all the same. The problem is that it's equally terrible. Parisian boulevards all look the same, but nobody ever comes back from a vacation in Paris complaining that all the streets look the same."
Moving on to a photo of dumpsters, he noted that they were 300 feet from the main public area of his hometown, Saratoga Springs. The problem with the dumpsters, he said, is not merely that they are ugly.
"The fact that these are present all over downtowns means that it's OK," he said. "But it's not OK. It should be considered an act of civic disorderly conduct. Are we honoring the public realm? Obviously, this property owner is degrading the public realm."
Kunstler, originally a novelist, has written two books on planning: "The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape" and "Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century." He also maintains a website, www.kunstler.com, where he features the "Eyesore of the Month," a display of what he considers to be "architectural blunders."
Kunstler contended that one of the problems with modern planning is that urban features are considered to be bad and rural features are regarded as good.
"We gave up on the city and the town," he said. "We only value the countryside and nature.
"So what you're seeing all over America is they're bringing these cartoons of nature into town. Everywhere you see more bark mulch ensembles with juniper plants. What you get is a cartoon of nature out front to disguise the fact that the building is a complete civic failure."
Kunstler's appearance was sponsored by Partners for a Livable Western New York and was held in conjunction with "Building a Better Community," a joint conference of the New York Upstate chapters of the American Planning Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects.