I had a wonderful experience the other morning, just after Holly died. I was walking down Sixth Avenue, and as I was about to cross 46th Street I ran into Dan Biederman, and we stopped, and stood on the corner and talked about Holly, and what he had done, and what he had meant for the city, and for planning, and for the way we see the world. Dan reminded me that Holly was in every way the guiding philosopher behind the resurgence of Bryant Park, and how critical his thinking, his advice, his wisdom had been to what was done there, and his words made clear how everyone who has struggled with how to make civilized public space in New York is in his debt. We said goodbye, and I crossed the street toward my office, and then, somewhere in the middle of Sixth Avenue, it struck me – that very conversation was itself proof positive of all that Holly has ever tried to say. It could not have been more perfect – to run into each other on a street corner, and to have done the little dance that Holly documented so perfectly in his extraordinary films; here were the two of us, Holly Whyte students for much of our lives, and we didnÃ•t even realize that we were doing it, that Holly Whyte pas-de-deux on the street corner. But we were – moving ahead, back, circling round, almost parting, starting again, finally saying goodbye. And how perfect that this accidental meeting was to talk about Holly, and what he meant. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate Holly than that – a serendipitous conversation on a street corner.
Today, of course, we meet in a church, and not on a street corner, for there is no corner of Manhattan large enough to accommodate all of us who mourn Holly WhyteÃ•s death – even if you allow for some of the crowding and jostling that he so loved, and taught all of us to value and to love, too. Today is a day to retreat from the city streets for a moment, and contemplate how much better our life on them is because of Holly Whyte, because of what he saw and eventually helped all the rest of us to see.
Holly was a prophet of common sense. He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw. He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it. He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that. Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly gave them facts.
But that, as all of you know, was only the beginning. We might have admired Holly as much as we did had he been only a gatherer of facts, but we would not have loved him as much as we did had that been all he was trying to do. His facts, as you know, were gathered for a purpose. His objective research on the city, on open space, on the way people use it, was set against what I think I must call a moral context. Holly believed with deep passion that there was such a thing as quality of life, and that the way we build cities, the way we make places, can have a profound effect on what kinds of lives are lived within those places. That is why, surely, Holly never set himself up as a high-powered consultant, though he probably could have made a fortune doing so. He never wanted to be beholden to rich real-estate developers, though many of them would surely have been willing to pay high fees for the privilege of a Holly Whyte endorsement on their plazas. Selling himself like that would have destroyed the purity and integrity of his mission, and he knew it.
Holly, unlike so many people who work in urban design, was also never one to exaggerate the importance of physical form. He had no illusions that a well-designed street or plaza was the same as bread on the table or justice in the courtroom. But he was never inclined to minimize the value of physical form, either. Indeed, one of the greatest contributions he made was in putting all of this in perfect perspective, making it neither too important nor too unimportant in the scheme of things.
And how deeply he believed that the quality of life he valued was enhanced by the urban experience, by the street, by the notion of the public realm. In the last generation, we have seen what we might call the triumph of the private realm in this country, as malls and atriums and gated communities take over from streets and parks and squares. Holly would have none of this. He was our prophet of the public realm. He believed in the urban values of engagement and serendipity, and not the suburban values of disengagement and separation and unchanging order. He believed that the greatest achivement of the city is the street, and he complained in his book "The City" that our urban planners and public officials were engaged in what he called "a holy war against the street." He was right. Holly knew that, as the architect Louis Kahn once said, "a street is a room by agreement," and he loved the conceptual notion of the agreement as much as the physical notion of the room itself, for Holly always believed that the greatest lesson the city has to offer us is that idea that we are all in it together, for better or for worse, and we have to make it work.
He put his facts where his heart was, and he put his heart where his facts were. Holly was the first to cut through the hypocrisy of the economic arguments companies often trumped up for leaving the city, and to point out that they were really just excuses for indulging in the suburban values of disengagement – not to mention excuses for allowing the boss an easy commute to home or golf course, since Holly was also the first to demonstrate that almost every company that left Manhattan departed for turf close to the chief executiveÃ•s back yard. To Holly, the selfishness of this gesture summed up a certain anti-urban attitude that he had committed himself to reversing. In his mind, cities were where community was to be found. And as Holly so deftly demolished the corporate rationale for leaving Manhattan, he cut right through another common hypocrisy of our time, the hypocrisy of architects who designed sterile, unpleasant and hostile places, and pretended that they were esthetic experiences. Holly knew better. He had the empirical facts to prove it, and as usual, those empirical facts never hardened into a rigid esthetic viewpoint. His love of easy, casual human use, as exemplified in his insistence that there be movable chairs in Bryant Park, did not blind him to the virtues of the ultimate spare modernist plaza, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, because he could see how well it worked. His visual sensibility worked the opposite from the way, say, an architectural magazine editorÃ•s does – where the magazine wants only to look at places as objects, and its photographs are devoid of people, HollyÃ•s mindÃ•s eye had every place filled with people. He only began to see things when the people were in them.
Every time I think IÃ•ve had an idea about cities and streets and how they work, I look back and discover that Holly saw it first. He taught all of us, more than anything, to look, to look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then to look again – and to believe in what you see. That is the first of his lessons, and the one that informs all the others. Believe in what you see, and believe in the fact that the people who use cities are often way ahead of the people who design them – that is what Holly Whyte taught us all, and what was central to his passion for civic engagement, for community and for the enlightenment of urban life.