SAVANNAH, Ga.—Unlike the 20th-century experiment that reinvented much of America’s built environment as suburban sprawl, colonial-era experiments in city design have proven to be both highly adaptable and enduringly beautiful.
Thus it is no accident that leading urbanists have flocked this week to Savannah, Georgia, for the annual Congress for the New Urbanism, to collaborate on how to recover a tradition of human-scale cities that may have once seemed a quaint province of historic preservationists.
Of course, Savannah is indeed quaint, and preservation efforts have made walking down its intact antebellum streets somewhat like going back in time. Shaded by live oaks and Spanish moss, the city’s famous series of public squares break up the street grid every few blocks and are perhaps its signature feature. Remarkably, these public spaces were there from the beginning, when the first sections of the city were laid out in the 1730s.
The Englishman James Oglethorpe, a leading innovator of his day who was in conversation with leading lights such as philosopher George Berkeley and American founder John Adams, is today celebrated for coming up with the unique grid-and-square system, which allowed the city to expand over subsequent decades—and in fact, centuries—while maintaining both a rational and beautiful urban-design framework.
It was a plan that drew on Enlightenment-era confidence in reason, though it was not an entirely secular one: The series of squares allowed for multiple church buildings, for example, to sit in prominent locations. (Catholics were initially excluded from the new colony, but one of America’s oldest Jewish congregations was formed in Savannah in 1735.) This pluralistic approach was in contrast to many of the settlements in New England, where there was little toleration of those outside the reigning Congregationalist regime.
The physical form of Oglethorpe’s plan was made up largely of 60-foot-wide lots, grouped into “tithings” of ten, and allowed for a wide variety of uses, from large single-family detached homes to sets of three slim rowhouses. All these residential rows were backed by “lanes,” the Savannah parlance for an alley, which Savannah College of Art and Design Professor Robin Williams explained have through centuries of technological change provided a utilitarian space for hiding infrastructure—stables, sewers, electric and telephone poles. (And against the original vision of founder Oglethorpe, they also were long a corridor where slaves were hidden from the front of the community.) Closer to the squares and in between residential sections are “trust” lots, or places dedicated to civic or public uses.
Notre Dame School of Architecture Professor Philip Bess argued at one Savannah CNU session that the city’s design has many virtues, but is not perfect. The wards, the groupings of small lots around squares that measure only 600 feet square and a bit over 10 acres, “are arguably too small,“ with the result that open space may actually appear too often as one moves through the urban fabric. Still, Bess laments that Savannah “never become a model” for American cities, “but it should have.” He pointed out that Chicago’s grid, for example, lacks any system of public neighborhood spaces, and suffers for it when it comes to the placement of prominent civic and religious buildings.
Bess’ Notre Dame graduate students have thus embarked on a project to design a new railroad suburb for Chicago inspired by Savannah. The new model takes the advantages of the Savannah approach—easily replicable mixed-use neighborhoods that plug in to the existing order, allowing for straightforward and incremental city expansion over time—while correcting for what Bess sees as the minor deficiencies of design monotony and somewhat of an imbalance between public and private realms.
An attempt to recreate all the charm and livability of a place like Savannah overnight would be futile, but many New Urbanists believe that the basic DNA created by Oglethorpe and others holds lessons for those who seek to create communities that are both sustainable and beautiful. The emphasis on high-quality public spaces that make moderate density livable, for example, is a lesson that can be applied to any number of new and existing neighborhoods.
There is increasing demand for the kind of traditional urbanism seen in Savannah in real estate markets—with the result that unless the market and regulatory authorities create more Savannahs, only the most wealthy among us will be able to live in such places.
This wasn’t always the case. Savannah’s economic success over the last few decades has led to a new problem of balancing increasing tourism with the needs of existing residents. To remind the Congress how much things have changed, local activist Vaughnette Goode Walker read a passage from the March 1990 issue of The Atlantic, in which a travel writer reported that “Savannah doesn’t know how good it is. That’s why it’s so fun to visit.”
Today Savannah knows how good it is. New Urbanists know, too. And increasing numbers of Americans want to live in a place inspired by its simple but captivating design.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.
Years ago, when the now-iconic New Urbanist town of Seaside was little more than a few streets of new houses patterned on the classic Florida “cracker cottage,” architect Andrés Duany tried to explain the project to an audience of carping critics in a Harvard lecture hall. Their complaint: the place seemed “plastic,” “artificial,” annoyingly “Disneylandish.”
“If you want an omelet,” Duany told them, “you don’t take the eggs and the peppers and onions right out of the grocery bag and plunk them on the dining room table raw. You have to cook them, and in a particular way, in a particular order.” Obviously, he explained, a newly constructed place like Seaside had to “cook” for a while until any number of human choices and interactions gave it a history and thereby a patina of authenticity.
Seaside had attracted a lot of attention by the 1990s. As a real estate venture, it resonated with the public. They got it. It was not hard to get. By then, much of America had become a depressing wilderness of boring, cookie-cutter subdivisions with everything else smeared over the landscape along six-lane commercial highway strips, in a deadly, endless panorama of cheap, tilt-up buildings amid wastelands of free parking. It was worse than not-a-pretty-picture. It was a cultural and economic disaster.
The public had struggled to articulate its torment over this growing catastrophe, this geography of nowhere. They knew it made them feel bad, but not why. By the late 20th century, most Americans had never experienced anything else in a place to live or even to visit on vacation. Perhaps even worse, the legal matrix of single-use zoning had melded with the mass-production methods of the so-called “homebuilders” and the happy-motoring ethos to virtually mandate that anything new constructed in the United States must have a suburban-sprawl outcome. You couldn’t build stuff any other way even if you wanted to. This approach to development supplied people’s basic needs, in a dull, schematic way—and it certainly made a lot of money. But it turned the human habitat of North America into a sick joke. As Joni Mitchell sang: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Seaside came about when a struggling young Miami real-estate developer named Robert Davis emerged from the economically brutal conditions of the late 1970s with a burning desire to reimagine his line of work in a more meaningful way. Davis had done a rather severe modernist townhouse project called Apogee in Miami that didn’t pan out financially. He and his wife, Daryl, had come up to the rather empty stretch of the Florida panhandle west of Panama City, along the Gulf Coast known as the “Redneck Riviera,” to hang out for a few weeks on 80 acres of empty beachfront scrub left to him by his grandfather. The grandfather, who owned a successful department store in Birmingham, Alabama, had intended to develop the property as a vacation camp for his employees. But World War II intervened, and he never got around to the project.
In the late 1970s, Davis met two young architects from a hot new Miami firm called Arquitectonica, which had designed the signature building that was later featured on TV’s Miami Vice. Andrés Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (hereafter, for simplicity, Andrés and Lizz), were fresh out of the Yale School of Architecture, where they had studied under the iconoclastic historian Vincent Scully and developed a deep interest in the kind of traditional urban design that had become practically extinct in America after World War II.
“In what became Seaside, it was clear very quickly that they had a sympathy for what we wanted to do, which was rediscover vernacular architecture,” Davis said.
Soon the two couples were road-tripping together around the rural South, looking close and hard at small towns. They measured the dimensions of front porches, angles of roof pitches, widths of streets, curb ratios at corners, and setbacks of dooryards, all in an attempt to discern how a traditional town might best be designed and assembled.
“After a while of doing this,” Daryl Davis recalled, “there seemed to be a pattern of conditions that felt good to be in.” With Andrés and Lizz officially signed on, and joined by a rotating coterie of architect friends for house-party-style brainstorming sessions in salvaged U.S. Army Quonset huts, a formal Seaside plan was drawn up. There was additional input from the maverick European architect, Léon Krier (who would go on to design the Prince of Wales’s English new-town project, Poundbury). Davis borrowed money from a savings and loan (a now-extinct form of bank), using six building lots as collateral to construct the first two modest beach houses. And so Seaside was born.
The ground plan was startlingly formal by the dumbed-down American standards of the car-crazy late 20th century, and it has proven extremely sturdy since its final iteration in the early 1980s. It employed rediscovered devices of civic art that had been abandoned for decades by the building industry: well-defined public spaces, a commercial center that made provision for shops within easy walking distance of the houses, a mixed-use district around a small square, a network of alleys between the blocks (especially good for children), and important sites strategically reserved for churches, a school, and an Athenaeum for conferences and symposiums. A crucially intelligent feature had perpendicular streets meeting the Gulf beachfront, with the beach remaining public. This meant that houses away from the ocean still had high value, since they were only a few minutes walk to the ocean. Early on, Davis started building handsome pavilions on the dunes at the end of each of these streets to honor public access to the beach.
“I was convinced that people would like this,” Davis said, “but I didn’t know how long it would take because it was essentially selling them what their grandparents had taken for granted, and was not sufficiently au courant for what people were buying in comparable real estate.”
Early on, Seaside was featured on the cover of Southern Living Magazine and sales took off. Davis managed the build-out with patience and care, using profits from lot sales to finance modest building increments of new houses and streets. He avoided the heavy leveraging that typically gets ambitious real estate projects in trouble. It enabled Seaside to get through the economic speed-bump of the early 1990s and other downturns. Early on he added a grocery store, a bistro, and a post office to the commercial town center, allowing people to see a fully functioning traditional town emerge from the oak and palmetto scrub.
By that time, Seaside had become a national phenomenon. The public was thrilled that something so beautiful and functional could be accomplished in new construction, having been conditioned for decades to expect low-quality suburban junk from most real-estate developers. The moment also coincided with the formal birth, in 1993, of the New Urbanism movement, a coalition of architects, developers, and municipal officials who had joined together to reform the fiasco of suburban sprawl. Lizz, Andrés, and Robert Davis were among the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which held its first meeting in Alexandria, Virginia in October that year.
A perverse feature of human behavior is that even really good ideas will provoke furious opposition, and so the more Seaside got built out and the more demonstrably lovely and sensible it became, the more it attracted criticism, especially from mandarins of Ivy League architecture schools. In fact, the more Seaside attracted favorable publicity and robust sales, the louder the carping in the strongholds of Modernism and its offshoots became. The front porches and picket fences especially annoyed these critics because they were not “subversive” of bourgeois comfort.
Seaside’s market appeal led to steeper lot prices, and wealthier people became the buyers. This came as rather a surprise to Robert and Daryl Davis and to Lizz and Andrés, who originally had imagined the place would attract an artsy, bohemian crowd. The newer houses were getting larger, too, some of them quite grand, though they all followed the rigorous architectural code drawn up to regulate the look and behavior of Seaside’s buildings. (The code was created because American builders had become so clueless and sloppy about traditional design methodology that the rules had to be spelled out.) The code had one quirky rule: any 14-by-14-foot portion of the building footprint had no height restriction, which prompted these newer, wealthier buyers to build towers on their houses. This had the two-fold benefit of providing the owners with marvelous perches for evening cocktails and allowing the public to enjoy the vista of an interesting town roofscape—something almost unknown elsewhere in one-story America.
That was the last straw for the academic Modernists, who regarded such ornaments as a politically incorrect display of capitalist lucre by the “oppressor” class. Seaside, they cried, was “unaffordable,” an insult to the proletariat (as if Ivy League professors were proles). There were several reasonable responses to that accusation. First, the place was self-evidently a beachfront resort community, not a factory town for a textile mill or a Section 8 public housing project. “It was, paradoxically, as a resort where so many people were able to inhabit and experience Seaside that its value became so widely known,” Andrés said. “That made it far more influential than other New Urbanist projects that were not resorts.” True, the housing for service workers was quite limited, but at least Lizz and Andrés had written codes that permitted as-of-right accessory apartments and rentable out-buildings to accommodate single, young people—though the value of this housing got bid up, too, by dint of sheer desirability.
In the natural course of things, the new luxury housing of today becomes, as it ages, the affordable housing of the future. In the preceding half century, America’s dumb zoning laws had virtually outlawed accessory apartments all over the country, while the official building codes made it practically impossible to construct an inexpensive small house. We are now reaping the fruit of these bad trends.
A Hollywood movie called The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside in 1997. The main character, played by Jim Carrey, was a guy unwittingly trapped under a plastic bubble in a fake town leading a fake life. “The academy thought that The Truman Show was a great poke in the eye to New Urbanism,” Andrés said. “But it was only a poke in the eye of the academy. Actually Seaside became more famous and beloved because of The Truman Show. Most people thought, ‘Seaside is so beautiful.’ That’s when Seaside took off. The moral of The Truman Show is that you shouldn’t believe what you see in the movies—which, of course, is what Harvard did.”
Seaside’s success prompted Walton County, Florida, to draw up a regional land-use plan based on New Urbanist principles: new development projects along the Gulf Coast would have to be based on compact mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods rather than cul-de-sac subdivisions with the usual depressing commercial highway strips. The state was also induced to declare 800 acres behind Seaside as a park preserve crisscrossed by bicycle paths. Lizz and Andrés’s firm, DPZ, went on to design two other traditional new towns in south Walton County: Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach.
“I don’t know where else in the United States in the last quarter-century anybody’s produced a plan that’s been so effective at not only preserving open space but also guiding new development to be wiser,” Lizz said.
Seaside emerged inadvertently as an exemplary model for environmental protection. Green building was in its infancy. “It’s an extremely ecological place,” Andrés said. “Everything we did in Seaside that cost less turned out to be environmentally superior. Because it had to be done on a low budget, it ended up being a green project—the original green, not the high-tech Gizmo Green of today. I know green building doesn’t have to cost more because I’ve done it. It’s the old way of doing things, and they didn’t have a lot of money to throw around in those days.”
The compact, walkable character of the town is the most obvious feature of what also came to be called “environmental urbanism.” It minimizes the consumption of land. Most of your ordinary daily needs lie within a five-minute walk. Natural cooling was achieved at the urban and architectural scale by orienting streets perpendicular to the shoreline, with its gulf breezes, while the vernacular houses featured broad overhangs, screened porches, high ceilings, and highly reflective metal roofs. The houses were raised off the ground, allowing rain runoff to percolate easily. Ditto the street pavements, which were brick set in sand. The parking lanes were gravel for percolation. No pipes or bulldozers were needed to manage water. The grassy central square would be used over the years as an amphitheater, but doubled as a stormwater management basin when heavy rains struck.
Andrés’s brother, Douglas Duany, a landscape architect now on the Notre Dame faculty, argued in the early days that Seaside should only use the native plant species found on site, mostly scraggly, wind-beaten, scrub oak. It didn’t look like much. Though many working on the project were skeptical, it was written into the code. Thirty years later, having been sheltered from the wind by the houses, these oaks have matured into graceful trees of the kind found all over the Deep South. The landscaping requires minimal attention, another cost savings. Since then, this method of using local plant species has been named xeriscaping. These thrifty, common-sense strategies stand in contrast to the hugely expensive high-tech LEED requirements (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) now widely regarded as the one way to environmental building by the building industry.
“The old way of doing things is not acknowledged because the consultants and gizmo purveyors can’t make money on it,” Andrés observed.
I ventured down to Florida in February for the annual Seaside Prize ceremony, an award given to architects and others generally associated with the New Urbanist movement. It had been nine years since my previous visit. The town was pretty much built out, though traditional towns will continue to evolve emergently as economies change and societies respond, so it would be imprecise to call it completed. Thirty years on, the beauty of the place is astonishing. There are hardly any places in the country that come close as a deliberate exercise in civic artistry.
The beauty of Seaside as a human habitat is not inconsequential. Conscious artistry is what allows a geographical place to be worthy of our affection, and a great tragedy of our national life is that we have built too many places since World War II that are not worth caring about. Imagine the effect of that on our national character and its demeanor.
Artistry in our daily surroundings is a bulwark against the ravages of entropy—the force in the universe that shoves things toward disorder, stasis, and death. Conscious artistry is the physical expression of our gratitude for being, which puts us in the realm of the sacred. Seaside is an early harbinger of where history is taking us: into a lean future that will surely compel us to act differently, value things differently, and build places where we stake our lives with much more care and love.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
When the Austrian architect and artist Camillo Sitte (ZIT-uh) first published The Art of Building Cities in 1889, his native Vienna was nearing completion of the Ringstraße—a grand boulevard of parks and public buildings that follows the path of a former wall around the perimeter of the old city. The ring road, along with its many individual site plans, was an immense canvas for late 19th-century urban planning, and Vienna’s prominence as a leading capital of Europe ensured that the project would help define the modern city. There is a tendency among advocates of traditional urbanism to have a rose-colored view of such 19th-century city planning projects. Yet for Sitte, both the successes and failures of the Ringstraße were salient as he wrestled with the central question of his book: As the modern metropolis experienced explosive growth, which aspects of traditional urbanism could be “saved from the heritage of our ancestors”?
An exceptionally sophisticated site planner, Sitte focused on aesthetic details at a level of depth even rarer today than it was in fin-de-siècle Vienna. While studying the cities of the Old World, he identified several valuable principles that by his time had already been lost or become neglected. Sitte lamented the decline of pre-modern urban characteristics and a gradual loss of wisdom from the town-building traditions that had shaped Europe prior to the rise of industry. Today, scholars often see Sitte as a leading light of the renewed focus on aesthetics that permeated the work of urban planners in the late 19th century—an accolade that he deserves.
But if all Sitte had offered before his death in 1903 was a critique of his own time, he would have been forgotten long ago. What has kept architects and urban planners coming back to him for over a century is a more inquisitive look backward: a close reading of the traditional forms that gave European urbanism its essential character. In the immediate decades after Sitte’s book was published, 20th-century urban theorists such as Raymond Unwin and others looked to Sitte for guidance when applying the time-tested traditions of town-building to the smokestack cities of the industrial age. Closer to our own time, prominent New Urbanists such as Andrés Duany and Leon Krier have taken inspiration from Sitte’s focus on the art of creating places, as they seek to deemphasize the functionalist approach that dominated much of 20th-century city planning.
Reading Sitte elicits a mixture of admiration and exasperation. While he is undoubtedly correct in many of his unfavorable comparisons between the patterns of traditional and industrial urbanism, he may also hold city builders—especially those working in uniquely dynamic historical moments—to an impossible standard of refinement. Yet despite these faults, Sitte is still appropriately placed in the canon of great urbanists, one of those classic thinkers who anyone concerned with the future of the city cannot ignore.
One of Sitte’s foremost concerns is the placement of monuments. Today, features like statues, sculptures, fountains, and obelisks may seem mere afterthoughts to core questions of urban planning. For Sitte, who considered the fine art of planning to extend down to the precise details of every urban space, such a presumption about ornament could not be more wrong. In his approach, the decision as to where a monument would be placed was as important as the choice of the object itself. He laments a tendency (which has continued) to select points along geometric axes as locations—especially when such points lie in the center of large open spaces, where the visual impact of any object will be diminished by its distance from observers and the dimensions of the surrounding space. Throughout his writing, Sitte returns to a deep distrust for the technician’s affinity for regular shapes, and for decisions that look tidy on a draftsman’s plan. Instead, he provides compelling evidence that a more sophisticated approach to site planning allows for frequent departures from the tyranny of right angles and rigid proportions.
Sitte argues that the historically and artistically correct practice is to situate monuments—especially sculptures—to the side of primary thoroughfares, often near the entries of buildings. This is a way of contextualizing their presence with the other physical details of the built environment. It also ensures that the largest proportion of passers-by will experience them close up. Among many fine examples, he offers two intriguing instances of the placement of public sculptures by Renaissance masters in Italian cities to illustrate the artistic component of site selection. First, he looks at the original site of Michelangelo’s David, in Florence:
This gigantic marble statue stands close to the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the left of its principal entrance, in the exact place chosen by Michelangelo. The idea of erecting a statue on this place of ordinary appearance would have appeared to moderns absurd if not insane. Michelangelo chose it, however, and without doubt deliberately; for all those who have seen the masterpiece in this place testify to the extraordinary impression that it makes. In contrast to the relative scantiness of the place, affording an easy comparison with human stature, the enormous statue seems to swell even beyond its actual dimensions. The sombre and uniform, but powerful, walls of the palace provide a background on which we could not wish to improve to make all the lines of the figure stand out.
Sitte notes caustically that David has since been moved into a gallery—an “art prison that we call a museum”—where it is severed from the enriching urban and architectural contexts that Michelangelo had wisely selected. (The original remains indoors today, at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze; a full-sized replica now stands on the site chosen by Michelangelo.)
Building on his use of fine art to illustrate his principles of placemaking, Sitte also examines the siting of Padua’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, a large bronze sculpture by Donatello located to one side of a piazza and vast basilica, rather than on a central axis:
[W]e may be astonished by its great variance from our rigid modern system, but it is quickly and strikingly seen that the monument in this place produces a majestic effect. Finally we become convinced that removed to the center of the square its effect would be diminished. We cease to wonder at its orientation and other locational advantages once this principle becomes familiar.
He further explains the traditional placement of monuments at the edges of busy spaces by using an analogy between finished public squares and the furnished rooms of private houses. Today, as we have for centuries, we tend to place art around the perimeters of indoor rooms.
Sitte’s recommendations for what today we might consider unconventional siting of monuments dovetails with a tradition in southern Europe, dating from classical antiquity, in which the centers of public plazas were kept open and clear (with some exceptions made for fountains). This practice began in ancient times, when these spaces were primarily used for community activities that drew large gatherings of people. Over time, many of these activities moved indoors, but the tradition of open space remained.
Sitte’s analysis is always driven by a close reading of practices from the past. He primarily focuses on Medieval and Renaissance towns in Italy and Germany, with occasional ventures into neighboring lands and more ancient times. The Art of Building Cities includes dozens of hand-drawn plans of plazas adjoining churches, city halls, markets, and other central gathering places.
The contention that ornamentation must respect its context is consistent with Sitte’s recommendations for the larger characteristics of public spaces. He calls our focus to the fact that, traditionally, churches in southern Europe were built into existing streetscapes—that is, most old Italian churches were attached structures rather than free-standing buildings. As with monuments, he favors the siting of iconic buildings, such as churches or city halls, at the perimeter of a plaza, with only a selective exposure of façade space; and he has harsh words for the more recent trend of placing monumental buildings in the center of open spaces. Sitte also calls attention to the proportioning of plazas in relation to the key structures whose vistas they will facilitate. “We can distinguish,” he argues, “between two kinds of public squares, those of depth and those of expanse.” The former, he believes, is most appropriate opposite the tall but often narrow façade of a church. The latter is better suited to the space across from the front of a typically wider city hall.
Always skeptical of overly rationalistic designs, Sitte is adamant about the value of irregularity. He contends that the modern desire for symmetry is misguided. Looking back to the history of the concept of symmetry, he writes:
Although [symmetry] is a Greek word, its ancient meaning was quite different from its present meaning…. The notion of identical figures to the right and left of an axis was not the basis of any theory in ancient times. Whoever has taken the trouble to search out the meaning of the word … in Greek and Latin literature knows that it means something that cannot be expressed in a single word today…. In short, proportion and symmetry were the same to the ancients.
For Sitte, the ancient meaning of symmetry is something closer to harmony than to a bilateral reflection. He argues that the more rigid definition is a product of Renaissance times that began to haunt the thinking of architects and planners, diverting them from the more nuanced harmonies of older, more irregular designs. Returning to the topic of public squares to apply this interpretive lens, Sitte notes that irregularities on the map are rarely discordant in actual experience. Instead, he contends that they can provide more interesting vistas, better proportioning, and even ideal sites for civic art:
The typical irregularity of these old squares indicates their gradual historical development. We are rarely mistaken in attributing the existence of these windings to practical causes—the presence of a canal, the lines of an old roadway, or the form of a building. Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character.
This point about urbanism is broadly consistent with Einstein’s famous observation that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” As Raymond Unwin and others have observed, curved streets create an inherent sense of mystery, because their vistas reveal themselves only gradually, as one’s movement changes one’s perspective. That which has not yet become visible, but which we intuit to be there, compels us forward and holds our attention as it does so. Compare this to a typical grid, where streets, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “follow like a tedious argument.”
To illustrate the value of irregularity, Sitte offers an example from Verona. Situated in a V-shaped bend of the Adige River, the northern Italian city is surrounded on three sides by water, and accordingly benefits from a topography that has long required an efficient approach to land use. The old blocks of Verona focus on the Piazza Erbe, which is located at the approximate center of the city’s elbow in the riverbend. Its long, lozenge-like shape—wide in the center—creates an attractive enclosure. The space’s framing by irregular streets, shaped by topography and building variety, allows for a sense of mystery, with vistas revealing themselves from various perspectives. Despite its geometrical oddity (when viewed on a two-dimensional map) the square feels well-proportioned at street level. In addition, the variety of its building facades, refined over many years, adds texture and color, while a tower serves as a visual focal point. Perspectives benefit from a plaza with proportions that, intentionally or by fortunate accident, maximize their effects.
Numerous criticisms of contemporary planning—which read like philippics against bureaucrats, technicians, and their procedures—appear alongside Sitte’s attempts to integrate the wisdom of traditional artistic principles into the rapidly developing world of the late 19th century. These grievances against urban planning practices would be familiar among anyone who studies the field today: a tendency to prioritize vehicular traffic (then streetcars and animal-drawn carts) over pedestrians in ways that benefited neither class; a focus on technical considerations to the exclusion of aesthetic ones; a forgetfulness about history; and the uninspired nature of government edicts that shape land development. On this last point about the nature of planning bureaucracies, Sitte is especially biting:
Even if we assume that every official has the ability, knowledge, background in travel and training, innate artistic feeling, and imagination to conceive of an effective city plan, a number of officials acting together in a bureau would produce only barren, pedantic stuff of a dusty official flavor.
To improve the planning process, Sitte advocates reintegrating the essential artistic components discovered in a historical urban fabric—qualities like perspective, complementariness, proportion, irregularity, and so forth—with the necessary advances of modernity, including sanitary systems, transportation infrastructure, and contemporary construction practices. In fact, one of the strongest architectural lessons that some readers take from Sitte is an appreciation of the value of building in ways that respect a structure’s historical context; he is indeed critical of artificiality in all its forms, including attempts to replicate a time that no longer exists.
In keeping with his faithfulness to setting and not pure aesthetics, Sitte also provides a detailed analysis of traffic patterns at several types of intersections—tallying potential collision points between carts and pedestrians. His drawings are presciently similar to the diagrams that would one day delineate vehicle lanes, crosswalks, and traffic signals in the age of motor vehicles. Yet Sitte’s conclusion from this analysis does not advocate for a more orderly set of traffic controls; rather, once again critiquing an overly rationalistic approach, he suggests that the use of a more traditional, non-gridded street pattern will reduce the chance of congested intersections.
Sitte closes The Art of Building Cities with a close aesthetic analysis of several site plans along the Ringstraße in his native Vienna. His general assessment of the state of development there is that the architecture is well done, but the site planning is lacking in sophistication, largely because it has left an excess of open spaces that fail to either complement the buildings or define the plazas. Accordingly, he offers several ideas for changes to the spaces surrounding key buildings, including the Votivkirche (Votive Church) and the Rathaus (City Hall). Unsurprisingly, he suggests modifications that would bring these sites closer in line with traditional city patterns. His specific recommendations include the development of additional structures in the vast, undefined plazas that would create a sense of enclosure around the facades of the landmark buildings; the removal of streetcar tracks from their immediate proximity; and the use of various new structures to harmonize views by blocking the visibility of clashing, neighboring buildings. “We should always follow the principle,” he writes, “of harmonizing everything that can be seen in one view, and we need not concern ourselves with that which cannot be seen. That is the road to practical effect, and it will never lead us astray.”
The Art of Building Cities is a rich, dense book. Considering the wealth of information it contains, it is also deceptively short. Sitte’s insights about proportioning, site selection, and the benefits of irregularity remain particularly valuable to urbanists. At the same time, his criticism of Industrial Age planning is too harsh—especially in retrospect, with 20th-century planning failures such as urban renewal now in clear hindsight. The builders of the late 19th century may not have reached the zenith of artfulness and local authenticity as cities expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. And they certainly could not replicate the construction of neighborhoods that the settled cities of medieval and Renaissance Europe had achieved organically—and presumably without conscious planning—over the course of many centuries of refinement. But in light of the pressures of the industrial era—including historically unique economic and population growth—many 19th century architects and planners deserve credit for incorporating more thoughtful applications of tradition into their plans than those of subsequent eras would do.
Ultimately, Sitte’s contempt for contemporary urban planning creates a paradox for his legacy: the very instinct that drives his criticism also fuels a call to planners to return to the essentials of town-building practices. And by defining certain simple devices from long-standing traditions of urban civilization, Sitte makes his most important contribution: providing a set of discrete, implementable ideas that urban planners, even in faster-moving times, can use to achieve more artful results.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Here’s a thesis statement for New Urbanists to consider: it’s hard to enjoy being a flaneur if someone is trying to mow you down with a motor vehicle, or if the cops are shooting to stop the mowing. That is, a pedestrian taking in the sights ought not to have to worry about being struck by a car or truck, or perhaps being hit by a stray bullet.
Such thoughts are summoned to mind by this Washington Post headline: “Police in D.C., New York revise shooting policies in response to vehicle ramming attacks.” As the Post‘s May 1 story details, in the wake of the spate of ramming attacks around the world, police forces are reversing their decades-old policies against shooting at dangerous moving vehicles.
Reluctantly, one might conclude that the authorities have no choice. It’s one thing to tell the police that they shouldn’t shoot at, say, getaway cars, because the collateral risks are too high; it’s another to demand they hold their fire at the moment of murderous vehicular mayhem.
One could further say that the April 23 attack in Toronto, which left 10 dead and 15 injured, is particularly scary because the alleged killer was not a jihadi. Instead, he was apparently an “incel,” which is one of those new categories of pathology that the Internet seems good at discovering, and in a perverse way at glamorizing and multiplying.
In other words, ramming has transcended the stereotype about killers as ISIS wannabes. It’s now an equal-opportunity thing, a wicked kind of performance art, a sick-yet-easy option for anyone with a sufficiently malevolent turn of mind.
So what to do? How to respond to this threat? For the moment, let’s confine ourselves to the immediate issue of safeguarding streets and walkways. As for the underlying problem of human nature, let’s wish the healers and therapists the best, even as we remember the realist wisdom of Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
Still, as we live our lives in a bent condition, we can at least try to make straight the path to greater urban safety. Here are four possible categories of solutions.
First, applying on-the-spot restraint. This includes, of course, shooting at the driver. Without a doubt, firing at moving targets is at best a least-worst strategy, given the difficulty of aiming and the great risk of hitting innocent bystanders.
So we might ask: are there better mechanisms of immediate restraint? Could we have pop-up barriers or force fields? Traps or nets of some kind? Lasers or some sort of pulse device that turns off the vehicle? In speculating on such technological fixes, we should have confidence that there will be plenty of clever ideas for gadgets—and some might even work. Of course, we should also be mindful that any safety device that kicks into gear will likely be controlled by some sort of artificial intelligence, and, as this author has argued, that opens up new vistas of the problematic.
Second, banning cars in pedestrian-dense areas. Many cities have been moving in this direction: in the past, the rationale has been aesthetic or environmental, but nowadays safety is another valid reason. Indeed, even without ramming, motor vehicles bring trouble, killing some 6,000 pedestrians each year. So in some places, banning vehicles would also solve the ramming problem.
On the other hand, in a country of 325 million people, there are a lot of pedestrian-dense areas, and so prohibiting vehicles for the sake of safety is hardly a scalable solution. Moreover, as President Trump pointed out while speaking to the NRA convention in Dallas on Friday, “van control” would raise all the same objections as “gun control.” And, of course, cars have a lot more support than guns.
Third, accelerating the push toward driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles (AV). That is, if we can’t ban cars, maybe we can ban car drivers. The AV idea, actively pushed by Silicon Valley, seemingly offers the promise of eliminating wheeled human murderousness, because the computer would be doing the driving—or perhaps, in the name of safety, the emergency overriding.
Yet on the matter of safety, a string of accidents, including fatal accidents, has shaken public confidence in AV. Actually, come to think of it, maybe the public has never wanted AV. Maybe all along it’s been a top-down lobbying campaign pushed by Silicon Valley’s money and prestige.
In the wake of an AV fatality in March, Uber announced a pause in AV testing, which seemed like a fair acknowledgement of public concern. And then, just last Friday, we learned that another tech company, Waymo, owned by Google, had still been AV-ing—and was involved in another accident, this one mercifully non-fatal.
Obviously, the tech lords have gotten way ahead of themselves on AV—and more to the point, way ahead of public opinion. Yes, techsters have much invested in their AV projects, but the American people have much invested in their own lives. And as long as it’s votes—as opposed to campaign donations—that are counted on Election Day, politicians will have to heed the wariness of voters more than the eagerness of donors. So in light of these murky politics, an AV solution to ramming is nothing to count on.
Fourth, building barriers. In the last three and a half decades—ever since the 1983 truck-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon—a pattern has emerged: if a building is judged to be truly important, it is to be defended by an immobile phalanx of bollards or other kinds of obstacles, including, sigh, the distinctly unsightly jersey barrier.
Typically, these protected buildings are public structures, but some high-profile private buildings, too, have the benefit of barriers. For example, the immediate area around Trump Tower in Manhattan is a car-proof fortress, and other name-worthy private buildings—such as the nearby Bank of America Tower—have the same fixed counter-terror protection.
As this author wrote for TAC last year, bollards can be seen as “passive defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like: it’s just there, always on guard. The alternative is, of course, “active defense.” And while active defense might seem better because, well, it’s active, it will certainly be more expensive and might sometimes even be less effective.
After all, with active defense, there will always be technical complexity—and thus the greater risk of Murphy’s Law. By contrast, passive defense, in its low-tech simplicity, is always “on,” whether or not it’s plugged in or wired up, and that makes it about as snafu-proof as anything humans can create. (This author has sung the praises of passive defense earlier, here and here.)
To be sure, the issue of putting barriers around buildings is controversial. Back in 2006, for example, New York City began restricting the placement of barriers around buildings. After all, some of them were definitely eyesores, and probably all of them had at least some inhibiting effect on traffic and people flow.
Yet the active march toward passive defense is likely to continue—for the simple reason that, in its stark simplicity, it does the job. Moreover, with some thought, barriers could be made prettier; they could be disguised as benches, or tables, or statuary. They could even be trees—perhaps, if need be, reinforced trees.
In the meantime, another new phenomenon in the built environment, protected bicycle lanes, points the way to another kind of passive solution. That is, bike lanes with curbs that separate bicyclists from motorists are an obviously good idea for the protection of the two-wheeled. And it’s easy to see how curbed bike lanes could double as passive defense for pedestrians and buildings from the four-wheeled threat.
Of course, a lively debate about such matters is not just inevitable; it’s useful. The dialectic is the fastest route to sustainable solutions. In that vein, it would be interesting to hear more from major landlords, including federal ones like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the General Services Administration. And it would be equally constructive to hear from artists, urbanists, activists, and the citizenry. For the sake of aesthetics as well as safety, a national conversation is needed.
Not everyone, to be sure, will like the idea of passive barriers, because there’s always someone who objects. As Voltaire said, it’s easier to conquer the universe than to get a single village to agree—and America is a mighty big village.
Still, until we get to the world where humans are made from non-crooked timber, it’s likely that a critical mass of people will agree on the need for barriers as a relatively cheap—and extremely important—urban safety measure.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
FAIRFAX, Va.—Upon returning from living abroad in the summer of 2017, my family temporarily stayed in a hotel in Fair Lakes, Va., a town representative of much of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. It was made up of predominantly middle- or upper-middle class suburban housing, with a mix of strip malls and town centers. While at the hotel, I noticed something that seemed unusual in the adjacent lot: an entirely abandoned five-floor commercial building with a large parking area. As I’ve driven around the area since then, I’ve noticed a significant number of similarly vacant or mostly empty commercial buildings.
This situation seems odd—Northern Virginia boasts five of the 13 richest counties in the country, and southern Maryland has two more of them. Why does one of the wealthiest areas of the United States possess such an abundance of vacant commercial real estate? It’s a complicated story, with perhaps one overarching theme: As a report of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., assesses, “the Washington region remains overly dependent on the federal government.” Many developers, realtors, and economists once thought that the region was impervious to recession—but current real estate trends suggest that is not the case.
In 2014, Northern Virginia had about 40 large buildings with at least 50,000 square feet “ready for use,” meaning with few or no current tenants. In the District alone, there was “more than 14 million square feet of unused commercial property downtown, about double the vacancy rate of a decade ago” in 2017. The numbers are comparable in Maryland, and they are far higher in Virginia. This is a remarkable amount of unused property across the region, especially given that some lease contracts require entire buildings to continue utility payments.
This is the case even in booming Tysons, one of the wealthiest areas of Northern Virginia, with its marriage of extravagant wealth and seemingly incoherent planning or design. Currently in Tysons, commercial buildings are between 18 and 22 percent vacant. Healthy vacancy rates are supposed to be at about 10 percent, a figure that allows for enough flexibility for current tenants to expand their office space as needed, and for property owners to have some flexibility with space for potential new clients when contracts with older tenants expire. Tysons, a prosperous commercial and real estate market, still somehow has vacancy rates twice the estimated “best practice” rate.
The history of the D.C. area real estate market can help make sense of how we got here. In the 1980s, the region experienced exceptional, unprecedented growth in commercial real estate. Much of this corresponded to the Reagan administration’s focus on national security. The I-270 corridor in Maryland was known as the “life sciences corridor” because of the significant expansion of bio-medical properties owned by the federal government or federal contractors. The National Institutes of Health, for example, is located in this area. At the same time, on the other side of the Potomac, Virginia’s large number of defense-related contractors in the Dulles Toll Road corridor in Virginia made it the “death sciences corridor.”
In the late 1980s, the region witnessed a large influx of speculative building plans funded by S&Ls, or savings and loan institutions, responding to a corresponding growth in federal spending. The motto at the time, largely fueled by these federal expenditures, was “get the money out.” When the federal purse was burgeoning, this system perpetuated itself. But when that purse contracted, the trouble started.
Commercial property developers typically maintain a three-to-five-year building plan. If there is a dip in the economy, or a reallocation of federal expenditures, these developers “get caught,” so to speak, and the properties they are building go into default. In the D.C. area, where approximately 30 percent of the economy is the federal government, this means that government budget dips will have an outsized impact on the region. In 1989, the Resolution Trust Corporation, or RTC, was formed to address this problem, which had developed into what became known as the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.
The RTC, a U.S. government-owned asset management company was “charged with liquidating assets, primarily real estate-related assets such as mortgage loans, that had been assets of savings and loan associations (S&Ls) declared insolvent by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS),” a consequence of the S&L crisis of the 1980s. With the RTC breathing down the necks of S&Ls, these institutions sought to get commercial properties off the books as quickly as possible. This created a hyper-artificial real estate market, where many properties in default were sold at “steal” rates—one building in Chantilly, Va., for example, sold for the absurdly low cost of $22 per square foot. (In more stable market circumstances, they usually sell for between $100-150 per square foot.) The buyers of these properties were real estate investment trusts with sufficient capital.
There were other federal trends beginning in the 1980s that also affected the real estate game, nationally and in the D.C. area. The Base Realignment and Closure program, or BRAC, was established in 1988. Since its inception, more than 350 military facilities have been closed nationally. Many Defense Department civilians and contractors working off-base in commercial spaces moved onto military compounds. One of the largest bases in the D.C. area, Fort Belvoir, now reportedly has a staff that is 80 percent civilian. Moreover, when bases close, commercial real estate being used by DOD contractors off-base is also affected.
DOD has also pursued public/private development, where private companies, such as hotels, are allowed to build on public (i.e. military) properties. This inevitably impacts the off-base economy. Other government contractors have meanwhile merged, often leaving behind unused spaces. The General Services Administration, or GSA, has cut the size of the average office cubicle in half, which also takes a toll on the demands for commercial real estate. Moreover, budget sequestrations can—and have—put government contractors in deep water, with many analysts arguing that contractors are those hardest hit by tighter budgets.
Other non-federal trends can also impact commercial real estate. The ubiquity of mobile phones, as well as the growing embrace of telecommuting, have dramatically impacted a former reliance on commercial spaces. Alternatively, Millennial workers have less interest in working in car-centric office parks, preferring public transit access.
The final, but perhaps most important factor, was the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2010. The roots of this disaster can be found in the Carter administration, when the Community Reinvestment Act began encouraging riskier housing loans. This was furthered by the 1982 Alternative Mortgage Transactions Parity Act and the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992, the latter demanding that at least 30 percent of government-subsidized lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s loans be for “affordable housing.” For decades, politicians created increased risk in the housing market. When the bubble burst beginning in 2007, the calamitous effects were felt in the commercial real estate market as well. Only in the last year or two has the market begun to return to the numbers seen right before the crisis, though that reemergence has been quite asymmetrical in different regions across the country.
This is certainly the case in the D.C. area, where commercial spaces languish in some areas (e.g. Chantilly, Fair Lakes, etc.), while others experience phenomenal prosperity. In the currently burgeoning Reston Town Center area, where such big players as Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Bechtel rent space, vacancy rates in commercial buildings are at an astonishingly low 0.5 to 1 percent. Reston is a particularly interesting case, given its history as a planned community with origins in the 1960s. While Reston appears in many respects to represent the future of real estate—with its union of walkable residential and commercial spaces that will soon have access to D.C. Metrorail’s Silver Line—the older Reston is defined by suburban communities with adjacent strip malls separated from major thoroughfares, and is thus largely invisible to the passerby. Such invisible commercial properties, such as the Tall Oaks strip mall on North Shore Drive, now languish with vacancies.
One solution is the transformation of these buildings into mixed-use (also called multi-use) residential/commercial spaces that allow for more market flexibility. This requires changes to contracts and sometimes local codes, but it addresses the dramatically shifting moods and conditions that define our country’s digital-economy era. People can rent space in which to live and work, and if their business prospers, have the option of expanding their space in the very building in which they live. The Tysons and Reston areas mentioned earlier boast examples of exactly this kind of economic development.
It’s likely this problem is not going away, and may even get worse—the Stephen J. Fuller Institute assesses that “the Washington region’s high cost of living and quality of life issues have made it less competitive with its peers.” Coupled with Fuller’s evaluation that “[another] recession is likely in the foreseeable future,” this likely means all those empty buildings won’t be filled any time soon. Moreover, this increasingly seems to be a problem not limited to the D.C. area: 14 to 22 percent of national suburban office inventory has been assessed to be obsolete, while businesses across the country are moving back into the cities.
No region is served by having so much unused commercial space, places that remain dependent on infrastructure but are not contributing to economic productivity. Some prominent developers in the D.C. area already seem to recognize this—a few years ago one developer reportedly acknowledged that the region didn’t have a development problem, but rather a “tear down problem.” TAC has already identified some areas in Northern Virginia defined by largely vacant, outdated strip malls that could benefit from a “tear down” approach, if not a significant makeover. I still happen to take pride in the region, but we need to change course in our development patterns before it’s too late.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.
Buildings touch the ground, and the business of resting on the ground, rather than crushing, mutilating, or annihilating it, is one fundamental part of the architectural task. But buildings also touch the sky, and in doing so they create one of the most significant boundaries in our world—the skyline, which is the boundary between the city and the heavens.
Traditional builders were very respectful towards this boundary. Their buildings were designed to meet the sky with cheerful gestures, wearing decorative crowns, reaching upwards with the prayerful fingers of the minarets or the questioning needles of the spires. Blunt stubs of flattened masonry might sometimes be necessary for military purposes. But they were never approved for use in the city, where every building needed a hat that would put its social nature on display.
This attitude to the skyline is one of the most important reasons for the charm of the old cities of Europe and the Middle East. Even today you can capture glimpses of this charm, for instance in the skyline of Ghent, so proud of its markets and merchandise, so intent on celebrating the guilds, congregations, schools, and colleges that throw their stone hats in the air.
Only from afar is a similar effect to be observed in the downtown of American cities, where vast lumps of steel and glass stand stark and sheer against the horizon, with perhaps here and there, in the old skyscrapers with their caps of alloy, some semblance of the joyful skylines of the old world. And when high-rise buildings, designed to look like children’s toys or kitchen gadgets, are introduced into those old world cities, the result, as in London today, is a heartbreaking vision of a dignified old face, beaten up by hooligans.
The horizontal roof was one of the innovations of which the modernists were most proud. Le Corbusier saw the flat roof of the Villa Savoye as a proof of the new aesthetic, and the fact that it leaked, and that the whole house beneath it was soon to become uninhabitable and an object of litigation, was a matter of indifference to him. The house, he told us, is a “machine for living in.” He meant that it was to be lived in by machines, not by those petulant and comfort-hungry creatures known as humans.
The skyline of the old city was not created by spires, domes and minarets only. It was created most of all by the rows of pitched roofs on which these decorative additions cast their endearing shadows.
The pitched roof, like the window, was one of those great discoveries that any child could have made, but which, like the window, required a vast amount of research before architects could dispense with it. This research has enabled architects to design sealed buildings whose windows cannot be opened, which require constant heating and cooling, and which generally fall apart at the joints and leak from the roof—all positive attributes that necessitate demolition and rebuilding every 20 or 30 years.
Pitched roofs and windows, by contrast, produce buildings that last forever, and which can be constructed without the advice of an architect, as at Ghent: They are a disaster for the profession and it is no wonder that every effort is being made to forget how to construct them.
The pitched roof has a gable, which lends itself to decoration. It has corners where statues can stand or finials sprout. It carries tiles that make rippling shadows and very often has a terracotta crest along the apex, which stitches the two slopes together. It can be punctured by attic windows, to delightful effect, and creates interesting interiors that remind their occupants of the sky above. All in all it is an aesthetic triumph, all the greater for never having been thought of in that way.
Look at the architecture journals and blogs to see how roofs are now conceived and your heart will sink. As always there is only one lesson that architects have learned, which is that it is vital to be original, especially if real knowledge stands in the way.
Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow.
The New Urbs series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
In The Architecture of Community, a brilliant, baffling book that contains equal parts text and the architectural equivalent of political cartoons, traditionalist architect Leon Krier opens with a simple proposition. Imagine that you had to choose between eliminating every building built before 1945 or every building built after 1945. Which would you choose? The total built volume of both periods is about the same—so which act of destruction would feel like the greater loss?
This proposition is fascinating because it should be a hard question, but it isn’t. Our guts immediately tell us that a world full of postwar buildings would be alienating and hollow, utile but sterile. We lean on our pre-war buildings for far more—for meaning, for beauty, for a sense of place, for the stuff that makes life not merely livable, but worth living. This is Krier’s point. Modern architecture attempted to make a clean break with the past and “start from zero.” But for most ordinary people, the result has been the opposite—an unprecedented dependence on our architectural heritage as a refuge from our architectural present.
Whenever anyone bothers to ask the American people about what kinds of buildings they prefer, they speak with a clear voice: They prefer traditional ones. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects decided to survey the general public for their view on the question, producing a ranked list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” The list is remarkable: Of the 50 most favored buildings, a mere seven were built in postwar styles. Of those seven, two are monuments (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Gateway Arch) and another, the World Trade Center, no longer exists. The other four are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, Chicago’s Willis Tower, and, inexplicably, Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino. The remaining 43 most favored buildings all hale from the prewar period. Perhaps the public will eventually come around to the new stuff, but it’s been 70 years.
Various other types of evidence corroborate the clear public preference for traditional architecture. And what it all reveals is a stark disconnect between what ordinary people like and what actually gets built. When famous architects build today, their intended audience is not really the general public, or even the client. It’s other architects. It’s the people who award the Pritzker Prize. It’s the academics, theoreticians, and highly-credentialed practitioners who dwell in the impregnable temple of architectural criticism.
These temples exist in every artistic discipline, and they presently elevate one precept above all others: disruption. From their vantage point, the traditionalist is a bourgeois dolt, but the iconoclast willing to deconstruct, make new, and render his audience uncomfortable is to be praised. The public seems amenable to disruption in visual art—the Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Dalis of the world are authentically liked, far more beloved than architects Gropius, Mies, and Le Corbusier. (The alternative to disruption in painting would be something like America’s Most Wanted Painting—which is a real painting produced by surveying the American public on their preferences as to color, setting, subject, etc., and combining the winning qualities into a single composition. It looks like this: a perfectly inoffensive if kitschy landscape featuring George Washington, deer, and a hearty dose of the color blue. Yet clearly, America’s Most Wanted Painting isn’t all the American public wants, because they keep smashing attendance records at New York’s contemporary exhibitions at the MoMA.)
Why does disruption in architecture get a distinctly colder public reception than disruption in visual art? Perhaps because people have a far harder time opting out of architecture than other kinds of art. Architecture inserts itself into our daily lives. We can’t avoid it. If we work in a bleak monolith that inspires existential dread every morning we meet it, there is simply no recourse. The architectural equivalent of taking the painting down, or asking our neighbor to turn down the music, or avoiding the trendy gallery, simply does not exist. And this is why America’s Most Wanted Building should be far more important a lodestar than it currently is.
The refusal of the architectural-criticism temple to regard the preferences of ordinary people is curious, given that they do quite a lot of posturing about the need to democratize the discipline and “deconstruct power relationships” that supposedly poison relations between architects and the public. After all, within the temple, one is not supposed to be a stuffy elitist. The au courant stance is omnivorousness—one is expected to be a cultural democrat. So what explains the active hostility toward the actual aesthetic preferences of ordinary people?
I recently had a conversation with a thoughtful, talented architect who argued that the traditional Western architectural idiom was invented to entrench the power of the elite class above the marginalized. Greek marble and columns were the products of enslaved builders. What the public might think is a conventionally “nice” house in fact uses a visual language derived from the palazzos of oppressive nobles and the plantations of slaveowners. It is thus the job of the architect to render these power relationships unstable. His own work seeks to do just that – and looks like this. The building’s explanatory text reads, in part:
This proposal subverts the architect’s dedication to formalism. It rejects the conception of objects as already existing. Here, the organizing grid and the tectonic frame that dictate the formal games of modernism and postmodernism are inflated and aggregated to absurdity. At a point of critical mass, the jumbled frame can only be read as relief.
This statement is bold, but its most distinctive feature may be that it requires academic training to decipher. If comprehending the ideas within this statement are necessary to understand the building they reference, it means that we’ve ended up with an architecture that is far more elitist than what it replaced. In the process, we learn an important lesson: Attempts to dismantle hierarchies only end up creating new ones. The question is not whether power will be held, but rather who will hold it. And by laying siege to traditionalism, we get an answer: Power will no longer be held by the public, but by the expensively trained priests of the architectural-criticism temple.
Defenders of the contemporary order will protest that it’s the moneymen who have the real power, and ordinary people were no more in charge when the aforementioned oppressive nobles determined what the built environment would look like. In one sense, this critique doesn’t matter, insofar as the revealed preferences of ordinary people indicate that they like what the oppressive nobles produced, and no one has any right to tell them they’re mistaken.
But it’s also inaccurate as a descriptive matter. When patrons had power—even fantastically wealthy and oppressive ones—it still ended up elevating the tastes of the layperson. Describing the state of affairs as it existed in the late 19th century, Tom Wolfe writes in From Bauhaus to Our House:
In New York, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French chateau on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Chateau de Blois for her down to the chasework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows. Not to be outdone, Alva Vanderbilt hired the most famous American architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design her a replica of the Petit Trianon as a summer house in Newport, and he did it, with relish. He was quite ready to satisfy that or any other fantasy of the Vanderbilts. ‘If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom,’ he said, ‘I’ll give them one.’”
Leading architects of the day were taking orders from their clients, and they produced the kinds of buildings that would rank highly in America’s Favorite Architecture. (Indeed, Hunt’s Biltmore Estate, built for a different Vanderbilt, clocks in at number eight.) The ironic result was that the architecture of plutocracy was more democratic in appearance than the architecture of radical progressivism.
But the reign of the laypeople was not to last. By 1932, then-MoMA director Alfred Barr was protesting that “We are asked to take seriously the taste of real estate speculators.” Modernism sought to take power out of the bourgeois patron’s hands and place it squarely with the architect, and it succeeded. Today, clients hiring avant garde “starchitects” do not pay for the ability to tell Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava what to do—they pay for these men to do whatever they want. The results are not merely ruinous budget overruns and buildings that can’t manage to keep the rain out—they also displace middle class aesthetic tastes in favor of elite ones.
In this way, contemporary architecture reflects the migration of art away from craft and toward ideology. The practitioners of craft are called artisans—they seek to implement the commands of the patron to the highest standard possible. When Richard Morris Hunt professed his willingness to give the Vanderbilts a house with a chimney on the bottom if they asked for it, he was evincing the value system of the artisan. But the 20th century transformed artisans into idealogues. Architects began doing things like writing manifestos and taking university appointments. Building stopped being a craft, and became a medium for the individual expression of the architect. Suddenly, our built environment was ruled by theoreticians, consumed by abstraction and intellectually committed to dismantling the comfort of the people who would have to live and work in their buildings.
The results are bizarre. For thousands of years, we built beautiful things. It is close to impossible to find a pre-20th century building capable of conjuring strong negative feelings—the worst they can evoke is indifference. But with the architect-theoreticians at the helm, we have succeeded for the first time at producing buildings that make people feel things like confusion, dread, anomie, and helplessness. Some argue that traditional buildings were just as controversial and confusion-inspiring in their own time. The architecture critic Aaron Betsky writes that “the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today.” Not a shred of evidence for this equivalency exists, and the architect Lance Hosey notes that 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, a lodestar for the traditionally inclined, was in fact deeply popular in his time. There has, in fact, never been a sharper break with the past than modernism, a fact that made its prophets quite proud.
Equally preposterous is the argument that we demolished all the ugly old buildings, so it’s not a fair comparison. Every Georgian terraced house essentially looks like every other one—because traditional architecture is vernacular architecture, and vernacular architecture comes from time-tested custom, not individual expression. The time-testing was performed, of course, by the people living in the buildings. Not so the individual expression.
Perhaps the greatest canard of all is that today’s architectural postmodernism—with its less strict emphasis on functionalism and allowance for some ornament—addresses and solves the problems created by architectural modernism. Temple denizens love to note that laypeople conflate the two styles, forgetting that modernism’s austere uniformity has been replaced by a supposedly more approachable postmodern whimsy. But of course laypeople conflate the styles precisely because they experience them as equally jarring. The distinctions only matter to the theoreticians whose careers depend on them. Back in reality, where the buildings do ultimately dwell, the glass box and the glass blob are allies in the war both have declared on their surroundings.
The great fin-de-siecle essayist Karl Kraus once wrote, “Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola! Give me the dependable monotony of cream cheese!” Architecture must give us less Gorgonzola and more cream cheese—less over-intellectualized adventures intended to be “challenging” and more uncomplicated, time-tested pleasure.
Power is rarely given up voluntarily, but if people continue demanding beauty over ideology, the truly public-spirited among architects will respond, and the temple that has ruled over us will begin to be dismantled—one glass panel at a time.
Nicholas Phillips is president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society.
Roger Scruton, “Today’s Skyscrapers Assault the Skyline and the Street“
David Brussat, “Occupy Le Corbusier“
I and my fellow writers here have often written critically about suburbia: see “What to Do When Suburbia is Your ‘Hometown,’” “Suburbanizing History: Northern Virginia’s Identity Crisis,” and “The Slow Death of the Shopping Plaza.”
Reading the comments and Twitter reactions to these pieces, I realize there’s a question we should probably answer or at least discuss more often: what is “suburbia”? As the saying goes, know your enemy.
There’s no one answer to that question. The original meaning of “suburb” is mainly geographic—a suburb is a smaller, less densely populated settlement outside of a city. It can be a smaller city, a town, a residential outgrowth, or a sprawling “census-designated place.” But there’s also the post-World War II definition of “suburb” that refers to bedroom communities, commercial sprawl strips, and places like Levittown—suburbs in the geographic sense to be sure, but also “suburbia” in the sense of an automobile-dependent development pattern distinct from towns and cities.
Some commenters have suggested that in being critical of the suburbs, I am suggesting that everyone live in big cities. That’s not the case. Towns and small cities, though they will inevitably be suburbs of their larger metropolitan areas, are not the kind of places that the critics of suburbia are railing against. It is important, then, to start out with a definition of “suburb” that is based not on geography but on the form of the built environment itself.
This requires some basic knowledge of zoning laws, which are largely responsible for “suburbia”—places that are not cities, towns, or rural countrysides, but a different kind of built environment altogether. The fundamental zoning principle here is the separation of uses, known as single-use zoning. This is why suburbs from mid-century and later generally lack traditional main streets, mixed-use buildings (except for condo complexes with floor-level retail), and corner stores in residential areas. James Howard Kunstler has written extensively on how suburban zoning codes and other building ordinances are largely designed to support property values and keep the gravy train of suburban construction running, rather than create pleasant and satisfying environments for people.
Still, there are different versions of suburbia, reflecting tweaks in zoning, economics, and time of construction. Midcentury suburbs that grew out of older pre-World War II settlements, like Massapequa Park, New York, or North Plainfield, New Jersey, are as different from the exurban fringes of Bozeman, Montana, or Leesburg, Virginia, as any of them are from true towns or rural countrysides. And perhaps the sprawling commercial wastelands that surround Interstate exits deserve their own special category.
First, there are those midcentury suburbs. Largely assembled between the mid-40s and the 60s, these places are distinct from later incarnations of suburbia. Many of them feature gridded streets of single-family homes clustered around a commercial highway strip. Some are expansions of an original older town, with the town structure preserved but the residential area greatly enlarged. There are often ballfields, churches, schools, and civic buildings amid the homes, echoing the mixed-use style of a true town (even Levittown has civic amenities sprinkled between the houses). Instead of dead-end cul-de-sac streets and collector and arterial roads, there are many gridded streets that intersect at right angles with the commercial strip, another town-like feature. There are almost certainly sidewalks, even on the highway. These types of places are generally lumped into the broad category of “suburbia,” but they probably get more hate than they deserve. This environment is, in fact, a modification of the traditional small town, in which the commercial highway strip replaces Main Street. In the parlance of paleontology, the gridded post-war suburb is a transitional species. It is suburban, but it is not quite sprawl.
Where can you find these places? In the inner rings around most major cities, and clustered along the highways leading into them. Many places in D.C.-adjacent Maryland qualify, as well as the New York City-adjacent communities along older highways like New Jersey’s Route 22 and Route 27. Many towns along Sunrise Highway, one of the main corridors on Long Island, follow the same pattern. While some inner-ring suburbs predate World War II, many were newly built or massively expanded in the 1940s and 50s—the point is that even the post-war construction was often adapted to the existing pre-war style rather than to the later sprawl style.
Take North Plainfield. The borough goes back to the 1800s, but expanded considerably in the midcentury period. However, it is more or less an extension of the city of Plainfield, which directly borders it to the southwest and is a true city, with a main street and multi-use, multi-story center. The street grid of Plainfield continues unbroken into North Plainfield, and the Plainfield main street drag is walkable to North Plainfield residents. North Plainfield itself, which fronts Route 22 for about two miles, is clearly a part of suburbia. But its status as an early, transitional form of suburbia is clear.
Main drag in Massapequa Park, N.Y. on Long Island. This was mostly built in the 50s, and unlike most main streets in true towns, lacks residential spaces above the retail.
Long Island’s Massapequa Park, with its Main Street-style retail district, gridded streets, and long strip of Sunrise Highway (the Route 22 of Long Island), places it in the same transitional category. The midcentury developments built along Maryland’s Route 193 (pictured above) do as well.
Main drag of Plainfield, N.J. The street grid in Plainfield continues identically in the later and more suburban North Plainfield, which fronts the main regional highway.
Interestingly, even within the same geographical area, you can find a different kind of suburb: the more modern sprawling subdivisions. These are relatively dense but not gridded, featuring cul-de-sacs and 40-foot-wide corkscrew roads. There are no ballfields, churches, or anything else amid the homes. At most, they might be at the edges of the subdivision developments. Separation of uses is stricter here, and there is no longer even a ghost of a small town. Milk and eggs is now a drive, not a walk, away. These places are generally newer and richer. Here are two aerial photographs of New Jersey showing North Plainfield to the south of Route 22 and Watchung to the north. Route 22 runs diagonally through the middle. The first is from 1957, showing the street grids to the south and a few nascent streets in the forest. The second is from 2013 (it looks the same today), showing the subdivisions that have taken over.
And then there are the “exurbs”—countrysides into which various trappings of suburbia suddenly crop up, as if airdropped in during the night. You pass forests, silos, farmhouses, tiny timeworn towns, and gravel roads, and then suddenly a massive Lowe’s or Walmart.
Recent, very large retail developments amid largely undeveloped space outside Bozeman, Mont. (above) and Leesburg, Va. (below)
Eventually, many of these places will get so built up that they will lose any residual rural character: aerial photos reveal that much of Fairfax County and Alexandria, Virginia, were rural/exurban in the 1950s, and are now crowded and aging.
Some exurbs, however, will remain as they are or even shrink. Many of these places amount to failed experiments, their development having stalled after the financial crisis and never recovered. Some of the grand homes in far-out suburbs are worth even less now than before the Great Recession. Some were put on ice after the crash and are in a state of half-completion. Near my parents’ home in New Jersey, you can see an aborted attempt to build McMansion subdivisions within farm fields. Just as those early suburbs took on the street grids of earlier towns, these late suburbs literally take on the pattern of the fields.
There is virtually nowhere in the American landscape that has not been touched, or defiled, by suburbia, but suburbia is not one single pattern. Some forms are far less flawed than others. Surely the category could be parsed more precisely than I have done here. But next time any of us get negative about suburbia, at least we’ll have an idea of which kind we’re talking about.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
Something has gone wrong with homeownership in America. Once the ladder to wealth, economic divides in real estate have increasingly become a driver of inequality, further entrenching political and economic privilege. Not only does this trend have knock on effects for the younger generation, but it’s not unique to the United States. The United Kingdom, Canada and possibly other countries are also feeling the shock of changing real estate markets.
On the surface, at least viewed from prosperous places, things look pretty good. According to Bloomberg, homeowners in some of America’s major coastal cities gain as much as $100 in wealth through equity each hour of the working day. Collectively, reports CNBC, U.S. homeowners are sitting on $5.4 trillion in property equity, the most ever reported.
And yet these gains are not realized equally across the country. For every suburb where 1950s starter homes once sold for less than $10,000 are now worth around $700,000, there are places like Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo, or Rochester, where many homes are basically worthless. In many areas, no matter how much money people invest in their homes, they are not sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity. In fact, since the Recession, the primary assets of millions of ordinary Americans have most likely lost value.
But what should be even more alarming than these troubling disparities is the underlying fragility of real-estate markets, and the increasing folly of government policies that promote suburban property development. Today’s trends are merely a symptom of a larger delusion—homeownership as the path to middle-class wealth and status—and have exposed it as the lie it always was.
* * *
Since World War II, the United States has suffered from a divergence in home values—but it is only recently that this reality began to affect the white middle class. The roots of the present crisis go back to the 1930s.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted at least one New Deal program that would work with private enterprise rather than against it, according to Kenneth T. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. The result was the Federal Housing Administration (later expanded by the GI Bill), which used the full faith and credit of the United States government to affect a revolution in banking and housebuilding. The effort not only standardized appraising across the country, it more or less invented the 30-year mortgage, imposed construction quality standards, and took much of the risk out of homebuilding and lending by guaranteeing mortgages and construction loans.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s program also helped segregate parts of the country not previously segregated—and strengthened such discrimination so that it persists in some cities well into this century. This shocking history is documented at length by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law. Basically, the FHA decided that they weren’t going to guarantee (or only partially guarantee) loans in places that didn’t meet their racial and aesthetic standards: Neighborhoods and suburbs that were both all white and “well-planned,” meaning that residences were all single-family homes, with commercial and industrial uses kept separate or out of the area altogether, had the easiest time getting loans. In fact, according to Rothstein, the FHA made developers like the Levitt brothers in New York—famous for the middle-class Levittowns that became the image of affordable postwar suburbia—put deed restrictions in their homes prohibiting their resale to a non-white person.
The result of these two policies together—government-subsidized risk and economic and racial segregation—was unsurprising.
Coupled with massive highway building, the suburbs mushroomed around cities and tens of thousands of white Americans bought new homes at prices that were cheaper than renting. City neighborhoods depopulated and the prewar building stock—with fewer renters and almost no possibility of loans—declined drastically in value and deteriorated in quality. Urban blight and the ghettoization of racial minorities in cities and away from opportunity was the direct result of federal policy, reinforced by zoning and a neighborhood’s own poverty. The people who owned those homes never saw their equity grow through the years. Even in cities that are experiencing growth in property values, Black neighborhoods rarely see any benefits. In Chicago, the city’s segregation is starkly shown on Google Maps: the North Side looks like Brooklyn, while the South Side looks like Detroit.
Washington has encouraged homeownership for decades. The result has been windfall profits for the few and an albatross of mortgage debt for the many. According to Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, in 2015 the federal government subsidized homeownership to the tune of $134 billion, $71 billion of which was through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. According to Jackson, these policies, which largely promote suburban development, are rooted in 19th-century views of cities as unhealthy and immoral.
Such policymaking was also driven by a belief that newer homes would foster better character: The trouble with slums and slum-dwellers wasn’t that they were desperately poor in an era of massive industrial upheaval, but that they lived in slum buildings. (According William Tucker in The Excluded Americans, so-called reformers like Jacob Riis were often motivated as much by a desire to prevent Jews and Catholics from immigrating to America compassion for the urban poor.) By the 1920s the justification for single-family homes had evolved from crude ethnic and religious stereotyping into a more recognizable narrative: One’s home still formed one’s character, only now homeownership would incubate the virtues of hard work, thrift, and industriousness instead of moralizing Protestantism.
A similar evolution took place in the United Kingdom, where in 1923 the Conservative MP Noel Skelton wrote a series on housing policy in The Spectator, later published under the title Constructive Conservatism. Skelton coined the phrase “property-owning democracy” and argued that homeownership would encourage people to be better citizens, who in addition to the economic justifications, would become invested in their community and country. Skelton’s ideal was made policy by Conservative governments throughout the 20th century, reaching its apogee during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, who popularized the idea of the property-owning democracy and introduced a right-to-buy policy where residents of council flats (apartments built under Labour governments and owned and maintained by local governments) could purchase them.
* * *
The century-long burst in homeownership on both sides of the Atlantic has had dire consequences. As John Myers, a co-founder of the pro-development group London YIMBY, put it, “Encouraging homeownership also makes it more difficult to get political support for more housebuilding.”
The people who own homes in this current boom cycle believe that allowing more homes to be built in their communities, especially apartments, could lower their property values and hence their net worth. As a result, San Francisco now has serious discussions about whether a coffee shop facade that’s just four years old qualifies for historic preservation, while affordable senior apartments get torpedoed by wealthy homeowners. The results do not sound like a recipe for good citizenship: Young people are prevented from forming families, small businesses are forced to relocate, and the working classes are condemned to either unthinkably long commutes or overcrowding. Or, in the parts of the country not enjoying a housing boom, small cities and towns face continuing deterioration and decline.
The irony is that homeownership isn’t even an unqualified good for the homeowner. Their property wealth is completely illiquid. They could be sitting on a million dollars worth of house, but not have the cash to pay the property tax. In the end, real estate speculation does not create wealth; it sets up a game of musical chairs—and we now know what happens when the music stops. Countries, communities, and cities are much healthier economically when their financial security doesn’t depend on the performance of one type asset—especially when the better the asset does, the worse off the larger society becomes.
Skelton, far more than the progressive reformers in the United States or his successors in Britain’s Conservative Party, saw this. His property-owning democracy wasn’t simply a nation of homeowners, but involved factory workers that became co-owners or profit-sharers in their factories, along with smallholdings and cooperatives for farmers. When he spoke of “property,” Skelton meant “capital.” This philosophy is thus much more similar to the distributism of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton than the tracts of ticky-tacky stretching away forever.
I doubt we will ever get the wealth we foolishly ploughed into postwar suburbs back. But we can at least pivot toward a recovery by changing laws to encourage people to save to build wealth, rather than rely on speculative equity in real estate.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
By the late 20th century, much of the landscape of urban America had retreated from the goal of placemaking. Crime, suburbanization, and motor vehicles all worked to convince people that such an object was no longer desirable; that we had (in America, at least) moved beyond the street; that perhaps it was a relic of the old world, literally or figuratively. Allan Jacobs’ classic study of urban aesthetics, Great Streets, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, continues to represent an important and persuasive counterpoint to this story.
Building on the work of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and other urban writers of the post-war period, Jacobs offered a fresh perspective about what was possible, and the value that it could add to our lives—both as individuals, and as participants in a broader culture. For American readers, at least, it also subtly underscored the cultural continuity that existed between the urbanism of Western Europe and that of North America—and of how the historical links of that tradition were in danger of being lost. A quarter-century later, American cities still face many challenges. But their standing overall has greatly improved since 1993. The willingness of cities to re-engage with the elemental forms of traditional urbanism has played a vital role in their improved fortunes.
At its best, the urban environment has an intrinsic advantage over atomized, cookie-cutter developments. Real neighborhoods are simply interesting: they reflect the lives of the people who live in them today; and they are tangible artifacts of those who came before. But neglect makes cities haunting and, sometimes, dangerous: a healthy urbanism requires constant work. And Great Streets reminds us that this endeavor is more than a technical or bureaucratic exercise—indeed, placemaking is more art than science.
* * *
It is fitting that a spirit of art runs through Great Streets. An artist’s approach to urbanism is the essence of the book. Its very arrangement is artful: divided into four major sections, each part is distinct from the others in its length and conceptual focus. Yet the reader immediately senses that this is not a formulaic work; nor is there a formula implicit in the urban qualities its author identifies. Instead, an intrinsic mystery draws you in, and Jacobs uses comparison and surprise to spotlight a wide array of characteristics. Throughout the work, he stubbornly defies the temptation to simplify what is complicated. With close analysis of form and context, he highlights the innate variety of factors that can contribute to a street’s charisma and provides a diversity of examples from cities around the world.
When Jacobs first published Great Streets in the early 1990s, the future of American cities stood on shaky ground. True, some Americans had begun to forego the starched lawns of suburbia for the weathered brick and clapboard of old neighborhoods. But even in exceptional places where the virtues of old urbanism were valued, blight was never far. Everywhere, middle-class flight and the War on Drugs had turned entire subsections of American cities into violent ganglands. In such an atmosphere, a narrow focus on the elemental forms of traditional urbanism was, understandably, tangential; and struggling cities continued to seek salvation by incorporating discordant suburban concepts, like parking lots and shopping malls, into their aging fabric. In this context, Great Streets was a well-timed contribution. By focusing on the aesthetics and vibrancy of public space, Jacobs reminded readers that urban planning could be a conscious art that makes meaningful, humane places—and thereby attracts positive human activity—through decisive physical forms. To this end, Great Streets illuminates the qualities in different settings that are worth studying, questioning, and understanding.
The first section of the book is a collection of case studies of individual streets. With its focus on traditional Western forms, most examples are from Europe and North America. Jacobs begins by examining a residential cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh on which he once lived. He thus dispenses with the notion that fame or busy-ness should be prerequisites, focusing instead on scale, enclosure, and human activity. He looks at 14 additional streets in Europe and North America; a neighborhood in Beijing; and two street ensembles in Europe. His selections include grand boulevards in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona; winding, medieval streets in Rome and Copenhagen; and urban and suburban streets in the United States. Jacobs’ narrative is one of the best aspects of the book: in addition to providing a wealth of information, and a focus on important qualities, it reads at times like the tight, colorful prose of a 20th-century American novel.
The most interesting case study is also the most counterintuitive. Jacobs makes the case that the Grand Canal of Venice and other urban waterways are essentially liquid streets, serving, like paved streets, as thoroughfares, gathering places, architectural showcases, and prospects for vistas. And one might argue that the canals of Venice are more than just technically akin to modern streets: given the role of Venice in the emergence of the modern commercial world, its urban patterns represent a sort of prototype for later cities. But Jacobs’ focus is neither history or economics; it is aesthetics. And while one might observe that its liquid cartway is what distinguishes the Grand Canal most fundamentally from traditional, paved streets, Jacobs cites an absence of sidewalks along much of the canal—and associated absence of street life—as the most salient difference. As a result (and in contrast to many of the smaller waterways of Venice, as he notes), the Grand Canal is essentially a service thoroughfare, with few opportunities for foot traffic, outside a handful of specific locations (e.g., the Rialto, San Marco, etc.). Jacobs sees that this absence of pedestrians— which undoubtedly diminishes an element that is present in many great streets—as a boon to the observant visitor, helping shift one’s focus toward some of the canal’s higher-order, street-like qualities. In one of his more poetic passages, he highlights a sense of spatial enclosure, where saltwater takes the place of paving stones:
The water is calm, mostly a light olive green mixed with cerulean blue. In the early morning it may be a mixture of blues and greens and yellows that can be indistinguishable from the sky, so that one hardly knows where one stops and the other starts. In Venice, in the early morning, an artist might paint the air, permitting shapes of buildings to emerge at times not all that different in color from the air itself, only darker, maybe with some pinks. At these times there is a faint horizontal line in the water, a clue to where the buildings emerge. Generally the buildings are light-colored and richly detailed, as becomes apparent as soon as the sun burns off the morning haze. At first impression, they seem to be of similar if not the same height along the water’s edge.
The Grand Canal stands out as a unique example, but a more typical case study, also from Italy, is the Via dei Giubbonari in Rome. Beginning at the famous Campo de’ Fiori—an old market square that today doubles as a center of Roman nightlife— the Via dei Giubbonari takes a southeasterly course to the more subdued green space of the Piazza Cairoli. Covering less than a thousand feet, the street is nonetheless characterized by the mystery and irregularity of its medieval form. From wider ends, it narrows and bends over a short course, coaxing pedestrians into its right-of-way and obscuring what lies beyond. Jacobs describes its effects:
Once on Via dei Giubbonari, attracted by one of the funnel-shaped widenings at either end, you want to see where it leads, even if you already know, and you want to experience what is more immediately around you as well. There are many buildings, even more doorways, and almost continuous store windows at the street level. […] Wall thickness and building solidity are made clearly evident by their visible contrast with the glass panes in them. Buildings and other stores as well are deep, and the windows show this. How deep are they? What is in there? There is a bit of inviting mystery; something to be explored. Above, there are more windows, shuttered or open depending on the time of day and where the sun may be.
One cannot read Jacobs’ case studies without being reminded of, and marveling at, the relative permanence of urban street patterns. Because while individual buildings and their diverse uses exist in a sort of eternal flux, the patterns of thoroughfares themselves—once established— tend to remain fixed indefinitely. This is undoubtedly due to the practical nature of streets, and the consensus that exists at any moment among the many who rely on perpetual access. Thus, in very old cities like Rome, we find examples of streets like the Via dei Giubbonari, whose route and shape have survived for many centuries. Some elements date from classical antiquity; others from medieval or early modern times; and still others are of more recent vintage. Not surprisingly, similar tapestries can be found in Istanbul and Jerusalem, and in smaller towns and cities whose histories began in a similarly ancient past.
In a subchapter called “Trees Alone,” Jacobs addresses the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla (which follows the historical course of the Via Appia from central Rome past an ancient bath complex), explaining how the city’s iconic umbrella pines help define space:
Their height and linearity can be seen from a distance. In a city full of stone landmarks, these rows of pines are yet another way to understand the city and one’s location in it. Below, closer to the ground, there is another ceiling made of dark, spreading Quercus ilex. Some of their branches meet, other do not, so there is both light and shade, mostly the latter. Against the bright, hot Roman sun and in welcome contrast to the undefined large spaces at the street’s beginning [i.e., the Circo Massimo] … the tree-covered medians attract walkers with a promise of coolness…. During the winter months, when there is less sun, it is pleasant to walk on the side paths. If the design of the Viale della Terme di Caracalla was meant to attract walkers from central Rome … to the Baths of Caracalla another half mile or so distant, then these dark, cool, tree-lined paths are the way to do it.
Returning to the point of historical layering, note how the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla combines the showcasing of a ruined complex from classical antiquity, the creation of the pastoral aesthetic of Romantic landscape architecture, and the functional expedience of modern highway engineering—all while keeping faith with the ancient course of the Appian Way. Amazing.
The other sections of Great Streets are more spatial than narrative. Describing the definitive residential section of Fifth Avenue in New York City, the author notes the bounding and tone-setting functions of trees, masonry walls, benches, and paving stones; and he notes the distinction between the private spaces that can be glimpsed within apartment buildings and the public nature of adjacent sidewalks and Central Park.
Another familiar example that Jacobs offers is the curved portion of Regent Street, London, near Piccadilly Circus. Here, he describes a subtly discordant contrast between striking visual design qualities and a street-level environment that caters to vehicular traffic and fails to encourage leisurely walking. The author notes that numerous intersecting side streets, leading off into the quieter blocks of Mayfair and Soho, are much more inviting to pedestrians.
The third part of Great Streets, “Streets and City Patterns: Settings for Streets and People,” mostly departs from the narrative approach. Rather than examining individual streets, Jacobs visualizes the neighborhood context of streets, presenting black-and-white ink maps of square-mile samples of cities throughout the world. By examining these simple plans, the reader instantly grasps the impossibility of developing a standard set of quantifiable dimensions for the creation of streets (whether great, or not). The variety of building patterns between cities—even among culturally similar cities—is simply too profound. That the dimensions of post-war American suburbs bear little resemblance to those of European cities may not be especially remarkable; but that the dimensions of similarly-sized Mediterranean cities are so divergent from one another; or that the differences in street patterns across pre-industrial neighborhoods of the English-speaking world are so pronounced – these things are surprising. Block lengths, street widths, the absence or presence of grids, and the degree of adherence to land contours all prove nearly impossible to compare across locations. This is often true even within a single city.
Jacobs teaches that the physical form of urbanism—even traditional, Western urbanism at its aesthetic best—is not uniform. Echoing Camillo Sitte, the 19th century Viennese planner, he demonstrates that urban planning is truly an art: a practice whose application is borne of intuition and experience (both individual and cultural), drawing on a set of refined technical skills. And while certain elements may often present as common threads—street walls, for example, and public squares—these have been both successfully and unsuccessfully interpreted in countless ways. For this reason, instead of attempting to devise a unifying formula of urbanism, Jacobs uses the last section of Great Streets to articulate a synthesis, including rules of thumb, from the observations and interpretations that have filled the preceding pages. Examining the threads found in diverse case studies, with an eye to the organizing patterns of broader neighborhoods, Jacobs distills a group of general-but-necessary factors for good urban placemaking, cautioning that “By themselves, as a group, the required qualities will not assure a great street…. a final ingredient [is] … the magic of design.”
Leaving room for magic, then, what are the concrete qualities that great streets require? Jacobs begins with three basic, physical characteristics: (1) a pedestrian realm, (2) considerations of physical comfort, and (3) well-defined space. With respect to the first, a variety of approaches may satisfy: well-defined sidewalks, car-free streets, and even narrow, stone-paved streets—where vehicles are slowed to a human pace—can all make good places to walk. For the second, physical comfort, a time-honored planning tradition (taught at least as far back as Vitruvius) calls for studying hyperlocal factors when laying out new streets: prevailing winds, shadows cast by topography, and the transit of the sun may all be weighed to ensure the most comfortable use of environmental factors in a particular spot. Jacobs endorses this. On the third point, defined space—that is, a sense of placemaking enclosure at the street level—Jacobs turns to the research, and takes a more technical (and precise) approach than usual, arguing space is established when “height to horizontal distance ratios are 1:4 (or less) when the viewer is looking at a 30-degree angle to the street direction.”
It is interesting that there may be such a quantifiable component to placemaking; that we may in fact be predisposed to experience a sense of intimacy within certain measurable, urban dimensions—and a sense of alienation in others. Evidence of measurable, psychological ground rules for good urbanism does pop up from time to time: an experienced teacher’s advice that development ought to be concentrated within 1,500 feet of a town square or a railroad station feels about right—and is consistent with many examples of good urbanism. The Commissioners’ Plan of New York parceled out typical blocks with 60-foot-wide rights-of-way (i.e., cartways and sidewalks), spaced 200 feet apart. These were divided into building parcels with 25 feet of street frontage and 100 feet of parcel depth. For two centuries, this rude formula has shaped the Manhattan grid, and some have blamed the large-lot platting for the mishmash of big, expensive brownstones and even bigger tenements that continues to characterize the old fabric of the city between Houston Street and Washington Heights (where the regularity of the grid begins to break down). So, yes, there are hard numbers that go into placemaking, and these numbers matter. Yet we see in Great Streets how the numbers are just one of the many components that support placemaking; and that most of its aspects are not so easily measured.
Other essential qualities Jacobs cites hew more closely to a dynamic between visuals and imagination. In a literal sense, these elements are superficial; in an aesthetic sense, they are much more—but a casual observer might not be attentive to their effects, even as he or she experiences them. Jacobs cites visual curiosities that “engage the eyes,” like textures in building details that enrich surfaces and play in the shadows cast by changing sunlight. Another factor is transparency, achieved through windows, doors, and passageways that facilitate glimpses—or at least intuitions—of what happens in the private realms beyond. Also, there is complementarity: a sort of harmony, by chance or by design, among roof lines, floor heights, building materials, and other factors shaped by multiple structures. And though we might consider them givens, Jacobs cites good building materials and consistent maintenance to round out the list of essentials. Finally, Jacobs offers a list of non-essential factors, ranging from park benches to lighting design, that may work to invest urban settings with a deeper sense of place.
Ultimately, Jacobs’ work might be summarized as follows: Great streets combine certain identifiable, designable physical qualities to draw out public life; and that this liveliness, fueled by the right context of economics and culture, complements the well-built environment—and completes the process of placemaking on a day-to-day basis. This, one might surmise, is part of what Jacobs means when he talks about magic: the ephemeral dynamic between a good built environment and those who engage with it to create a living place.
Jacobs’ ideas in Great Streets track closely with improvements made toward reinvigorating the urban tradition since its publication. Keeping a valuable tradition alive requires a perpetual process of reframing and retelling; in short, it requires good teachers. The continuing relevance of established practices must be communicated effectively to maintain adherents who will be motivated to transmit their wisdom forward to the next time and place. In the tradition of urbanism as a cultural imprint and a living artistic pursuit, Jacobs is an excellent teacher. Twenty-five years after its publication, his work remains a guidebook for the cities of our own time.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2018 Theo Mackey Pollack