Like a signal from the past, Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria—On the Art of Building, completed in 1452—transmitted urban-planning concepts of classical antiquity to the Renaissance scholars of 15th century. Today, Alberti’s impact on the field of architecture remains well known, but his abiding influence on traditional urban planning patterns is less appreciated.
In form and substance, Alberti’s work remains inseparable from the work of Vitruvius, the Roman architect whose writings encapsulated the maxims and mysteries of ancient building. For almost five hundred years, Alberti and Vitruvius reigned among the most influential texts in modern European architecture. On the surface, Alberti followed Vitruvius’ structure by dividing his material into ten chapters, mirroring the ancient Ten Books of Architecture. More substantially, his work laid out urban ideas and patterns that Vitruvius had once articulated, concepts which had been largely forgotten by the 15th century.
Alberti was inseparable from the time and places that shaped him. Born in Genoa on Valentine’s Day 1404, his early years were marked by a mixture of privilege and hardship. His father was a merchant from a wealthy Florentine family; in the classic fashion of Florence, he had been exiled from the city since 1393, when political enemies had come to power. Meanwhile, the plague was ravaging Europe. Alberti’s mother, about whom little is known, died during an outbreak in Genoa around 1406, when Alberti was just two years old. The young Alberti grew up with his merchant father, moving frequently, living in Venice and then Padua, and often traveling throughout northern Italy. Alberti was fortunate to receive a first-rate secondary education, shaped by classical studies, at a boarding school in Padua, but shortly after entering university, his father died. Because his parents had never married, family members used his illegitimacy as a pretext to steal his inheritance.
Despite the tragedy and transience of his youth, and the sudden loss of his patrimony, Alberti found many ways to excel. The great Swiss historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, described the young Alberti’s talents and the insatiable curiosity that drove him:
He learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought on a severe illness. In his twenty-fourth year, finding his memory for words weakened, but his sense of facts unimpaired, he set to work at physics and mathematics. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars, and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft.
He was, one might say, a sort of John the Baptist figure for the Renaissance man that would soon become a cliché of Italian masters and strivers alike. He presaged all the essential characteristics: exceptionally well read, he delved into a broad range of arts and sciences with the confidence of an explorer; and he was endlessly intoxicated by the possibilities presented when the secrets of the past were crossed with the boundless potential of the present.
Alberti’s early studies had exposed him to the works of antiquity, and his ties to Florence had placed him, as a young adult, within the orbit of Cosimo di Medici’s passion for rediscovering the classics. The writings of the past had been preserved by Byzantine and Muslim scholars; and to a lesser extent by the cloistered monks of Western Europe. All at once, these texts were being recovered and reinterpreted by the scholars of 15th-century mercantile Italy. Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari relates that, early in his career, Alberti distinguished himself in a variety of fields. He studied law and religion, and he painted; but most especially, he made a name for himself in Florence as a writer and an architect.
In 1443, at the age of 38 or 39, Alberti moved to Rome, where he became active in a dizzying period of new construction, spearheaded by Pope Nicholas V in an ambitious project to remake the city. About the same time, Alberti began work on De re aedificatoria, a project that would continue for much of the next decade. In 2009, Pietro Roccasecca, a scholar today at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, described Alberti’s work in as intended “not only to update [Vitruvius], but also to go deeper and to put the internal logic of antique architecture to a critical test….Each page is proof of a deep knowledge of philosophical, scientific and historical texts, but he is also just as well acquainted with poetry, literature and rhetoric.”
Strictly speaking, Alberti’s De re aedificatoria is a milestone in the canon of European architecture. But a sizable portion also deals directly with the allied arts of urban planning. Specifically, Alberti provides insights about how planning was practiced in ancient times, as well as his own interpretation of these practices for the 15th century. Sections on site plans and street design remain particularly meaningful, as do discussions about the variety of urban buildings, their arrangement, and their interplay. Much has been written about the continuing influence of Alberti on Western architecture, and about how he served as a vessel for ancient knowledge; but far less attention has been paid to his impact on planning.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti wrote for the scholars and professionals of a confident, ascendant society. Expansion was expected, and his writing was directed at those with the power to shape the terms of growth. Alberti’s approach is fundamentally empirical, a point frequently obscured by his tendency to meander through anecdotes of questionable value from the ancient writers. Also beneath the surface, despite its primary objective to be a definitive text on classical architecture, Alberti’s actual project presents the building blocks of an entire, viable city in the classical tradition. Alberti lays out the most fundamental components of a city’s military, political, and economic viability; he describes the construction methods of defensive walls, towers, and other components of fortification; he articulates a series of organizing principles for neighborhood patterns and street dimensions within those walls; and, only within this broader context, he covers the architecture of various monuments, public and private buildings, and open-air spaces.
[A] city ought to be so placed as to have all sufficient necessaries within its own territory (as far as the condition of human affairs will permit) without being obliged to seek them abroad; and that the circuit of its confines ought to be fortified, that no enemy can easily make an irruption upon them, though at the same time they may send out armies into the countries of their neighbors, whatever the enemy can do to prevent it; which is a situation that they tell us will enable a city not only to defend its liberty, but also to enlarge the bounds of its dominion.
Here Alberti devotes a portion of text to the literal perimeter of urbanism: strategies and methods for defensive walls. Walls (and their associated features, like gates, towers, and moats) remained the norm in the early Renaissance, before advances in artillery (as well as statecraft) began to render them obsolete. Yet the relative permanence of city walls—resulting from the prohibitive labor and expense that go into their construction—means that in the days of their functionality they formed a hard limit to the amount of buildable land within them. As a result, land use efficiency was prioritized in walled cities; and cities that expected to grow were required to account for this in determining the reservation of raw land within the perimeter of newly constructed defenses.
Moving within the city walls, some of the most interesting planning concepts addressed in De re aedificatoria come where Alberti ventures into a mixture of practical and aesthetic theories, drawn from the texts of ancient writers, about large-scale town planning. Addressing the possible variations of street width and curvature, he writes:
Such should be the ways out of the city: short, straight, and secure. When they come to the town, if the city is noble and powerful, the streets should be straight and broad, which carries an air of greatness and majesty; but if it is only a small town or a fortification, it will be better, and as safe, not for the streets to run straight to the gates; but to have them wind about sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, near the wall, and especially under the towers upon the wall; and within the heart of the town, it will be handsomer not to have them straight, but winding about several ways, backwards and forwards, like the course of a river. For thus, besides that by appearing so much the longer, they will add to the idea of the greatness of the town, they will likewise conduce very much to beauty and convenience and be a greater security against all accidents and emergencies. Moreover, this winding of the streets will make the passenger at every step discover a new structure, and the front and door of every house will directly face the middle of the street; and whereas in larger towns even too much breadth is unhandsome and unhealthy, in a small one it will be both healthy and pleasant, to have such an open view from every house by means of the turn of the street.
Thus, Alberti presages a concept that would be addressed more thoroughly by later major writers on the art of urban planning, including Camillo Sitte and Raymond Unwin, namely, that irregularity, in certain settings, is both more beautiful and more effective at creating a compelling sense of place than the use of formal, geometric dimensions. Yet on this point Alberti is no zealot. He reserves a prominent place for the formal street: as an avenue into the center of a principal city, designed to showcase the grandeur of its surroundings, and to emphasize the importance of its approach. Thus, he offers a fine-tuned analysis, in a usefully concise passage, crediting the benefits and reciting the drawbacks of competing street typologies in different hypothetical settings. As he does throughout the text, he grounds his conclusions in a combination of logic and the primary sources of ancient writers.
Later, Alberti returns to the layout of neighborhoods to emphasize the importance of physical planning. “The principal ornament of the city,” he writes, “will arise from the disposition of the streets, squares, and public edifices, and their being all laid out and contrived beautifully and conveniently, according to their several uses; for without order, there can be nothing handsome, convenient, or pleasing.” In the same chapter, he also advocates for the concentration of similar merchants in convenient parts of the city; and the segregation of nuisances to the outskirts (with attention paid to the direction of prevailing winds, to minimize the city’s exposure to noxious fumes). Thus, we see that Alberti manifested an early call for rationality as a vital component of urban planning, and not just adherence the micropolitics of incremental growth. He writes that a “city is not built wholly for the sake of shelter … besides mere civil conveniences there may be handsome spaces left for squares, courses for chariots, gardens, places to take the air in, for swimming, and the like, both for ornament and recreation.”
In Alberti’s time, bridges were central features of the built environment in many time-worn Mediterranean cities. Among the bridges in Italy that remain familiar today, and that Alberti would certainly have also known, is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; ancient bridges like the Ponte Rotto and the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome; and the countless unnamed bridges that form the latticework of walkways that skip over the capillary canals of Venice. In a thread similar to his advice about the layout of neighborhoods, Alberti provides basic instructions for the placement of bridges, recommending that they “ought to be at the very heart of the city” and built to be “durable.”
Alberti proceeds to describe several key points about bridge construction, including the ideal materials for the structural components of distinct types of bridges in various settings; a treatment of paving stones and elements of ornamentation; and an extensive discussion of Caesar’s approach to building bridges in the course of his military campaigns.
Keeping with his focus on the details of city-building, Alberti offers salient diversions throughout De re aedificatoria about Western roadbuilding practices from antiquity through his own time. He describes the separation of cartways (that is, the streets) from raised sidewalks: a pattern that was as familiar in the stone thoroughfares of classical Pompeii as it is in the asphalt and concrete canyons of modern cities. Further to this point, he provides instructions about the selection and cobbling of paving stones to provide traction. Alberti also provides a fascinating description of one of history’s earliest divided highways, in his own time, linking central Rome to its ancient seaport at Ostia Antica:
As there is a great concourse of people and great quantities of merchandise brought thither from Egypt, Africa, Libya, Spain, Germany, and the [Mediterranean] islands, the road is made double, and in the middle of it is a row of stones standing up a foot high … to direct the passengers to go on one side and return on the other, so to avoid the inconvenience of meeting one another.
Elsewhere in the text, he addresses topics as varied as the construction methods for both covered and open sewers, and the benefits of each approach; the construction of aqueducts and smaller water mains; the provisions that should be included in the blocks near seaports; and the social importance of parks and squares. Recalling the Appian Way and its extended highway network, he relates:
[The ancient Romans] paved their highways for above a hundred miles round their capital with extreme hard stones, raising solid causeways under them with huge stones all the way. The Appian Way was paved from Rome quite to Brindisi. In many places along their highways we see rocks demolished, mountains levelled, valleys raised, hills cut through, with incredible expense and miraculous labor; works of great use and glory.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti asks the patient reader to suffer a generous serving of pseudoscience. When discussing a process for site selection, for example, he makes frequent detours into the effects of environmental factors on the physical and mental development of inhabitants – as if these purported correlations were as factual and self-evident as the laws of Euclidean geometry. Elsewhere, he discusses phenomena like vapors and spirits, and their effects on civilization, with a similar credulous factuality. To see such material in a more favorable light, we may concede that the lessons contained in these snippets of folk wisdom often display a sliver of truth, because a bright line between acknowledging the maxims of distilled experience and blindly adhering to baseless superstitions is not always easy discernible. And irrespective of their ultimate veracity, these examples illuminate some of the notions that in fact shaped the work of architects and builders in early Renaissance Europe.
Undoubtedly, De re aedificatoria is primarily a book on architecture. (And it is worth recalling that comprehensive urban planning, as a distinct pursuit, rather than a challenge at the intersection of the traditional social arts, is historically a late development.) But Alberti’s decision to build on the work of Vitruvius, combined with his context of architectural instruction in an overall framework of urban viability, mean that his text still speaks to several important aspects of urban planning. Today, as builders in the developing world face the greatest wave of urbanization in world history— and as cities in the developed world struggle to make space for continued growth—Alberti’s work remains a guidebook for those who value the traditions of both classical and post-Renaissance European architecture. It is worth remembering that such architecture was not usually built in a vacuum, but, instead, in communication with an urban environment. And although the importance of things like city walls and the bounty of a fertile, adjacent countryside have been diminished by changes in statecraft and advances in technology, the urban patterns that Alberti described continue to complement a tradition of building that we have inherited from the ancient past. To read Alberti today is to discover an essential link in that long and living tradition.
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.
(Author’s Note: The 1755 Leone Edition of De re aedificatoria, quoted in this essay, is itself a translation from the 1452 Latin into English. The 1755 text contains conventions of capitalization and punctuation that are not consistent with today’s standard American and/or Commonwealth English. In addition, the translation contains several idiosyncratic spellings of proper names that differ from today’s standard usage. Keeping in mind that the 1755 text is itself a translation, and therefore not the original language of Alberti, to the greatest extent possible, I have updated the language in these quotations to conform to the conventions of standard American English.)
Today’s home builders are “[r]eactionary, obstinate, restrictive, frightened of change, un-imaginative, profit-bent only…” and “the building industry is turning out thousands of cracker boxes…” for the masses in need of housing, who are “desperate and house-ignorant, clamoring solely for a roof over their heads, unmindful of their fearful destiny: the sickening realization a few years hence that they have mortgaged their incomes for houses which are ten to thirty years out of date—both in plan and materials.”
So observed the midcentury American journalist Elizabeth Gordon about the housing market in 1947. It’s hard to imagine such pointed and powerful prose would be published in a mainstream publication today, with what was once derided as middlebrow criticism—journalism for the aspirational if not elite classes—having largely given way to the pressures of clickbait and social media hits. What’s more astounding is that this was not published in the newspapers where Gordon started her career—the New York World, New York Journal, or even the onetime proud Times competitor, the New York Herald Tribune. In fact, she was railing against the architectural and homebuilding establishment from the editorial pages of House Beautiful.
A magazine founded to straddle the void between professional architectural periodicals and ladies’ journals, the original House Beautiful presented architecture and decor in serious but accessible fashion, and Gordon was an editor with unsparing and eloquent opinions about the inadequacy of both mainstream and elite notions of design. She unfortunately became best known for the International modernism she was inveterately against rather than the many broader varieties of innovation she was assiduously for.
This is the story told in Monica Penick’s invaluable new book, Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home.
“Tastemaker” is a term that a term that Penick borrows from a 1949 book by Russell Lyne, best known as the author of the Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, and Middlebrow.” His attention was to the process by which “taste became everybody’s business and not just the business of a cultured few,” a quest that had been Gordon’s for several years by the point of that book’s publication, amidst her pivotal two-decade tenure as editor of House Beautiful.
Holding a seemingly middlebrow viewpoint at an avowedly middlebrow magazine in midcentury is not, I needn’t tell you, the best theoretical place for your historical reputation. Seemingly quaint middlebrow stances are constantly and rightly being revalued upwards, however, once until we’ve had time enough to see what the world looks like without their example. “Great Classics” collections seem fusty and narrow until they’re cleared off of shelves and replaced with DVD collections. A more mainstream modernism might have seemed temporarily unadventurous—but by the age of the McMansion seems far less so.
Penick shows that, despite her reactionary reputation, Gordon was an advocate for modern design. Indeed, the editor who abominated Corbusier and Mies also featured homes by Cliff May, Emil Schindlin, and Alfred Browning, and content by Quincy Jones, William Wurster, and numerous other exceptional architects and designers, including the grand old wizard himself, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Of course, magazines have always trafficked in things—from policy proposals to couture to homes—that the average reader will never directly influence nor possess. And yet this is no bar to their relative success. Consider the magazine of ideas that can demonstrate its stamp on a few laws, the fashion magazine that propels a designer into only a handful of closets, or the architecture magazine that might help find a new buyer for Jennifer Aniston’s villa—all are generally counted successes, although that impressionable proportion of their small readerships is generally so miniscule that this type of journalism was almost destined to be bespoke from the start.
The more penumbral realm of publishing influence, short of direct cash-on-the-barrelhead sales of some idea or thing, is harder to quantify and yet likely more interesting. It is this phenomenon, as exemplified by Gordon and House Beautiful, that Penick adeptly uncovers for us in Tastemaker.
Gordon ascended to the editorship of House Beautiful in 1941, so features on making the most of limited wartime resources naturally followed. But it was the anticipated postwar boom that animated much of her energies. Thus Gordon’s work at House Beautiful aimed to provide both aspirational and practical advice.
House Beautiful’s variant of the case-study house, from an age in which shelter magazines seemed to sponsor as many new designs as toy catalogs did, was the “Pace Setter,” of which several are masterpieces. The plans themselves were no more available to her average reader than home ideas in other architecture magazines—and yet Gordon was on an indefatigable quest to ensure that elements in their design or their principles and ideas might be. As Penick writes, “While architectural journals of the same period covered new construction methods and structural technologies, House Beautiful frequently focused on new systems or products that could easily be placed in existing homes.”
Cliff May’s “Ranch House Classic” was the first Pace Setter House published. It had been featured in other magazines but Gordon’s aim was not simply flattering photographs but a comprehensive examination, one designed obviously to inspire admiration but also to explain, with 15 articles, 55 photos, and six drawings.
The issue stressed the home’s “modesty” somewhat unconvincingly, a description more than mildly askew from a design far too impressive to be cheap. And yet the issue’s main aim is not veneration for an architect’s caprices but a practical explanation of the viability of things like its features in other homes, not merely in this one. It largely turned its back on the street but boasted a generally open plan otherwise, centered around a garden courtyard. It integrated plenty of climate control innovations, sky shades and wind shutters, encouraged as readily adaptable. The involvement of the House Beautiful staff with these home’s design was often considerable. Their color stylist William Manker devised a 64-color paint scheme and the staff selected a fabric design of 24 variations. These were presented as readily achievable, and the magazine encouraged a “color-coordinated group of home fabrics” sold by Celanese.
Homes you might not be able to live in whose features you could easily adopt in part became a mainstay of House Beautiful, particularly in its subsequent attention to the increasingly evident disregard of new suburban housing for its actual climatic situation. The Cape Cod was a northeastern vernacular home, the ranch home southwestern: they were not designed to be as casually strewn (as they increasingly were in the postwar era) without modifications for the country’s varied temperatures. In 1949 House Beautiful launched a “Climate Control Project,” with 15 home prototypes for different American climates, encouraging a range of solutions, trellises, canopies, trees, plantings, white roofs, “wet” walls, and more. Emil Schmidlin’s Oregon Pace Setter House, the magazine’s second, was designed to demonstrate climate adaptability, with “solar windows” glazing designed to capture winter heat and exclude summer sun, a roof overhang and a retractable canvas awning, schemes for cross-ventilation, and more. There were some journalistic deceits: felt stood in for snow in one photo, but the dedication to preparing for winter was genuine even if the season itself was not.
House Beautiful engaged in a forceful advocacy not merely of particular architects and designers but of other products, linking these propositions in ways uncommon in other publications. It ran literal seals of approval next to favored products, one a “Better Your Home, Better Your Living.” There are elements of vintage 1950s didacticism, with blurb endorsements from Arthur Schlesinger and Ralph Barton Perry.
Gordon cycled through a variety of labels for her preferred ethos, updated as any magazine’s wares must necessarily regularly be. She offered “A New Look”, “The American Style”, “The Next American House”, “Naturalism” and multiple other monikers for this corpus of advocacy. It’s difficult to simply encapsulate her preferred style, which argued for material honesty and the embrace of technological advances but wasn’t averse to ornament. It was against superfluity but also against abstraction, for reminiscence but against nostalgia. Approved chair styles ranged from Shaker to Dunbar Club. Its claims were occasionally national but never nativist, actively encouraging Scandinavian and Japanese elements. In short, like most styles, it’s difficult to describe but easy to understand when seen.
It is unfortunate and ironic that the one incident perhaps most clearly recalled from Gordon’s illustrious career of constant arguments for good design was a vitriolic argument against design she hated—namely the perceived excesses of the International Style. Her 1953 editorial, “The Threat to the Next America” (note it’s not merely the present one) was a jeremiad against the paladins of the International Style, directed against leading architects Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, and their peers. It was a fulmination in just about all possible senses, with portions bolded and those that were not frequently as scorching:
“They are all trying to sell the idea that ‘less is more,’ both as a criterion for design, and as a basis for judgment of the good life. They are promoting unlivability, stripped-down emptiness, lack of storage space, and therefore lack of possessions.” Gordon continued by charging that “These arbiters make such a consistent attack on comfort, convenience, and functional values that it becomes, in reality, an attack on reason itself.”
Gordon explicitly connected the Miesian apothegm with “a cultural dictatorship” and “A social threat of regulation and total control.” The road to serfdom was also seemingly the road to the Seagram building.
The editorial prompted a broad range of objections and resignations. Architectural Forum published a thinly-veiled rejoinder “Who can really declare his or her preferences represent ‘free taste’ but yours are part of a conspiracy to subvert the nation?” One mordant response: “Here Lies House Beautiful, scared to death by a chromium chair.” The magazine’s architecture critic resigned, and other contributors announced an end to their work for the magazine. Eighty-five percent of letters were approving, however, none speaking more loudly than one telegram.
Surprised and delighted. Did not know you had it in you. From now on at your service. Sending you the latest from my standpoint
The message was from none but the most prominent dissenter from the modern mainstream: If Gordon had alienated many elites, she had now won over Frank Lloyd Wright, whose association with the magazine was to continue closely until his death.
Wright, never a man to leave a good spat unused, or failing that to invent one, had taken umbrage over Gordon’s invocations of a theory of “Naturalism” without granting sufficient heed to his own conception of Organic architecture years earlier, but subsequent to 1953 became an enthusiastic contributor, with his work repeatedly featured in House Beautiful. Gordon drew an even closer link, hiring John DeKoeven Hill, a former Wright apprentice at Taliesin as her new architecture editor; Hill soon took on a strong role in an in-house design studio (and later designed a Pace Setter himself). This studio designed not merely sets for the magazine but exhibitions elsewhere, including Wright’s interiors for his 1953 Usonian House installation on the future site of the Guggenheim Museum.
The magazine unearths one of Wright’s more intriguing failed collaborations, a step towards populism beyond any Usonian dreams—a program, in Gordon’s words, “to have Frank Lloyd Wright design furnishings for the general homemaker, rather than for special clients.” Gordon arranged for manufacturers to produce Wright-designed fabrics, carpets, furniture, paints, and wallpapers. The line is fantastic, particularly its Heritage-Henredon furniture, yet suffered from calamitous problems of advertisement. Intended as a coherent ensemble, department stores generally broke up the components and displayed them on entirely different floors.
Gordon shared one great enthusiasm with Wright, for Japan, which she visited on numerous occasions and whose seeming harmony of design she continually sought to promote, including in two large issues. Dr. Soetsu Yanagi, head of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, provided Gordon with a sense of “shibui” that stuck:
In what must have been a semi-prepared lecture (he had “notes” for Gordon), he outlined six key points or “elements of beauty” central to shibusa (the noun form of the more commonplace adjective “shibui”): simplicity, or plainness; integral quality (“beauty of a thing—not on a thing”); modest or humility; tranquility; naturalness; and yugen, roughly translated as “the look of freedom… that comes when a craftsman has mastered his technique”
This concept captivated Gordon, who had long been searching for some ordering principle between American materialist clutter and Bauhaus austerity; she devoted an issue arguing for the concept, with a variety of Japanese contributors and Ezra Stoller photos of Japanese objects that Gordon had purchased. She subsequently produced a Shibui line of products, which, unlike the Wright line, proved a great success.
Penick’s Tastemaker is well-timed, amidst a wave of monographs looking at the forgotten middle of American midcentury design. A clear theme of these recent architectural histories has been ways in which many embraced some modern elements while rejecting modernism at large. Tastemaker is a great help in filling in some idea of just what ideas the consumer might have brought to home purchasing—and what they then might have bought from shops to fill these homes out. The concept of a few builders filling out suburbia in a uniform way is a myth. There were thousands of big developers, but a few tastemakers such as Gordon made an indelible mark on the postwar American home.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.
PHOENIX, Ariz.—For a building completed in 1929, the Arizona Biltmore resort hardly reads as “traditional architecture.” The prominent construction medium of gray sandstone blocks expresses a modern edginess. The front entrance is oddly asymmetric, with a geometric tower over the front door flanked on one side by a gable and on the other by an enclosed arcade. Traditional elements such as columns and vaults are certainly present but with unexpected configurations and details, and the silhouette is decidedly avant-garde.
But the more I explored the hotel, the more I became convinced that despite the aggressively stylized detailing, the Phoenix landmark is filled with traditional design elements—largely because of the use of human-scale doors and hallways and the entire layout’s dependence on terminating views. The Biltmore is an example of the vibrancy and potential within traditional design elements, demonstrating that the boundaries of traditional architecture are far broader than the Neoclassical, Federalist, or other “types” we often associate with the term.
Traditional architecture attempts to make sense of a space using shapes and materials that invoke symbols and forms that are already embedded with meaning for the people who will use the space. It differs from truly modern architecture in appealing to a shared sense of meaning—it believes in culture, in other words, and knows that limits in its ability to communicate are directly shaped by the limits of the culture’s collective imagination.
Modern architecture, on the other hand, tries for various reasons to break with symbols that already have cultural meaning. These reasons could include an overt rejection of tradition; a desire to express the architect’s personal philosophy in code; or an attempt to elicit a particular emotional response (usually an unpleasant one) disconnected from actual rational content. For example, modern architects may use oppressive spaces and shapes to communicate, without words, the philosophical view that every individual is completely cut off from every other, and that no experience can be truly shared. This is different from the emotional response one has in a cathedral; there, the architectural elements that lead to emotional responses are directly connected to the building’s purpose—glorifying God through a space—rather than existing solely to elicit a response.
Phoenix’s Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Resort was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his former student Albert Chase McArthur in 1928. McArthur served as primary architect, but the resort demonstrates Wright’s signature quirkiness in spades. Though Wright, used to having complete control over his architectural projects, ended up in conflict with McArthur over the design of the resort, it is not hard to see Wright’s influence on the final product. For example, the primary building medium is fabricated sandstone blocks made from sand found on the building site (a Wright standby), each bearing an imprint of an Art-Deco design based on the palm trees that fringe the Phoenix skyline.
The Biltmore, like Wright’s other buildings, does not bring “classical” architecture to mind. It consists almost entirely of elaborately etched concrete blocks, stacked in walls of unexpected angles that give the whole place a maze-like feeling. In keeping with Wright’s commitment to what he called “organic architecture,” the buildings incorporate colors, shapes, and designs from various Native American traditions. The ceilings are almost all lower than expected, with the exception of the main hotel, which has a high-ceilinged but pleasantly narrow lobby, creating a space that has more in common with a medieval nave than a shopping mall.
The hotel was built in 1928, long before air conditioning made it possible to live in Phoenix year-round with any degree of comfort. Like Wright did with his nearby Arizona winter residence at Taliesin West, the Biltmore closed up in April every year and did not reopen until October. Awareness of this geographic reality is evident throughout the design: The low ceilings and thick concrete brick walls make the interior spaces feel cave-like, cool and moist from the interior water features. A design that would feel absolutely stifling in Michigan or Wisconsin—gray walls, small interiors and windows—is a blessed relief in Arizona, no matter what time of year it is.
Where I found the design of the Biltmore to most strongly invoke traditional architecture is in its dynamic between mass and negative space. In the resort, there are many long, surprisingly narrow halls (both indoor and outdoor) with unexpected angles that give a sense of being in a much larger complex than the Biltmore actually is. As I walked around the resort, the patterns reminded me of places with a very different aesthetic, such as small towns in Northern France: the curved or angled streets, the endlessly terminating views, the difficulty of understanding just how big a place is—and eventually, not caring how big it is and simply enjoying it. Contrast this with the experience of looking down a 30-mile, six-lane artery that runs through the middle of town, or an unadorned hallway that runs directly down the middle of a office-park building and ends at right angles to a wall of the same color as itself; these views make the viewer feel lost or subsumed in a massive, impersonal project, rather than underscoring his role as an active, intelligent, and imaginative participant in the landscape.
The sense of space that results from the elements that make up terminating views—slightly narrow streets, doorways, and buildings built on slight angles or curves—is simultaneously cozy and full of possibilities. There is something inescapably traditional about a graciously terminating view—not, to clarify, the view terminating at some inexplicable angle in the slab wall of a Brutalist heap. When well designed, a line of sight is not snapped off at the end but eases its way to the termination along a curve in the street or a series of stacked obtuse angles.
Such a space acknowledges that our experience must be moderated by reasonable limitations (the termination of the view), but it leads up to those limits by way of curves or welcoming, open angles that cause us to want to peek our heads around the corner and explore in another direction, where ideally we’ll find another gracious terminating view. The limits imposed by these kinds of spaces are realistic—much more realistic than the endless corridors of modern office complexes—but charitable. They indicate that much more lies within our limits that we perhaps perceive right away, and invite us to explore within them.
I was surprised to find these traditional architectural elements at play within the Biltmore resort. The concrete-block walls ease visitors gently around curves to unveil an unexpected new vista—a hidden, classically geometric garden, a swimming pool, a café veiled by oleander.
The point made by the space is that tradition can exist side-by-side with innovation, using technologically advanced materials in unexpected geography like the Arizona desert. Creativity in architecture doesn’t have to mean abandoning traditional elements and proportions, or the traditional narrative about the human participant in the space. The presence of the Biltmore in the midst of a city like Phoenix should be a reminder that beautiful, well-designed places are not restricted to a certain time or place, and a challenge to architects to find fresh ways to incorporate traditional elements into their spaces.
Jane Scharl writes from Phoenix, Arizona.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Many Americans claim they want a strong local community, but few really want to work for it. Everyone at one point or another has a desire for human contact, friendship, sharing experiences, or just being in the thick of things. The realization that real community was largely lacking in the United States—and the revelation that bad urban design played a role in its decline—is one of the central starting points for the New Urbanism movement.
But it’s also worth looking at this issue as it manifests in the “back-to-the-city” movement, the recent demographic trend that has turned once declining urban places into hot real-estate markets. Is the phenomenon of city revitalization fulfilling its promise of better and stronger community ties, as people are lured to places like Brooklyn and Astoria (or Cambridge and Alameda)?
To older residents of these places, many of whom were “first-wave” gentrifiers back in the 1980s or earlier, newcomers to these neighborhoods are secretive, uncommunicative, and never shop at locally-owned stores. The apartment buildings of newer residents are just people warehouses whose occupants will be dispersed within a year or two.
There is some truth to this kind of criticism, even if it is not a new kind of argument. As far back as the 1960s, no less than Jane Jacobs expressed similar concerns about residents of new Greenwich Village apartment buildings in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—even though both she and her husband were newcomers there.
I have lived in my current apartment for three years and still barely know my neighbors. When I first moved to Boston in 2012, I moved six times in three years and some of my friends have experienced a similar lack of stability. While we do enjoy local restaurants when we can, it is true that my friends and I tend to shop at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or pharmacies and convenience stores like CVS—brands we recognize—rather than independent, local places. One of my current roommates even got his groceries through Amazon Fresh for a while.
One of the concepts from sociology that has come to influence how urbanists think about community is the “third place.” These are spaces and places that are neither homes nor workplaces, where people can gather: churches, libraries, bars, parks, cafes—even sidewalks and street corners. Knowing or at least recognizing people you see at the store or on the bus can build trust and social ties. Even such weak ties can be good for spreading important information or just doing simple favors like watching children, holding spare keys, and so on. A lot of young people aren’t making these ties and becoming an integral part of their communities and neighborhoods. Older residents assume this is because we’re internet-obsessed troglodytes who prefer using our dollars to further line Jeff Bezos’ pockets—and apparently we are just too lazy to show up to community meetings and shop at local stores.
This sort of argument, which I have heard from many quarters in six years of living in Boston, is just laughable. Many older people bought their houses at rock bottom prices in the 1970s and ‘80s, and reaped massive increases in equity—and their student loans were much smaller or nonexistent. They have the money and leisure time to shop at expensive local stores and go to community meetings. The problem is not young people who are supposedly disinterested in community, but our elders who are intent on keeping us out—and using their success and relative wealth to justify their stance.
Many neighborhood institutions simply don’t accommodate the needs of newcomers. Often, local stores offer a bewildering and changing array of hours, always arranging to be open when most people are at work or commuting to and from there. It’s not just local retailers, either. Branch libraries around here tend to be open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Unsurprisingly, librarians and small retailers are quick to complain about their lack of patronage. It’s perplexing that business owners in a place like Boston still think it’s the 1950s.
Longstanding neighborhood organizations don’t seem to recognize these issues. They are ostensibly supposed to represent local interests, especially ones that have an official or semi-official character within the city government, like making recommendations to municipal zoning and licensing boards.
In reality, neighborhood associations often seem devoted to sealing the area off from outside influence, especially new residents. There is an association in my Cambridge neighborhood. They have a website that has not been updated in over a year and similarly dormant social media accounts. Thus one cannot attend a meeting unless one already attends meetings. This is closer to the behavior of an unelected, unaccountable cabal rather than a group interested in being truly representative.
How can these associations claim to care about community when they refuse to allow all residents to participate in it?
Community requires social trust. People who refuse to see new neighbors as anything but a threat are preventing such trust from ever developing. Viewing all change as bad is also counterproductive, especially with how quickly yesterday’s disastrous project by a greedy developer from out-of-town can turn into a beloved town center. (In West Los Angeles, for example, a mall called the Westside Pavillion was fought for years and now people are worried about its closure changing the character of the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times.)
Some people seem to want to preserve their neighborhoods in aspic, or maybe amber, given the property prices these days. But thy forget that not only are communities are constantly changing—they exist for far longer than a single human lifespan.
Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next. The attitude of hostility to newcomers, of excluding them from neighborhood life, will ensure that a sense of place dies with the current occupants. Young people will never develop an attachment to the place if they are not included in civic life or are driven out by rising rents; they will certainly never be able to raise families in places where housing is prohibitively expensive.
In the life of a community, even lifelong residents are ultimately temporary inhabitants. Their stories and traditions are more important than the buildings. If the sense of place they have created over the years is to survive and adapt to new realities, it must find a way to integrate and involve the next generation.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
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.