Presented at the 32nd annual conference of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)
Edinburgh, Scotland, July 3, 2001.
It has taken more than thirty years, but historical approaches to environment/behavior studies and environmental research are finally emerging as an important component of EDRA's work. For this development, we must be especially thankful to Amos Rapoport who, with the publication in 1990 of History and Precedent in Environmental Design, illustrated the potential of historical research for furnishing lessons that can inform intelligent and realistic design and planning decisions 1.
It is critical to note that the evidence provided by historical precedents can only yield applicable lessons if mediated by a theoretical process, that is if subjected to conceptual organization. This organization requires a theory. In turn, a theory is based on an underlying conceptual perspective or paradigm. It is such a paradigm that guides us in structuring explanations that account for the historical evidence. In other words, the value of history's lessons hinges on the validity of the underlying paradigm on which theory is founded.
A number of such paradigms have guided interpretations of the history of the city. But two -- in the form of contrasting metaphors -- seem particularly pervasive among designers and planners: that of the city as home and that of the city as network. In this paper, I submit that approaches as disparate as those of the garden city movement, the modern movement, and the new urbanism have relied uncritically, often even unknowingly, on the first of these two paradigms. In these urban design approaches, the city is essentially conceived as an artifact different only in scale, not in kind, from the singular building. Consequently, the city is viewed as amenable to the application of processes which are properly dependent on a high degree of designer's control and finite execution time.
I believe that this view is flawed and is indeed a fundamental reason, though not the only one, for the inadequacies of the solutions that stem from it. Understanding the city as a network is more likely, in my view, to lead to successful approaches. Consider this: In buildings, the outcome of the design process is a set of specifications that control definitive and stable configurations. In networks, the outcome is a set of rules, that is a syntax —- itself amenable to change over time -— that sets the parameters within which configurations are assembled to support specific processes.
The City as Home
A glance to our mental images of pre-industrial cities is sufficient to understand the power of a metaphor in which the city is seen as an object that houses the community, just as the home is thought of as an object that houses the family. Pre-industrial cities even tend to look like large buildings. Bound by walls or other defensive features, they exhibit a recognizable shape [Figure 1]. Whether their internal layout is rigidly geometric [Figure 2] or more organically irregular [Figure 3], these cities give the impression of compact, finished artifacts -— even when considerable rearrangement of buildings and spaces may in fact have taken place over time [Figure 4]. It is therefore not surprising that Leon Battista Alberti, the maximum theoretician of the renaissance, would make this metaphor explicit and give it intellectual currency in his treatise on architecture 2.
We must view Alberti's dictum in the context of his time. The renaissance abhorred the confused, haphazard, seemingly accidental aspects that had characterized the medieval city. It sought the controlled clarity that geometry and perspective made possible. It is not by chance that it produced so many designs of ideal cities conceived as one-time, complete artifacts in the guise of large buildings, that is of objects in which every aspect could be controlled through geometric organization and the building process. It is a vision of serene, immutable balance, also shown in many renaissance paintings [Figure 5]. Few such ideal cities ever got built. Scamozzi's Palmanova in Italy [Figure 6], and Pacherval's Glykstad in Germany —- perhaps the best known among them —- were in fact examples of city-as-fortress rather than of city-as-home.
However, the power of the Albertian paradigm has captured the imagination of architects and planners ever since. When, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the scientific, industrial, and social revolutions forced a rethinking of everything, that paradigm still held its grip on the collective consciousness of designers and planners. One important exception is the restructuring of Rome under the papacy of Sixtus V —- and to that event I will return shortly.
Urban Discourse in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
This is not the place nor, given the time limits of this presentation, the time to engage in a critical analysis of ideas about the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which a number of urban proposals were made in response to mechanization, land commodification, war devastations, and unprecedented migratory processes. The literature offers many well-known such analyses. Here it is sufficient to state that the city-as-home, albeit as large home, appears to be a paradigm common to approaches as disparate as those of the garden city and of the modern movement.
When, in an attempt to solve the inherent contradiction between capitalist real estate speculation and living conditions, Ebenezer Howard develops his proposal of new, relatively autonomous,settlements outside existing cities, he conceives of them very much within the intellectual perspective of Albertian thought, complete with optimal population size, specified mixture of employment opportunities, and a layout that still largely ignores the looming changes in movement systems [Figure 7]. It is only in 1928, when Howard's idea is imported into the United States with the construction of Radburn, New Jersey, that an attempt is made to accommodate the automobile [Figure 8]. In this respect it is interesting to note that the plan of Radburn treated the problem of the automobile as if it were merely a local issue of separating its circulation system from that of pedestrians [Figure 9]. The extraordinary changes in speed and volume of movement introduced by the automobile fell outside of the city-as-home model, and were consequently largely ignored in both the theory and the realizations of the garden city movement.
The urban discourse of the modern movement, centered around the figure of Le Corbusier and later codified in the Charter of Athens, beginning as it did after the first World War, could no longer ignore the automobile. Indeed, it is Le Corbusier's analysis of the paradox that the densest parts of the city, such as its business and cultural center, were also those where the greatest volume of automobile traffic wanted to be, that led him to a radical rethinking of city layout and of the relationships between buildings and open space [Figure 10]. His approach, complete with a number of somewhat ludicrous notions such as the proposal to raze parts of downtown Paris [Figure 11] to the ground and the claim that widely spaced, tall building would offer a better defense against bombing raids, gives the impression of a revolutionary strategy [Figure 12]. But at a conceptual level the revolutionary aspects are in fact largely superficial.
It is indeed clear from Le Corbusier's writings as well as from the few examples in which his principles were applied that although many traditional characteristics of pre-industrial cities such as the centuries-old relationship between building and street would be subverted, the city would still emerge from a controlled building process. True, a grid of high speed, elevated highways would be laid out and thus provide a sort of framework for gradual infill, but at a conceptual level this is no different from the grid of ancient Priene or the centralized, radiating layout of Palmanova.
Of course, Le Corbusier was only one of many architects and planners of the modern movement. Thus, the failure of that movement to conceive urban design as a process intimately connected with, yet different in fundamental ways from architectural design was a collective one. In any event, this failure contributed significantly to the movement's inability to translate its noble social intentions into vibrant, successful urban environments. Le Corbusier's own Chandigarh [Figure 13], Lucio Costa's and Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia [Figure 14], and the less well-know Bijlmermeer district near Amsterdam [Figure 15] stand as unfortunate examples of realizations of this kind, in spite of a number of significant architectural aspects that at least the first two exhibit.
The garden city movement and the Charter of Athens were not the only attempts to deal with the city in the context of the challenges brought about by the industrial age. Among those representing the critique of the bourgeois-capitalistic city that led to the former, the socialist utopias of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Henri de Saint-Simon, and the religious ones of Quakers, Shakers, and the Amana Society, as well as the anti-industrial movements of August Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris played important roles. Among the proposals that tried to reconcile the demands of the industrial-capitalistic era with human and social needs and thus foreshadowed the latter, Tony Garnier's Cité industrielle [Figure 16] and Arturo Soria y Mata's Ciudad lineal [Figure 17] represent significant episodes. These too are amply documented and discussed in the literature. However, rather than examining the underlying paradigms, the literature generally emphasizes the degree to which the notion of historical discontinuity, hence the rejection of the lessons of history, drove the urban theories and the urban practices of the time. What is emphasized is the concomitant crippling loss of formal precedents that are assumed to be still valid in today's world. Scant attention is paid to the notion that there may be even more valuable lessons to be derived from the conceptual perspectives in which those precedents were conceived -- perspectives that may be revealed by a typological, rather than a formal study of history.
The New Urbanism
Following the disillusionment with the modernist project in the second half of the twentieth century, a new movement has gained the limelight. Like postmodernism, post structuralism, and deconstructionism in architecture, the new urbanism stands in sharp reaction to the modern movement's tenets and underlying thought. Rather than rejecting history, it seeks to hark back to tradition and to pre-modern configurations. The best-known examples of new urbanism, Seaside and Kentlands [Figure 18], by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, and Poundbury, by Leon Krier -— even that pathetic parody, Disney's Celebration [Figure 19] —- are undoubtedly in many respects more civilized, more appealing, and less wasteful than settings produced under the tenets of laissez-faire real estate development or "new town" planning. But they hardly represent a departure from the Albertian metaphor of city as home. Indeed, the image of the neighborhood-as-home-of-the-community pervades the new urbanism's discourse and reveals an unwillingness to confront the consequences of both the machine age and the information era.
At first glance, the new urbanism seems to embrace traditional typologies that both garden cities and modernism had rejected —- Le Corbusier's "rue corridor," for example. In fact, however, it extracts from history not types, which by definition require transformation, but models, which can simply be copied. In so doing, the new urbanism ignores the admonition that Quatremère de Quincy had already voiced at the dawn of the nineteenth century in his well-known discussion of typology 3. The new urbanism, like postmodernism, seems to view history not as a source of knowledge, but as a repository of images.
However different their attitudes toward history, modernism and new urbanism share a superficial understanding of social processes and a misplaced faith in physical determinism, as David Harvey has pointed out 4. Where modernism had embraced the progressive utopia of a just and classless society, ennobled by a liberated work ethic, the new urbanism holds to a nostalgic but equally illusory conception of community defined in terms of "urban villages." Where modernism had looked to the machine and to the processes of industrial production for solutions, the new urbanism attempts to ignore them and coopts market mechanisms to advance its precepts. Both movements articulate their urban proposals around the idea that an abstractly conceived, stylistically consistent, and well-ordered distribution of objects in space, by itself and with no regard to the dynamics of the underlying socioeconomic and political forces, can yield new forms of social organization and more humane physical settlements.
The City as Network
As mentioned earlier, when it comes to the city, the Albertian model is not the only one. We owe an important alternative conception to Domenico Fontana, paradoxically a man of lesser intellectual refinement and architectural talent than Alberti. As is well known, in 1585 pope Sixtus V charges Fontana with restructuring the city of Rome as a part of the counter-reformist agenda of the Catholic Church. In the period of five years -— for Sixtus's papacy turned out to be that short -— Fontana succeeds in doing something which today we might describe as re-inventing the city. His vision, unmistakably revealed in a well-known drawing, no longer deals with the city as a static, controlled object [Figure 20]. Rather, the city is conceived of as a network. Urban spaces become nodes, identified by the vertical markers of obelisks and columns, and these are tied together with a web of straight streets, "tunnels of vision" intended to drive one onward to the next nodal space 5.
Fontana's intervention is amply documented and discussed in the literature, but the significance of his conceptual leap is not. For example, as late as 1963, such a respected historian as Henry Millon would write that "we have yet to have a clear picture as to what Fontana and Sixtus the Fifth intended with their streets and obelisks 6." Yet the consequences of Fontana's and Sixtus's work for a new idea of the city seem apparent. First, operating on the city is not an activity in which all the elements of a spatial composition are controlled, as they would be in a building, but an undertaking in which a hierarchical framework functions as the structure for incremental development, growth, and change. Second, the intimate connection between city shape and movement flow becomes the generator of urban form, intended to respond to the increasingly pressing need to communicate and transport, not just to be an assemblage of spaces. And finally, the realization begins to emerge that the city, because of its complex nature, requires new rules and structures that can manage both its administrative and spatial aspects.
This conception is not independent from architectural control of elements and spaces woven into the urban network. On the contrary, architecture provides the means by which nodes and connections acquire spatial presence, as the great squares of baroque Rome illustrate [Figures 21, 22, 23].
Fontana's brilliant intuition foreshadows a conception of the city that increasingly reflects reality in today's world. This new conception is embedded in the transformations of socioeconomic life that characterizes our time. Nevertheless, it is a conception still vastly unrecognized, when not vigorously opposed, especially in the architectural world. It is a paradox that, against the backdrop of this inability to revise their paradigm of the city, architects, toward the end of the nineteenth century, begin to claim jurisdiction over the entire built environment, not just over the individual buildings and urban fragments that traditionally had been the focus of their work.
For Fontana, the idea of the city as network may have served the limited purpose of counter-reform pilgrimages. But in our time this idea epitomizes a much more crucial characteristic of current social and economic patterns. The spatial organizations that would follow from understanding and applying this lesson of history would obviously take very different concrete forms today than those which Fontana chose for Rome. Our high-speed means of communication —- automobiles, airplanes, and now the nearly instantaneous internet —- certainly represent formidable challenges. It is difficult to imagine how they may be reconciled with the human, social, and cultural needs that cities have historically addressed. But it is not by clinging to worn out perspectives and indulging in the reformism of garden cities, the naive revolution of modernism, or the nostalgic consolation offered by the new urbanism that the goal of this reconciliation will be realized.
The paradigm of city-as-network does not guarantee that urban design and planning outcomes will be successful, but the model of the city-as-home virtually guarantees that they will not.
EDRA is all about the evidence obtained from empirical research. Nevertheless, since this is a history-focused symposium, I hope you will forgive me if I conclude not with a summary of research results but with an anecdote.
I recently took a distinguished foreign architect and scholar for a visit to Kentlands, Maryland. As we walked around the place on a perfect Spring morning—a rare event in the Washington area—we observed a young mother and her child at the front door of their home. The clothes hanging on the mother's arm were an indication that a trip to the cleaners was in the offing. In this new urbanism setting, how would the trip to the cleaners take place? Alas, mother and child approached the jumbo SUV parked in front of the house. Propelled by hundreds of horsepowers, in an instant they were gone.
Did I mention that my foreign colleague and I were the only pedestrians we saw in Kentlands during our entire visit?
1. Rapoport, A., History and Precedent in Environmental Design. 1990, New York: Plenum.
2. Alberti, L.B., Introduzione, in L'Architettura (de re aedificatoria), P. Portoghesi, Editor. 1966, Milan: Edizioni Il Polifilo.
3. Quatremère de Quincy, A.C., Type. Oppositions, 1977 (1788, 1825)(8): p. 148-150.
4. Harvey, D., The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap. Harvard Design Magazine, 1997. 1(1): p. 68-69.
5. Sennett, R., The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. 1990, New York: Knopf.
6. Millon, H., The Visible Character of the City, in The Historian and the City, O. Handlin and J. Burchard, Editors. 1963, , p. 211. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Figure 1. Priene
Figure 20. Domenico Fontana: Baroque Rome