(Welcome to new and returning readers! This is the 2nd post in the “Crafting Places” series, which “kicked off” on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface” article introducing the series, accessed on line at http://wp.me/pVUDj-np and on the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Spaces” of this “RenaissanceRules” site.)
Part I: Community and Space
“Welcome to Suburbia”
Most of the best used and best loved urban open spaces are public domain, whether piazza, platz, campo, square, quay, beach, park or garden. Usually they have “hosted” one or more “public” (ruling party) or “patron” (oligarch) imposed buildings adjacent or within them from their earliest days. If more than one such structure exists in relationship with the public space, the additional ones were usually developed over several regimes or generations. The rest of the buildings “touching”, “using” or “creating” the space are usually private.
In situations where ALL of the participating buildings were constructed AFTER the creation of the space, the result is usually much more focused and formal, and comes with trappings of accepted or dictated design rules which may be onerously dogmatic and monumental.
At times, historical progression has included “deconstruction” and “renewal”. Sometimes, today’s vision of the space cannot fathom the value or liability of a now-demolished edge structure, or modifications to the original street scheme accessing the public space. Now and then, a site sits forelornly empty, a “missing tooth” in the smile of the space. In other instances, a space that was at, and helped define, “the edge of town” has been redefined by adjacent development over the ages.
Relative to residential open spaces, in areas developed in the era of late 1960’s and early 1970’s suburban growth, park “advocates” had to fight the belief that proximity to a park lowered residential property value. Today, the market sages sell their version of the “greenbelt” (too often merely a landscaped pedestrian/bicycle alley or easement) to provide off-street access to a park and school as the center of their “new community”. Too intense a focus on this one aspect of “progressive” development planning often fosters suburban development at its worst as it virtually totally removes people from the street, making the street the unadulterated domain of the car. The pedestrian easements invade too-small “backyards”, while front yards and driveways are miniaturized to offset the lost land.
At the same time, the house designs that were imposed on those developments have often not addressed the new component of public infrastructure, using 1960’s suburban models predicated upon large front yards and visual privacy to the rear living area.
And the parks, though sold as “pastoral”, have most of their small area signed over to local favorite organized youth sports to the exclusion of “park” and “cultural” uses and in close proximity to your not-so-private mini-mansion.
There is insufficient concentration of population to access and support “culture”; no relief of “car-mania”, no more urban house design despite small lots, no accomodation for personal privacy, no encouragement of community building street life, and no concentration of tax dollars to create and support cultural community facilities. Oops!
Today, the inherant problems in non-residential areas are well known, including that almost all “new” spaces were planned by and for a single developer (at best, benign public/ruler or beneficial patron/oligarch all in one?), internally oriented, when not occuring as “strip mall” development on shallow lots along existing arterial streets. Most properties in appropriate settings “hoard” the space, like old cloisters or courts, rather than presenting it for “sharing” with adjacent uses and the public. Both are needed. The public “sharing” is a parking lot.
Today, the inherent problems in late 20th-Century residential areas design are well known, including the misdirection despite good intent toward fulfilling the post-World War II mini-estate dream with the 1980-90 “one car for every person” (now SUV) freedom within the ever more expensive and scarce resources of land.
The challenge: to craft a “real city” (whatever that “really” may be – just trust “them”?) including, naturally, a proper urban open space system, cultural and recreational resources, within the opportunities and constraints of a Late 20th Century Capitalist Democracy Secular Humanist Society.
Virtually every European town and city that survived from the Renaissance to the early 1900’s relatively intact appears to have had the necessary and desirable components created appropriately for its resources, environment and society. Many Victorian/Beaux Arts-era American cities did as well. Find one that does not, and you will identify the “dysfunctional” town with a history and dynamics (or lack thereof) not unlike that of the modern dysfunctional family. Even where the parameters were met, post-18th-Century “technological and political improvements” (including post-war rebuilding) too often disregarded positive, proven attributes, and thus disrespected the society and economy of the places.
“Honest, Informed Reappraisal Needed – Apply Within”
Reappraisal of the practices of community and space planning cannot start with the ersatz cosmetic approach of too many pseudo-“neotraditionalists”. As William Curtis noted in Architectural Record far back in June, 1989 (pages 108+ff),
“To speak of inheriting and extending a tradition does not mean copying what has gone before…It rather means absorbing principles behind earlier solutions and transforming them into new vocabularies suited to changed conditions…imbibe the spirit without mimicking the style (not ‘revivalism’)”.
Regarding inappropriate use of context and local traditions, he warned that
“…Regionalisms of whatever kind run the risk of producing hackneyed imitations of the vernacular. The result is then a sort of easy vacation kitsch done up with Mediterranean arches, thatched roofs, or whatever. Hopefully, it is possible to translate regional principles for dealing with climate and cultural patterns into a vocabulary able to handle a range of modern conditions.”
Reappraisal (Recapitulation!) begins there, studying origins, historical progressions, assets and liabilities, destructive and restorative interventions; identifying patrons, opportunities and products; how they evolved and the working parallels to our Post-Industrial situation; and only then exploring and proposing opportunities for constructive reform. Always remember that Reformation is the process of identifying and correcting error and moving forward on a rightful course.
The next post in the “Crafting Space” series will bring forward the first of a few “Antecedents and Contemporary Studies” to help begin the reappraisal, addressing Thomas T. Vreeland’s “New Vision”. To develop “new vision” you need to begin by understanding the clarity (or lack of clarity) of your existing vision, with your community, with professional assistance, but always using your own “eyes”.
Don’t fall for the siren-song of “True Tales of the Legendary Past” gurus or their collaborators, purveyors of “Legendary Tales of the True Past”.