Antecedents and Contemporary Studies
F. Reconstructing the City
Today is not to late to begin to reconsider how the “reconstruction” of American cities and “suburbs” is approached. Those modifications are not for the faint-hearted, but too often are left to the “academic planners” who, sadly and too often, proclaim that their academic learning must supersede the real-life experiences and values of the people who actually live, work, play, worship, govern and create in a “place”.
At best, often patronizing and condescending “public input” exercises are promulgated – based upon “proven models” of course – to give the unwashed masses a feeling that they have been consulted before the “proven models” of city reconstruction are clamped down over their homes, culture and community.
It May Sound Like a Rant, But May be Righteous Indignation, Too!
If this sounds like a “rant”, of course! However, look at the results of 65 years of that approach – honestly, with open eyes – and you will probably “rant” a little, as well. Still, Action is the New Competence (that is even stated right at the top of the web-version banner heading of this blog!), and a rant is an insufficient response to what has been done and is now being proposed to be done to YOUR city, suburb, business, open space, cultural institutions and schools in the name of progress. Get up, get out, get educated about your community, and get involved.
Re-Learn before Reconstructing
Before “modernism” is condemned altogether, we can learn valuable lessons from the work of late 20th-Century European architects and planners – the ones who still had (still have) the detritus of World War II destruction to address, and to re-address toward Reformation the excesses and errors that occurred during a very heroic, necessary and wholesale reconstruction of too many cities heavily damaged by war.
The book “Rational Architecture: The Reconstruction of the European City” (1978, AAM Editions, Bruxelles), chronicled then current thought of a particular group’s work along similar lines. The authors grouped Leon Krier, Massimo Scolari (painting), Aldo Rossi, Bernard Huet (“Small Manifesto”), Rob Krier, Carlo Aymonino, O.M. Ungers, Migual Garay and Jose Linazasoro, Jorge Velasquez Gomez, Fernando Montes, Rem Koolhaas (OMA), Rita Wolff, Mario Botta, Werner Kreis, Giorgio Grassi, Aldo Van Eyck and Theo Bosch (not related!).
Keys to their “rational architecture” were felt to be best illustrated through Leon Krier’s “The Reconstruction of the City”, and Robert L. Delevoy’s statement that
“The City must be designed to be walked through”.
Great Themes – Does Your City Have Any?
The “Great Themes” of the Movement were characterized as follows – with comments appended to each:
1. “The physical and social conservation of the historic centers as desirable models of collective life”;
Versus classic urban renewal that “blew up” the classic city centers in the name of progress, perhaps as Tom Wolfe understand, more likely fulfilling the dream of being able to reform cities in a new image – lusting after the ability of some of central Europe to do that in place of the carpet-bombed historical centers of their city. Legalized warfare without airplanes became the model for American urban renewal?
2. “The conception of urban space as the primary organizing element of the urban morphology”;
Design for inclusion of walkable streets, usable parks, promenades, quays and public squares – and often for simply upgrading and respecting those that were put in place at great expense and with great foresight by our forbearers when they built American towns and cities!
3. “The typological and morphological studies are the basis for a new architectural discipline”;
Promote the actual study of and comprehension of existing city forms – whether historical centers or post-World War II suburbs before advocating wholesale change that impacts the lives and culture of the inhabitants. What a concept! Design for the people who are there, not for a design award.
4. “The growing conscience that the history of the City delivers precise facts, which permit to engage an immediate and precise action, in the reconstruction of the street, the square, the quarter”;
The design problem statement for any intervention within an existing city structure needs to have the same rigor as that required by an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to considering modification of natural areas. People and their cultural artifacts – buildings, parks, schools, institutions, public squares, markets, et.al. – are at least as important as natural flora and fauna in their micro-ecosystems. Existing human ecosystems have for too long been “thrown away” by “progressive planners”. People are not “throw away” inconveniences in the way of realizing your grand schemes!
5. “The transformation of ‘housing zones’”…suburbs…”into complex parts OF the city, into cities WITHIN the city, into quarters which integrate all the functions of urban life”;
Sometimes a little “tweaking” performed after actually obtaining an understanding of a place, particularly through the eyes and lives of the people who live, work, govern, worship and play in that place, is all that is required to turn a dreaded “suburb” into an incredible community! Throwing out the word “suburb” to evoke terror of wasted lives is a straw dog to avoid dealing with actually planning for people within the environment – human and natural.
6. “The rediscovery of the primary elements of Architecture: the column, the wall, the roof,… (etc…).”
This last concept is beyond the scope of this current post. However, it has been left in here for completeness. Think about it. What “makes up” the physical elements of the man-built environment, why were they devised, how have they been used, what benefits do they bring to life when utilized properly? At some point, well-crafted details make the “whole” comprehensible and even beautiful! Yes, that is allowed!
Walk around your city, district, suburb to explore its special public spaces and the “urban fabric” that links them together into a composition worthy of being called “my town”. You will find some “missing teeth” – unused spaces due to jack-rabbit development patterns and demolition of older artifacts. You will find some “Aunt Minnie’s Hat’s” – strange, eclectic, sometimes even downright ugly constructs that still add uniqueness to the place without damage. You will find some “near misses” that, with a little adjustment can be jewels in the crown of your city.
Then, work with your fellow citizens to inform themselves and their leadership (which needs to be them, not merely the “usual suspects”), to learn what plans and codes and regulations have been imposed in the past whether they work or not. Take a first step with your own “place” – business, home, street, neighborhood. Celebrate what is good beginning with the people, then from that celebration catalyze improvements that carry the place forward as a gift to the next generation.
Action is the New Competence!
(Thank you for visiting “RenaissanceRules”! This is the 8th post in the “Crafting Places” series, which began on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface”, accessible on-line at http://wp.me/pVUDj-np. All published posts in the series can be accessed through the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Places” of this “RenaissanceRules” site.)