Rethinking urban forms and ideals

Over the last few weeks I have begun to rethink my ideals for the design of cities at the block level of scale. Yesterday my colleague Raffaele Pernice reviewed the history of modern urban design with our class. His slides reminded me that the mid-19th-century industrial city is often seen as the starting-point, the problem. I don’t disagree with that, but I am not sure about the way that lessons were learned from the reaction to it.

Le Corbusier's vision of the "Radiant City"

Le Corbusier’s vision of the “Radiant City”

Raffaele showed le Corbusier’s concept of the Radiant City. From my American experience, I shudder at the idea, because we associate it with the failed experiments in tower-block public housing and the arrogance of Robert Moses. Then I thought about it from the perspective of our Chinese students. In general, the conclusion here has been: Right. High-rise concrete and glass, modern, lots of natural light and ventilation, good. The only objection might be that historic sites should be preserved, not destroyed as Corbu proposed in the Voisin Plan (below).

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Meanwhile I assigned Chapter 1 of Jane Jacobs to my students: standard fare for an introduction to planning and urban studies in an American university, and perhaps necessary here to explain the American approach to planning. But I may have absorbed a corrupt lesson myself in the U.S., where Jacobs’ advocacy for vibrant urban streets is associated with opposition to massive tower-block housing. Her opposition to urban renewal and public housing in the 1950s is portrayed as opposition to the impersonal regime of the State and its sterile, State-funded towers.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

But Jacobs did not oppose high-rise housing. She objected to the insensitive destruction of existing neighborhoods. Her objections were echoed most famously by Robert Caro (1975) and Marshall Berman (1985). In some ways they both shifted the blame of arrogance from the impersonal State onto the very personal Robert Moses. But I think Caro and Berman missed a point that Kate Bristol identified in “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in 1991: she documented how this most symbolically infamous public housing project was doomed by the political decisions of racially-prejudiced leaders in St. Louis. They wanted the blacks out of the way so that they could redevelop land adjacent to downtown. So they built Pruitt-Igoe as a displacement-warehouse and treated it as such through the neglect of maintenance and management budgets for it. Going back to Jacobs (1961), her objection to public housing in New York City was also about the policy failures in management.

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

So the linkage of “Intimate urban streets = good” with “High-rise towers = bad” is a flawed association, and really has nothing to do with Jane Jacobs. So let me re-pose an urban question: How do we design high-quality, high-rise housing combined with vibrant, urbane streets?

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

There are a lot of policy questions that need to be tackled as well, such as dampening speculative inflation, promoting racial and class integration, and sustainable use of resources. Those are also in the recipe I am mulling over; but at the moment I want to re-visit a basic spatial-structure question, because I have never heard it asked in quite this way.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

Part of a solution comes from a 90-year-old NYC policy: the stepped-back building. In NYC this was intended primarily to maintain exposure to direct sunlight in winter for the lowest floors in buildings. But the same policy can also be used to define street-space, by limiting the number of storeys that a building can rise adjacent to the street before stepping back. The most famous example is the Empire State Building (1929). When you stand next to the building, what you experience directly is the “podium base” which is about 6 storeys along the street, which do a fine job of defining the street space. The 80-storey “shaft” of the building is stepped back so that it does not impinge on you from the street; it feels remote rather than looming.

Empire State Building, street-level base

Empire State Building, street-level base

I think that in Vancouver they are trying this at a smaller scale, the scale that interests me. 100-storey buildings might make sense in the city center, but for the main part I think the 10 to 25 storey range makes more sense. I think I will post more on this in the next few days.


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