Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Like a Sweater, Pull any Thread

Be hyper-vigilant. Don't believe anything you hear or read. Especially when it comes from an architect, landscape architect, planner, engineer, etc. who promises anything or professes to know about cities. They may (or may not) be experts. That includes me. Be skeptical.

I was reading thru two books tonight and came across a similar pattern. First, from Stephen Marshall's Cities, Design, & Evolution comes this graphic:

It is from the 1965 report, "Highway Plan for Glasgow," which is not in any way particularly unusual. What is noteworthy is the accompanying text promising a brighter future:
"The very nature of this motorway will define the City into understandable units each with its own identity and from this it will be possible for the citizen to experience what the City means, how it functions and what it symbolizes."
Oh, modernists. The world was supposed to be so bright. You clearly solved all of Glasgow's problems. Or, the particular deficiencies and maladies of industrial cities were cleaned up by various other political and technological processes, and you, the grand utopian designers created your own set of problems. The same area in plan view today:

Why does this matter? Because so many city plans promise so much, particularly from people with varying and sometimes nefarious motivations. They could be perfectly well intentioned, but this also doesn't mean they have any idea what they're talking about.

Which brings me to...

This is a figure ground graphic of Wiesbaden, Germany (white is building form, black is public realm, i.e. not buildings). I found it flipping through Dhiru Thadani's dictionary of urbanism The Language of Towns & Cities (you can buy the two books referenced here at the links provided, but you decide if they're worth the cool $150 they'll set you back).
Side note: forgive the iphone pixellation. I'm too lazy to walk to the home office 40 feet away. On the other hand, I'm not too lazy to be intellectually dishonest...you'll see what I'm getting at.
This is noteworthy because it popped up in a lecture I watched/sat through recently. Except, something was amiss. When it was presented during the lecture, it was suggested the bifurcation notable in the building form was due to allied bombing in WW2. Alarm bells went off in my head at the time, but I let it slide. Neither side looked like post-war german form to me, but whatevs, man. Benefit of the doubt right.

Then I came across it in Thadani's book. Date of the graphic, 1900. I'm not sure any of us need the history lesson that 1900 is well before either World War. Thus confirming my suspicions. Furthermore, after a little research, it turns out that Wiesbaden was spared from carpet bombing unlike so many other German cities, which were more focused on oil refineries and factories producing the various instruments of war, i.e. things that don't look so much like neighborhoods, unless the allies deemed certain towns necessary of Tecumseh Sherman-like total war on party, people and place. Wiesbaden wasn't that important.

On the other hand, these following images ARE of post-war german "urban" form, all in Wiesbaden, but for the most part outside of the area shown in the map above which is nearly 100% the same today as it is represented above:

post-war modernist form...

...post-war modernist form...

...post-war modernist form...

...post-war modernist form...this one actually is represented on the figure ground map above catty-corner to the main train station, but replaces the more urban form represented in the map with something more "modern" and anti-urban.
--side note2: at some point we do have to acknowledge that "new," and "modern," don't necessarily equate to progress in a world/civilization/history defined by trial & error, right? right?
Sorry, I don't mean to be a jerk. But, I take tremendous offense at phony science, intellectual dishonesty, and logical shortcuts. Coincidentally enough, all similar methods used by Le Corbusier, the lecturer mentioned above's favorite architect, who professed that the scientists (and science) of the day supported everything he proposed in the CIAM movement & professional journal written and edited by the man himself.

All of Corbu's work led to the plans, designs, language, promises, and eventual reality in Glasgow (above) and countless other cities around the world.

You start to get an idea why this city, Dallas, is so cynical, so skeptical of being lied to by various leaders, whether elected or the appointed "cognoscenti." If cities are the representation of economies, and economies are fundamentally driven by human emotion, then the predominant emotion of a city DOES matter. You can't build a great, "world-class," livable city where an undercurrent of distrust exists to the boiling point.

We can do better. We need trust, respect, and a higher level of expectation for ourselves and others, whether just out in public, or within our rhetoric and debate. It's time to up the level of dialog, the honesty in the proposals for our city, and most importantly the trust between all of us.