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27th July 2013

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Detroit: Descent into despair - →

Further to my recent posts on Detroit’s bankruptcy — Detroit in Largest US Bankruptcy and Detroit gets advice, but will it be any help? — today’s Financial Times has devoted almost an entire page to the story, Detroit: Descent into despair

As with most accounts of Detroit’s bankruptcy, this Financial Times piece discusses over-promised pensions and pervasive political corruption (continuing to the present day), but the focus of the article is the relation between urban center and urban periphery.

The case is made here that the urban center of a city is crucial to its viability, that in the attempted revitalization of a city the urban core must come first, and after that revitalization efforts must move from one area to another. In this model of urban decline, job decentralization is treated as a problem. The article further claims that Detroit’s urban center is thriving. Detroit consists of about 139 square miles; 9 square miles are doing well, so one of those quoted in the article said that question is what to do with the other 130 square miles.

These assumptions strike me as questionable. If job decentralization is a problem, and too many jobs are found in the periphery as compared to the core, how can we say that the center is vital and thriving? Also, employment diversity is often a key to urban vitality, and one form of employment diversity is job decentralization. This makes me wonder if “job decentralization” is a code word for the absence of enormous factory labor employment pull, which was the mainstay of Detroit in its glory days of automobile industry-driven growth.

However, I’m not saying the Detroit’s suburbs are somehow secretly vital, and are being plundered in order to support the urban core. From the photographs I’ve seen (I haven’t been to the city), Detroit’s suburbs look like a bombed-out war zone.

Precisely because of decaying, depopulated neighborhoods, many cities, including Detroit, have begun tearing down blighted neighborhoods. If it were possible to experiment with entire cities, it would be interesting to take several decaying US cities in the rust belt and engage in varying degrees of radical slum clearance.

How would a city like Detroit fare if everything outside the downtown core were simply razed to the ground and the city entire were simply reduced to its supposedly vital downtown core? Imagine Detroit’s urban core surrounded by waving fields of grain or forestland — is this even possible? Is this too simplistic a solution for urban blight? I suspect such a radical strategy would be successful in some cities while being unsuccessful in other cities.

Recall that much of contemporary urbanism and urban thought derives quite directly from a reaction against urban renewal and the very idea of “slum clearance.” Traditional neighborhoods eliminated by slum clearance projects are now retrospectively characterized as vital ethnic enclaves within cities that operate at a human scale, unlike the projects that replaced them. The idea of pouring money into traditional neighborhoods is now styled as “gentrification.”

If razing blighted neighborhoods once again becomes the default paradigm of urban renewal, then I predict that the defense of traditional neighborhoods after the fashion of Jane Jacobs will, in turn, once again come to the forefront of urban thinking, and the cycle will continue. 

Tagged: urbanismurban planningDetroiturban renewalurban blightrusrust beltJane Jacobsgentrification


17th April 2012

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Planners and their Cities

Twentieth Century Urbanism on a Grand Scale

We do not know who it was that incised the city plan of Nippur into a clay tablet, but we do know that it was some particular individual who wielded the stylus, because generalities and abstractions do not draw plans (or inscribe them into clay). City planning is an art for the urban masses, but it is also highly individual, if not idiosyncratic. Particular planners and architects have left their personal imprint upon the public works that they have overseen.

Among the most visionary products of the twentieth century were the cities that were built from scratch on the basis of grand plans drawn for the purpose. This exemplifies what Edmund Bacon called, “The City as an Act of Will,” and serves as an antithetical counterpoint to the organic cities that had their origins in classical antiquity or the middle ages. (In The Rational Reconstruction of Cities I cited Nordlingen as an example of an organic city, while in The Exaptation of the City I cited medieval Split, which grew in and around Diocletian’s palace as an example of organicism sprouting up like weeds amid a planned structure.)

In his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, Antonio Sant’Elia proclaimed, “Every generation must build its own city.” In this spirit the architects and urban planners of the twentieth century sought to build their own cities. Twentieth century urban planning has a certain quality about it that might be called (and I don’t recall where I first encountered the term) “Stalinist gigantism.”

As implied in the Edmund Bacon quote pictured above, the city as an act of will has about it a Nietzschean dimension (or perhaps you would prefer that I call this Promethean) — a kind of self-assertion that risks being grandiose and impractical if it goes wrong, but which can also be visionary and transformative if it concretely realizes what it seeks to achieve. This Nietzschean dimension of urban design was particularly evident in the twentieth century.

Washington D.C. is a wonderful example of urban design, but Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791plan is a perfect 18th century, Enlightenment-era plan, as  Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reworking of Paris is the perfect 19th century embodiment of city planning. The Haussmannization of Paris is not only a fascinating design, but was also singularly influential in the reconstruction of Europe’s medieval cities on the model of a plan more consistent with the emerging modern reality of industrialized urbanism.  However, I am going to here focus exclusively on twentieth century urban design and its intellectual context.

A lot of urban planning is painfully pedestrian. Redevelopment, urban renewal, and even dreaded “gentrification” can all be pursued with little imagination, and with results that I find to be uniformly dreary, but which others apparently find to be quite congenial. (I have several times cited the example of Orenco Station, which is close to my office where I am now writing this, and which is admired by many, but which I find to be rather hideous in its artificiality.) My selection of twentieth century planned cities is intended to constitute the antithesis of the pedestrian. You can find a (fairly extensive) list of planned cities on Wikipedia, so there are plenty of examples from which to choose. I chose what I considered to be the most spectacular examples.

The dates given below are somewhat (though not entirely) arbitrary. I have tried to select the beginning date as the date upon which a design was selected or approved, and the ending date as the date upon which the city began to meaningfully function as intended, but these are of course open to debate. So the dates should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt; ultimately they are only important to establish sequence, hence precedent.


The Griffins and Canberra


Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin won a 1911 contest for the design of Canberra, being one among 137 entries. Their design was selected in 1912, and in 1913 Walter Griffin traveled to Australia to survey the site and initiate construction. The work of the Griffins, however, was repeatedly stalled and frustrated. Eventually the Australians themselves admitted that the Griffins had been supplied with false data and that those involved in some of these shenanigans had been appointed to oversee the further construction of Canberra. Understandably, Griffin resigned his position as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and refused further participation. Thus whether we can say that the Griffin plan was realized in the building of Canberra is open to question. Certainly the Griffin plan left a decisive imprint on Canberra, but whether or not it conforms to the Griffins’ vision of, “…an ideal city — a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future,” is problematic.

The Griffin plan for Canberra was ahead of its time in its respect for the natural features of the land upon which the city was to be sited — it might even be considered the spiritual ancestor of landscape urbanism (though this title ought probably to be reserved for Sir Ebenezer Howard). In this sense, the Griffin plan, while visionary in the best grandiose twentieth century style, also constitutes the antithesis to the grandiose tabula rasa city plans that were essentially conceived as universally applicable to any site with bare ground, as with the case of Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.


Le Corbusier and the Voisin Plan for Paris


Le Corbusier never got to build his Voisin Plan for Paris, but he worked on it on and off throughout his life, and it has been said that the Voisin Plan has exercised a kind of subterranean influence over city planners since it was first proposed.  In fact, many of Le Corbusier’s ideas have exercised a continuing influence, and some of them have been influential because of the reaction against them. Perhaps Le Corbusier’s most notorious pronouncement was, “A house is a machine for living in.” Here Le Corbusier shows himself to be a prophet of the Machine Age, and when the Machine Age has been presented in this way, it has provoked a reaction. But the reaction against Le Corbusier’s conception does not call its validity into question, only its popularity. And if a house is a machine for living in, then a city is a vast collection of such machines — in other words, a city is a factory for living in

Le Corbusier was prepared to turn Paris into a factory for living in. This would be an apt description of his Voisin Plan. Anyone who has walked through the area of the Rive Droite that was the intended site of the Voisin Plan will find Le Corbusier’s vision rather shocking, but there are those who think it would have been beautiful. After all, was Paris not already substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century by Haussmann? Why not rebuild Paris once again, but now on the model of the most advanced ideas of the twentieth century, just as Paris had been rebuilt according to the most advanced ideas of the nineteenth century? 


May’s Brigade and Magnitogorsk


Ernst May and several Frankfurt associates that collectively came to be called the “May Brigade” arrived in the young Soviet Union and rolled up their shirt sleeves to begin the work of constructing the built environment of the worker’s paradise — hopes were high and anything seemed possible. May’s team had made its reputation in Frankfurt during the Wiemar period, where they were instrumental in addressing the housing shortage in the midst of political instability. This was exactly what the Soviet Union needed. But while May’s work in Frankfurt has been described as, “one of the most remarkable city planning experiments in the twentieth century” (and for this reason I might have included this effort in this present list), it was most notable not for its visionary quality but for its egalitarianism. Many were housed at a reasonable price. This is an admirable accomplishment, but it lacks the elements of hubris and gigantism that Magnitogorsk and other Soviet-era cities possessed.

Magnitogorsk was to be a Soviet show piece, exhibiting the triumph of socialist industrialization under Stalin. Ironically, the socialist showpiece was modeled on the successful strongholds of American capitalist industrialism. It might seem odd to us today, in an age of post-industrial rust belt urban depopulation, that the planners of Magnitogorsk should look to American industrial cities like Pittsburgh as their model, but it was industrial production that Soviet planners fetishized, rather than any modern fetish like livability or sustainability, and the American industrial cities of the first half of the twentieth century were symbolic of industrial and commercial productivity. Relevant documents for this period of Soviet architecture can be found in the book Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, by El Lissitzky; an extract from this book can be read at The Charnel-House blog, Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931).


Speer and Welthauptstadt Germania


I hesitated to include Albert Speer in this list of twentieth century city planners, as I would not want to associate any of the other planners and architects mentioned here with Speer, but there is no question that the plans to rebuild Berlin as the “World Capital Germania” (“Welthauptstadt Germania”), presumably after the victory of the Third Reich, falls unambiguously into the category of grandiose, visionary, and gargantuan urbanism. I urge the reader to see the film Undergångens arkitektur (“The Architecture of Doom: the Nazi Philosophy of Beauty Through Violence”) as well as Jonathan Meades’ excellent documentary Jerry Building, both of which explore the Nazi fascination with architecture (and enormity). 

Because of the Nazi fascination both with architecture and bombastic public display, the plans to rebuild Berlin as the world capital Germania were suitably megalomaniacal, and a great deal of documentation remains regarding these plans for Berlin. Welthauptstadt Germania would have been not merely the city as an act of will, but the city as triumph of the will. Hitler was quite explicit that the rebuilt Berlin should be so grandiose that London and Paris would pale by comparison, and Hitler and Speer not only were thinking big in structural terms, but also in temporal terms: the buildings of Germania were to be constructed according to the "theory of ruin value" (“Ruinenwerttheorie" or "Ruinengesetz”): buildings were to be constructed with the purpose of retaining their imposing and monumental character even after they are abandoned and fall into ruin.   


Costa and Brasília


Best known for his collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa also worked with Le Corbusier, and the latter’s influence is clearly visible in some of the most famous works of international modernism in Brazil. Despite the obvious influence of Le Corbusier, Brazilian international modernism has a uniquely organic character that employs sinuous lines that immediately remind one of the famous pavements of Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. I’ve written several times about Brasília, which is certainly one of the most interesting examples of macroscopic urban planning in the twentieth century, and the grandiose, visionary plan for which Costa is remembered.

Brasilia could be called a tabula rasa town plan (in a way like Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan, mentioned above), and it represents the antithesis of the Griffin’s plan for Canberra, which made a prescient effort to be sensitive to the lay of the land where the city was to be constructed. Le Corbusier literally would have flattened an historic district of Paris in order to construct his Voisin Plan on its intended site. This is one kind of tabula rasa plan for a city. But a city’s history is not no easily banished (or replaced). Wittgenstein wrote, “The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes." We could say as much of a city, or a district of a city, cleared for rebuilding. But Brasília was built de novo, on vacant land, and there were no ashes and no hovering spirits. Even the “natural” features of the city, like Lake Paranoá, are artificial. This artificiality gave freedom to the planners, but came at a cost. Critic Robert Hughes called it a “ceremonial slum,” and one person has called it, “the folly of man on a metropolitan scale.” Such quotes could be multiplied at will. 


Doxiadis and Islamabad


Constantine Doxiadis (Κωνσταντίνου Α. Δοξιάδη) was a man with a theory. Like Costa, Doxiadis had a reputation for wide humanistic scholarship of which architecture and urban planning were but one expression. Doxiadis’ theories of urbanism (which he called Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements) grew out of his wider reflections on the nature of human society. For a time, Doxiadis was one of the most famous urban planners in the world, an architectural celebrity (sort of like Rem Koolhaas today), his office was involved in projects across the world. Today, his books are (mostly) out of print and there are new theories of planning and other celebrity architects to advocate these newer theories (though there is an online archive of his life and work available).

Islamabad not only sought to do justice to Doxiadis’ theory of Ekistics, it also sought to conform itself to the site — the already existing city of Rawalpindi (in all its unplanned, organic squalor), Rawal Lake, and the Margalla Hills — as well as to provide the benefits of a modern, orderly, planned city. To combine these diverse and sometimes seemingly incompatible planning imperatives in one unified urban area is no small accomplishment. To Doxiadis’ credit, and making a concession to the economic reality of Pakistan, the design of the city included low income housing, which, however humble, included the necessities of life:

"In Islamabad no house has less than two rooms and a kitchen, W. C., and a shower room. Sufficient space is left for outdoor living. Each house has closed, semi-covered or open living spaces, necessary for comfortable living in a country with cold winters and very hot summers, is supplied with running water and electricity, and connected with the sewage system."

While I doubt that this plan has been rigorously adhered to as Islamabad has grown and filled itself in by way of the ordinary business of life in a humid sub-tropical climate, it is a realistic and admirable ideal in a part of the world in which many of these conveniences are lacking.     


Nicoletti and Fontvieille


Manfredi Nicoletti either studied under or worked with Buckminster Fuller, Pietro Belluschi, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, the studio of Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion and Minoru Yamasaki. You can go a long way with a resume like that, and this resume took Nicoletti to Monaco, where he worked with former Prince of Monaco, Prince Rainier III, sometimes called the “Builder Prince,” to create a new suburb of the tiny principality of Monaco. 

While this is still urban planning on a grand scale, Fontvieille represents the sober pragmatism of the later twentieth century — international modernism disciplined by pragmatism, possessed of sufficient resources, but not yet informed by post-modernism or the spectacular non-naturalism of the Frank Gehry revolution. Despite the size of the project, built almost entirely on reclaimed land, it does not give one the sense of Stalinist giganticism that some of the other planned cities above exhibit so effectively. In this sense, Fontvieille represents the end of the era, coming at the end of the twentieth century. 

Note: I haven’t included Dubai in the above even though it exhibits many of the crucial features of visionary urban design, since Dubai is still very much a work in progress, and many of its distinctive structures (like the Burj Khalifa) were completed in the twenty-first century. The ongoing rebuilding of Astana (where Nicoletti, above, has an enormous and remarkable concert hall built) is another example like Dubai — thought clearly a product of twentieth century urban design thought, it is too recent to figure in this list. 

Another Note: For this post I attempted to do some research on Naypyidaw in Burma, but couldn’t find enough information. Does anyone know who drew up the plans for Naypyidaw? Similarly, I looked into Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, but couldn’t find the name of a planner associated with its development. Does anyone know who drew up the plans for Petaling Jaya?

Tagged: Edmund BaconLe CorbusierLucio CostaOrenco StationOscar NiemeyerVoisin PlanWalter Burley Griffingentrificationurbanurban designurban planningurban renewalurbanismConstantine DoxiadisIslamabadLe CorbusierNicolettiFontvieilleBrasíliaAlbert SpeerWelthauptstadt GermaniaRuinengesetzRuinenwerttheorieErnst MayMagnitogorskMarion Mahony Griffin