O.M. Ungers’ competition entry for Roosevelt Island housing (1975) reflects an attempt in the 70’s to address the crisis of the city, more specifically the failure of modern architecture (from CIAM through even Team X) to address the urban condition. Like others in the 70’s, Ungers resorts to a morphological strategy to reconnect the city to architecture. His proposal, like early OMA schemes, relies on a deliberately generic distillation of form based on typology. His chart of typologies reflects the tension between individual buildings and a unified plan, between a “city within a city” and a city connected morphologically to it’s place. The grid here serves both as a conceptual, euclidian base for the generation of building types, and of course a specific reference to the Manhattan grid. The rectilinear form and geometric layout serve typological abstraction made concrete, and writ large. (In many ways this is a precursor to the OMA projects of ‘bigness’ just as much as it is a subtle integration of urban form at the smaller scale of the street, block, and open space network.) These housing typologies emerged from his research of the site and its context, yet are abstracted, edited, recombined, reformulated and then distributed as part of the urban system.
In 1941, the modernist housing spirit of some of the east coast experiments reached a maturity in Los Angeles. Baldwin Hills Village (now called the Village Green) was designed by Clarence Stein, urban planner of Sunnyside Gardens in New York and Radburn, New Jersey.
The plan continued the idea of the “superblock” first experimented with in Sunnyside and then developed to a fuller extent at Radburn. The cars were kept to the perimeter, and the interior was a separate pedestrian environment. The 80 acre site contains 627 units of housing and some shared building program, with a prodigious amount of green space.
The open green space is divided into three main “greens”, the central one being the largest. Off of each green are a collection of smaller courtyards formed by the buildings- long siedlung style bars. The bar buildings are designed so that, while the ‘front’ face onto these courtyards and greens, the backs mask the parking court.
The result of the superblock, with total separation of pedestrian and car, is prodigious interior space that feels more like a college campus than an urban housing project.
The earliest experiments with the concept by Clarence Stein seemed more appropriately scaled, and more urban, such as in Sunnyside Gardens in New York (1924):
But Radburn, as brilliant as it was, pointed more to a suburban model and one that led to decades of anti-urban settlement patterns found particularly in the ex-urbs of America. Nevertheless, the search for appropriate forms of density continued and still remains today a relevant and unsolved urban and architectural problem.
The new book, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove cannot be taken lightly in any way. Weighing in at 1,003 pages, with over 3,000 illustrations, it is a largely successful and inspiring attempt of an encyclopedic history of the “garden city.”
The idea of the garden city can mostly be credited to Ebenezer Howard, who popularized the concept as a means of confronting the new deleterious urban realities of late 19th century industrial England- overcrowding, pollution, disease, and relentless, expediently developed tenements that gave the workers little access to nature or civic space.
Howard is certainly given his due in the book, as well as the most prolific and persuasive of his follower, Raymond Unwin (Hampstead, Letchworth, etc.) . But the authors set the stage for the garden city movement first in the origins of the suburb, in particular Regent’s Development in London (1811-1832), and in cross-Atlantic incarnations like Llewelln Park in New Jersey (1853) or Olmstead’s Riverside (1869).
The idea of the garden city in its most didactic and popular form really begins with Howard and his book Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1898). Whereas much of the history of suburbia, particularly the American incarnation, was based on a retreat from the city, and a conservative and moralistic view of domesticity, Howard’s intention was to combine the best of the city with the best of country.
Raymond Unwin was the most persuasive and influential designer of garden cities, in particular Hampstead and Letchworth. This history is well known and documented; Unwin’s garden cities have probably been more influential on contemporaneous urban planners than any other planner/architect. As expected, there are numerous pages devoted to Unwin’s garden city projects.
But what is exciting in Paradise Planned is the sheer quantity of projects included, many quite obscure. These projects, presented in drawings, plans, and photographs, span the globe, categorized by place, scale, and chronology. This has the effect of showing the disseminating power of these ideas, instead of the typical presentation of a handful of distilled precedents. Paradise Planned moves beyond the prototypes to create a rich survey of towns, suburbs, and what might be called ‘infill developments’ today.
With over 3,000 illustrations, the variety of design applications of the garden city idea can be understood in all its subtleties and variations. From such a vast survey, one can understand the different ways these ideas can be embodied, and for different purposes.
Paradise Planned shows different applications of these garden city ideals. For example, there is a chapter on Company Town, a chapter on Garden Cities, on Garden Suburbs, on projects in Europe, the Americas, and on “the rest of the world”. While some of these projects could only loosely be identified as garden cities in the strictest sense, they all share an attempt to balance the built environment with nature, a systematic and carefully designed way of distributing mostly mutlti-family housing throughout a development, a respect for the street, the framing of public open spaces, the understanding of the urban block and its potential, an appreciation of the multiple housing typologies, and the belief that these places need to serve communities and support cultural, commercial, and civic needs.
The examples in Paradise Planned have served to inspire some recent urban planners and architects (most notably New Urbanists), but perhaps, and this is something I fervently believe, they can inspire a more contemporary adaptation of these principles. The post-war paradigm has created an onslaught of suburban sprawl and low-density, energy-dependent development in the age of dwindling natural resources and climate change. This situation is at least as precarious a way of living as that of the industrial cities Howard and Unwin inveighed against. This book will hopefully inspire architects and planners to think in a balanced and progressive way how to tackle these formidable issues. The numerous precedents in Paradise Planned are invaluable to study, and for this reason should be on every architect’s bookshelf.
Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove (Monacelli Press: 2013)
Alison and Peter Smithson’s competition entry for the reconstruction of post-war ruins in The City of London was a bold, brash vision of new urban form. The plan intended to bring together high densities of people in a way that created “an infinitely richer and more satisfactory way of living in cities.” To achieve this, they proposed a series of “streets in the air” which connected clusters of flats accessible above and below each mid-air street. They believed that concentrating pedestrian circulation would create community and bring a kind of humanity back to some of the more bombastic and monumental CIAM modernist housing projects. Separating the pedestrian streets from the ground was also their response to the growing ubiquity of the automobile. Although the slab housing forms of the Golden Lane Project owed much to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation and its internal street, the more radical part of the project was the de-emphasis of the building as a discreet unit of urbanization, and instead the creation of a network of continuous buildings arranged in a kind of cellular or synaptic pattern. Such a network would respond to local needs and topography, and would exist as another layer of urbanism upon the existing city fabric. This clustered and networked approach, a flexible system, was a rejection of the imposition of the a priori high modernist grid. The project was presented at CIAM IX. The Smithsons would, of course, become founders and influential members of Team X in the upcoming years.
Although the emphasis on community, flexibility, adaptability, and pedestrians is laudable, the decoupling of residential life from the streets ultimately has proven disastrous for cities. And even for the Smithsons: their Robin Hood Gardens project, essentially their built version of the Golden Lane Project twenty years later, is currently scheduled for demolition in London. Perhaps it is a matter of urban scale, as well as the dismissal of the urban block as the basic element of cities. The success of Michiel Brinckmann’s Spangenblok in Rotterdam (1920’s), for example, which also employed pedestrian streets in the air, by contrast linked buildings which had a clear disposition within the city block. That assemblage of buildings had a relationship to the traditional street, and created open, semi-private space within the perimeter block massing. The interior streets in the air were therefore secondary and supportive to the “real” streets of the city, and were visibly connected to the pedestrian spaces below within the block.
One must view the urban architectural work of Otto Wagner within the context of the redevelopment of the Ringstrasse of Vienna. As in many European cities at the time, the old fortifications around the medieval city center of Vienna were no longer needed, and pressures for redevelopment were great. These old fortifications of the feudal era were replaced with institutions of the new bourgeois power: University, Parliament, Museums, etc.), as well as upscale blocks of housing
The new Ringstrasse development did not stitch the historic city center with the surrounding suburbs as much as permanently separate them. Rather than a series of urban spaces and connections it was essentially a linear void that circumnavigated the historic city.
Critical of this development was Camillo Sitte, the prominent urban planning theorist whose book “City Planning According to Artistic Principles” was published in 1889 and was exceedingly influential. His study of cities in this book emphasized the importance of plazas and squares, composed and enclosed spaces that served as outdoor rooms. In particular, he criticized the nineteenth-century trend of floating massive civic and institutional buildings in the middle of vast plazas. To Sitte, the plazas had to have an enclosed, human scale, and the important monuments (typically churches in the past) were not free-standing, but emerged from the surrounding fabric. Sitte advocated for an informal, picturesque composition, as well as an approach that was “artfully” choreographed.
Sitte even proposed changes to the Ringstrasse, attempting to arrest the linearity of the new boulevard and to capture space along its length. Modernity with its vastness of scale and it’s emphasis on speed was a tragic turn of events for Sitte, one with profound emotional and cultural ramifications.
Wagner, on the other hand, embraced the new modern city, and believed it should represent movement and efficiency. His buildings were in deference to the streets. They were not freestanding, or attached in picturesque ways as recommended by Sitte, but inserted into the urban fabric. In this way, the buildings DEFLECTED and FACILITATED movement.
Wagner vested monumentality not in buildings, but the street itself, which can be seen as vast cuts through the urban fabric, most famously in his Groszstadt Plan.
But before the Groszstadt plans, Wagner proved himself an incredibly adept sculptor of urban blocks. For his Groszstadt, the urban blocks were units of aggregation, and the open space was either the space of the street, or the residual space of blocks removed, in both cases geometrically subservient to the infinite expansion of the urban module.
Last week I gave a lecture at Notre Dame School of Architecture on the work of Otto Wagner, H.P. Berlage, and Eliel Saarinen, and how these architects worked in the space between urban and architectural form.
At the turn of the twentieth century, roughly from 1890 to the first world war, there was a fervent and fertile dialogue amongst architects as to the appropriate nature and form of the emerging modern city. After the European revolutions of 1848 in which the middle-classes saw their power in ascendency, and with burgeoning industrialization and the ascent of capitalism, a new kind of city was emerging.
This was a city that was growing and expanding at unprecedented levels. With it were associated urban population pressures, especially in the form of workers housing. This new economy depended on efficient movement of goods and services, so traffic engineering and street design became of paramount importance. Architects debated the form of this city in powerful and subtle ways. Crooked streets versus straight streets. Functional cities or artistic cities. Enclosed squares or vast monumental public spaces. Wide streets for efficient traffic or narrow streets for pedestrian comfort. Expansion of cities or judicious alterations of the existing core. The nature of housing. The nature of public monuments. The nature of urban blocks. Cities that looked to history for cultural mooring vs. cities that looked to the future with limitless optimism. Many of these issues are ones that we would recognize as still relevant today.
What is consistent about these debates amongst architects then, in the search for urban form, is the role of architecture, the importance of buildings in defining the form of cities. Different architects argued for different architectural methods, or emphases, or connections to history. But all understood that buildings were how urban space was to be defined. Making a building was making urban space.
It’s not a coincidence that the celebrated urban plans of this period were by architects. although their differences were sincere and often drastic, these architects were united in not ceding the powerful tools of architecture to make these new urban spaces. All of them understood that the block was the basic, well, building block, of the city. Each treated the relationship of the block to the city, and the block to its buildings, in different ways, but nevertheless, the BLOCK was at the intersection of Architecture and Urbansim.
Wagner in Vienna, Berlage in Amsterdam, and Saarinen in Helsinki, were each reknown architects who understood that the practice of architecture had to be expanded to include the city. They were contemporaneous, but each indicated different futures for the city.
GROPIUS’S SELF-SERVING TELEOLOGICAL DIAGRAM?
Below is a diagram that Walter Gropius presented to indicate what he saw as the natural evolution of urban structure.
Gropius saw the reformed block (the middle diagram) as merely an intermediary step between the densely built-up blocks of the nineteenth century and the rigid north-south bars of the 1920’s. The reformed block emphasized perimeter block buildings which allowed a continuous street facade while at the same time permitting light and air to penetrate the open spaces within the block. Now that we’ve seen the destructive effects of modern bar buildings and towers floating in undefined open space, with no relationship to streets and pubic spaces, perhaps we can reverse Gropius’ procession, or at least not see his pedagogical diagram as inevitable, but a detour. What can we learn as architects by going back to this time just before this detour was taken, when debates about the form of the modern city were first being posed, and richly explored by architects such as Wagner, Berlage, and Saarinen?
An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides
The Plazas of New Mexico, recently published by Trinity University Press, seems to be that rarity in architectural and urban research today: a panoramic study that looks at a well-defined subject in multiple ways. Such a wide exploration of a narrow subject contrasts to much contemporary urban academic discourse, which produces theoretically narrow readings of wide, heterogeneous trends and global phenomena. The book looks at the form and cultural significance of plazas in New Mexico, one of the most important elements of American southwest urbansim. These plazas have evolved over time, and such evolution is an inherent part of this study. In this study, urban artifacts are alive and evolving, and assume different cultural significances at different points in history. The book profiles twenty-two plaza-based communities in their own chapters, and covers about seventy in total. It is lushly illustrated and contains new photographs by Miguel Gandert specifically commissioned for this study.
Plazas is a collaboration between Stefanos Polyzoides, Chris Wilson, and Miguel Gandert. Polyzoides, partner of Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, is a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the author of numerous books and articles including Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, a groundbreaking study of this architectural type. Chris Wilson is the J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies, and the Director of the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program at the University of New Mexico. Miguel Gandert is a nationally recognized photographer whose work focuses on the culture and people of New Mexico and has appeared in numerous exhibitions and books. He is a Professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico.
I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Stefanos Polyzoides to talk to him about this book and some of its implications for today’s architects and urban designers.
JOHN DUTTON: I just received a copy of this very impressive new book of yours: The Plazas of New Mexico by you and Chris Wilson, with original photography by Miguel Gandert. It’s certainly a larger book than your Courtyards of Los Angeles, one of the best typological studies I know of. Can your talk a little about your approach and the book’s organization?
STEFANOS POLYZOIDES: There are various ways of engaging in documentation, all of which begin of course with observation. One is by observing and writing; another is by observing and photographing; another yet, is by observing and drawing.
We were fortunate to have a historical record of some existing drawings and plans; writings by Bainbridge Bunting, J.B. Jackson and others; and a rich collection of mostly twentieth century photographs, by some of the most prominent photographers of the Southwest. Considering the vastness of the subject matter- the urban history of an entire state of the United States- it became clear from the book’s inception eleven years ago, that all of these techniques had to be used if this were to become a powerful document, distinguished by its scholarship, by the artfulness of its drawings and by the depth of its photography.
JD: There are three parts to the book: History, Cultural Narratives and Place-making. Were these seen as specifically germane for your study of New Mexican plazas, or do you see these as applicable in general to the study of architecture?
SP: They are all relevant dimensions of the study of architecture and urbanism. History is essential because it reveals the structure of time and place. Cultural narrative is also important because it connects the design of buildings and public space to the needs and emotions of specific people living in specific places. Place- making is about the instrumentality of received ideas and their translation through theory into new projects.
There is also a fourth crucial component of the book: Case Studies of some thirty key plazas. Here, theory, history and place- making are brought together in the interest of understanding how to incrementally produce plazas unique to their city or town context. This is in sharp contrast to one of the more disturbing aspects of current architectural culture, producing buildings and places that are frozen in form, beyond further evolution.
The plazas of New Mexico, as well as their architecture, are not closed compositions. Every plaza is actually a piece of a bigger process, an element of the construction of the city and the management of nature over time. How a building or place evolves is as important as what it is at the moment of its construction.
JD: In looking through the book, it’s amazing to see the great diversity of plazas, as well as some often radical changes in their form over time. So can it be said that the type itself isn’t necessarily normative or fixed in any way but varies according to ritual, culture, place, climate, size of city perhaps?
SP: The fact that these plazas have prospered in New Mexico beginning a thousand years ago, speaks to a number of things: To the enduring power of their imagery as the spiritual and public face of their communities. To their serving as the central gathering places for their citizens in times of celebration or of trial. To their climate-modifying design in a desolate border region where living has always been difficult. It is notable that plazas were inserted at the heart of all New Mexico settlements, independent of who the settlers or their cultures were. The plaza form is simply being repeated and elaborated to our day.
JD: How original are these particular plazas- are they a uniquely American, or a Southwestern, phenomenon?
SP: Public space in the form of squares and plazas has been part of the design of towns and cities within all prominent American urban traditions, as well as English, French, German and Spanish. What is unusual about the plazas of New Mexico is that they are first born out of the Native American imagination and its religious strivings.
Then, there has been speculation in recent scholarship that the invention of Hispanic public space in the Southwest of the US through the Laws of the Indies was not only the brutal cultural imposition of a foreign building model onto the native people of pre- colonial North America, but also in part, an adaptation to their space norms.
So, it may well be that the unique dimension of the first two phases of the urbanism of New Mexico is that it is an accommodation between European and Native American ideas. This assimilation of design ideals persists through the design of Anglo American railroad towns in the 19th century. An instrument of internal, American colonization through massive migration and real estate sales to be sure, but also patterned according to the fusion of indigenous and imperial design traditions that preceded it.