Intersections of Architecture and Urbanism in the Emerging Modern City

Otto Wagner Groszstadt

Otto Wagner, Die Groszstadt, Modular Center view (1911)

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.

Otto Wagner, Die Groszstadst, Plan (1911)



Eliel Saarinen, Munkkiemi-Haaga Preliminary Plan, Helsinki (1915)


H.P. Berlage, South Amsterdam Plan (1914-1917)



Below is a diagram that Walter Gropius presented to indicate what he saw as the natural evolution of urban structure.

walter gropius urban block diagram

Walter Gropius, "From the Block to the Bar", diagram 1920

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?