Fire and the City as an Open System

In Cities of Tomorrow Peter Hall writes of how after the late 1960s, cities were viewed as open, rather than closed, systems. What he means is that cities are complex, organic machines with multiple functions and motives for functioning. Rather than the observational definition of Max Weber, where the city is the product of a market, or the prescriptive definition of Miliutin, where the city surrounds the methods of production, planners realized that there were a myriad of factors that led to the city’s creation, shape and continued existence.

My paper is on the Great Fire of London, 1666, and the subsequent impact it had on the city’s growth. Possibly the most interesting theory I have come across is the most basic. Stephen J. Pyne writes about mankind’s relation to fire as contradictory. The fear of fire is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Pyne. Throughout human history fire has been embraced as a tool, rather than actively fought. Fires meant regeneration in early agriculture, and even earlier fire meant safety from predators. Humans worked with fire in their hands, setting blazes with torches to create new grazing lands. Even early homes were built around the cooking fire, and fire’s legacy today leaves us with the hearth, even if it is only superficial, as the heart of the contemporary home. As building became made of wood and flammable materials, instead of clay and mud bricks, the danger posed by fire increased.

The point is that at some point fire changed from being a necessary and life-bringing tool, to being a dangerous hazard. Lighting a fire in a city, unless done under strict guidelines, is now a criminal act. Firefighters are paid, and are on constant stand-by, to immediately put out any flames that spring up and threaten the sanctity of the legible and non-flammable city. Firefighting technology is a lucrative business, and it is recommended that all homes carry a fire extinguisher. This is merely one example of the city being an open and complex system that is constant change. What other examples can we think of that suggest the city is an evolving and living entity unto itself, one in which the most steadfast of tools can quickly become the enemy?

Le Corbusier, Ruin Value, and Brasilia

We have learned in class how pervasive the theories of Le Corbusier were, and how initially celebrated was his Athen’s Charter. Our syllabus was focused on the European city, however, and not necessarily the evolution of the city in all corners of the world. In South America, for instance, Le Corbusier’s ideas were just as celebrated, and Brazil owes its capital city to the theories of France’s most infamous twentieth century architect. Brasilia is Brazil’s  contemporary capital, but it was not always so. Before 1956 Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, and Brasilia was designed and created specifically to take its place. Brasilia was the result of a competition of over 5000 designers, of which Lúcio Costa was the winner. His plans were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s modern architecture, and he was given free rein to implement his vision on completely green site. Brasilia was constructed in forty-one months.

What is so interesting about Brasilia is the opportunity it provides to see Corbusier’s designs without the challenges that an existing city produces. There were no existing buildings to demolish, nor any existing markets or city centers to cater towards. Brasilia was built from scratch, and therefore it allows us to view Corbusier’s ideas on their own, without the doubts that attempting to create a new utopia within an existing urban sprawl necessarily create. The results are not encouraging. Brasilia has been criticized for the same reasons it has been acclaimed. The utopian strangeness of Corbusier’s solitary towers lends an air of eerie desolation to the landscape, and the similar stylistic choices create a feeling of monotonous drudgery throughout the city.

For me, what is more interesting is the connection to Darren’s post about Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value. Brasilia has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, and as such is deemed by the international community to hold a special cultural value. It is implicit within this designation that Brasilia’s original architecture and design should be protected, and will be a useful example of twentieth century planning for future generations. Although Lúcio Costa might not have had thoughts of Brasilia’s ruin value while designing the iconic city, the international community has certainly proclaimed it a site worthy of protection after its inception. Its ruin value can be inferred from this proclamation, and it is a rare example of a modern city that is thought of more for its value as an historical archetype than as a working model.

Why I hate Huntsville, Alabama

If one were to search for pictures of Huntsville, it is likely that one would find old colonial homes and vistas of Great Springs, a natural waterway that runs through the city. These pictures are beautiful despite the implications of their brutal past. They are also carefully shot to avoid the lower income areas of the community. Speaking from experience, one would have to search thoroughly to find any pictures of the true face of Huntsville: the projects. I spent a week in Huntsville, Alabama at the end of this summer, and no matter where I went I was always within sight of a project. By a “project” I mean a grouping of low-cost, government-built housing units (government housing projects). These are typically single-story dwellings made of red brick and economy building materials. They are usually two room homes or apartments, sharing a common green area with multiple other buildings.They are hideous from an aesthetic viewpoint and when considering the basic living standards of fellow human beings.

This is an official picture of Huntsville. It looks pretty:

It may seem suspicious to anyone googling pictures of Huntsville that there are no official panoramic views of the downtown core. It should; pictures of Huntsville are small boxes, capturing only one angle, because otherwise the constant ghetto would be visible. This is the view of downtown from the missing angle (sorry about the mist; it is extremely humid there). This is the reality of Huntsville. This is a picture I found outside the official register; the red circles were made by me, and they denote government housing projects:

The projects of Huntsville were designed and built under the guidance of the US government, and in this respect showcase a failing in urban and social planning. In terms of practical planning, Huntsville’s projects are spread out and visible throughout the city. Why are there projects and ghettos all over the city of Huntsville? The answer is complex, but briefly put, the rich people live outside of the city. NASA runs a rocket engineering facility and arsenal outside of town, which is a massive economic boon for Huntsville. But the middle and upper class people who work there don’t want to live in or near projects, so they built their homes in the hills around the city. The projects remain due to legislation and land prices, and Huntsville continues to be covered in ineffectual and unappealing housing. For someone doubting the necessity of proper urban planning, one trip to Huntsville will change his or her mind.

What is actually most strange about the layout of Huntsville is the juxtaposition of man-made monstrosities, and natural elegance and beauty. Tall old-growth trees make beautiful canopies across all but the widest of streets and freeways. The rolling hills erupt with yellow and red leaves as early as the first day of September. It is a tragic mash-up of town and country. Huntsville is the deformed child of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City.

Also, this happened in Huntsville: famous on the internet.