Reflections on Urban Planning

This course has been really eye-opening in terms of aspects of history I’ve never thought of before. While the events that correlate to a lot of these changes in urban planning are talked about frequently (the London Fire of 1066, the French Empire, the Soviet Union, the GDR, etc.), the study of urban history offers a unique perspective that manages to mash together the public, the government, and the corporate sectors in order to show the experiences of a city from the perspective of everyone.

If this course has taught nothing else, it is that humanity will always strive to better itself by bettering its surroundings. We seem to have an innate need to reflect our changing ideas through our physical presence on the earth, even if the next generation promptly removes all traces of it. I’m sure the people who debate human nature would have a lot to say about rebellion and memorialisation as human characteristics, but it doesn’t change the fact that people strive to do greater in everything they do, and that includes architecture.

I, for one, am grateful for this. The need to do something better than everyone else has introduced great technological marvels: housed thousands of people; changed how we think about motion; facilitated the introduction of the car as the transportation of choice; and created communities in neighbourhoods that would otherwise be condemned. There was a lot of good that came out of striving for the sociologically perfect city. We are quick to condemn the failed planning ventures, probably because hindsight is 20/20 and anything that appeals to the goodness in humanity is seen as naïve in today’s society. But it didn’t stop a lot of people from trying, and it doesn’t stop people from trying today. “The temptation to quit is greatest just before you succeed”, and I think we’re at a point in society where it is tempting to quit. But I think we’re also at a point that, with a little more effort, real change could happen in city planning.

Thanks to Brigitte for doing a wonderful job of teaching this class!

Humanism, not Utopianism

I found this week’s readings to be the best ones we’ve done yet. Jane Jacobs gives voice to the criticisms that have meandered their way through the class discussion, and she does so clearly and distinctly. We’ve talked about how designers can’t predict how humanity will act, and they can’t predict everything a person will need; especially during periods like the early twentieth century when technology was advancing at a massive rate. In a nutshell, utopian cities don’t work because humans aren’t utopian themselves.

While environment definitely has an impact on humanity and how we live our lives, this course has been an excellent education in how environment doesn’t forcibly shape the people that live within them. Despite best attempts at making humans fit into rational, logical boxes that outline how they spend their days, urban designers end up puzzling over why humanity refuses to do anything that they’re told to. I thought the contrary nature of humanity we talked about seemed accurate. It seems that when you try and tell people that this is the best way to live their lives, they end up doing everything possible to prove you wrong.

This isn’t true just for people trying to create perfect cities for perfect humans. It also applies to areas that urban planners and technocrats have written off. Jacobs cites the example of the North End in Boston, which rehabilitated itself through internal funding and trading of goods and services. She explains that they had to do it themselves: even the bankers saw no good in investing in an area that had essentially been written off. Despite operating against the will of the city, the people of the North End turned their neighbourhood into a place you’d want to live in today. This need to correct their own living space flew in the face of everything that the “experts” had thought about the people of the North End; interestingly, it still didn’t change their opinions of it. I think this is due to the boxes that we place humanity in. Once you’ve been pigeonholed, you can’t escape that until someone without the previous biases comes in.

I think what I got out of this reading was that humanity cannot be placed into neat boxes and told what’s good for them. The only way to create happy, healthy neighbourhoods is by including the people who will live there in the creation process. While the deferral of building processes and materials to technocrats makes perfect sense, calculations can’t predict how humans will act or determine the best way for them to live. If Jane Jacobs did nothing else, she impressed upon the minds of future architects that they are beholden to the people. Hopefully, this ensures that the style of architecture that continues to develop will place the people in front, flaws and all.

Striving for Modernity

In class on October 8 we created mind maps of words that came up during our examinations of the various architectural ideas. I found it interesting that modernity was a theme that seemed to pop up in every example we’ve looked at. As the 19th century rolled over to the 20th, it seemed like everyone was racing to come up with a city that encompassed this new era and solved all the urban design issues of the time. And yet, no one has truly succeeded yet; each attempt succeeding and failing in aspects unique to that city.

The Ringstrasse saw modernity as being open for transportation, accounting for the influx of people in the 1860s. Modernity meant establishing the bourgeoisie as the ruling class through opulent architecture that harkened back to ancient, greater eras. But it ended up as a city that was a miasma of architecture with one foot in the present and one in the past. The quick moving flow of the city trapped people, and stopped them from building a sense of community. The efforts of the architects to create images of the past ended up creating empty disconnected spaces. Too modern, and not modern enough.

Haussmann wanted modernity to mean continuity; huge ongoing roads, repeating facades, a cleaner, more efficient city. Unlike the Ringstrasse, Haussmann had to actually work with the city to achieve his goals. Instead, Haussmann seemed to interpret modernity as something that occurred in spite of, not with, the poor people of Paris. It’s difficult to exemplify Paris as the style of the future when it came at the expense of so many people’s homes and by extension lives. There is a Social Darwinism to Haussmann’s ideas that mark it as very much a product of an empire and not the Republic France had strove to become.

The Garden City failed not in idea but in execution, a giant leap for modernity throttled by the small steps of capitalism. It’s hard to convince people to think only of the greater good when they are confronted with the timeless (fair) problem of their bottom line. It’s a shame that the idea of the Garden City layout would struggle with the lack of open land now; can you imagine it on Kickstarter? I think the real issue with Howard’s idea was that it was genuinely too modern for the time it was created in. The combination of socialism and capitalism is what a lot of developed countries are striving for now.

In just these few examples, it’s easy to see how modernity inspired them, and why it would. Art is constantly striving forward, trying to create the best and biggest thing before someone else does. You can’t go back in art; the Ringstrasse proves that. I think the lack of guiding style for contemporary architecture as well as the environmental push will create what can only be termed modern architecture over the next few years. It’s unfortunate the trend seems to be aesthetics optional.