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Peter Katz: The New Urbanism - Toward an Architecture of Community

Saturday, July 31, 2010




A review of the 1994 book by Marwa Al- Nahlawi


This book comprises a widely illustrated collection of articles and essays put forward by the leading figures of the New Urbanism movement that emerged in the United States in the late 1970s. Split into two parts, “The New Urbanism” demonstrates how the principles of this movement can be applied to both infill and new development sites at a variety of ranges and scales in the city. The author claims that it “couldn’t have come at a better time” following the unsustainable suburban sprawl that had risen in the mid 20th Century after the Second World War. The advent of the automobile, along with the deterioration of city centres, encouraged more people to leave and disperse to the suburbs for privacy, mobility, security and home ownership. Despite there being many advantages to this move, it resulted in the fragmentation of society of which the consequences went by unnoticed for a long time.

The New Urbanism movement came forward as a response to this, in order to try and reintegrate the components of modern urban and suburban life into compact pedestrian-friendly communities efficiently linked with the larger regional infrastructure. According to Peter Calthorpe, one of the founding members of the Congress for New Urbanism, there are two ways in which the principles of the New Urbanism are to be employed in a region. First, they should be applied in cities as well as suburbs and new growth areas. Second, the entire region should be treated as a whole (socially, economically and ecologically), using the same design principles throughout. With regards to a growing region, Calthorpe rejects any attempt to limit overall growth or allow it to expand uncontrollably, claiming that both actions would result in either further sprawl or undesirable traffic and congestion. Alternatively, he states that growth should be accommodated first in redevelopment and infill locations and then in new growth areas that are within transit proximity to the city centre. Peter Calthorpe’s work is based mainly on TOD (Transit-oriented development), which is “an attempt to regroup the suburb into a density which makes public transit feasible”.

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, both also co-founders of the Congress for New Urbanism, established the principles of TND (Traditional Neighbourhood Development) with the fundamental organizing elements being the neighbourhood, the district and the corridor. The neighbourhood is defined as an urbanized area with a balanced mix of human activity; it has a centre and an edge and is based on a network of interconnecting streets where people live, work, play, shop, to go to school, etc. In a neighbourhood, the public realm rules over the private. A district has a similar structure to that of a neighbourhood and also relies on its relationship to transit but is usually an area of a single primary function around which other supporting activities may take place. Finally, the corridor, acts as a connector and separator of neighbourhoods and districts, and it is characterized by its visual continuity. Its technological intensity and close-by densities determine the location and type of a corridor.

In their essay, Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides – also members of the Congress for New Urbanism -take Architecture and Urbanism back to its most elemental scale in which a plan is first laid out followed by the regulation of public and private realms and finally, the introduction of buildings and open spaces that ultimately define the character of a city. Their application of the New Urbanism principles is to ensure the existence of a public realm through individual buildings by taking the street, the building and the block as mutually dependent entities. Rather than dividing lines, the streets in a city are seen as communal spaces and passages within an interconnected network. Along with the basic design principles of streets, there should exist a hierarchy in their types, according to their required vehicular and pedestrian load. Blocks illustrate the urban fabric of a city and define the public realm, revealing the relationship between the pedestrian, the vehicle and the building. Ultimately, they should be designed and configured around the pedestrian before anything else. The building is considered to be “the smallest increment of growth” in the city. Moule and Polyzaides argue that, in building design, functionalism and flexibility alone result in exclusive zoning and fragmentation; therefore, design should include type as well as function to allow for more sustainable and adaptable architecture.

In the afterword, Vincent Scully, suggests that although the principles of the New Urbanism claim to be applicable to the city centre as well as the suburbs – and a couple of examples were illustrated in the book – it deals mainly with suburban settings and therefore “The new Suburbanism” may have been more fitting for a title. However, he also mentions that in any case, the book is more about bringing back the sense of community into architecture, a characteristic that had been gradually declining over the course of the century. This disintegration he confirms is owed mostly to the automobile above all else.

“The New Urbanism”, like many other publications, is not a flawless response to the sprawl and fragmentation that emerged in the United States, and nor is it a complete solution with no holes to be filled. However, it provides a utopian concept that, if applied thoroughly and conscientiously, can provide a holistic model for town and city planning, with minimal trade-offs. This concept seeks to revive the public realm, which has been increasingly dominated by the private, and revitalise the city that has deteriorated over time. The principles mentioned in the book instruct us to favour the pedestrian over the automobile, and design accordingly. They aim to regenerate the once existing community-based towns that have been replaced by modernism’s international style of architecture that is free from the restraints of the city, from the community, from the urban situation as a whole. Saying that, I also believe that upon embracing these principles, it is very easy to steer away from the primary intention of creating mixed use, diverse, pedestrianised communities and instead, create socially exclusive, sheltered developments that are far from being “public” per se.

Peter G. Rowe: Civic Realism

Monday, July 26, 2010



A review by Pardip Bansal of the 1999 book published by M.I.T. Press


Rowe is a professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1985. Since then he has also been the Dean, the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Director, and Vice President of various programmes, departments and faculties of various other institutions. In addition he is an honorary professor at many universities across the world. Rowe has written many books generally focused on the evolving cultural considerations of modernity, especially as they apply in various regions and aspects of the built environment.

In Civic Realism Rowe looks at the shape and appearance of civic places, and at the mixture of social, political and cultural circumstances of societies that bring them into existence. This book is as much about the making and reshaping of civic places as it is about urban architecture. The book is organised into five main parts, which are the main themes of civic realism (according to Rowe), the five being…
Reexamining the Public Realm,
Civic Realms and Public Spaces,
Realism and World Making,
Individual Spaces and Collective Places,
and Representation and Constitution of Spatial Meanings.

These themes are discussed using examples or case studies to detail each point. The final part The Practice of Civic Realism aims to pull all the themes together.

Rowe begins by re-examining the public realm and explores Siena and its Piazza del Campo from the 13th and 14th Century and states “Siena and its Piazza del Campo stand out as a place where civic life, civic aspirations, and civic responsibilities have been inscribed indelibly...” This is because everyday and special activities have taken place there,
helped by its changing governments over time to make the space work, even to the present day.

In the Civic Realism and Public Spaces section Rowe opens up the idea of power sharing interests between government and various elements of civic society by introducing the modern and restricted interpretation of civil society, normally referring to social organisations being apart from the state. However at the best of times interests can converge in examples where normally between the state and civil society they would diverge, which allows the creation of something with civic impact. The first example is the urban public spaces of Barcelona, completed between 1981 and 1987 to represent a large and impressive body of public bodies at widely different scales, spread throughout the city of some 1.7 million people. These were highly specific and much needed open space projects, both to establish a strong public presence and to help renovate the city. Emphasis was placed on multiple uses of public spaces, in part to accommodate the daily rituals of meeting, strolling, and simply being together in a public place all strong characteristics of Barcelona’s life. A second example the Parisian Grands Projets of Fran├žois Mitterrand, like the urban spaces of Barcelona…” also represents the synergy between the state and society at large". In this case Rowe claims here that these state developed and managed projects have to be able to provide multiple meanings to a mixture of user groups to be enjoyed by everyone and ultimately to be prosperous.

Next in the third chapter Realism and World Making Rowe, in the context of figurative arts, defines the term realism where context and subject matter are the sign of truth. He presents this theme throughout the analysis of the urban design solution of the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Rowe continues to attempt to define architectural realism and also defines realist places where civil society and state can conduct their business on an everyday basis co‐operatively. In the fourth chapter Individual Spaces and Collective Places Rowe debates the social and cultural reworking of Soho and Central Park in New York, where he finds individual means, practices, culture, and background bestow to the locale the characteristic formation of local identity.

Moving on to the final theme Representation and Constitution of Spatial Meanings, here Rowe delves into the political and historic events in the former Yugoslavia and brings in the work of Joze Pecnik, who transformed the city showing urban architecture to be part of a broad civic project on behalf of society. His public infrastructure improvements set a civic tone for public life helping to establish and celebrate the course of Slovenian cultural autonomy. Plecnik achieved this by harmonising the old and new morphological landscape and architectural elements together.

Finally we come to The Practice of Civic Realism. Rowe pulls the various themes of Civic Realism together and summarises the thesis that the civic realm lies between the public and private aspects of our lives although it tends to be produced by both. Derived from mainly informal networks of associations of society, favorable social and political conditions are required for good civic space to come about. Also the term civic represents a point of view about public conduct. Something civic is educational and worthy of being seen and heard in public, and furthermore something to be passed on to further generations with pride. Urbanistically architecturally speaking, civic realism represented within this book is not a style or specific aesthetic ideology. It is at first a descriptive state or condition of being in the world, and secondly an orientation or principles to be taken and implemented when making urban architecture into something that is civic, and is distinct from simply being public or personal experience. Civic realist places contain a pluralism of attitudes with a sense of common accord: they are adaptive, and support everyday life, and allow for group or individual expression.

Overall this book is researched in depth and goes far beyond the surface of the themes discussed. it generally lacked illustrations to back up some of its concepts. I also felt that sometimes this book would be enjoyed more so by social historians than by urban designers and architects, not to say they would not enjoy it especially if they were interested in
the usage and working of public and civic places.


CALL FOR PAPERS: The Postmodern Palimpsest: Narrating Contemporary Rome

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Call For Papers for the above named conference planned for 26 February 2011at the University of Warwick has now been issued by the organisers Dominic Holdaway and Filippo Trentin. msa Architecture + Urbanism students will be contributing short films to the conference based on the research undertaken during their fieldwork in November 2010. Conference announcement here





The Postmodern Palimpsest: Narrating Contemporary Rome

«What better place to await the end, to see if everything ceases or not?»

- Gore Vidal, in Roma

Keynote Speakers: Eamonn Canniffe (Manchester School of Architecture)

& Dr. John David Rhodes (Sussex University)

Saturday 26th February 2011, University of Warwick

CALL FOR PAPERS

The Rome of Federico Fellini’s eponymous film (1972), with suffocating traffic passing dazzling locations, and police brutality in enchanting piazzas; the Rome of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), with long tracks down shadowed streets and lively social gatherings masking potential violence: these images, though informed by converse ideologies, offer overlapping fragments of Rome’s ‘imagined geography’. The closing shots of Roma linger on dozens of mopeds fading into the distant black as they abandon the historical centre for an undefined urban sprawl. The sprawl, the latest metamorphosis of Rome, overlaps with historical images of the capital to form a shapeless identity, a fragmentary postmodernity.

Rome is privileged in its relationship with Western history, constructed over layer after layer, from Roman to Fascist ‘empires’: in this sense the city constitutes the urban palimpsest, with a deliberate void at the end. Rome is going through a time of change that needs to be theoretically framed: this conference aims to provide this through a multidisciplinary approach aiming to link together both urban and architectural analyses, and literary and cinematic ones. The classical palimpsest and the ‘modern’ Rome are overlapping with manifestations of the city’s postmodernity, such as the controversial new museum for the Ara Pacis (2006), the recent museum for contemporary art Maxxi (2010) and, in cinema and literature, ‘New Italian Epic’ depictions such as Il divo and Romanzo criminale. These images affirm a progression beyond Fellini and Pasolini’s ‘modernity’, though one with strikingly little critical attention. They aim to probe the above citation of Vidal, his conception of ‘the end’, and tentatively paint this as a movement towards post-history.

This conference will seek to address the following questions:

- Where present and past intersect and overlap synchronically, is it still possible to represent ‘reality’, or possible only to capture fragments of it?

- Can we still perceive the city as a ‘master narrative’, or do we need to challenge the notion of one city?

- How can the city be perceived in relation to Italian and to European landscapes?

- How does the image of Rome relate to contemporary global cities?

- How is this historical shift represented in global cultural products, and how do they redefine our perception?

Research methodologies are unlimited (urban & architectural studies, cultural theory, photographic and film studies, (art) history, comparative literature and anthropology etc.), and papers will be welcomed which engage with the city or with its representation.

Titles and abstracts (maximum of 300 words) for proposed papers should be sent in either English or Italian to the conference organizers, Dominic Holdaway (D.F.G.Holdaway@warwick.ac.uk) and Filippo Trentin (F.Trentin@warwick.ac.uk), by 30th September 2010.

The Greatest City Debate

Monday, July 12, 2010



Today BBC Radio 4 hosted The Greatest City Debate between Istanbul, London, Mumbai and New York

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour: Learning From Las Vegas (1972)

Saturday, July 3, 2010




A book review by Ruth Burrows

Learning From Las Vegas is a poignant title for this book, instantly both surprising and thought provoking, it instills a pattern of thought in the reader that can be charted throughout the entire book. Upon first receiving the book, I indeed questioned what could possibly be ‘learnt’ from Las Vegas, this city of neon, clutter and excess. This perhaps displays how today (when we have witnessed a return to a multitude of styles and a vernacular language within architecture) the on-the-surface design values of the commercial strip or urban sprawl are both unapparent in popular culture and contradictory to the other widely esteemed models advocated in architectural education.

From my point of view and upon first glance, Las Vegas can be seen as over-the-top, tacky, incredibly commercial and even anti-architectural, so it was a shock to me when I began to understand what the city had to offer an architectural student in terms of design values. In this respect, one of the most important things I took from reading the text is that obscure places sometimes hold timely lessons (if you apply rigor and context to what you are studying), and that we should all be encouraged to look at situations with this in mind.

The book was written in late 1960’s America, at a time when the projected progressive, socialist aims of Modern Architecture were deemed a failure and massive housing blocks built only twenty years earlier as part of award winning schemes were being demolished. There was a need for something new and, within this context, Venturi’s approach can be easily rooted. Just as the Modern Movement was a reaction to Nineteenth Century Eclecticism, Post-Modernism was a reaction to Modernism. Each offered a strong critique of what had come before it, and provided a model almost antithetical to its predecessor – in this example we can chart a progression from adornment and symbolism, to purity of expression through form, to adornment and symbolism again.

Yet obviously, Post-Modernism had contemporary factors to add into the mix, including the car as King and the power of Commercialism. Venturi, as one of the godfathers of Post-Modernist thought in architecture, sought to discredit the work of the Modern Movement by placing value upon things the Modernists hated: historical and existing ‘everyday’ buildings that were explicitly symbolic. He went further and cited how our human need for symbolism and association in architecture is an anthropological one:

We are not free from the forms of the past, nor from the availability of these forms as typological models, but that if we assume we are free, we have lost control over a very active sector of our imagination and of our power to communicate with others…. (Alan Colquhoun)

I agree with Venturi’s stance that symbolism is indeed very important to our sense of civilization, but he then went on to discuss how Modernist Architecture did use symbolism and ornament, albeit unknowingly. This is a tad confusing, and makes me feel that the discussion of symbolism’s vital nature is irrelevant if you cannot escape reference and symbolism even if you try to. With the desire to accept and endorse commercial architecture and mixed styles, Venturi chose the most prominent, amplified example he could find in order to both shock and scintillate the reader into agreeing with him. Las Vegas was an excellent choice to exemplify the opinions that he already expressed in the predecessor to this book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

It was 1968 when all three authors were teaching at Yale and decided to send students from a research
and design studio to Las Vegas in order to help them document and analyse the city: “An aim of this studio will be, through open minded and non-judgmental investigation, to come to understand this new form and to begin to evolve techniques for its handling”. With this in mind, what is lacking in the book for me, is a more detailed documentation of how they set about investigating the city - which would in turn help the reader understand the progression of thought in the book (that is otherwise a series of opinions far removed from their genesis).

Having said that, it could be suggested that the ‘documentation’ is inferred through the photographs taken and the maps and charts drawn - Scott Brown saw photography as a way of isolating an idea, and in this sense the graphic tools used fit the bullet pointed style within which the book is written. The book amounts to an impressive portrayal of the Strip and a clearly illustrated set of theories from the authors. Venturi endeavored to instill a notion of appreciation and logic to the structure of the Strip. He described obvious, everyday landscapes whilst managing to provoke wonder and admiration at the same time. He beautifully and acutely developed a comparison between the market seller’s powers of persuasion and the huge signs that adorn the windows of the supermarket… both, in their own way, communicating to a prospective customer. He stated that, in times of car orientated movement and vast speed; the architecture of the supermarket is a valid response that deserves analysis and I totally agreethat this side of his argument is revolutionary.

However he also, more provocatively, charts the A&P (supermarket) car park as an historic progression from the vast formal spaces of Versailles. This intends to shock the reader into some kind of agreement, yet it is a little too over-the-top for my taste and displays the thin line between the ideas contained within the book that are stark and irrefutable, and those looser ideas that get a little annoying. He suggests that the apparent disorder of the Strip is also misread, because Las Vegas simply is not designed by ‘experts’ to be aesthetically beautiful from a static viewpoint (this is why photographs or mapping do not do the experience of the Strip justice). He states that the structure of the Strip is not found in the obvious places and consists of 3 message systems; signs, physiognomic form and locational expression. These systems have been tailored to vehicular travel and provide their own rhythm to the environment, and it is privately owned architecture that disrupts this rhythm. This
argument is very clever, but may also be seen as tenuous.

Referring to architecture in general, he goes on to say that applied ornament has been given a bad name by 19th century architecture, which I agree with. Decoration had become more and more ridiculous and lacking in thought or program. But in a way, the further you step away from the purity of an orthodox movement, the more stylized and ‘pantomime’ it becomes because it begins to rely on the association of form as an object, rather than signifying its place in time. I think this is a ‘problem’ with the reference to any architectural movement ‘after its time’; it gets added to an already heaving melting pot
of styles, where it can be bastardized.




Finally, I would like to talk about the Duck and the Decorated Shed; metaphors Venturi devised himself in order to identify two conflicting ways in which form can convey meaning, and to inform his critique of existing buildings. Initially, Venturi suggests that both these styles are present in Las Vegas and are equally acceptable, but later in the book, under the subtitle Against Ducks, or Ugly and Ordinary over Heroic and Original, Venturi conflicts the terms in order to display what the book is for, and what it is against. Here, the Duck is said to be ‘Heroic and Original’, symbolically implicit, connotative and abstract, and
therefore impoverished through its rejection of ornament. The Decorated Shed is the opposite: Ugly and Ordinary, explicitly symbolic, denotative and familiar and therefore, even though Sheds may be seen as too humble a form for architects, Decorated Sheds are enriched through their layers of meaning. He states that connotative architecture is dry, irresponsible and irrelevant in a time when architecture should embrace iconography and mixed media in a world of fast pace and commercialism. (He also suggests that the work of his firm is both Ugly and Ordinary, which could display how his advocacies are more taste driven than first thought, and contain self-interested motives).

To summarize, I think the quotation that sums this book up is:
“Learning to really look at a place and question how we look, is a way of becoming revolutionary”.
Within this phrase is advice that can transcend any architectural movement. It clearly conveys the rejection of simply starting afresh with a Utopia that is disconnected with both its existing situation and historical reference. It promotes empiricism, which inherently looks for good and bad, and new, in situations and adds that the ‘tear it down and start again’ Le Corbusian mentality is just obvious, easy and unsustainable.

 

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