The Colors of Urbanism

I really enjoyed this Curbed Longform article by Jessica Furseth about the intrinsic color palettes of particular cities, and how they came to be:

Gold is the perfect color for a place so often covered in fog and rain, providing an uplifting sunny yellow that looks almost better when it’s wet. But this was never a conscious decision: The gold tones of London were an accident of nature. The yellowbrick is made from London clay, which is rich with minerals deposited by the river Thames on its journey to the sea. When fired, the bricks come out in a range of yellows, from whitish and ochre to brown and purple. London’s ever-present yellow is the result of a Georgian building boom that relied on local materials. All over the world, the colors of cities can be traced back to similarly unglamorous practicalities.

Apart from St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which Furseth mentions to illustrate her point, there’s this splash of gold that has defined London for so many generations:

Or as Claude Monet inverted the palette:

Houses of Parliament, Stormy Sky, 1904.

The article also accurately notes that New York has a lot of brown — and that its ubiquitous brownstones are colored by a type of stone that was found in abundance in the nearby quarries of upstate New York and New Jersey.

This fits with something else that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is how smaller cities in a particular region often have uncanny similarities in their colors and materials with the big metropolis. Not surprisingly, Albany’s urbanism closely resembles New York City’s (and Brooklyn’s), and even has similar hues, although it is more than a hundred miles away.

Similarly, a lot of smaller cities in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey look oddly like lost crumbs of Philadelphia, with their brick facades and pitched roof row houses with oddly varied widths.

The role of local materials in establishing the palette of a specific place — as well as building styles that may be influenced by the materials used — may have historically been an accident. But for a long time it has also been increasingly a choice. The availability of building materials from elsewhere is hardly a brand new phenomenon. The Romans transported marble, and other stones, and paints, throughout the Empire. And as Furseth points out in this piece, the Silk Road had made the colors of the Far East available to Indians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans long ago. But the widespread use of imported building materials for vernacular projects is a more recent phenomenon.

When employed artfully, imported materials can of course add richness and variety to the urban form. But in the wrong hands (of which there are many) they can more easily contribute to a sort of postmodern chaos borne of a jumble of discordant materials (and associated forms), driven by parsimony, and reflecting an almost complete lack of grounding, purpose, or continuity with the past.

In my own research, I have found that some of the worst effects of this trend are accruing to cities in developing countries where urbanization has happened rapidly, and in the context of the global economy; and also in the postwar development of America, where the bulk of construction has taken place in a wealthier version of the same context.

Building the West Bronx

I have a new piece in City Journal about how the West Bronx evolved from a series of suburban neighborhoods of Victorian houses (built in the late 19th century when the City of New York first incorporated the wards north of Manhattan), into an urban environment of (often beautiful) apartment buildings. The transition mainly took place between the turn of the 20th century, when subway service began, and the onset of the Great Depression, when construction and migration both came to a near standstill. It remains a model of how cities can grow incrementally, by allowing the construction of apartment buildings when demand for housing rises.

This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.

Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here: http://www.legaltowns.com/category/the-bronx/

Can Dense Cities Survive the Coronavirus?

A street in Greenwich Village. Theo Mackey Pollack.

Yes, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities, and one of the most well-known progressive proponents of a more urban urban fabric in America. Here’s a link to an interview that Chakrabarti gave last week to Gregory Wessner of Open House New York (which, as an aside, is a wonderful organization that facilitates things like public visits to the Tiffany stained glass at the Neustadt Collection, New York City Hall, and Edward Hopper’s art studio). A quick registration is required, but no fee.

The sprawling conversation between Wessner and Chakrabarti touches on everything from the resilience of urbanism to the pitfalls of ‘exceptionalism’ (e.g., the American variety). The conversation also delves into an aspect of the density discussion that does not get enough attention (in my opinion), namely, the potential to achieve traditional urban densities through low- and mid-rise development patterns; and the fallacy of equating urbanism with an inhumane, impersonal scale.

I’ve seen Chakrabarti speak at Columbia, the Newman Institute, and the AIA’s Center for Architecture. Apart from his flair for urban design, he is a persuasive proponent of the humane aspects of urban density. This timely conversation also reaches difficult questions that have been raised in the context of the coronavirus about the continued viability of large, dense cities. Chakrabarti’s thoughts are fundamentally optimistic, but also — not surprisingly — a challenge to the planning status quo.

Modeling Constantinople

Some incredible virtual modeling has been done to recreate the physical forms of old lost cities. I found a project recently that’s focused on Constantinople as it developed through the year 1200. Details include models of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, the Forum of Constantine, and at least 60 other features of the ‘New Rome’ as it reached maturity. Together, these features are mapped into a 3-D layout of the city proper. This page tessellates a map of the old city (east of the Theodosian Wall, and spanning the triangular promontory between the Golden Horn and Marmara) into clickable tiles that lead to closer views.

Unfortunately, for all its ambition and promise, it seems like this project may have been put on hiatus (or slowed down) several years ago. I would include some teaser images here (as allowed by the Fair Use doctrine) but (also unfortunately) the authors of the project are quite aggressive about threatening to sue anyone who uses their work without permission. So, to keep things simple, I’ve included an early 20th c. map of the city instead.

Oddly, the authors also seem quite concerned that their project should not be construed in any way against Turkey:

None of the material on this site can be used for any purpose against any country, nation or minority, especially against TURKEY and Turkish People.

Hm. Seems like there is some political tiptoeing going on.

It’s a shame that this effort has slowed down. Constantinople in its heyday deserves topographic scholarship on par with what Carandini, et al., have done for classical Rome. Regardless, what’s done of this model is already an impressive technical and historical undertaking, and given that there are few major European cities with a more rich or tragic (or extensive) history than the one we now call Istanbul, anything that sheds new light on Constantinople and its role as, essentially, a tenuous thread between classical antiquity and our modern world is, I think, a priceless cultural contribution.

Think about this: Byzantium considered itself a continuation of the Roman Empire — and, for all intents and purposes, it was. In the West, the Dark Ages may have enveloped the former Roman lands, but from its new capital at Constantinople the Roman state continued in the East with just one interruption (during the Crusades), right down to the 15th century. The people of Byzantium even called themselves Romans (in Greek, ironically; as did, apparently, many Greek-speaking people in the Ottoman Empire until the 20th century).

So Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 (and the Greek scholars who fled West helped seed the Italian Renaissance). And Columbus landed, just 39 years later, in Hispaniola (where Santo Domingo — a Renaissance city in the Western Hemisphere — would soon be founded). That means that there was a generation of people who were born into the Roman Empire who came to know about the European discovery of the New World in the prime of their lives. I find that fascinating. Romans who had a glimpse of America.

A sister project has also begun to model Babylon as it existed in antiquity.

Work at Notre-Dame

Nine months after the devastating fire, Architectural Digest has an update by Tim Nelson on the project to restore Notre-Dame. A big part of the challenge — before any actual restoration work can be done — will be the painstaking process of minimizing damage to the actual cathedral from melted construction scaffolding (which must be removed):

At the time of the blaze, the storied church was nearing the end of a $6.8M renovation, and metal scaffolding had been put up to protect the 19th-century spire. The high temperatures generated by the flames engulfed the church’s wooden roof, fusing the scaffolding. As it stands, the most pressing obstacle is removing the warped metal. 

The Singularity of Single-Family Zoning

Another mainstream piece — this one by Justin Fox at Bloomberg — zooms in on the role of zoning laws in the housing crisis of metropolitan America. This one focuses on the abnormality of the American approach, which has set aside large portions of our municipalities for single-family housing since the days of Euclid v. Ambler. It feels like we’ve reached a crescendo of MSM coverage of the zoning-affordability question. Here’s another recent article from The Economist. This trend in coverage is good news.

New Article: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

Depiction of the room containing the Forma Urbis, as it might have appeared in its own time. Source: Princeton University Press.

My latest piece at TAC’s New Urbs looks at the incredible, two-volume Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Sapienza’s Andrea Carandini. An excerpt:

The detail and precision of the Atlas are extensive and impressive: As in Lanciani’s [19th century] work, every inch of the ancient city’s physical footprint is covered in Carandini’s. Here, this means all of the urban land that was enclosed by the city walls in the third century. Within this context, countless individual monuments, buildings, and outdoor sites are illustrated at higher resolutions in plan-and-section form. All drawings are color-coded to distinguish between extant structures, archaeological records, and scholars’ presumptions; and to date as much of the evidence as possible.

The written parts of the Atlas are thorough and serious. A collection of scholarly essays provides narratives of the ancient city’s infrastructure networks, building methods, natural environment, and demographic trends. Chapters on each of the 14 Augustan regiones—essentially, its political wards—are methodically organized, beginning with notes about urban planning, and proceeding to histories of urban change across the span of classical antiquity. The methodology used to collect and organize the information contained in the Atlas is also discussed at length—creating a degree of transparency between the editor and his readers that is refreshingly candid.

The Riddle of Seaports, Trade, and Finance

Detail of Venice mural from the AmEx Building.

If you’ve ever been inside the lobby of the American Express Building in Lower Manhattan, you can’t have missed Craig McPherson’s haunting, beautiful murals. What I find interesting about the cityscape murals at the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) is that they allude to the somewhat mysterious history of modern finance; even their colors and angles present a sense of mystery — like there is a secret to be discovered, or a riddle.

Detail of Istanbul mural from the AmEx Building.

The cities depicted are key seaports of the world. Two (Venice and Istanbul) represent trading capitals of the Old World, while the others (New York City, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Rio) might be said to illustrate the global growth that was driven by the sudden expansion of Old World trade that took place after the Renaissance. What facilitated that expansion? Stock corporations and insurance companies. Both had their origins in the pooling of capital and risk to facilitate the shipping industry of that time. The capital they raised and the assets they protected drove the expansion of Western trade beyond the traditional routes of Europe and the Mediterranean. In this sense, the murals at the World Financial Center are very much part of long tradition in public-facing art: they present a romanticized narrative of a bigger (and potentially obscure) story behind the walls they adorn, and they remind of us the day-to-day work that went into that story.

On another note, the murals all survived September 11th relatively unscathed, even though the American Express Building suffered severe damage.

The Broken Diamond of Washington, D.C.

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Here’s an interesting bit of American urban and legal history. In 1791 and 1792, a team led by Andrew Ellicott (including the famous Benjamin Banneker) surveyed the boundaries of the original District of Columbia.

In its first iteration, the District was shaped like a diamond, each side ten miles in length. It comprised the limits of the present city of Washington, whose lands were donated by Maryland, and a somewhat smaller area on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

In 1849, Virginia recovered its portion of the federal district, leaving only Maryland’s former portion as the federal district. So, today, a map of the City of Washington, D.C., looks like this:

Meanwhile, most of the land that Virginia reclaimed became today’s Arlington County, which retains the corresponding geometry of the original diamond for much of its boundary. The remainder is now in the independent city of Alexandria.

Today, the boundary stones set out by Ellicott, Banneker, et al., still, for the most part, exist — including those defining Virginia’s former portion of the District, which, in an alternate history, might also have remained legally a part of the nation’s capital.

You can learn more, and see all of the remaining D.C. markers, by visiting boundarystones.org.

The Singer’s Sisters

Although New York’s Singer Building (149 Broadway, New York City) was lost in the late 1960s, at least two other buildings remain today with strong claims of sisterhood. One is in New York City, just about a mile north of where the lost Singer Building once stood. The other is halfway around the world.

The Little Singer Building (561 Broadway, New York City) was built in 1903. Like the (Big) Singer Building, it designed by the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg for the Singer Manufacturing company. The Little Singer is an attached, zero-lot-line building, in keeping with traditional urban forms. But, unlike Flagg’s next project, it does not have a freestanding tower. Although it was sandwiched between two other buildings, the architect found ways to make it stand out, including the use of cast-iron, arches, and a recessed bay that gives shape to its distinctive color scheme (red brick and green), which presaged the palette of the Singer Tower. Today, it has a clothing store on the ground floor, with residential units above. Here it is, today:


Singer House (28 Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg) is located on one of pre-Soviet Russia’s grandest commercial strips — the Nevsky Prospekt. Designed by Pavel Suzor, and completed in 1904, the Singer House is more playful in its Art Nouveau design than either of its Beaux-Arts, New York sisters. Yet, in a less formal way, it expresses a similar tendency to combine solid materials and ornate flourishes in a way that defined the visual themes of the company. The Singer House couldn’t have a tower, because the Czar wouldn’t allow anything to exceed the height of his nearby Winter Palace. Here it is, today:

I never find a site on Google Maps without doing some virtual wandering. Roaming around Saint Petersburg on StreetView makes me want to visit. It’s a beautiful and complex city. I’m often taken aback by the incredible richness and refinement of Russia, and its contrast with the country’s seemingly interminable political harshness. It’s a mystery — which makes it interesting.