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.