Unwin’s Town Planning in Audio

The Overhead Wire, an excellent San Francisco-based urbanism consulting firm/blog/podcast led by Jeff Wood, has just produced a new audiobook of Raymond Unwin’s 1909 traditional urbanism classic, Town Planning in Practice. The reader is Mark Tester, whose charming English voice is a perfect fit for Unwin’s Edwardian prose. Something for your commute, perhaps? Nice work!

My 2017 New Urbs article about Unwin’s classic planning book can be found in TAC’s archive, here. Meanwhile, a PDF of the entire original Town Planning in Practice, including all illustrations, is available here.

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/

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 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 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.

Remembering the Singer Building

My latest piece at TAC‘s New Urbs looks at New York’s lost Singer Building, which once stood at Broadway and Liberty Street in what’s now called the Financial District (but was once known simply as Downtown New York).

Seen above, a mural in the Liberty Tower, at Liberty and Nassau Streets, shows how the Singer Building might have appeared during its early days. The painting was commissioned by one of the great architects of recent restorations, Joseph Pell Lombardi.

On Indifference

Dawn breaks over the clouds above Côte d’Azur.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate   
Somewhere among the clouds above;   
Those that I fight I do not hate   
Those that I guard I do not love;   
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,   
No likely end could bring them loss   
Or leave them happier than before.   
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,   
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight   
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;   
I balanced all, brought all to mind,   
The years to come seemed waste of breath,   
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

(W. B. Yeats, 1918)

Many seem to have trouble fathoming the cause of the widespread indifference that appears to sustain our terrible status quo in this era of nihilism and opiates; of reductive identities and pervasive escapism. In the early 20th century, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats articulated one probable cause in his incredibly poignant and patently reasonable poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

Written in 1918, exactly a century ago, Yeats’s poem imagined the thoughts of a young Irish fighter pilot — flying for Britain, his legal sovereign, but certainly not an object of sentimental loyalty — during the bloodbath that was World War I. He fought not for patriotism but for the simple, personal reason that he loved the thrill of flying; and because, even with the near certainty of death, his service offered him a daily, enthralling escape from the hopeless drudgery that the status quo guaranteed him at home, in Ireland.

It is not hard to imagine that many working-class Americans and Europeans — not to mention the billions living in crushing third-world poverty — would now register a similar indifference toward the well-being of the so-called global order, even as it looks increasingly imperiled. Just as a poor Irish boy during WWI might have jumped at a chance to fly an airplane, while remaining indifferent to the fortunes of the British Empire, people today may be roused to temporarily escape their misery, even through less inspiring endeavors: narcotics, pornography, the dazzling-but-vapid pop culture, and the fantasies of demagogues. But people cannot be roused to defend a soulless system (on its merits, no less!) that has made the thought of escape so persistently seductive.

Indifference may always be with us, to an extent. Most people are apolitical in ordinary times. But in the face of existential threats to a once-viable order, the manifestation of a critical mass of indifference is not normal. It is a dividend returned to a glib and legalistic system for having scorned the meaningful interests and loyalties of so many, for so long.