The Riddle of Seaports, Trade, and Finance

Detail of Venice mural from the AmEx Building. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

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.

Camillo Sitte and The Art of Building Cities

I have a new article in the May-June print edition of TAC titled, “The Art of Placemaking,” about the substance and impact of Camillo Sitte’s 1889 book, The Art of Building Cities. Sitte focused on site design for urban spaces, and remains one of the most important aesthetic analysts of traditional European urbanism. A quote:

One of Sitte’s foremost concerns is the placement of monuments. Today, features like statues, sculptures, fountains, and obelisks may seem mere afterthoughts to core questions of urban planning. For Sitte, who considered the fine art of planning to extend down to the precise details of every urban space, such a presumption about ornament could not be more wrong. In his approach, the decision as to where a monument would be placed was as important as the choice of the object itself.

On his preference for irregularity in urban plans:

Always skeptical of overly rationalistic designs, Sitte is adamant about the value of irregularity. He contends that the modern desire for symmetry is misguided. Looking back to the history of the concept of symmetry, he writes:

Although [symmetry] is a Greek word, its ancient meaning was quite different from its present meaning…. The notion of identical figures to the right and left of an axis was not the basis of any theory in ancient times. Whoever has taken the trouble to search out the meaning of the word … in Greek and Latin literature knows that it means something that cannot be expressed in a single word today…. In short, proportion and symmetry were the same to the ancients.

For Sitte, the ancient meaning of symmetry is something closer to harmony than to a bilateral reflection. He argues that the more rigid definition is a product of Renaissance times that began to haunt the thinking of architects and planners, diverting them from the more nuanced harmonies of older, more irregular designs. Returning to the topic of public squares to apply this interpretive lens, Sitte notes that irregularities on the map are rarely discordant in actual experience. Instead, he contends that they can provide more interesting vistas, better proportioning, and even ideal sites for civic art:

The typical irregularity of these old squares indicates their gradual historical development. We are rarely mistaken in attributing the existence of these windings to practical causes—the presence of a canal, the lines of an old roadway, or the form of a building. Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character.

This point about urbanism is broadly consistent with Einstein’s famous observation that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” As Raymond Unwin and others have observed, curved streets create an inherent sense of mystery, because their vistas reveal themselves only gradually, as one’s movement changes one’s perspective. That which has not yet become visible, but which we intuit to be there, compels us forward and holds our attention as it does so. Compare this to a typical grid, where streets, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “follow like a tedious argument.”

A web version of the article is up now, as well. Read the whole thing, and enjoy!

Raymond Unwin’s Town Planning

Sir Raymond Unwin

Did I mention that I recently published a long-form review of Raymond Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice at TAC‘s New Urbs?

The Unwin article is the first of a series of pieces that I’ve been writing about classic books of planning (which also includes my more recent piece at TAC about Allan Jacobs’ Great Streets). The idea behind these essays is that there is a canon of writings about the art of traditional, Western European urban planning. It begins, one might suppose, with Aristotle’s description of Hippodamus in his Politics; and continues down through the most timeless pieces of the last century. The landscape of these books is not always apparent; and over the last century, much the oral tradition of building that once sustained these practices dissipated in the face of heavy, technical regulation and the cultural trends of modernity. In light of the renewed interest in planning as an art — and as part of a larger cultural tradition — I think these writings deserve to be read, again, by a wider audience.

If you have any thoughts, please feel free to add comments below the article. There’s no need to register before commenting, and your e-mail address will remain private.

Distilling the Elements of Great Traditional Urbanism

Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome, at twilight. Viale delle Terme di Caracalla follows the right-of-way of the ancient Via Appia, beyond the grass, at the far left.

My latest article at New Urbs looks at Allan Jacobs’ 1993 planning classic, Great Streets, and argues that the author’s focus on the necessary elements of placemaking, including the aesthetic details of urban planning, marked a turning point in the history of American urbanism. The entire piece can be found here.

 

Spotlight: George Inness in Montclair

George Inness

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

Just some pictures from a recent visit to the Montclair Art Museum, which has a nice collection of George Inness paintings and personal effects. Inness was one of the best artists of 19th century America, specifically, the Northeast. A native of the Hudson Valley, he was sometimes associated with the Hudson River School, but he maintained a distinct approach that defies classification. His palette reminds me a little bit of Van Gogh’s, but his subject matter is much more realist. He spent a bunch of time in Montclair, taking the countryside around Newark as inspiration for a number of his paintings.

On the Outskirts of Town

Casey Bill Weldon, 1936.

We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here.
I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire
That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.

The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?

In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!

It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.

Pierpont Morgan: Rome and the Romantics

Rome and the Romantics
Click on the above photo to see my full album!

An excellent exhibit at The Morgan illustrates the study of Rome by 19th-century visual artists and writers; the influence of the Grand Tour on artists of the time; and the maps and guidebooks that visitors followed. I think the images speak for themselves. My Flickr gallery has a lot more images, some of which are very close, for detail. Not too many exhibits combine ancient urban planning, Romantic-era art and writing, and 19th century cartography. We really enjoyed this one!