Alberti: Building on the Wisdom of the Ancient World

My latest piece at TAC‘s New Urbs looks at Leon Battista Alberti’s 1452 treatise, De re aedificatoria, and how it served as a vessel for planning concepts between the ancient and modern worlds. Significantly, Alberti’s text, which drew heavily on Vitruvius, was not primarily about urban planning:

De re aedificatoria is primarily a book on architecture. (And it is worth recalling that comprehensive urban planning, as a distinct pursuit, rather than a challenge at the intersection of the traditional social arts, is historically a late development.) But Alberti’s decision to build on the work of Vitruvius, combined with his context of architectural instruction in an overall framework of urban viability, mean that his text still speaks to several important aspects of urban planning. Today, as builders in the developing world face the greatest wave of urbanization in world history— and as cities in the developed world struggle to make space for continued growth—Alberti’s work remains a guidebook for those who value the traditions of both classical and post-Renaissance European architecture. It is worth remembering that such architecture was not usually built in a vacuum, but, instead, in communication with an urban environment.

In addition to his writings, Alberti was a practicing architect. Among other projects, he is credited with having conceptualized the Piazza Pio II in the Tuscan town of Pienza (above, Street View). The entire article can be found here. Enjoy!

More SROs, Shared Housing in Urban America

The Marlton Hotel in New York City.

The Times has a story about how cities are taking a new look at shared housing situations in light of the increasing cost of individual units in many places. Single-room occupancies and variations on the SRO model get some positive attention.

I lived in an SRO in New York (above) when I was a freshman at the New School. Apart from the fact that the rooms were incredibly small, it was a good living arrangement. In our case, the building was almost entirely occupied by private college students, which may or may not have been a good thing. (However, there was one old man whose long-term tenancy could not be terminated and who was reputed to have been, um, a procurer, in his productive years.)

Today, the same building has been converted to a luxury hotel, trading on its history as place where famous people lived while they were still striving. (I apparently missed being neighbors with Lillian Gish by a mere 85 years.) The renovation is beautiful, and the building is much better appointed today than it ever was when it housed workers, or artists, or students. But where could those kinds of people, on their own dime, sleep in Manhattan tonight?

All this is to say that such arrangements can be fine, and can even have salutary effects for civilization when they create spaces in our great cities for those who arrive with more dreams and talent than riches. There are bad rooming houses, too, of course. So it’s case by case. But as a matter of equity, the need for efficiency accommodations that are genuinely affordable for working people and young people is not being met. SROs and other sharing arrangements can work in that space, and permitting a lot more of them could be part of the solution.

Missing the Point?

This is what affordable housing once looked like.

Incredibly, Bryce Covert, in a long article at The Nation about the supposed roots of America’s affordable-housing crisis, manages to go on for nearly 5,000 words about the history of American affordability programs and initiatives — while offering only one, almost offhand mention of zoning. And while the focus of the piece is the situation in Los Angeles, migration patterns to Southern California — a huge part of the story there, from post-war internal migration to more recent immigration –don’t even get a passing nod.

The ebb and flow of public monies for housing construction certainly makes for an interesting angle about the changing political philosophies of the United States over the past century. And, to be sure, large-scale federal housing initiatives backed by the power of eminent domain created a lot of new, often spacious units during the post-war period. But that the story of such initiatives, and their decline or disappearance, provides a satisfactory explanation for the current housing crisis is not accurate.

The private housing market has always provided the overwhelming majority of housing units in the United States. (For decades, it has also been heavily subsidized by taxpayers through the mortgage-interest deduction, as well as other elements of federal, state, and local tax policy — but that’s a separate issue.) And until fairly recently, the private housing market has produced sufficient housing to meet demand. What has changed is that, as population has grown, and the remaining land within commuting distance of major cities has dwindled, markets have collided with local zoning policies that prevent new construction. This has chronically limited the number of units, placing a premium on each and every one. Without new units, subsidies to individual households will only push rents even higher.

The argument that poor people cannot afford the carrying costs of new construction is also missing the point. When land prices are not artificially inflated by a policy-imposed scarcity, middle-class and wealthy households, by and large, can afford the carrying charges for new units. Cheaper units then “filter” into the market in older buildings, whose construction costs have been paid off; a knock on effect is that these cheaper units in older buildings, when they exist, can provide a counterweight to forces that might encourage an upward spiral toward exorbitant prices for newer units.

This entire dynamic, which works relatively well in a mixed market, has been distorted by a chronic, artificial shortage of housing units because of restrictive zoning laws. As an aside, some of the public monies now being used to support marginally effective (drop in the bucket) programs could potentially support infrastructure projects, instead, if private development were freed to meet a more meaningful proportion of the current pent-up housing demand.

Codex Mellon at the Morgan

An example from the Codex Mellon.

The Morgan has posted a long series of plates online, depicting a wide range of architecture from Rome in the early 16th century. A gift from Paul Mellon, the collection has been dated to 1513.

Per the website:

Some of the most notable drawings in the Codex are related to the designs for St. Peter’s by both Bramante and Raphael, but it also records many contemporary and antique Roman structures including the Palazzo dei Tribunali and its church of S. Biagio della Pagnotta, both planned by Bramante for Pope Julius II; the interior of the Pantheon; and the elevation and cross section of the Colosseum.

Little is known about the draftsman responsible for the sketchbook. It has been variously attributed to Domenico Antonio (also called Menicantonio) de Chiarellis, a member of a family of stone carvers associated with Bramante, or to the sculptor-architect Domenico Aino da Varignana.

After Burnham: A Classical Plan for Chicago

Chicago 2109 aerial view.

Image: Philip Bess/Notre Dame School of Architecture.

Philip Bess, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s excellent School of Architecture, is directing a fascinating project called After Burnham: The Notre Dame Plan of Chicago 2109. Building on principles of classical architecture, the plan envisions the future growth of Chicago over the next century in a more holistic pattern, drawing on the traditions and philosophy of Western urbanism in past eras, and using them to shape a modern city. Bess writes:

Modernity brings with it certain genuine human goods, and the successes of modernity can be measured in part by dramatic increases in human mobility, life span, and per capita income wherever modern institutions have established themselves. But these successes come at a price. Powerful accounts abound of the human suffering entailed in the transformation of traditional societies into modern societies; and the modern view of nature as raw material for human purposes has resulted in both the potential and the reality of environmental catastrophes at unprecedented scale (often with harshest impact upon the poor) and has created wholly modern eco-discontents. Last but not least, serious questions about the cultural sustainability of modernity arise in light of the individualist / therapeutic / consumerist character-type that modern societies seem to mass-produce.

A long western intellectual tradition dating from Aristotle views cities, character virtue, and human flourishing as intimately and reciprocally related. If true —and we think it is— this should give thoughtful people pause. Ours is a time of exploding urbanization in the modernizing societies of Asia, Africa and South America, and the aftermath of nearly seventy years of American suburbanization. Both of these phenomena represent distinctively modern forms of human settlement, but neither is typically evaluated holistically with respect to the relationship of urban formal order to environmentally and culturally sustainable human wellbeing.

See After Burnham for yourself. It’s a beautiful and fascinating proposal.

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.