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.

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.

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.

End of Summer, Asbury Park

Asbury Park, sometime between 1930-1945. Source: Boston Public Library/Flickr

My latest piece at TAC’s New Urbs is a look at the ongoing renaissance of Asbury Park, New Jersey. A small, Victorian-era beach city on the Monmouth County coast, Asbury Park had fallen on hard times when people my age were growing up. Apart from the Stone Pony — a music club that helped launch Springsteen and Bon Jovi — it didn’t have many live destinations. Now, that’s all beginning to change.

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.