The Endurance of Cities, pt.1 – mammoth // building nothing out of something

The Endurance of Cities, pt.1

I went to an interesting lecture put on by the architecture league Monday night. From the description on their website:

“Eric Firley will discuss his recent research for the book The Urban Housing Handbook (Wiley, 2009), co-authored with Caroline Stahl. Exploring the relationship between architecture and the urban fabric, the handbook provides graphic representations and analysis of 30 urban case studies from around the world. These range from the London town house to apartments in Chicago and New York, taking in other European, South American, North African, and Asian examples. In each chapter, a housing type is fully explored through a traditional case study and a more modern example that demonstrates how it as been reinterpreted in a contemporary context.”

Rob’s recent link to the satellite images tracing Las Vegas over the past 20 years leads-in to this post nicely, because what struck me as Firley was talking about the ten or so examples chosen from the book* was how static the urban fabric in each locale remained over time. Generally, the most drastic changes involved use – single family to multi-family, the occasional introduction of retail into what was formerly residential space, etc. But the street grid, the organization of events and uses, the general typology of the buildings, all remained virtually unchanged from the initial plan. It didn’t matter what sort of urban housing typology it was (single family, multi-family, courtyard house, row house, apartment, etc), what political context (capitalist, socialist, democratic, oligarchy), or what geographical context; none were more accepting of shifts or alterations to the urban grid, suggesting something intrinsic to urbanity which RESISTS change – that the city is not as malleable as we often like to believe.** The contemporary examples shown were often bravissimo demonstrations of an architect’s ability to play on the existing rules and historical norms of a place; but they did almost nothing to change the surrounding urban schema or organization. In fact, most of the more exiting examples were so precisely because the architect’s had to develop such novel solutions to working within odd existing plots or unalterable existing architectures.

Now, every architect has had to work within tight regulations from urban planning boards, or within a challenging site: this is ubiquitous to our profession. But I was surprised that in a book which examines so many urban housing conditions from all over the world with an historical range from anywhere between 50 – 300+ years, not a single example of even moderate shifting of an urban patterning was shown. During the Q and A session afterward (which was lovely, there was plenty of wine and it was a small group, two key conditions for a lively discussion) I asked Firley if the lack of urban evolution was an editorial decision, or if it was representative of what he came across while traveling and researching the book; he indicated that it was the latter.

Of course, arguing cities are unchanging is obviously false.  But what sort of change do we see; and does it give the impression of more fundamental morphological evolution which is, in fact, not happening?  And what are the instances in which change like that has happened?

Probably one of the most malleable elements of the large scale morphology and organization of a city is its density.  Changes in density significantly alter the appearance, feeling, and performance of a city, without necessarily changing the framework on which it is built – such as block patterning and street layouts.  I think most discussion of urban ‘evolution’ today is a discussion of a city’s shifting densities / corresponding neighborhood characteristics; and outward growth.

There have been a couple of instances in which major shifts to an existing city grid has happened.  To my mind, the rebuilding of San Francisco post-earthquake in 1906, and Chicago after the fire of 1871, are one sort of example.  We may also be seeing similar transformation in New Orleans, but I don’t know enough about the rebuilding of that city to say.  Another, non-disaster-related (and thus, much more rare) kind of change can be see in Haussmann’s razing and rebuilding of Paris, and the addition of the ringstrasse in Vienna – both enabled by the firm hand of an authoritarian government.  

But what of cities without an enormously powerful, single party central government, or pyrophilic bovines? Are there any examples of a bottom-up urbanism significantly shifting or changing a city grid over time, especially after a city becomes established? Or is the informality so adored by architects studying places like Lagos simply not a reality once the asphalt is poured? What about landscape urbanism and its emphasis on changes phased over time? Does informality require dirt roads, making it an impossibility in New York, Orange County, or Worcester? And if so, why bother?***

Again, I am not arguing that cities don’t change, that is obviously untrue – I am noting the lack of morphological change to a city’s organization / patterning demonstrated in this comprehensive study, and wondering if this is A) an accurate representation of the amount of stasis experienced by cities, contrary to how they are usually described; and B) what the implications of this stasis are for contemporary en vogue architectural and urbanist methodologies which stress informality and self organization. It’s also important to note that I’m not talking about the shifts in character a city undergoes over the course of its outward expansion, but that this spatial transformation is not matched by a temporal one.

Discussing cities as ever changing and evolving organisms has become so embedded in any conversation about urban landscapes that it has become an uncritical, default position.  Architects, urbanists and designers need to spend time understanding not only how cities change, but how enduring certain elements are.  It would seem streets have substantial staying power.

In another post, I’ll try to dig deeper into why places like Paris and Chicago could change, and how they did.  From that, and a couple more case studies (like my latest library additions on LA), I hope a clearer picture will emerge about what the more malleable and less malleable components of a city are, and how designers might be able to intervene in those processes.  It’s time to move forward from the Informal Good, Modernist Planning Bad! debate into a more nuanced discussion about how cities age.



* Which were all beautifully presented, I should add – each had a great series of figure/ground drawings, plans, and sections of housing types at several scales, and images of historical and contemporary architectures. The term ‘handbook’ in the title is an accurate description of the way the book is structured, with 30 or so well documented typologies presented one after another.

** And I think the Las Vegas images show this, albeit at a scale too large to be definitive on their own. Certainly, the city expands, but despite the massive amounts of money and top-down planning enabled by conditions unique to that city (like mega-powerful developers), very little in the way of alterations to the existing city plan take place.

*** Before all you dirt road advocates get upset, it should be noted that I am just using this as an example of the level of development to which a city has to be restricted for informal processes to wield any sort of substantial evolutionary power.

11 Responses to “The Endurance of Cities, pt.1”

  1. […] the sort of strategy that can be used to transform conditions in a megacity with a great deal of infrastructural inertia. This entry was written by rholmes, posted on July 8, 2009 at 1:59 pm, filed under asides, […]

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  5. Max says:

    Carefully follow the blog.. its really a great site. Making my way back through the old entries.. Keep up the good work!

    Was wondering if there are any updates to this topic… (ie malleable vs less malleable parts of city)

  6. Stephen says:

    Hi Max,

    I’m shamed to say that the follow up post is still woefully incomplete, sitting in the draft-posts folder. I’ve been meaning to think more about exactly the issues you mention, so thanks for the additional impetus to get writing, even though I’m a year late.

    Rob touched on the meta-topic, which I understand as engaging cities according to how they are, rather than how we imagine them to be, here:

    And he and I discussed how architects might need to alter our definition of the context of projects (and thus, our scope of engagement) here:

  7. max says:

    thank you for the reply stephen, actually read these two posts before (they were both good, comments included!)

    • Sudesh says:

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  10. […] (This is important because it demonstrates the relative fixity of infrastructural geographies — like the pattern of the cities they are embedded in, the positions of infrastructures tend to endure even as the infrastructures themselves decay and […]