Monday, June 07, 2010
We cannot afford to abandon the cities; it is a course of action that makes no sense either economically, politically, or socially. And if we do not intend to abandon our cities, we must stop acting as if that is what we are going to do. We must learn to restructure cities, to make them economically healthy and desirable places for people to live and work in.
A city is not a fixed object like an individual building. A city is a living entity that is changing all the time. You do not design a city in the way that you design a building; but you can make a city a humane environment, not just in isolated places but continuously, throughout its whole fabric.
My ideas about cities began to expand and change in the mid-1960s, when I made my first journey to Scandinavia. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen were a revelation to me. It is, perhaps, the most appealing place that I have seen, the one which people seem to enjoy most. I am sure that this quality is in part a reflection of the Danish people, whom I have found to be unfailingly warm and friendly and who have a great zest for life. When you walk through Tivoli, you see that almost everyone is smiling. I have given much thought to just which ingredients create the magic of the place. It has taught me much about the effect that environment can have on one's feelings.
From Copenhagen I went to Stockholm, where I saw two of the new satellite cities, Vallingby and Farsta. I was struck by something I saw on my way into Vallingby. There is a highway running along the edge of the city center and a pedestrian bridge that goes across it. I saw a woman pushing a baby carriage over this bridge and realized that she was going from her apartment to the town center to do her shopping. Then I noticed that most of the apartment buildings were placed so that you could come right down into the central city through the green areas. I began to see that this is really what it is all about: people walking over from their houses to do their shopping, and their kids coming over, and the freedom of that kind of environment separated from the wheels of the motor car. The highway was there, and rapid transit was available, but you didn't need to use a car every time you had to do a simple errand.
I was not impressed with the buildings, and I did not feel that the city center was executed well from a design point of view; but there was a germ of an idea there, something quite different from the sterile modernism of a place like Brasilia.
This trip also included a visit to Helsinki, where I was greatly impressed by the excellence of the architecture for the satellite community of Tapiola, although I felt that it was too dependent on the automobile. The Tapiola plan is still the old campus plan related to wheels.
The overall experience gained from Tivoli, Vallingby, and Tapiola led me to realize that the way you should go about designing and evolving an environment is by thinking about what people want and need on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this may not seem a very surprising idea, but it has never been done on a large scale. You can walk up and down Park Avenue in New York and see buildings that hold huge numbers of people, but what thought has been given to these people or to the kind of life that the buildings create? Not very much. Every city is the result of a great many individual decisions, most of them made by government and businesses for their own institutional or corporate reasons. It is incredible how little is done for the good of ordinary people. Every city has to go back and say: "OK, this whole thing is for that little guy who is walking around down there. How can we have this huge mass of density, and profit, and all the rest of it and still create a livable environment?"
I have come to the conclusion that cities ought to be designed in a cellular pattern whose scale is the distance that an individual will walk before he thinks of wheels. What information and observations we have available on this question indicate that the average American is willing to walk from seven to ten minutes without looking for some form of transportation. Using this time-distance factor as a radius gives a surprisingly large area.
If this area is developed into a total environment in which practically all of a person's needs are met, you have what I call a coordinate unit, a village where everything is within reach of the pedestrian. You could walk to work, school, church, recreation, shopping, entertainment, and so on without having to get into a car or any other kind of transit unless you were going outside the cellular unit. What great savings in energy and time, what great convenience such a city design could produce!
Peachtree Center is the beginning of such an urban coordinate unit. We are now building the commercial core and plan to add housing and the other ingredients as time goes on.
For a coordinate unit to succeed, it must lift the human spirit; at the same time it must be economically feasible and follow a sensible, efficient plan. In addition to providing places for work, residence, shopping, and recreation, it must draw on all the elements that I have been discussing: a strong sense of order, complemented by a variety of incident and unexpected change; light and color, nature and water to soften the constructed environment and make it more humane; shared space; and opportunities for people to watch people and all that movement entails. There must be a total life involvement.
The Embarcadero Center in San Francisco is part of something that comes close to the coordinate ideal that I describe, as the adjacent Golden Gateway housing is directly related to the center's offices,, shopping, hotel, and entertainment development. The credit for originating this project mw go to the late Justin Herman, who as head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority made a lasting and significant contribution to his city. He was a great public servant and a great man. It takes strong dedication and unyielding perseverance to create meaningful improvements at the scale of a city.
The Embarcadero Center became a reality in large part because of the interest and commitment of David Rockefeller, who wished to create a development of lasting value in a location that was important to the future of San Francisco and who was willing to accept the higher risk and somewhat longer payback period that a project of this kind demands.
The Renaissance Center in Detroit represents an even more important opportunity to build a coordinate unit on a comprehensive scale, but there are serious problems that did not exist in Atlanta or San Francisco. In those two cities, we were building on existing economic strengths and were able to develop one step at a time. If anything were to be done in Detroit, however, it needed to be done in a hurry. The city does not have fifteen years to build up a coordinate unit step by step. We are counteracting weakness, not building on strength. The first stage had to be large enough to justify its own independent existence.
In the same way that David Rockefeller made the future of San Francisco factor in his investment decision, Henry Ford and the other businessmen who are supporting the Renaissance Center are making this commitment because they feel that it is the best alternative for their city. Renaissance Center is a private enterprise contribution to the future of Detroit and its people. The great companies that are participating and investing in the project are not doing it out of the profit motive but for a deep concern for their city. This represents American business and our private enterprise system in one of their most noble and responsive efforts, one that I hope will become a prototype for businesses to follow in other cities.
Our cities are testimony to the fact that private solutions to private problems cannot produce a viable environment of benefit to our society. Private interests must help government maintain the health and vitality of our communities if our way of life with all its freedoms is going to survive.
The corporate business structure of this country must recognize that there is an urgent need for it to take a new position of public responsibility. Some companies have abandoned the cities to get away from all the urban problems. Others have sought the suburbs for trivial reasons, such as greater convenience to executive homes and golf courses. They take their tax base with them, leaving behind the seeds of unemployment, social unrest, and revolution.
In Detroit, under the enlightened leadership of Henry Ford, business has recognized that its public responsibility calls for staying in the city and working for solutions, not for turning its back and running. Business leaders have subordinated company ego, and forgone individual identifying signboards, to build a new kind of urban center for people, a center that could not exist if these businesses were not willing to pool their strengths and go beyond the property lines and corporate objectives. They are seeking a stabilized community, knowing that no business can operate without social stability.
The Renaissance Center also represents a new kind of opportunity for the architect; and if an emerging social consensus creates more design situation at this scale, it is imperative that the architectural profession be prepared to deal with them.
Architects are already trained to take all kinds of different needs and requirements and design structures that will accommodate them all. They are also trained to synthesize the contributions of various specialists—mechanical and structural engineers, landscape designers, lighting consultants, painters, sculptors—and bring all their work together into some kind of harmonious result. They become skilled coordinators of all these interests.
Because architects are accustomed to taking diverse elements and bringing them together into a single solution, I am confident that they have the qualifications to become master coordinators for the physical development of entire cities. Perhaps this sounds like a presumptuous statement. But what is a city? A city is structures that house people. Now what makes the city, the people or the structures? Well, both. But the architect, or physical designer, is the one who creates the environment: the things that we see, and the things that we use, as the city. Isn't it natural that the architect would be the one to prepare to orchestrate the city to the highest possible level, so that it contributes as much as possible to the elevation of human life and the ability of human beings to function within their environment?
Of course, architects have not been asked to do this very often, nor are they at present trained to do so. If architects are to become master coordinator of cities, they must prove that they are able to do the job. First, of course, they must master their trade as architects. Then they must broaden their base to include all the factors that bring a building into being—what I call the building birth cycle.
If architects can anticipate the future by understanding growth patterns, if they understand real estate values, if they understand market conditions an market feasibilities, and if they understand the financial climate that makes it right to do something or not to do something, then they will be able to design the city and not just the individual buildings.
It is not that complicated. Architects must be conversant with the building process, from the germ of an idea being born in somebody's mind until the building is sitting there and operating; but this does not mean that they must be absolute experts in every step along the way. After all, architects are seldom expert in the more complex aspects of mechanical systems or in the calculations for sophisticated structures, but they know enough about them to coordinate the work of consultants and incorporate their results in the final product. In the same way architects can use real estate consultants and the people who study market feasibility. They can also use financial advisers and legal advisers. To coordinate their work, architects must have enough understanding of all these things to put them together, just as they are accustomed to putting a building together.
There are many different ways for architects to play this coordinative role. They can work within government, like my colleague Jonathan Barnett and his fellow urban designers in New York. They could be advisers to insurance companies or other lenders. They could work for a consortium of business interests, as I am doing in Detroit, or from within the real estate development process, as I have done in Atlanta and other cities.
The opportunities are there if architects can learn how to use them. My own experience has led me to believe that it is not all that difficult for architects to expand their base and work to coordinate the physical environment.
Yep our downtown is fatal to the human spirit. But hey, our other neighborhoods don't suck! I wish he had seen Midtown, Virginia Highland, Little Five Points, Old Fourth Ward, Cabbagetown, East Atlanta Village...
Posted by: jonatc at Jun 8, 2010 10:30:54 PM
Once again, Crazy Uncle Jimmy bravely shoots fish in a barrel. I don't disagree with any of his assessments, but I fail to see how this does anything but make him (and those who read him) feel smugly better about themselves.
Posted by: Reid Davis at Jun 9, 2010 1:03:06 PM
My experience from charrettes is that if you want people to vote for a new project, don't invite Jim to speak. But if you want someone to shake up their thinking, then Jim's your guy.
A week after he speaks the locals are defensive and negative. But a year after he speaks, people realize that he made a lot of sense.
Atlanta is very self-congratulatory. The City Fathers can use a little shaking up, IMO. A lot of terrible things have been built, but you'd never guess that from listening to them.
Posted by: John Massengale at Jun 9, 2010 11:12:57 PM
I've never been to Detroit, so I won't say anything about the Reneissance Center, but Embarcadero Center and Golden Gateway apartments in San Francisco are definitely not examples of a successful neighborhood.
Embarcadero Center virtually deserted after 5 pm. Few stores are open in the evening or on weekends. The streets around the Embarcadero Center do not have much life thanks to the above-ground promenade connecting the buildings.
The apartment buildings next door are built on a huge parking podiums with lots of blank walls. There are townhouses next to the towers on those podiums, but they are completely isolated from the streets below.
PS John, the song that you have in the right column of the blog, "NINETY-NINE AND A HALF WON'T DO” doesn't work. It says my computer is not authorized to play it.
Posted by: eugene at Jun 19, 2010 11:16:45 PM
I'm not sure what Reid's point is??? There is never a role for criticism? Cannot he see a need to, as John points out, shake theings up so that maybe better building, better zoning, better ways of designing communities, results? Or are we to remain silent and accepting of what our corporate and municipal betters give us?
Posted by: Brian M at Jun 22, 2010 2:02:01 PM
I wasn't saying there's never a role for criticism, just that Kuntsler's abrasive, over-the-top style is unlikely to produce the kind of results that a more bridge-building style would... if it produces results at all. As an Atlanta local, I agree with the criticisms in these pictures, but I also recognize that he did some cherry picking to determine his vistas.
And yes, our local leaders are obnoxiously, abrasively self-congratulatory. Which is all the more reason why someone like Kunstler is unlikely to get through to them. They don't even speak a common language.
Posted by: Reid Davis at Jul 1, 2010 10:40:40 AM