How did the critics of yesteryear think of urban density?
How did the critics of yesteryear think of urban density?
This article originally appeared on Common Edge.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of critiques of the modern city appeared. Jane Jacobs’ attack on those intent on redeveloping New York City was the most impactful, loosening the grip of Robert Moses and his followers, but others had a wider influence on the practicing architects and planners. As an observer of cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, I wondered if their books from this period would illuminate current issues of adding density in urban contexts.
I started with that of Aldo Rossi The architecture of the city and Manfredo Tafuri Architecture and utopia, two books that figured prominently in the era of postmodernism. Both approach the European city through the prism of history, Rossi emphasizing the importance of types, seeing cities in themselves as works of architecture and opposing function as generators of form. In considering types, Rossi views urban artefacts as valid exceptions to the existing contexts of a city. It designates a “palace of the people” in Padua, an emblematic building that has housed a wide variety of uses. (So, he asks, where’s the function?) Overall, Rossi doesn’t give much guidance on adding density, but Tafuri, quoting Piranesi, cautions us to use urban artifacts with parsimony.
by Kevin Lynch Good city form and The image of the city are intended for architects and town planners. He insists on the need to observe cities over time and to plan gradually, being aware of the past and the imprecise nature of any intervention. Like Jacobs, but aimed specifically at planners and architects, Lynch argues for richer texture and finer grain, noting that modern planning too often fails to achieve these. What he provides are notes and sketches, not a set of principles, and a new vocabulary for describing cities. As a result, “fine grain” quickly entered the developers’ lexicon, often claimed but less often achieved.
John Habraken Supporters, alternative to mass housing the criticism is aimed at urban mass housing, blaming the loss of human scale in cities on how it robs individual households of the ability to house themselves. This results in top-down planning that “knows best” what households want and fails to involve them. This “knows best” extends from households to neighborhoods to districts, traversing these levels to offer housing as a mass commodity to its captive consumers. He redesigned collective housing into ribbons of framework, drawing inspiration from lofts and precedents such as Le Corbusier’s Marseille block, with infill housing that could be adapted with prefabricated elements.
Thirty years later, in The structure of the ordinary, Habraken finds its setting and idea of filling present in the vernacular and traditional habitat. To guide growth effectively, we must bring in form (“physical order”), place (“territorial order”) and understanding (“cultural order”) as the raw material with which cities can be adapted to human life. Within this framework, we must empower communities and neighbors to lead development.
Assess proportion, set limits
In a series of books, including Usability tools, social critic Ivan Illich proposed a more radical dismantling of what he called “the modern project”, going back to the Enlightenment’s prioritization of the universal over the local, a decision that made it difficult to assess the proportions and setting limits. As Illich biographer David Cayley writes,
According to Illich, “all worlds before ours” were shaped by a sense of proportion. There was no individual thing or person capable of defining themselves, everything depended on their other and the “network of correspondences” in which they were entangled. People and place were linked in the same way – the way of life of people given by the landscape and the natural endowments of this place. The cultures differed, but the sharing of this “experience of fit” provided its “ethical” standard, insofar as ethics, originally, was nothing other than this capacity to discern what is proper to a given environment. That world is now gone, replaced by a reality governed by contract, choice and self-determination. The “common sense” by which people discerned what was suitable has been swept away, and we now live in “social constellations” to which nothing corresponds, “a world without a matrix” in which every border does not lead to an afterlife but only to more of the same.
Illich used the word “conviviality” to describe what a shared “adjustment experience” between neighbors could achieve: locally appropriate agreement on proportions and boundaries.
The word “urbanity” speaks of the pleasures a city offers at all densities that people find pleasurable. These densities will vary across a city and over time in response to the ebb and flow of human activity. When it comes to defining density, the answers will be arbitrary or contingent without a shared understanding to guide the fit and set limits in terms of proportion in a friendly respect for others. Zoning is a crude instrument in this regard, and legislation imposing some form of “top down” mandate is worse. Both mandates respond to the question of density which, insofar as they do not take into account the unforeseen, whether locally or in terms of their implications, immediately push back a supposedly elaborate process, by right, at the case by case, thwarting the reasoning for them that planners and politicians offer.
Neighborhood suitability planning
Neighborhoods evolve at different rates. As Lynch points out, even the modern city reflects a search for order to complete what tradition has omitted or no longer affects. Growth is accelerating, clashing with the existing order and its political dimensions. Where the weight of rights is lighter, community developers are experimenting with fine-tuning on a smaller scale. XS House by Interface Studio Architects used Philadelphia building code to lay out seven apartments on an 11-by-93-foot lot. (Air rights on the sidewalk give the top three floors 14 feet.)
Corvidae Coop in Seattle, developed by Frolic Housing with Allied8 Architects, builds on zoning changes in that city that allow up to three units per single-family lot. By combining two lots and using a cohabitation approach, with two shared kitchens, the project offers 10 affordable units, including two studios, two chalets, five one-bedroom and one two-bedroom.
XS House was a locally commissioned project, while Frolic’s business model seeks to engage owners of existing single-family homes in their redevelopment, keeping them in place with a smaller unit while providing a return on investment. Both reflect an interest in helping people in their communities find housing, albeit on a small scale. On a larger scale, the most interesting examples are non-profit developers committed to involving the neighborhood in the planning and design of their multi-unit housing projects; building societies in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands identify residents and involve them in the same way. The resulting accommodations have a family resemblance, in that they prioritize common spaces over private spaces and pay attention to neighbors beyond their property lines. It goes beyond form and fit to improve access between neighborhoods, for example, or provide shared outdoor amenities.
In the book Intermediate housing missing, Daniel Parolek and Arthur C. Nelson expose their effort over several decades to bridge the gap between the single-family home and the urban building. The authors, influenced by postmodernism and new urbanism, explore the past to find examples of how to increase the capacity of deprived neighborhoods without overwhelming them. They credit Lynch student Michael Southworth as a mentor, pointing out that scale, shape and type of housing are more important to urbanity and integration than density per se. He and Nelson also propose zoning reforms that deliberately limit the ways zoning is operated, unnecessarily sacrificing urbanity for density. Like the new urban planners he admires, Parolek looks to tradition for inspiration. Others, including those noted above, consciously aim to evolve these typologies. If zoning is a “language game,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, these parallel efforts are engaged in one. It’s a game different from the often icy one of rights, more creative and more open to local inflections.
Over time, the constant influx of examples changes the towns around them. What works in Philadelphia, with its unusual lot sizes, will be different from what works in Seattle, but Lynch’s impulse to observe and learn from these changes over time, and Habraken and Illich’s faith in the vernacular as the source from which convivial urbanity draws, suggest that adjustment as a locally conscious sense of proportion and limit, recognizing form, place and understanding as order, can answer in the affirmative to Christopher Alexander’s essential question: “Does he have a life?” »