Journey 16 - THE CITY BEAUTIFUL Beautiful is not what springs immediately to mind when one thinks about Twentieth
Century cities like New York or Los Angeles. No, the images are those of schizophrenic or alcoholic bums on the sidewalk, gangs as ruthless and barbaric as any ancient Vandal or Visigoth, and oppressive, monotonous monoliths leaving the streets in perpetual shade. The pungent aroma of ozone and diesel fumes attacks the nasal passages and makes the eyes water. Gridlock. Stress. Serial murder. Cannibalism. Conspicuous consumption next to burned-out, desolate wastelands. We need not accept this condition. After all, we built it. We can build it anew. We must build it anew if we are to satisfy the ideal of aesthetics, and to guarantee every citizen a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is very little happiness evident in modern life in the city. The murder of innocent citizens denies them the right to life. This much must be obvious. Jane Jacobs wrote a classic book about cities, called THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES; THE FAILURE OF URBAN RENEWAL, published in 1961. She was acutely observant of the organic life cycle of cities, and the importance of street life. She preferred row houses with a mix of offices, businesses, and walk up apartments along a curving street, with wide sidewalks, stoops, and trees. Every great urban environment has a rich street life, whether it is Greenwich Village, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Albuquerque Old Town. Street life prevents street crime, particularly if the police get out of their cars, get out of their offices and walk their beat, getting to know the people on the street. Row houses don't have to be drab boxes. The town houses in Paris often have a subtle sculpted front. Those in Amsterdam are painted different colors. While such apartment buildings would have a freight elevator in the back (which many tenants would also use), the height of such buildings will rarely exceed ten floors, because that is as much as most people would care to climb. Surprisingly enough, this kind of architecture provides the maximum number of households per acre, 100-200, better than high rises, and of course, far better than the 3 households per acre in suburbia. In part this happens because we get rid of the cars and their parking places and parking lots. A great city is made for walking and that means it must be compact, and not sprawled all over the landscape. I propose putting a wall around a Metroplex, and zoning the region beyond for agriculture, wetlands, prairie, forest, parks and golf courses. No houses or commercial development. Halting urban sprawl means additional development will increase the density of the city, by replacing suburbs with row houses, for instance. A Theory of Aesthetics: Beauty is intelligible novelty. In order for there to be intelligible novelty, there must first be recognition, i.e., some level of familiarity and expectation. The information lies in the novel or surprising details within this overall pattern of recognition. The setup for a joke presents one expectation; the punch line contradicts it. It is the unpredictability in a relationship that keeps it going. If total predictability sets in, the friendship or relationship wanes. Our best friends are people who make us laugh, or think, even if we seem to have nothing in common. Most of us love sunsets, surf, forests, mountains, the Sonoran Desert, and clouds, because we all have a certain level of expectation and familiarity with these things, yet there is variety in the details.
Aesthetics is whatever we do to not-be-bored. Sex, food, getting warmed up or cooled down, or coming in out of the rain, can all provide a moment of pleasure. Once the need is satisfied, we are satiated. We are never satiated with aesthetic pleasure. The First Law of Aesthetics is that Aesthetic pleasure is intelligible novelty. Architecture: From the First Law of Aesthetics, we can immediately conclude that the endlessly repeated, identical, rectangular window treatments on 20th Century high-rise boxes represent the nadir of aesthetic sensibility. Such buildings hold no more aesthetic interest than a shoebox. So city-dwellers hurry along, eyes on the ground. Only tourists look up at the forest of towers, impressed by their sheer size, if nothing else. It may be hard to find rules for beauty, but it is not hard to find rules for monotony. The relentless application of any geometric rule (such as the rule of plumb and horizontal lines meeting at right angles, common to domestic architecture) must lead to monotony. Even with row houses, differentiate each house by color, as they are in Amsterdam. The endless repetition of rectangular window units is not only boring; it makes it impossible to see the entire building as a single shape. Near the Battery Park, on the tip of Manhattan, there is a cylindrical skyscraper that avoids any window treatment and thus becomes a single sculpture. The reflective glass curtain wall has an attractive blue color. Unfortunately, more boxes have been built around it, somewhat hiding its beauty. The Dallas skyline features many "sculptural" skyscrapers that make for an attractive skyline. I am not suggesting that skyscrapers are inherently bad, or that we should pull them down. Build new cities in a new way. With the dawn of the 21st Century, some architects succeed in escaping the box. See "The Sky Line; Building on a Computer Screen," by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker, March 12, 2001. The new software not only allows the architect to create non-rectangular three-dimensional shapes freely; it also does the engineering. It was exactly this kind of software that allowed the engineering of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, as well as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, also by Frank Gehry. These two buildings may very well be the forerunner of an entirely new and distinctive 21st Century city. Human Factors: Architecture should be restful; it should make solitude or gregariousness equally possible. Architecture has an enormous, unrecognized influence on social life. The pleasure we find in friends is aesthetic pleasure. It ultimately boils down to intelligible novelty. It makes one day at work different from another. In a happy office, there is a kaleidoscope of human relationships that change from day to day. The difference between a happy office and one where people are sullen and glum often depends on the precise layout of each floor, and the positioning of break rooms, rest rooms (unisex), coffee machines, copiers, elevators, the use of glass walls (with shades), and the flow of human traffic. All these architectural details determine whether it is easy or hard to meet others, and whether it is easy or hard to have any solitude. In some office buildings, there are whole floors of desks, without partitions. No solitude. In others, there is a maze of corridors, with nothing but closed doors and no way to orient oneself as to direction. No human contact. Such buildings are machines built for machines. However, contrary to the Bauhaus school of architecture, we are not machines.
I happen to be agoraphobic, which I rationalize by saying that agoraphobics are like the canaries in mines. We panic in situations that make most adults uneasy. Therefore, a sensitive test of any building design would be to see how agoraphobics respond to it. Spiral ramps would be part of every design and the doors leading to them would not have locks. Here are a couple of really bad designs: the aquarium in Baltimore and the Hyatt Hotel in Phoenix. The aquarium depends on escalators and all agoraphobics hate escalators, with its linear stream of unmovable humanity. In addition, these escalators are high in the air! Agoraphobics do not like what mountain climbers call "big air." The Hyatt hotels put a giant atrium inside. Simply walking from one room to another can induce vertigo. They have hidden the stairwells, and they may allow one in, but not out. Every agoraphobic's nightmare! Urban Design: Apply the principle of intelligible novelty to the layout of entire cities. At least until 1965, Paris consisted in row houses, for the most part. Only a few special buildings, such as the Notre Dame cathedral, were freestanding. Some features of Paris simply grew, without plan, giving us the narrow, winding streets that remain from medieval times. Since 1970 or so, Paris has segregated skyscrapers to one outlying suburb. City planners have sometimes added rational elements to a chaotic medieval pattern, for instance, the broad, tree-lined boulevards radiating from a central traffic circle that we find in Paris. The combination works beautifully. We want some order, and some disorder. We want some planning, and some things we want to leave to the accidents of time or topography. Seattle and San Francisco are interesting cities built on steep hills, around irregular bodies of water. While freeways may go slashing through, ignoring topography, the ordinary residential street does not. City planning produces brutally monotonous designs, but not if we made the Ideal of Intelligible Novelty our highest priority. It applies to the design of cities, to the design of buildings, and to the layout of offices. This is the Ideal of the Beautiful City. Civilization and Permanence: Lord Kenneth Clark said that civilization has something to do with permanence. This leads me to wonder whether we have as yet built an American civilization. As Lord Clark said, we Americans still live in wigwams, in other words, temporary wood frame houses, with wood or asphalt shingles, paperboard sidings, plastic doodads on the windows, and everything else required to make a house unlivable in about thirty years. Civilization requires some confidence in the future, and some care about our great-grandkids great-grandkids. We haven't achieved that. But we should. Design everything non-consumable to last forever, given a prescribed schedule of maintenance and repair. This is particularly necessary for buildings, roads and bridges. Thus, build houses and buildings out of galvanized steel, use galvanized steel sheeting, use brick, glass, bronze or stone for the exterior, and roof it in ceramic tiles, bronze sheeting, slate, or metal. There is a new type of metal roofing that looks like slate. They would last forever, and be passed down, generation to generation. Build every city to withstand the destructive forces of that region. On the West Coast, that means they should be earthquake proof. In Tornado Alley, cities must be tornado proof, all the way up to F5 tornadoes. In addition, they must be able to withstand straight-line gusts of 95 mph, and softball sized hail. Along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, cities must be hurricane proof, all the way up to
category 5 hurricanes. Along the coast, this means putting them up on stilts, firmly anchored in bedrock. The stilts allow the maximum expected storm surge to pass freely underneath the building. In tornado alley, and on the hurricane coasts, build steel shutters to protect windows and glass doors. They must be able to repel debris flying at 318 mph. That is the highest wind speed ever measured on Earth. Doppler radar measured it during the F5 tornado that hit suburbs of Oklahoma City May 2, 1999.