Friday, July 13, 2012

Are we in a Dark Age in (most) cities?

We have a feeling that something isn't right. We're used to the cities we live in and, many, don't bother with a different vision for the cities.  It seems normal to us.  However, there is a feeling that something isn't quite right.  How do I know this?  I know it by looking at pictures. A photo of the same place taken in the 1800s and today have much different perspectives and framing.  Take, for example, Battle Monument in Baltimore.  Let's compare two photos:

Battle Monument, Baltimore, 1838,
The picture to the left shows the Battle Monument in 1893 and the one on the bottom is from 2007.  The top one shows the activity of the street, while the bottom one seems to try and block out the activity of the street.  I came across the picture on the left first and, then, did a Google image search.  Believe it, or not, the bottom image is the one I found that best shows the ground and surrounding level for anything of the new times.  I see this again and again in pictures. We block out or don't shoot what we don't like.Beyond the pictures though, we live in a time where there is reduced urban literacy, population declines in urban centers, a widening wealth gap, and a loss of the community sphere.

Battle Monument, Baltimore, 2007,

Fifty years on either side of the 19th century, something magical was in the air.  People felt as though they'd been liberated for the first time.  We'd been living a life restricted by the forces of nature and adapted.  Everything built had to be, what we call today, human scale.  Systems were limited to their ecological restraints - for the most part. As a society, we were limited to "current sunlight" and wind.  Suddenly, we could tap into all of the stored sunlight under the ground in the form of hydrocarbons. Suddenly, all of the rules we'd known had gone out the window and this opened up a whole new world.  You could, now put write the name "R. Mott" on a urinal and call it art.  Forget about everything we'd known about beauty, place-making, and building anything worth caring about.  We had a brand new, modern, world! 

During this modern time, things beyond our art began to change. Cities began to change.  We moved industry into the cities and, as a response, the urban planning profession was born to deal with the health conditions of the declining urban environment.  We introduced, for the first time, blanket zoning ordinances and the courts withheld their challenge. Urban planning had saved the day!!  People began to move the new streetcar suburbs and architectural modernism began to take shape.  We did away with all of the past knowledge and starting thinking about theories, models and planning on map or on paper.  This became so dramatic that the world actually produced a city called Brasilia. To highlight this point of forgotten knowledge, in my Masters program for urban planning (at a reputable university), our urban planning history class started with the late 1800s and the Chicago World's Fair.  I asked my professor, "What about everything before that? Planning didn't start then!"  He told me there were no classes offered.  Luckily, I found one architecture class that touches on the basics of past planning - a sort of survey class - but nothing in depth. 

Modernist Brasilia at ground level, World Affairs
Many factors led to the past dark ages.  One of the biggest factors lead to all of them - from Greek to Pre-History America - was the sacking and large-scale demolishing of culturally and economically important cities. People fled the cities for the countryside and/or became enslaved by the conquering body. It seems to me that we've done the same thing in most cities around the world to build highways and parking lots.  City after city - especially in the United States - demolished vibrant and active neighborhoods to bring in the Interstate Highways.  Everything was done for the automobile and with an esteem for the future and a removed connection the past.  It also appears as though we place very little thought on future generations.  When was the last time anything of great pride was constructed?  It seems most of the time it's a concern with trying something new and "inspired."  Though I like James Howard Kunstler's idea of the "fuck it!" approach.

Now, with all of these great 'advances' in urbanism, what have we got? Stip malls, blank facades, an over-dependence on the automobile and world of cities completely disconnected from their urban context (for the most part). Women, and I stress the word women, have to drive their children to daycare, school, practice, friends' homes, etc.  Also, what kind of world does this create for children?  What about disabled or poverty stricken people?  I read in the book, The Right to Transportation, that the number one barrier to getting off of Welfare is mobility and the lack of an ability to get to where the jobs are located.  Beyond these concerns, we have essentially no public sphere beyond bars.  When I lived in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, I'd go outside with my friends everyday to the city-center and walk around.  We'd often just people watch and be out in the community.  This is missing from most cities (especially U.S. cities).  Instead, with the modernist principles people are locked in isolation - in their cars, homes, or offices.  Where we've completely forgotten about the past as professionals, how can we not be in a dark age.  All of the signs point towards, yes.  If we weren't in a Dark Age for cities, how else would we end up with architecture like what is shown below and no attention paid to the ground level? The human level ...

Soul-less Stip Malls

Empty Parking Garages

 Militaristic Modern Facades

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