|Simeon DeWitt's 1794 plan for Albany:|
large blocks and wide streets.
There are also copies of the plans of other cities of the era, including L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. and (later commissioner) Simeon DeWitt's 1794 plan for a northern extension of Albany, which shows the same grid of oversized blocks and uniformly wide streets that would reappear a thousand times in the settlements of the following century. The web of narrow streets and small blocks by the waterfront, a legacy of Dutch administration, was, as in New York, not eradicated, but evidently was not seen as an object of any interest, except as an example of a characteristics to be avoided.
Of particular interest to me were the photos of the shantytown settlements that occupied large parts of Manhattan through the end of the 19th century. One interesting fact from the exhibit: Jacob Riis, the famous social reformer, opposed the eviction of shantytown inhabitants and the demolition of their dwellings, arguing that the self-built homes of the squatters provided accommodations superior to, and more affordable than, the tenements of the Lower East Side.
The partner exhibit, "The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan", is interesting for somewhat different reasons: not so much for introducing viable design proposals for the city, but for shedding light on the imaginations of contemporarary architects and planners. The proposals on display seem to draw from three basic sources of inspiration:
- Heroic Materialism. This term, which I'm borrowing from Nathan Lewis (who in turn borrowed it from Kenneth Clark), describes an aesthetic preference for monumental scale and the image, as much as the reality, of technology and engineering prowess. Nathan dates it to approximately 1780, although it has Baroque antecedents and yet truly came into its own only around 1900, when Western imaginations were already trending toward urban gigantism. It grew in influence in the 1920s and 1930s, with the ideas of Corbusier and other Modernists, and remained the dominant force in theoretical urban thinking at least through the 1960s (the suburban reality on the ground notwithstanding).
- "Green" Urbanism. Although this line of thinking was anticipated by the Broadacre City of Frank Lloyd Wright and the garden city movement, the current incarnation emphasizes an integration of natural forms, and especially agriculture, into urban areas, as well as sustainable building practices, without necessarily disparaging density. Still, there is a degree of overlap with heroic materialism: "green" practices often rely on high-tech, rather than traditional technologies, while the tower-in-the-park form advocated by the Modernists, heroic materialist in scale, also reflects garden city influences. Green projects can also be incremental, as below, but share a distinct focus that differentiates them.
- Incremental Urbanism. Only two of the eight featured projects reflected this approach, which seeks to make more modest and gradual changes to the urban fabric, observing the city as it stands, reinforcing those qualities already found to be beneficial while addressing perceived shortcomings. It is by far the most "Jacobsian" of the three, but also the least flashy, and least likely to lend itself to dramatic illustrations or other flights of visual fancy.
Heroic Materialism: At left, giant skyscrapers dwarf the Empire State Building in a plan that called for zoning limits to be rescinded for all lots facing on north-south avenues (and presumed that developers would respond with towers obviously inspired by the Emerald City). At right is an architect's idea of some vast megastructure looming over the northern end of Central Park, with father and young son enjoying the park underneath projecting towers.
What about building 40-story towers on landfill sunk into the 50-foot deep waters of the Hudson river? Cruise ships thread channels between buildings.
From a Green Urbanism perspective, why not tear up 71st street and replant it with wheat? At least the streets would be car-free under this proposal, and the view is human-scaled and at street level. More fundamentally, this proposal does recognize that the vast amount of Manhattan given over to wide surface streets represents a greatly under-exploited urban resource.
Tesselated housing in the sky -- they can't be serious, right?
Finally, 6 1/4 Avenue, by Ksestudio, which proposes opening a new 40-foot wide street between and parallel to 6th and 7th Avenues that, according to the designers, "activates the depth of the base of the New York tower by multiplying the public perimeter of the block." Simple and elegant, simultaneously addressing the excessive width of the midtown blocks and the lack of additional north-south routes while greatly adding to the amount of accessible street frontage. Feasible? Maybe, maybe not, but the method is thoughtfully incremental. No flashy graphics were included, just clear and concise figure-ground drawings.
That's all I have for 2011. See you in the new year!
*Stephen Smith has recently covered some other critiques of the plan here.