Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, in Beijing, just 2.5 miles from the extraordinary Forbidden City. Image from flickr.
I continue to muse about the New York Times Magazine’s recent architecture issue entitled “The Next City.” In the feature piece, “The New, New City,” architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff talks about the dazzling speed and scale of redevelopment in places like Shenzhen or Beijing or Dubai, and suggests that building cities, big cities, from scratch in three or four decades, is without precedent. (What about my home town, Chicago, where the population increased more than tenfold in 40 years?). He suggests that the size and chaos of these places robs architects and urbanists of any intelligible starting point for designing the new. Well maybe, and maybe not.
I will give Ouroussoff one point: contemporary development in Beijing and Shenzhen and Dubai is really awful. Unfortunately, some of the examples he touts as models for the future, as exceedingly ‘innovative,’ as benchmarks of new 21st century urbanism, are among the most significant failures.
These cities are all becoming manic expressions of fundamentally defective ideas about how to make urbanism. Some are architectural petting zoos, some are designer-label crazy, some are crazy quilts of new construction, each walled and isolated from the larger fabric of the place. Some are quickly filling up with construction that most resembles the worst of 20th century American urban renewal, and of course they are all filled to the brim with cars. At a time when beautiful and humanely designed cities may represent some hope for the future, these places look pretty hopeless.
Instead of writing breathlessly about how the starchitects are ‘innovating’ by creating architecture that does nothing to add to the common well being of a place, Ouroussoff should be talking about the basics in urbanism, reminding city designers, leaders, and developers to remember what, in the end, makes any city a great city. The street, the block. This is the place to start building the new.
First, last and always, great places, great cities, begin with great public domains, and in particular with their streets. We all own the street: it is the place where we all belong, where we can move and linger, where we can erect monuments to tell our stories, where we can sit and watch our neighbors, or sit and sip and read the news of the day.
Steven Holl’s city streets, 20 stories above, in Beijing. Image from flickr.
Whether in grids, as in so many American cities, or in meandering knots of non-linear pathways, all cities must begin with their public realms, their streets. Streets make blocks, and blocks are where buildings go. Simple.
In the 1950s and 1960s we experimented with what was then called the superblock, and especially in the planning and construction of subsidized housing. Now that we have thankfully torn most of this down, we can say we’ve learned a lesson – streets at the fine grained scale of small blocks make the best cities. Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, and so many other new developments in Beijing and elsewhere, are, sadly, superblock designs.
And this, in Beijing, which has a fascinating pattern of layers of streets and blocks. In the central city, there is a grid of major streets that is very large – say 2,500 feet wide (east to west) and well over 3,000 feet long north to south. Then, interior to this large block is a fine grain of minor streets and passageways, with most streets running east and west, and passages, or even narrower streets, running north and south. This secondary, and finer, layer of streets breaks the city into manageable, walkable blocks.
Go to Google Earth and take a look at Beijing. The damage is everywhere in evidence – huge superblock developments are the pattern of choice for almost all that’s new. But the starting points of a fine grained urbanism – the street, the block – are still there to act as inspiration.
Seems to me like a good place to start.