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Archive for the ‘Vernacular urbanism’ Category

The Algonquin town of Pomeioc. Watercolor by Captain John White, 1585.

“…comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.” Paul Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.

“From food and water, then, we may learn whether (city) sites are unhealthy or healthy.” Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture.

I continue to reflect on my search for sustainable shapes and forms that can help us create the next city. I am trying to find a more precise and useful way to describe how to think about making places that respond to specific and local environments and circumstances: vernacular urbanism.

Before the industrial revolution, most urban lives, and city forms, were entirely focused on all things local. The principle forces shaping cities –  food, water, mobility and energy – were necessarily resolved in quite direct and legible ways. Whether in the ancient gridded Ionian city of Priene on the Maeander River in Anatolia (about which we have written here previously), or the winding streets on the hillsides of Lisbon, the forms of the city were frequently organized around a simple idea: access.

The Alfama, in Lisbon. Photo from flickr.

Citizens led the best good life (which is not to say without misery, war, chaos or pestilence – I do not mean the “good old days,” I mean simply a sustainable, thus good, urban existence) in places that offered easiest access to energy, food, water and transit (on foot or by horse, but almost always by boat on rivers, before the advent of the railroad). Using locally available resources, the city was constructed to be as durable and accommodating as possible – warm in winter, cool in summer, dry in the rainy times, with easy access to plenty of food, water, and energy – usually wood – for warmth, cooking, and making things.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, mass production gave us access to resources and materials that were almost never local in derivation, and available in an increasingly dizzying variety. Suddenly a wooden city or a stone city built near forests or mountains could become an iron city, a steel city or eventually a plastic city. As railroads emerged, we Chicagoans (my native place) could begin to enjoy a Florida orange, or a potato from Idaho. As the lights came on we could begin to ignore the cold, the lack of sunlight, and ultimately even the heat.

And when we could sit behind the wheel of our 3,000 pound personal transportation devices, things got better yet. Now we really could ignore where we were, and where things came from. We could drive to the shopping mall or the supermarket, where goods and foodstuff from across the globe were stockpiled – some 45,000 items in a typical supermarket alone. Every city became the shape and form of every other city – freeways, seas of parking lots, skyscrapers, strip shopping centers, subdivisions. What was once a unique urban response to local particulars and resources had almost totally disappeared. Everywhere.

And now this era of access to excess comes to a close. The patterns of living that we have evolved, and their corresponding urban shapes and forms, we are suddenly discovering we cannot sustain. Now what?

What have we learned? Now we can begin to recover our past, our history, how we once lived in places in ways that worked for the long haul. We must begin to look again at how we get our energy – sun, wind, tides, or other means, depending on where we are. We have to realize that we cannot afford to transport our food from every corner of the world – it just costs too damn much as oil prices rise and then rise again. We watch as cities all over the world run dry, their lakes disappear, and droughts rage – we must change the way we think of our water systems.

So we get out of our cars, stop building highways and parking lots and use other forms of transit instead, move closer together, capitalize on our local resources and assets. We craft regions so that we can grow food instead of subdivisions. We build new public markets, in neighborhoods all over our cities, to offer access to fresh foodstuff.

Shopping malls disappear. Supermarkets shrink. Now we spend much more time on foot – perhaps our city blocks become filled with pathways and snickets so we can meander. We live where we work. If we have to build, we build more simply – less tall, more durable, in the kind of self-contained fashion of another age. So, as we once did, we use local materials as much as we can.

We remember how to make and repair things. We use what’s at hand in materials to create what we need, and we now must rely on new ways to share what we know. Since we always build what’s in our heads, we will have to fill our heads with how to build.

And perhaps we can rearrange things – change the city’s blocks or add new spaces and places. Here’s an example you may have seen here once before: 

And we can engage in a kind of vernacular version of what are some calling micro-urbanism – the extremely local, circumstantial and provisional reclaiming of urban spaces – the space beneath the viaduct, the cloverleaf interchange, a repurposed gas station. Spaces under and between and abandoned or unfinished. Take a look at the results of this idea in a course called “Urban Landscapes” taught by Professor Jeff Hou at the University of Washington in Seattle: http://microseattle.wordpress.com.

We begin with historic forms, materials, methods, because these have succeeded for a very long time. But we add new ideas and attitudes and renewable materials that extend and build upon these foundations. In the end, vernacular urbanism for the next city is not about the cutting edge, or the old fashioned and traditional. Instead, I think, the best vernacular urbanism for the next city is an integration of old and new, for the purpose of providing cities that can sustain us for more than a generation, and can provide access to the best good life in a changed world.

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“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand.” Italo Calvino

Shibam, Yemen, photo by  Jialiang Gao: an ancient pattern of dense, high-rise desert urbanism.

What should the next city look like, and how should we inhabit the future? I have been puzzling over these questions for quite a long time. For architects and urbanists, this is one of the few projects we can work on that might keep us from total irrelevance (see earlier posts here, about emperors and their wardrobes) in these increasingly perilous times. And as I have continued to think about the character and form of the next city, I have begun to come to some general conclusions. Let me explain.

First, imagine a city without cars.

No, really. Imagine a city without cars. How do you get your food, get to work, visit Grandma? Some other way – maybe buses, maybe the metro or subway, maybe streetcars, maybe something else, but not cars. So one thing is for sure, neighborhoods, and the local life of urban places, suddenly become really, really important. You will need to have access to important resources and places within a mile or so of your residence – about a 20 minute walk for most people. The market, where you can get great locally grown foods (no more 3,000 mile Caesar salads, as James Kunstler tells us). Your office, if you still need one. Schools. Church. The library (we’re old fashioned in our house, and still need to read books by hand). The Doc. Cafes and restaurants.

Cars are now obsolete – notwithstanding dangerously destructive – so what follows from that circumstance is a dense city, with a multiple of uses close together, in neighborhood clusters walkably distanced from one another.

If you keep pulling on the thread of mobility, it leads you to a need for major shifts in trucking, rail, and aviation infrastructure, and suggests a tsunami of economic changes in how we make things, grow things, use them, distribute them, how we move around, and where we live and play.

And ultimately back to the local life of urban places. A local life seems a certain central fact of existence in the next city.

But mobility is only one of at least four forces that will fundamentally change the shape of the next city. These four forces include: mobility as noted here, and energy, food, and water. Each in turn requires fundamental, critical and urgent rethinking. And each, in turn, will fundamentally alter the cities we inhabit. Remember, 80% of the U.S. population now lives in cities: that represents a lot of lives that face enormous changes. 

I digress. It seems to me that the place to start thinking about what the next city should look like and how it should work is to begin with historic, and pre-automobile, patterns of urbanism. One might call this vernacular urbanism – that is, an urbanism that has arisen from and is an expression of a particular local culture and ethos. In the U.S., I would say that we could look at most cities before 1910 for suitable patterns of urbanism. Most American cities, even those with grand plans like our city of Washington, nonetheless derive much of their character from local circumstances – available materials, the nature of the climate, the slant of the sun, the availability of water. It’s not by accident that Washington is often called the red brick city.

Here’s another example. In my home town, Chicago, the development of the city’s blocks and streets was heavily influenced by the presence of streetcars. Thus, on streetcar lines, usually a half mile apart, we find concentrations of larger mixed use commercial buildings with retail (shops) at the first floor, and offices and apartments above. Logical, yes? Get on or off the streetcar, do your shopping, go to the dentist, and then walk into the residential neighborhoods between transit.

Streetcars and the Chicago block. Enjoy the streetcars – ignore the cars.

Every city can reimagine its future by first connecting with the inherent vernacular urbanism of its past. In Beijing, a pattern of urbanism that is nearly extinct there, and about which I have written over the last months, the hutong, is a particularly extraordinary template or pattern for continuing to make a dense, livable city. The hutong certainly make more sense than what’s being built there now – a kind of worst-case urbanism of recombinant Las Vegas-Strip-on-Steroids.

Shibam, pictured up top, is another suitable template: a dense city of mud towers, closely spaced to shade the passageways and building interiors, accommodating the harsh desert climate. And the list could go on, for cities across the globe. Venice, Lisbon, Barcelona, Marrakech, Savannah. Look carefully at how each city first responded to issues of energy, mobility, food and water, and start there.

Maybe two last examples, from a place where urbanism is totally out of control, might underscore how best to begin to make the next city. In Dubai, there are two recent proposals for extending that exploding city. One is by architect Norman Foster: his project is called Masdar. It is to be the first zero-carbon neighborhood/city ever constructed, and as the images indicate, it is low, very dense, has no cars, has a wind farm and solar arrays for power, and has courtyard forms and interior spaces that look like the souk and other vernacular Middle Eastern forms of urbanism.

Norman Foster’s Masdar in Dubai.

An interior at Foster’s Masdar.

The next is a proposal by architect Rem Koolhaas. It is a gridded, floating Manhattanesque island of towers, surrounded by other towers around a bay. No at all like Yemen’s proto-skyscraper city of Shibam, but instead New York in the desert, in Dubai. Seems a little like The Venetian on the Strip, but perhaps an even more bizarre approach, since we are supposed to take this seriously. Koolhaas says that the project is his attempt to “find optimism in the inevitable.”  Are we seeing leadership here, or irrelevance? [Naked emperor].

In the late 1970s, Koolhaas wrote a book entitled “Delirious New York.” The book was a hymn of praise to that city, and its “culture of congestion.” So why not reprise those themes, here in the desert in Dubai, 30 years later? Koolhaas in Dubai seems enormously cynical, manipulative, and destructive. Enough.

Koolhaas’ Ile Flotante, in Dubai.

 

Koolhaas, Dubai.

I look at the Koolhaas Dubai proposal and am reminded of a favorite quote from Ike: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”

I think it must be back to basics – looking at and seeing and sensing what has created sustainable urbanity in geographies across the globe – Calvino’s lines in the citys’ hands – and using these urbanisms as a place to begin crafting the next city. Let’s get started.

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