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How Doth Your City Grow?

Posted by acdtest on September 10, 2003

How Doth Your City Grow?

hat can one say about such wrongheaded and purblind thinking as is displayed in this post by weblogger and urban design zealot David Sucher of City Comforts Blog except to say that it would be sad were it not so appalling, coming as it does from someone who professes a deep and abiding concern with the built environment, and evangelizes assiduously on its behalf

Says David, whose highest aspiration for cities is that they be “interesting” and “comfortable,” and “pleasant places to live,” and who perceives a dichotomy in the building of cities where one must choose between architectural genius and “good rules”:

So many people use the word [genius] in relation to architects such as Wright or Gehry…. Those two might be geniuses or might not; who cares? […] It is not genius which creates cities worthy of humanity but adherence to time-tested rules. Oh genius is OK, so long as it knows the rules well-enough to know if, how and when to break them. And so long as it has sufficient self-confidence to not need to impress by breaking the rules unless there is a good reason.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In a word, everything. Neither rules, time-tested or otherwise, nor architectural geniuses create “cities worthy of humanity.” The urban needs and desires of people create cities. The notion that architectural geniuses create cities is a delusion of that most virulent of architectural types, the ideologically obsessed architect-visionary; and the notion that rules, time-tested or otherwise, create cities, a delusion of rule-obsessed urban planner types with their insufferable bourgeois arrogance born of the conceit that bourgeois concerns are the measure of things, other concerns being but eccentricities to be more or less tolerated.

But the urban needs and desires of people need satisfaction in concrete terms. And for that architects, urban planners, and even cut-rate commercial builders are required, all with their parts to play, and the overarching governing principle: Sutor, ne supra crepidam!

David imagines rules are what’s really important, but he confuses what’s important with what’s merely necessary. Painters, for instance, require well-made canvas, but there’s nothing important about well-made canvas, or about the mechanics who make it. Both are merely necessary. What’s important are the painter and what he paints on that canvas. And if the painter is a painter of genius, well, so much the better and more important will be what he paints.

The work of makers of well-made canvas is to produce a product that, consistent with well-made canvas, presents the least amount of impediment to the painter in his work. And when the canvas-maker’s mechanic’s work is done, he disappears from the picture forever, so to speak, becoming an anonymous and invisible entity thereafter.

Just so urban planners. They must do their necessary mechanic’s work by laying out a city’s grid, and establishing the most minimally restrictive building rules possible consistent with the needs of present and foreseeable future populations in terms of traffic flows, utilities, transport, zoning regulations, etc. — explicit rules, compliance with which can be ascertained with little or no ambiguity — and then disappear forever so that the important work — the design and building of buildings — can begin, all design decisions concerning which, in compliance with the minimally restrictive building rules, to be made exclusively by the only persons entitled to make them: individual architects, builders, and their clients. And if an architect also happens to be an architect of genius into the bargain, well, so much the better for his clients and for the city that emerges.

In that way, and in that way only, do vital, exciting, nourishing, and enriching cities get built and grow; messy and complex affairs where the buildings run the full gamut from the tawdry, to the quotidian utilitarian, to the grand work of art. The one prescription for sure death for any city is to have individual building design decisions intrusively determined or overseen by rule-besotted urban planner types, or worse, visionary, architect ideologues playing at being urban planners, and so making rules that impose their singular visions on an entire city.

You want great cities, “cities worthy of humanity”? Then insist the rule-makers recognize their proper place and disappear forever when their minimally restrictive and merely necessary mechanic’s work is done, leaving architects, builders, and their clients free to get on with the really important work of building a city.

UPDATE (10 September at 5:30 PM Eastern): David Sucher responds.

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