Placemaking under siege

Waterplace at dusk on a WaterFire night, in the year 2000. (Photo by Richard Benjamin, RichardBenjamin.com)

Waterplace at dusk on a WaterFire night, in the year 2000. (Photo by Richard Benjamin, RichardBenjamin.com)

Audun Engh, of INTBAU, the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, recently sent to TradArch readers an update by Ellie Violet Bramley on the work of Jan Gehl, the pioneer of city livability. Bramley’s article in the Guardian, “Is Jan Gehl winning his battle to make our cities livable?,” notes the Dane’s long climb back to rationality from architecture school, where he was taught, as he puts it, “to do modern cities, with highrises and a lot of lawns and good open space – good, windy spaces.” Gehl’s advice is heavy on markets, bike lanes, public transit, people watching and sittability (my word, homage to Camillo Sitte). All of this is very good, indeed essential, but not quite adequate to the task.

I posted in June about an event sponsored by the New England chapter of the Congress of the New Urbanism, at which a documentary about Gehl, The Human Scale, was shown and a panel then discussed the film from a Providence perspective. In that post, “Human scale in Providence” [my link tool is still down, so please use this blog’s search engine], I described asking the panel about a proposal by internationally known restaurant designer Morris Nathanson, of Pawtucket, made decades ago as Providence sought to animate the new Waterplace Park. Nathanson’s taverna idea, which he got from Greece, was to set up tables in parks, squares and other public spaces and hire young guys and gals to serve those tables for one or more nearby restaurants. Youth are young and can run to and fro with orders and meals, just like those guys in black are always running to get your car. What an idea for a cheap action agenda item to promote placemaking in almost any civic space, be it Waterplace Park or Kennedy Plaza, in Providence, New London, New York, New Delhi … Anywhere!

I did not mention in the post (which reprints my column from 1995, “What to do at Waterplace”) that the response to my bringing up Nathanson’s idea in the question and answer session was that the panelists looked at me like I had two heads.

I resurrect this embarrassing moment because CNU is among the organizations at the heart of placemaking in America, and attendees, not to mention panelists, at its events are, you would think, among the citizens most open to ideas for making some place.

I have been thinking a lot lately about PPS – not the Providence Preservation Society but the Project for Public Spaces. PPS is a national organization based in New York that seems eager to accomplish what Jan Gehl has tried to accomplish – to animate public spaces. The organization has done thousands of projects in all 50 states and many cities abroad.

In recent decades placemaking tends to be attempted in places set amid tall glass and steel buildings of little charm that glower down on the people in those places. To judge by the film, Gehl seems unaware that public places surrounded by sterile modernist buildings, tall or short, experience a constant undertow against the success of such efforts.

PPS does seem more aware of that. In a summary of the second annual meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council (an arm of PPS), its “Architecture of Place/Community Anchors” discussion group is described as having made important observations. It notes that placemaking requires buildings that are “not simply making an iconic design statement.” “Space,” the summary continues, “should both reflect and enhance the identity of the neighborhood.” “Often,” it observes with no small regret, “architecture students are trained to believe that their roles are to be ‘cultural critics,’ or that violating expectations is a higher calling than satisfying them.”

Just so.

Yet preservationists, who you’d think would be the chief allies of placemakers, need to engage a revaluation of values. Instead of campaigning to protect “midcentury modern” architecture and supporting new architecture that erodes districts whose sense of place survives against all odds, preservationists should protect the sense of place by promoting new buildings that “both reflect and enhance the identity of the neighborhood.”

For, if you read John Massengale and Victor Dover’s excellent new book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, and, frankly, virtually every other book written in the past few decades on streets as instruments of placemaking, you find that the beauty of the buildings along the street is the common denominator of every great street pictured and described therein. Same goes for plazas, squares and other civic spaces, most of which are bounded by streets edged on one side by buildings facing “place.”

Many of Dover and Massengale’s recommendations are useful and even vital, but they are secondary. Placemakers must embrace this fact. The Placemaking Leadership Council, at its September meeting in Pittsburgh, raised a lot of issues that may help placemakers get government and private bureaucrats out of their siloes to help promote the increasingly robust placemaking movement. But tasks will be more difficult to accomplish, and they will confront a sort of ennui in turning thought into action, if they neglect the need to upend the current establishment in architecture. Modernism is inimical to place no matter how eagerly its practitioners join placemakers in seeking more bike lanes, better transit and more official assistance in returning our cities to livability.

Of course, placemakers such as Jan Gehl and PPS president Fred Kent must work with the cities they have. They cannot snap their fingers and eliminate buildings that glower at people from the edges of place. But they can and must introduce a more vigorous advocacy of new placemaking architecture based on the principles that animated cities for hundreds and thousands of years. As Gehl says, cities must recover the accumulated experience that “has been lost in the translation to modern times.”

Nothing is more topsy-turvy today than architecture. It remains the only field of human endeavor in which the use of precedent – building on past knowledge – is contrary to professional practice. Placemakers seem to understand intuitively that modern architecture is the big obstacle to successful placemaking, but seem reluctant to fold this knowledge into their action agendas.

“We have to turn everything upside down to get it right side up.” That is Fred Kent’s motto, and PPS must lead all other placemakers to take to heart its most basic implication.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to Placemaking under siege

  1. Pingback: Jan Gehl’s misplacemaking | Architecture Here and There

  2. in terms of “integrating all the elements” but more from a transportation and civic architecture perspective, see http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2013/09/transit-stations-and-placemaking.html

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  3. wrt your point about “preservation” and preservationists not being at the forefront of maintaining and enhancing “place values”, the problem I believe has to do with the fact that what we think of as “preservation” is really three different elements: historic architecture; historic urban design and place; and historicity and identity (people).

    These elements are combined in the concept of the cultural landscape as well as the concept of the “historic district” as an ensemble of buildings. But historic preservation as a movement has been converted into a legal and regulatory process, and isn’t continuing to innovate. And for the most part it hasn’t separated out the separate elements of urban design as components of successful and historic places.

    I also argue that historic preservation came to the fore when cities were shrinking and the primary goal was neighborhood and community stabilization in the face of residential and commercial shrinkage. Now that cities have the opportunity to grow, or at least add population and business, preservationists are nonplussed. Basically, preservation works differently when it’s active in a weak market (most cities) or strong markets (e.g., Manhattan, Brooklyn, DC, San Francisco, West Los Angeles). In weak markets, preservation is used to stoke the interest and value of otherwise languishing submarkets.

    cf. http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/12/historic-preservation-tuesday-i-dont.html

    In any case, I don’t think any one group: NTHP, APA, ASLA, AIA, CNU etc. completely gets it in terms of all the elements that need to be integrated for urban success. Jan Gehl comes the closest.

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  4. Thanks very much, Anonymous! I believe you are correct that CNU has done more than anyone to promote placemaking in America. Perhaps it is just regional, but I detect something like a hostility, on the part of some at CNU-NE, to my general attitude toward architecture. As I try to make clear, CNU’s charter is agnostic as to style, even though I believe CNU’s amazing success over the past 20 years stems from its “brand” of traditional architecture, which is what most people associate it with. Yes, CNU and New Urbanism partake of urbanistic principles that emphasize vital matters other than style, such as walkability, small blocks, centralized shopping opportunities, etc. My point is that despite the undeniable good that CNU has done for beauty in our cities and towns and suburbs, its theme stands bifurcated now – I’m thinking mainly of Andres Duany’s heterodoxia project – in ways that could end up with CNU pursuing a less helpful role regarding someday in the revival of beauty in America.

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    • Daniel Morales says:

      The revival of beauty as the goal of the building arts is going to be a difficult haul given that our society is increasingly pluralistic and demanding of instant gratification. While I love cultural pluralism, it’s association with individualism makes the harmony found on many of our older streets harder to advocate for. Also, the skills and time involved in mastering the art of architecture will always be in conflict with the magic of technology. The hope is that man’s instinctual need to decorate and the resurgence of the pedestrian city will coalesce into a revival of the kind of architecture we all seem to admire.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Good post, David. Yet no one has done more for “placemaking” than the Congress for the New Urbanism. CNU was the first to define what placemaking is in real terms, the first to address it comprehensively, to research its history, to outline the details of how to get there today and to confront head on the modern systems that impact it. Most of us believe traditional architecture should make up the “walls” of the shared outdoor public rooms in civic space – at least until a contemporary model comes along that unlike Modernism does not seek to destroy the room (and civility with it). Sometimes we can live with one slanted, discolored, disjointed wall but in the end, we will never be happy with discord. My fear is that preservationists, who have never truly embraced placemaking in their quest to save the individual building, will forget it is the “tout ensemble” that makes harmonious cities great.

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