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.”
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.