How to make cities better

Screen shot of video opening as ugly city slides into lovely city.

Screen shot of video opening as ugly city slides into lovely city.

I spent the early morning hours today wondering what I could do to make cities more beautiful. Then I got up, went to my computer, and found this marvelous video of 14 minutes, “How to Make an Attractive City,” made, or at least narrated, by someone with a nice British accent. The graphics are simple and enchanting, but it is the basic good common sense about cities and what makes them beautiful (or not) that took my breath away.

The video seems to be from something called The School of Life, which you can click on and subscribe to, and which claims to have 163 videos – not just about building better cities, it seems, but living better lives. And I gather the video was created by Alain de Botton, who is far from a traditionalist. His book The Architecture of Happiness had me up and down on a roller coaster. He is facile. He is a TV presenter. But here, he is right.

Some comments at the end suggest that the video is authoritarian. No, it is not. It urges people to take back their cities from the authoritarians who have imposed ugly ones on us, making it near impossible to create pretty ones that we can enjoy living in. One person complains that in the city proposed here, he will have no privacy because the living spaces are denser. Has he never heard of curtains? The city proposed here offers maximum choice, not a bland one-size-fits-all existence. It is brilliant – and obvious.

Enjoy! And hats off to Ann Daigle for sending the video to TradArch.

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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3 Responses to How to make cities better

  1. dgloan@aol.com says:

    Dear David, Read a very good book by Alain de Botton :”Architecture of happiness” and you will have the answer to your question. It was my inspiration when I designed the model I showed you 3 years ago for an integrated approach to the treatment of the City Center which would include the 195 land. Since then all the wrong decisions are being made by all the chefs who operate in that kitchen: A baseball stadium that would be closed for 250 days a year, bring no money, aggravate traffic in downtown, no jobs, tax breaks, state money: how can we even give a hearing to these guys? What will happen in 30 years after they milk the state, collect their profit, sell the franchise to another owner and leave. The city will be left with an empty shell of a behemoth on its shore…This is just insanity! All of that for 8000 fans every game half of them from Massachusetts. A nursing school, offices for Brown University deans, assistant deans and their numerous secretaries, student housing with no taxes for the city… in the South Street station, no added value to our city, no life to come out of that, certainly not an attractive facility but a closed one to the people, what could have been the people’s house will not be accessible. How about a cultural center? Independent films, the Haffenrafer Museum, the stored collections of RISD, the occasional international exhibit of treasures from Italy or France…a new children’s museum, an arts high school… The demise of the pedestrian bridge which could have been a covered bridge with shops paying for itself in the years to come linking an active Wickenden area to the waterfront on the west side and its teeming shops, cafes… NO plans for a lively walkway on the waterfront with shops, cafes and restaurants (Baltimore, Portland ME, San Antonio..) we will not be able to have a margarita or a clam chowder on the Providence waterfront which would be a delight.

    The current state of affairs is just abysmal, no imagination, we are at the mercy of ill conceived projects (ie Stadium) since we don’t really have an architectural and design vision of what we want this fabulous piece of land to be and how to link it to the rest of the city to create a truly attractive center for this capital of southeastern New England.

    Our visions are small, narrow, dictated solely by the business community and not by the community at large. We are “reacting” not “proactive”. Do you imagine that, for this major piece of land with a fabulous future value, we did not even have an architectural contest! The plan was designed by DOT who is now reneging on the bridge!! Engineers should not be designing cities, architects should! The whole thing will be a flop from the stand point of attractiveness, urban design and service to the community at large (180,000 people in Providence and 2 million in a 40 minute radius).

    Attractiveness is made of a PUBLIC vision (with the interest of the public in mind), not a PRIVATE one with the sole objective to bring jobs, cranes, dead spaces and money for members of the Providence Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce friends, the Lucchino gang.

    Read De Botton and his comparison between Paris and London. The reconstruction of the second one being left to the whims of business interest, the first one designed with a vision in mind creating the beauty and attractiveness that we all know.

    Best,

    Dominique Gregoire

    Original Message—–

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    • Dominique, I largely agree with your general dire description of the situation in Providence, though I partially disagree on the stadium and nursing school projects. The former is a bad deal for a potentially good project. The nursing school could also be good but the student housing and garage as planned look horrible – an important factor, as de Botton (even though he is a modernist) admits. I read his book years ago. It was a brilliant book but not everything in it was equally brilliant – whereas I would say that the video was almost entirely brilliant – it doffs its hat to modernism to the least degree possible, for what I assumed was diplomacy’s sake but may actually be for reality’s sake.

      Like

  2. abdaigle says:

    Thank you for promoting this little gem of a film, David! I call it “How to Build A Delightful City”… for people who care about the future of civilization.

    Like

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