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Journey 16 - THE CITY BEAUTIFUL

Journey 16 - THE CITY BEAUTIFUL

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Journey 16: Continuation of concepts from Seven Ideals.
Journey 16: Continuation of concepts from Seven Ideals.

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Published by: Christopher C. Humphrey, Ph. D. on Dec 01, 2006
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12/21/2012

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Journey 16 - THE CITY BEAUTIFULBeautiful is not what springs immediately to mind when one thinks about Twentieth Century citieslike New York or Los Angeles. No, the images are those of schizophrenic or alcoholic bums on thesidewalk, gangs as ruthless and barbaric as any ancient Vandal or Visigoth, and oppressive,monotonous monoliths leaving the streets in perpetual shade. The pungent aroma of ozone anddiesel fumes attacks the nasal passages and makes the eyes water. Gridlock. Stress. Serial murder.Cannibalism. Conspicuous consumption next to burned-out, desolate wastelands.We need not accept this condition. After all, we built it. We can build it anew. We must build itanew if we are to satisfy the ideal of aesthetics, and to guarantee every citizen a right to life, libertyand the pursuit of happiness. There is very little happiness evident in modern life in the city. Themurder of innocent citizens denies them the right to life. This much must be obvious.Jane Jacobs wrote a classic book about cities, called THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREATAMERICAN CITIES; THE FAILURE OF URBAN RENEWAL, published in 1961. She wasacutely observant of the organic life cycle of cities, and the importance of street life. She preferredrow houses with a mix of offices, businesses, and walk up apartments along a curving street, withwide sidewalks, stoops, and trees. Every great urban environment has a rich street life, whether itis Greenwich Village, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Albuquerque Old Town. Street life prevents streetcrime, particularly if the police get out of their cars, get out of their offices and walk their beat,getting to know the people on the street. Row houses don't have to be drab boxes. The town houses in Paris often have a subtle sculptedfront. Those in Amsterdam are painted different colors. While such apartment buildings wouldhave a freight elevator in the back (which many tenants would also use), the height of such buildings will rarely exceed ten floors, because that is as much as most people would care to climb.Surprisingly enough, this kind of architecture provides the maximum number of households per acre, 100-200, better than high rises, and of course, far better than the 3 households per acre insuburbia. In part this happens because we get rid of the cars and their parking places and parkinglots. A great city is made for walking and that means it must be compact, and not sprawled all over the landscape. I propose putting a wall around a Metroplex, and zoning the region beyond for agriculture, wetlands, prairie, forest, parks and golf courses. No houses or commercialdevelopment. Halting urban sprawl means additional development will increase the density of thecity, by replacing suburbs with row houses, for instance.A Theory of Aesthetics: Beauty is intelligible novelty. In order for there to be intelligible novelty,there must first be recognition, i.e., some level of familiarity and expectation. The information liesin the novel or surprising details within this overall pattern of recognition. The setup for a joke presents one expectation; the punch line contradicts it. It is the unpredictability in a relationship thatkeeps it going. If total predictability sets in, the friendship or relationship wanes. Our best friendsare people who make us laugh, or think, even if we seem to have nothing in common. Most of uslove sunsets, surf, forests, mountains, the Sonoran Desert, and clouds, because we all have a certainlevel of expectation and familiarity with these things, yet there is variety in the details.1
 
Aesthetics is whatever we do to not-be-bored. Sex, food, getting warmed up or cooled down, or coming in out of the rain, can all provide a moment of pleasure. Once the need is satisfied, we aresatiated. We are never satiated with aesthetic pleasure. The First Law of Aesthetics is that Aesthetic pleasure is intelligible novelty. Architecture: From the First Law of Aesthetics, we can immediately conclude that the endlesslyrepeated, identical, rectangular window treatments on 20th Century high-rise boxes represent thenadir of aesthetic sensibility. Such buildings hold no more aesthetic interest than a shoebox. Socity-dwellers hurry along, eyes on the ground. Only tourists look up at the forest of towers,impressed by their sheer size, if nothing else.It may be hard to find rules for beauty, but it is not hard to find rules for monotony. The relentlessapplication of any geometric rule (such as the rule of plumb and horizontal lines meeting at rightangles, common to domestic architecture) must lead to monotony. Even with row houses,differentiate each house by color, as they are in Amsterdam. The endless repetition of rectangular window units is not only boring; it makes it impossible to seethe entire building as a single shape. Near the Battery Park, on the tip of Manhattan, there is acylindrical skyscraper that avoids any window treatment and thus becomes a single sculpture. Thereflective glass curtain wall has an attractive blue color. Unfortunately, more boxes have been builtaround it, somewhat hiding its beauty. The Dallas skyline features many "sculptural" skyscrapersthat make for an attractive skyline. I am not suggesting that skyscrapers are inherently bad, or thatwe should pull them down. Build new cities in a new way.With the dawn of the 21st Century, some architects succeed in escaping the box. See "The SkyLine; Building on a Computer Screen," by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker, March 12, 2001. Thenew software not only allows the architect to create non-rectangular three-dimensional shapesfreely; it also does the engineering. It was exactly this kind of software that allowed the engineeringof Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, as well as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LosAngeles, also by Frank Gehry. These two buildings may very well be the forerunner of an entirelynew and distinctive 21st Century city. Human Factors: Architecture should be restful; it should make solitude or gregariousness equally possible. Architecture has an enormous, unrecognized influence on social life. The pleasure we findin friends is aesthetic pleasure. It ultimately boils down to intelligible novelty. It makes one day atwork different from another. In a happy office, there is a kaleidoscope of human relationships thatchange from day to day. The difference between a happy office and one where people are sullenand glum often depends on the precise layout of each floor, and the positioning of break rooms, restrooms (unisex), coffee machines, copiers, elevators, the use of glass walls (with shades), and theflow of human traffic. All these architectural details determine whether it is easy or hard to meetothers, and whether it is easy or hard to have any solitude. In some office buildings, there are whole floors of desks, without partitions. No solitude. In others,there is a maze of corridors, with nothing but closed doors and no way to orient oneself as todirection. No human contact. Such buildings are machines built for machines. However, contrary tothe Bauhaus school of architecture, we are not machines.2
 
I happen to be agoraphobic, which I rationalize by saying that agoraphobics are like the canaries inmines. We panic in situations that make most adults uneasy. Therefore, a sensitive test of any building design would be to see how agoraphobics respond to it. Spiral ramps would be part of every design and the doors leading to them would not have locks. Here are a couple of really baddesigns: the aquarium in Baltimore and the Hyatt Hotel in Phoenix. The aquarium depends onescalators and all agoraphobics hate escalators, with its linear stream of unmovable humanity. Inaddition, these escalators are high in the air! Agoraphobics do not like what mountain climbers call"big air." The Hyatt hotels put a giant atrium inside. Simply walking from one room to another caninduce vertigo. They have hidden the stairwells, and they may allow one in, but not out. Everyagoraphobic's nightmare!Urban Design: Apply the principle of intelligible novelty to the layout of entire cities. At least until1965, Paris consisted in row houses, for the most part. Only a few special buildings, such as the Notre Dame cathedral, were freestanding. Some features of Paris simply grew, without plan, givingus the narrow, winding streets that remain from medieval times. Since 1970 or so, Paris hassegregated skyscrapers to one outlying suburb. City planners have sometimes added rational elements to a chaotic medieval pattern, for instance,the broad, tree-lined boulevards radiating from a central traffic circle that we find in Paris. Thecombination works beautifully. We want some order, and some disorder. We want some planning,and some things we want to leave to the accidents of time or topography. Seattle and San Franciscoare interesting cities built on steep hills, around irregular bodies of water. While freeways may goslashing through, ignoring topography, the ordinary residential street does not. City planning produces brutally monotonous designs, but not if we made the Ideal of Intelligible Novelty our highest priority. It applies to the design of cities, to the design of buildings, and to thelayout of offices. This is the Ideal of the Beautiful City.Civilization and Permanence: Lord Kenneth Clark said that civilization has something to do with permanence. This leads me to wonder whether we have as yet built an American civilization. AsLord Clark said, we Americans still live in wigwams, in other words, temporary wood framehouses, with wood or asphalt shingles, paperboard sidings, plastic doodads on the windows, andeverything else required to make a house unlivable in about thirty years. Civilization requires someconfidence in the future, and some care about our great-grandkids great-grandkids.We haven't achieved that. But we should. Design everything non-consumable to last forever, givena prescribed schedule of maintenance and repair. This is particularly necessary for buildings, roadsand bridges. Thus, build houses and buildings out of galvanized steel, use galvanized steel sheeting,use brick, glass, bronze or stone for the exterior, and roof it in ceramic tiles, bronze sheeting, slate,or metal. There is a new type of metal roofing that looks like slate. They would last forever, and be passed down, generation to generation.Build every city to withstand the destructive forces of that region. On the West Coast, that meansthey should be earthquake proof. In Tornado Alley, cities must be tornado proof, all the way up toF5 tornadoes. In addition, they must be able to withstand straight-line gusts of 95 mph, and softballsized hail. Along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, cities must be hurricane proof, all the way up to3

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