Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Daniel Solomon's Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities)

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Chapter 1

The Continuous City

City growth is an inescapable fact of life in the twenty-first century, as it has been for a long time. While for many cities growth is inevitable, the form that growth takes is not. There are three main ways in which cities can grow, each profoundly different from the others: (1) Cities can sprawl and decentralize; (2) cities can erase themselves and build anew; or (3) cities can regenerate themselves more densely within their own structure.

Sprawl and erasure were the dominant modes of urban growth chosen in the United States in the last half of the twentieth century. Each took hold after World War II, and each was a form of rupture with a continuous urban history that extended from the first colonial settlements until World War II. The rupture was both an upheaval in ideas about cities and their organization, and actual physical rupture that left American towns full of holes and gaps that were never there before. The atrophy of urbanistic skills and the acceptance of rupture have been fueled in part by the argument that cyberspace trumps physical space and the form of cities doesn’t really matter anymore. The catchiest phrases to describe the non-city of electronic communications were coined by its earliest champion, Melvin Webber, more than forty years ago: community without propinquity; the non-space urban realm.

This essay looks at the struggle between the ruptured city and its antonym, the continuous city. The continuous city is not a static thing. It changes all the time because that is what living organisms do. But change in the continuous city is evolution, not upheaval; the living honor the dead and make sure that the unborn get to know them. New buildings, new institutions, new technologies in the continuous city don’t rip apart the old and wreck it. They accommodate, they act with respect, and they add vibrant new chapters to history without eradicating it.

The ideas on both sides of this battle are old and tested. The results are in, and have been for a long time. To predict urban futures according to these contending models, one has simply to look at the ample productions of each. An observer of the last seventy-five years of city building cannot escape the conclusion that the form of the city and urban culture are inexorably intertwined.

The continuous city is and has always been the petri dish of urban culture. What the sustainable city must sustain is the culture of the city: the way people cook in New Orleans, the way they dress in Milan, dance in Havana, speak in London, wisecrack in New York, look cool in Tokyo. Those things just don’t grow in the non-space no-place of the virtual community without propinquity. It is dull out there—dull, dull, dull—and we have proven that to ourselves over and over, from Milton Keynes to Tysons Corner to the outskirts of Beijing.

The continuous city thrives when the third way of city-growing is employed: reconstruction and expansion within the basic form, if not the physical boundaries, of existing cities. In opposition to the ruptured city, it is continuous both spatially and temporally. Its physical continuity consists of a fabric of perimeter blocks, broken only where breaks have purpose—for parks, squares, or monumental buildings, perhaps for creeks, infrastructure, or exceptional topography. Its temporal continuity rejects the idea of great historic turning points, revolutions, upheavals. It honors its past as it embraces change, accepting change as a normative and continuous process of evolution. In the continuous city, space is continuously defined from building to building and block to block, and time is a continuum in which the past is a welcome and enriching presence in the future. The argument for this way of building acquires force when it is compared to the baleful perniciousness of the other two models for the calamitous beginnings of the twenty-first century.

No one is silly enough to claim that form is all there is to city making, that urban problems magically go away if architects and city builders simply get the shape of things right. The relationships among economic life, cultural vitality, and the form of the city are complex and interactive, but non-place sprawl like Silicon Valley is not self-sustaining on its own. There is simply not enough life to bump up against on the journey down the highway from a shapeless gated community to the parking lot of an office “campus” where one gets lunch from the steam table in the big, florescent cafeteria. In places all over the world, the young smart ones who are inventing the new ways of livelihood gravitate to those places of urbanity defined by the perimeter block and the tight, old, life-sustaining relationship of block, street, and building. Simply tracking the rise and fall of real estate values makes this assertion unassailable.

From 1930 until 1945, almost the only construction in the United States was federally funded public works—important stuff, but not enough to occupy a generation of architects. When architects don’t have anything to build, they fantasize about it. It’s like sex for prisoners or priests, and as with prisoners and priests, the fantasies can be very strange. They also form the basis for action, not always healthy action. As soon as World War II ended, there was a ready-made library of polemics, decades in the making, to launch the postwar world. The generation of my teachers and mentors digested those polemics and believed that sprawl and erasure were absolutely necessary and beneficent. When they had their chance, they seized it and built their dream world, as has every generation of architects lucky enough to hit a patch of prosperity.

Both versions of city building, sprawl and erasure, were promulgated with such force, with cultural and economic roots so deep, and with effects so lasting and pernicious that each has generated an entire literature of counter-polemic. Building one’s dreams does not ensure that society at large will really embrace those dreams. Large numbers of people in much of the world have learned to hate the basic structure of that postwar dream world, to hate sprawl, and to hate the erasure of historic cities and historic architecture.

© Daniel Solomon (Island Press, 2012)