Urban Navigation

(Introduction to Terminated Vistas, Deflected Vistas, and Layered Vistas)

I. Urban Vistas

In the practice of urbanism, a host of techniques can help people move around easily and interestingly. One group of techniques consists of methods that visually encourage a pedestrian or a driver to move in a particular direction.

Modernist planning’s interest in speed of movement often compromises instinctive ease of movement. In highway interchanges, for example, it is standard practice to exit right to go left. Other “rational” techniques, such as the misapplication of the one-way street pairs to a non-gridded sector, result in blizzards of directional signage which still usually do not suffice to explain the “system.” A preoccupation with speed results in monotony alternating at unpredictable intervals with terrifyingly quick decision-making and action.

Traditional planning’s navigation tools, by contrast, combine reliable information about the next choices to be made with a concatenation of rewarding visual experiences. This is a better quality of movement experience, both for pedestrians and for drivers who, after all, are but humans in cars.

In 1909 Raymond Unwin, in Town Planning in Practice, formulated the rule most succinctly: “Every street picture must be terminated and the termination should be significant.” Unwin's term “street picture” is what today we somewhat sloppily call a vista, meaning the view down the axis of a spatial corridor.

Implicit in Unwin’s formulation — which does not distinguish — is the equal standing of the pedestrian and the driver in the concern of the planner. Also implicit in his choice of the terms “significant” and “picture” is the intention that the views be consciously designed and not left to chance or “happy accident.” (As an aside, “happy accident” is fine in a Jackson Pollock painting, but that is not the kind of picture Unwin had in mind.) The ubiquitous curvilinear suburban layouts of today are nothing but a random search for pleasing vistas which achieves an effect simultaneously boring and restless. In fact, satisfactory vistas can be systematically produced with just a few rules.

In actuality, there are very few buildings and architectural elements up to bearing the full force of something as powerful as an axis. In his own urban plans, Unwin often employed a curving or angled closure of the street picture. This is called a deflection, and is the less committed, more mundane but equally respectable, cousin of the termination. Finally, there is the hybrid situation in which a closer feature, either deflecting or terminating, layers the lower part of a vista, while another, separate and more distant, occupies the upper part.

Thus, in managing street vistas, it is useful to begin by sorting them into two commonplace classes and one, of greater virtuosity, overlapping both the others; the Terminated Vista and the Deflected Vista, and finally the Layered Vista.

Within each there are specialized techniques for manipulating the movement experience. These will be the subject of the next three technical sheets.