Ok Sure But Who Designed Greenwich Village? / by Johnson Favaro

 
WHAT PLANNERS AND DEVELOPERS ACCOMPLISHED Twenty-five years ago we offered a way to enhance a neighborhood in the heart of Los Angeles through increased densities and a mix of uses. We got big box development instead.

WHAT PLANNERS AND DEVELOPERS ACCOMPLISHED Twenty-five years ago we offered a way to enhance a neighborhood in the heart of Los Angeles through increased densities and a mix of uses. We got big box development instead.

NOT WHETHER, HOW California’s got a housing crisis! CA SB-50! The sky’s falling! The issue facing us is not whether increased housing densities are a good thing or not, it’s how we do it. Housing in place of car repair anyone?

NOT WHETHER, HOW California’s got a housing crisis! CA SB-50! The sky’s falling! The issue facing us is not whether increased housing densities are a good thing or not, it’s how we do it. Housing in place of car repair anyone?

Among the observations we remember from Jane Jacobs” famous book THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES are “the ballet of the sidewalk” and “eyes on the street”.  Another comes near the end of the book (never quoted probably because few people have actually read the book): “a city is not a work of art”.  She was referring to three ideas which had gained prominence in the early modern era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which she had spent the previous 400 pages berating:  The  Garden City (English, Ebenezer Howard), The Radiant City (French, Charles Jeanneret) and The City Beautiful (American, Daniel Burnham)

NO MAN’S LAND TRANSFORMED Streets that seem too wide now when framed with appropriate densities will spring to life.

NO MAN’S LAND TRANSFORMED Streets that seem too wide now when framed with appropriate densities will spring to life.

IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU’D BE HOME RIGHT NOW Homes don’t have to be one story bungalows or condominiums in a tower—we have at our disposal a whole array of possibilities: townhouses, flats, lofts and garden units.

IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU’D BE HOME RIGHT NOW Homes don’t have to be one story bungalows or condominiums in a tower—we have at our disposal a whole array of possibilities: townhouses, flats, lofts and garden units.

These were movements led by architects who had concluded (on their own) that maybe we needed to rethink cities in the context of all that had gone wrong in the wake of the industrial revolution.  All three assumed that traditional cities didn’t work and couldn’t work in humanely accommodating burgeoning populations and modern industry and therefore needed radical reconfiguration. Jacobs saw these speculations as top down, anti-city, artistic abstractions devoid of considerations for real people and real life.  She called it the Radiant-Garden-City-Beautiful problem.

MID CENTURY SOUNDING OF THE ALARM Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson were contemporaries. Together they introduced concepts associated with complex interrelated systems (“biodiversity”, “sidewalk ballet”) in thinking about our natural environments and large cities. Clearly the science of systems was in the air however dubious its application to the planning and design of cities has proven to be.

MID CENTURY SOUNDING OF THE ALARM Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson were contemporaries. Together they introduced concepts associated with complex interrelated systems (“biodiversity”, “sidewalk ballet”) in thinking about our natural environments and large cities. Clearly the science of systems was in the air however dubious its application to the planning and design of cities has proven to be.

THE TOOLS MATTER. A 450-page book of words is not the way to plan or design a city.

THE TOOLS MATTER. A 450-page book of words is not the way to plan or design a city.

It is thought that Robert Moses—who replaced thriving neighborhoods with highways and towers all over New York --was Jacobs arch enemy but he barely rates a mention in her book. Instead, her enemies were established high modernist architects (and architects in general) all of whom in her mind had failed to understand the complex, organic and diverse systems of the American metropolis, didn’t value it and therefore were intent on obliterating it. She blamed them. They were Moses’ enablers.

GARDEN CITY Ebenezer Howard thought industrial age cities had become unlivable and thought we should all live in small towns surrounded and permeated by gardens. Frank Lloyd Wright was a proponent too.

GARDEN CITY Ebenezer Howard thought industrial age cities had become unlivable and thought we should all live in small towns surrounded and permeated by gardens. Frank Lloyd Wright was a proponent too.

But Moses was (recklessly and indiscriminately) employing ideas in the 1950s that had been formulated a generation earlier in the 1920s and that most architects by the 1960s already knew did not work. Jacobs seems not to want to acknowledge that by the time she wrote her book these ideas had already been dismissed. In architecture school none of us were taught that those early modern speculations were anything other than intellectual failures interesting only has historical object lessons on what not to do. (Although some architects still do to this day perpetuate the habit with speculations on wholesale interventions, giant projects that are supposed to solve a city’s ailments all at once.)

RADIANT CITY Charles Jeanneret found metaphysical truth in proposing a model of the city based on modern technology: tall buildings and automobiles. How has this worked out?

RADIANT CITY Charles Jeanneret found metaphysical truth in proposing a model of the city based on modern technology: tall buildings and automobiles. How has this worked out?

In her 450-page book Jacobs includes not a single drawing (except four diagrams about city blocks on pages 179-182).  Instead she uses words to describe how she thinks a city should be “planned” by which she means policies, incentives and economical models that will ensure that streets, parks and neighborhoods will teem with life. She understands that a thriving city—especially a metropolis—is made up of complex, interconnected systems of people that organically evolve, but which also need monitoring and sometimes intervention to maintain.

CITY BEAUTIFUL Daniel Burnham adopted Baroque planning principles at a huge scale to create entirely composed cities (left). These principles in practice have given us some of the most beautiful civic spaces and parks in America, of which Pasadena, CA has one of the best examples in its city hall (right).

CITY BEAUTIFUL Daniel Burnham adopted Baroque planning principles at a huge scale to create entirely composed cities (left). These principles in practice have given us some of the most beautiful civic spaces and parks in America, of which Pasadena, CA has one of the best examples in its city hall (right).

Jane Jacobs saw the planning of a city in the way one might plan a party: invite the right mix of people, have something for them to do, make sure they intermingle. The party requires a host (a government), but one who, paradoxically, is just there to manage the spontaneity. The setting is secondary (maybe some flowers, a tablecloth, a candle or two) and if the setting is only secondary no wonder she thinks a city can be planned with words.

WHAT’S WORTH PRESERVING. Activists and city planners saved Greenwich Village (left) and Old Town Pasadena (right). But architects designed them.

WHAT’S WORTH PRESERVING. Activists and city planners saved Greenwich Village (left) and Old Town Pasadena (right). But architects designed them.

Jacobs disdain for modern (obsolete and long discredited) theories of city planning and worse her appropriation of the word “planning” to mean something other than what it had meant 5,000 years prior partly explains the tenor of our relationships as architects with cities and communities in our work. Jacobs managed to sow the seeds for the (self-defeating and unproductive) animosity we feel almost daily in our interactions with “city planners” and “community stakeholders.” Parroting Jacobs they think cities can be planned with words and numbers – social policies, economic incentives, development incentives, zoning regulations, design guidelines, height limits, setbacks, FARs.  If we just MANAGE things right, our cities will turn out, ignoring the obvious that while, yes, cities are lived they are also MADE.

PARKING LOT TO NEIGHBORHOOD. This demonstration project from 25 years ago, before Culver City was on anyone’s radar, showed how to transform underutilized land in the heart of metropolitan LA into a livable, desirable place to live.

PARKING LOT TO NEIGHBORHOOD. This demonstration project from 25 years ago, before Culver City was on anyone’s radar, showed how to transform underutilized land in the heart of metropolitan LA into a livable, desirable place to live.

SHOPPING CENTER TRANSFORMED No sacrifice in commercial space was required to accommodate hundreds of new residents on the site of this shopping center.

SHOPPING CENTER TRANSFORMED No sacrifice in commercial space was required to accommodate hundreds of new residents on the site of this shopping center.

Neither Jane Jacobs nor any “city planner” (as we now know that to mean today) designed Greenwich Village. Architects designed it just as they have every place in the world that we value. We are architects-- not writers, planners, developers, lawyers, managers, economists, big tech, activists or politicians—who design cities.   Thankfully, Jacobs saved Greenwich Village from the decimations of Robert Moses who didn’t know what he was doing anyway and who was certainly neither an architect nor planner (as we used to know that word to mean).

THERE THERE Enhanced density improves the environment of the surrounding streets.

THERE THERE Enhanced density improves the environment of the surrounding streets.

SOME PLACE TO LIVE Must our streets really succumb to the back sides of big box stores? Can’t we live on them?

SOME PLACE TO LIVE Must our streets really succumb to the back sides of big box stores? Can’t we live on them?

A city is a place for people to be sure, but the place matters, it effects people as much as the people effect the place.  The physical environment creates culture as much as it is a result of it. The physical artifact that is a city is a collection of buildings and the spaces between them, the better the buildings the better the cities. The more buildings and the spaces between them are works of art, the more beautiful the city and the life within.  Any city we value is as Jane Jacobs stated “not a work of art” but it is made up of works of art.

RECLAIMED SPACE Not every open space we experience has to also accommodate our cars.

RECLAIMED SPACE Not every open space we experience has to also accommodate our cars.