A City Cannot Be A Work of Art

Hey it is the end of January 2012 and I have only been home for four days this year and tonight my new seminar class meets for the first time, under the title above. It is a deliberately provocative title, although perhaps not as provocative as its source, Jane Jacobs’ epochal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” which was written 51 years ago and remains the touchstone for everything written about cities since, including the various recent books I have included in the syllabus.

I think I will pepper this blog with pictures of actual cities, although like mirrors and magazines and popular television shows, the actual way things look has a lot less effect than too-perfect ideals. The history of city planning is the history of dreams with the “magic to stir men’s (sic) blood” as Daniel Burnham said in the really important part of his famous quote.

The history of city planning is a history of world’s fairs and exquisite renderings, of the idea – which Jane Jacobs denied most emphatically – that we could design a better city. But like self-improvement or religion, those are impossible ideals, golden rings deliberately beyond our reach.

Our failure to achieve those exquisite visions is what we need to keep moving, to keep striving. Constantly reminded of beauty and order, we strive and paper over our own continuous failure with new dreams of what should be, arriving as surely as each breath.

But this ideal is more than just a beautiful face and figure, for like all such it is mere facade to a more functional reality. There is efficiency beneath formality just as their is a circulatory system and muscles and bones beneath that face. The contrast is more than between the visual dream and the physical reality….

The drawing is always seductive, which is to say it elides, ignores or lip glosses over the functional reality it is in fact designed to disguise. The beautiful boulevards of the Burnham Plan were not designed simply to emulate Paris or to suggest an impossible beauty for Chicago. They were there to disguise the rumble of freight traffic rumbling right beneath them.

It actually says that in the original plan right under this picture, but what are you going to remember, the picture or the words? A picture is worth more than a thousand words, because it can make you forget all of the words, all of the messy reality that is every city.

This is Mexico City and I went there twenty years ago because it was the biggest city in the world and I wanted to see that chaos. It was built in the wrong location, as all great cities are, a combination of geographic imperative and biological impossibility. Mexico City is set in a valley that holds its smog close to everyone’s respiratory system. Lima, Peru has grown from 2 million to 8 million in less than a lifetime despite having no rain and no water.

Cities are this horrifying exciting fast-paced economic imperative that is always about a generation ahead of our ability to plan for it, but that doesn’t mean that architects and planners have tried to do it forever, and sometimes, like Baron Hausmann in 1850s Paris, they succeed a little bit.

They even succeeded a bit in Chicago: Navy Pier, Grant Park, the Michigan Avenue Bridge are all visible, ornate legacies of the 1909 Burnham Plan.

Hiding truck traffic, sewage and mostly the messy South Water Market, which was moved from downtown where it could be seen to a messy neighborhood where it couldn’t, although 90 years later that neighborhood has gentrified as well so the fruit wholesalers building has gone condo and who knows where the fruit has gone.

All of the Beaux-Arts ornamentation that characterized Hausmann’s Paris and Burnham’s Chicago is also misleading, not merely because it is makeup, but because it is a particular brand of makeup and thus we might think that this vision of planning is indeed different in kind from perhaps the streamlined visions that appeared in the 1930s or the grid-paper visions that appeared in the 1950s but they actually share diagrammatic aspects despite their formal divergence.


I’d take my talents to South Beach if I had any

Jacobs shot 70 years of city planners in the face with her semi-automatic “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” which combines Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham and Le Corbusier into one ├╝ber-macho I-can-fix-this formula for what she saw as an anti-organic disaster: planning based on separation of uses and continuous traffic.


do you know you can buy anything you want in the city? Anything.

She argued for what I like to call the messiness of history. History is what actually happens, just like cities are what actually exist. City plans are like ideologies or other static formulations that are inherently incapable of BEING in actual time and space.


the people here are REALLY nice

But at the same time we need them, otherwise we would shut down and be over, denying out own biological imperative. But it is biological, not physical or chemical, and what Jacobs noted was that the problem of the city was being solved by architects and engineers who were falsely and wrongly applying problems of statistical complexity to cities when they are BIOLOGICAL problems.


Go on, name this city. I double dare you.

So you have these tensions, between styles and designs, between organic and designed, between ideals and reality, but ultimately what makes cities exciting? There is something fantastic about Paris, arguably the world’s best-designed city, because every vista is complete and coherent. And their is something fantastic about the Asian cities that don’t even bother to have one or two downtowns but just scatter their skyscrapers across the horizon because there is nowhere to go but up, which is a very physical manifestation of the striving that is every city ever.


electricity. it is all about electricity

We have had horizontal cities and vertical cities and both have scared us to death, from Towering Infernos real and imagined to Unabated Sprawl and the ennui of little houses made of ticky tacky but those are really the extreme ends of all the options and those too are formalities, not functionalities.


this is Manek Chowk, which fulfills three completely different functions everyday

We can’t resist getting together and my whole life I have loved cities, loved their energy and even their fear, which is a more familiar and somehow friendly fear than the fear I feel in the wide open rural places…


saw a movie once where the character declared his love “was higher than a Flatiron Building” so I guess we will take that…

I used to decry Beijing for having such a horribly oversized scale to it, each block a half-mile long, but now I am used to it and I get it, it is not the pseudo-European Shanghai nor is it the Fritz Langy Chongqing but it is a funny combination of imperial and commercial and it is human even if it is oversized.

I want to run in their streets and catch their cabs and ride their subways and even, every once in a while, buy something in a shop. We can’t plan them but we have to try to plan them. We can’t control them but we want to. We can’t design them but we know they are fundamentally, biologically, of our own design.


We have met the entropy and he is us

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3 Responses to “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art”

  1. Mark Miller Says:

    That was a particularly fun entry. I love where it ends…

  2. Mark Miller Says:

    Its the 400 Block of S. Hill Street in LA

  3. Mark Miller Says:

    Proof: http://tinyurl.com/7sb2lpe

    I don’t know why you always have to get on airplanes and go places….

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