The new urban commandments

Prince Charles of England, who famously got involved in the world of architecture and urbanism nearly 30 years ago with a notorious speech to architects deriding modernism, has released last month in Architectural Review a list of ten principles for urban planning and design.  Those of us in the heritage preservation world have generally been fond of Albion’s heir and his advocacy of the virtues of tradition in architecture, although most of us become uncomfortable pitting tradition against modernism, fearing both the superficiality of style and a reduction of our cause into a formalist debate.

campus ctr coolS

Amherst

In contrast to the 1985 speech, architects have received HRH’s 10 principles positively.  Leaving aside the virtues of the modernist design that characterized most of the 20th century, let’s take a look at the 10 points.

garden B

Filoli

“Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.”

This is indeed a good principle and one hardly limited to traditional design – having grown up on Frank Lloyd Wright, it is arguably at the center of each of his schemes.  I also wonder how it fits into the classical landscape architecture we find in sites like the one pictured above, which I guess would please most traditionalists.

geometry

Taliesin West

“2: Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.”

Architecture absolutely is a language, and like English it is a language enriched by evolution and adaptation, not a language that tries to erect barriers around its purity like French.  Like Picasso, a good modernist should first master the traditional rules.  The last sentence is odd:  In the States building codes are largely a public safety phenomenon, having evolved from fire codes, so there influence on the formal design is minimal.

grk temp brit mus

British Museum

“3: Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.”

Barring the rhetorical oddity of the first sentence, this is one of the best principles.  There are certain examples of modernism that destroy human scale as well as their surroundings and these are usually disasters.  Again, the principle works beyond style:  Speer’s totalitarian Classicism also destroyed human and contextual scale.  I would also argue that scale is the connecting link between individual works of architecture and their context.  Note the “civic meaning” exception that allows for focus buildings, which for many urbanists of the 19th and 20th century, were supposed to be public buildings, not physical advertisements for their rent.

wabash to trump13s

Chicago

“4: Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.”

Again, I totally agree with this, a basic principle of all design.  Harmony by definition is the integration of diverse notes to create a whole richer than the sum of the parts.  I would argue rhythm, scale, materials and massing are much more important than architectural details.  But details are important – I tend to rank the ultrahigh buildings of East Asia by their ability to hold detail at close range and not only from the distance of the skyline view.

rue royal31

New Orleans

“5: The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.”

This is again quite true.  A sense of enclosure is a brilliant planning device that speaks to basic human connections.  Not sure about jarring angles – I think good architects can employ a variety of geometries to achieve pedestrian-friendly satisfaction.

fire lane central ct

Lathrop Homes, Chicago (1937)

“6: Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.”

This is interesting.  Using local materials is of course much more sustainable, and we have plenty of egregious counterexamples, like the Chicago skyscraper clad with Carrerra marble that failed or even our dear Getty, its stone shipped halfway across the world.  Having said that, concrete, glass and steel can indeed be local materials and I have seen them done humanely and done awfully.  My friend who restored the River Forest Women’s Club, a 1912 Prairie design by William Drummond, noted that the brilliance of the design was that very simple materials were used in a luxurious way – again a central tenet of Frank Lloyd Wright, who raised the level of several generations of “standardized” materials through design.

gale hs ceiling

Quarter-sawn oak.  Standard 1893.

012309_1026

Humanized concrete, 1920s.

johns tubes

Pyrex glass tubes, standard 1938.

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Standard glass, local limestone and wood, 1947.

“7: Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.”

This is sound urban design, and I have witnessed it as far away as Weishan, Yunnan, China, where they buried the utilities over a dozen years ago in the historic Southern Silk Road city.  We are also reminded here that HRH has put his money where his mouth is and built a model suburb according to his principles.  Historically, of course, our cities here in the States were overrun by wires and signs from the earliest times.  Their absence is solely a 21st century phenomenon.

nice view to N gate

Sadly, the landmark North Gate from 1390 just burned

“8: The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.”

Points for brevity and clarity here.  Car landscapes do not encourage commerce.  This has been a key to urban design for the last generation.

sitting and walkingS copy

You do a nice enough pedestrian space, they will move a major museum from the Upper East Side.

“9: Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.”

Density is another challenge – you CAN have great density without great height, although the two neighborhoods described derive their density from value, and the density of the wealthy may not be a prescription for the average urban place.  I personally like a nice tower here and there to set things off, foster diversity, create focus and reference points, and, of course, to encourage a pedestrian environment around transportation nodes.

main street corner

Another model town, nearing its 60th birthday.

“10: Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.”

This is also good sense and reminds me of the old preservation joke from about 15 years ago:

“What’s the difference between a highway engineer and a terrorist?”

“You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

highway lkft abvS

I don’t think that is true anymore, and what Prince Charles has enunciated here is not a defense of traditionalist style as much as some good advice for ways to look beyond style to the principles that make urban spaces human spaces, which is to say they accommodate people, their economies and societies, their cultures and their activities.  They are principles that emphasize diversity and flexibility.  The movement to preserve historic places created some of the first places where these principles could be negotiated and fulfilled by existing buildings – whatever their style.

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