San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
In the second half of the 20th century there emerged an informal debate concerning policy for the downtowns of cities. The French-Swiss architect Charles Édouard Jeanneret, popularly known by his assumed pseudonym of le Corbusier, established a school of urban design whose influence spread throughout the world, culminating in the design of an entire city in India, Chandigarh. When le Corbusier's influence began to be felt in city planning in American cities, Jane Jacobs, an associate editor of Architectural Forum magazine, began to criticize the planning school in books and articles. The virtual debate of Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier is a metaphor for the issue of planning versus reliance upon the evolution of the market to create progress in the the economy.
As an illustration of the issues consider the housing project built in St. Louis in the 1950's named Pruitt-Igoe. It was a large project involving 2870 apartments in 33 building each 11 floors tall. It occupied a 57 acre building site. From the air it was quite impressive.
In the picture Pruitt-Igoe is the more distant project. The closer project of four larger buildings is the Vaughan Public Housing Complex.
The designer for Pruitt-Igoe was the noted Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki. Pruitt-Igoe was one of his earlier works, the World Trade Center in New York was one of his later designs.
The design of Pruitt-Igoe was constrained by limitations imposed by the Federal Public Housing Authority (PHA). This Authority provided a substantial share of the financing of the project. The state of Missouri provided most of the remainder of the financing. St. Louis city organizations were given authority to clear the slum area and supervise the construction. The design plan for Pruitt-Igoe was praised by the magazine Architecture Forum.
There were notable short-comings of the design such as no playgrounds. Playgrounds were added only when residents petitioned for their construction. The elevators stopped only for floors 1, 4, 7 and 10. The residents for the other floors had to use the stairs from the most convenient one of those specific floors. This was a cost savings measure.
The initial construction cost was $36 million, about 60 percent higher per unit than the Federal standard. The pipefitters' union used political influence to get an excessively expensive heating system imposed upon the project. The excess heating system costs resulted in insufficient funds for other aspects of the project. The Korean War caused shortages of building materials and the quality of the construction was judged to be poor.
The first units were completed in 1953 and families began moving in. The last units were completed in 1954. The public housing in St. Louis was planned on a racially segregated basis. A Missouri State court decision in 1956 prohibited the racial segregation of public housing. However Pruitt-Igoe did not become integrated. It remained predominantly African American. However the apartment units were not filled. The occupancy rate did not rise above 60 percent. The public corridors became dangerous places. Muggings and gang violence became a fact of life in Pruitt-Igoe.
By the late 1960's there were only about six hundred living in 17 of the buildings. The other 16 were boarded up. Vandalism was rampant. Windows were broken out. By 1968 the Department of Housing of the Federal Government was recommending to residents that they leave and find other housing. A story is told, perhaps apocryphal, that the housing authority convened a public meeting of the residents to find ways to solve the problems of Pruitt-Igoe. After listening to various proposals the meeting leaders asked the audience what they thought should be done with Pruitt-Igoe. Somewhere someone said, "Blow it up!" Other took up and the cry and soon the whole audience was chanting "Blow it up, blow it up!" The housing authority then decided to do just that.
The first building demolition came in March of 1972, a second about a month later and more in July of 1972. However it took three years to complete the demolition and the site was not cleared until 1976. The site is now occupied by elementary schools.
People recognized that Pruitt-Igoe was a disasterous failure but they found it difficult to articulate why projects that looked so good in design could be such failures. It took a woman named Jane Jacobs to articulate the reasons for the failures. She was not writing about Pruitt-Igoe specifically but instead the general problems of cities and what was called urban renewal at the time.
In the mid-1950's Jane Jacobs presented a paper at a conference which an editor of Fortune magazine attended. The editor invited her to write a article for Fortune. She did so and the article, "Downtown Is for People," was published in the April, 1958 issue of Fortune. She went on to write her great masterpiece, The Decline and Rise of Great American Cities, which was widely read and changed the public's perceptions of the issues in city planning, particularly the renovation of downtowns. She then wrote The Economy of Cities in which she argued that the city form of habitation was intrinsically involved in the emergence of civilization.
An introduction to Jacob's thinking is available in her 1958 article Downtown Is for People. Here is an exerpt from her article.
Downtown Is for People
This year is going to be a critical one for the future of the city. All over the country civic leaders and planners are preparing a series of redevelopment projects that will set the character of the center of our cities for generations to come. Great tracts, many blocks wide, are being razed ; only a few cities have their new downtown projects already under construction ; but almost every big city is getting ready to build, and the plans will soon be set.
What will the projects look like? They will be spacious, parklike, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly. They will be clean, impressive, and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well. kept, dignified cemetery.
And each project will look very much like the next one: the Golden Gateway office and apartment center planned for San Francisco; the Civic Center for New Orleans; the Lower Hill auditorium and apartment project for Pittsburgh; the Convention Center for Cleveland ; the Quality Hill offices and apartments for Kansas City; the downtown scheme for Little Rock; the Capitol Hill project for Nashville. From city to city the architects' sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.
These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it. For they work at cross-purposes to the city. They banish the street. They banish its function. They banish its variety. There is one notable exception, the Gruen plan for Fort Worth; ironically, the main point of it has been missed by the many cities that plan to imitate it. Almost without exception the projects have one standard solution for every need: commerce, medicine, culture, government—whatever the activity, they take a part of the city's life, abstract it from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and set it, like a self-sufficient island, in majestic isolation.
There are, certainly, ample reasons for redoing downtown - falling retail sales, tax bases in jeoppaardy, stagnant real-estate values, impossible traffic and parking conditions, failing mass transit, encirclement by slums. But with no intent to minimize these serious matters, it is more to the point to consider what makes a city center magnetic, what can inject the gaiety, the wonder, the cheerful hurly-burly that make people want to come into the city and to linger there. For magnetism is the crux of the problem. All downtown's values are its byproducts. To create in it an atmos- phere of urbanity and exuberance is not a frivolous aim.
We are becoming too solemn about downtown. The architects, planners - and businessmen - are seized with dreams of order, and they have become fascinated with scale models and bird's-eye views. This is a vicarious way to deal with reality, and it is, unhappily, symptomatic of a design philoso- phy now dominant: buildings come first, for the goal is to remake the city to fit an abstract concept of what, logically, it should be. But whose logic? The logic of the projects is the logic of egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting "See what I made!" - a viewpoint much cultivated in our schools of architecture and design. And citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them.
With such an approach, the end results will be about as helpful to the city as the dated relics of the City Beautiful movement, which in the early years of this century was going to rejuvenate the city by making it parklike, spacious, and monumental. For the underlying intricacy, and the life that makes downtown worth fixing at all, can never be fostered synthetically. No one can find what will-work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as. the City Beautiful people did; and they can't find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities.
You've got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong. You will see, for example; that a worthy and well-kept institutional center does not necessarily upgrade its surroundings. (Look at the blight-engulfed urban universities, or the petered-out environs of such ambitious landmarks as the civic auditorium in St. Louis and the downtown mall in Cleveland. (Look at Pittsburghers by the thousands climbing forty-two steps to enter the very urban Mellon Square, but balking at crossing the street into the ersatz suburb of Gateway Center.)
You will see that it is not the nature of downtown to decentralize. Notice how astonishingly small a place it is; how abruptly it gives way, outside the small, high-powered core to underused area. Its tendency is not to fly apart but to become denser, more compact. Nor is this tendency some the cores has been on the increase, and given the long-tern leftover from the past; the number of people working within growth in white-collar work it will continue so. The tendency to become denser is a fundamental quality of downtown and it persists for good and sensible reasons.
If you get out and walk, you see all sorts of other clues. Why is the hub of downtown such a mixture of things? Why do office workers on New York's handsome Park Avenue turn off to Lexington or Madison Avenue at the first corner they reach? Why is a good steak house usually in an old building? Why are short blocks apt to be busier than long ones?
It is the premise of this article that the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does` need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.
How hard can a street work?
The best place to look at first is the street. One had better look quickly too; not only are the projects making away with the noisy automobile traffic of the street, they are manking away with the street itself. In its stead will be open spaces with long vistas and lots and lots of elbowroom.
But the street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system ; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. It is the major point of transaction and for themselves, through mid-block lobbies of building block-through stores and banks, even parking lots and alley, communication. Users of downtown know very well that downtown needs not fewer streets, but more, especially for pedestrians. They are constantly making new, extra paths for themselves, through mid-block lobbies of buildings, block-through stores and banks, even parking lots and alleys. Some of the builders of downtown know this too, and rent space along their hidden streets.
Rockefeller Center, frequently cited to prove that projects are good for downtown, differs in a very fundamental way from the projects being designed today. It respects the street. Rockefeller Center knits tightly into every street that intersects it. One of its most brilliant features is the full-fledged extra street with which it cuts across blocks that elsewhere are too long. Its open spaces are eddies of the streets, small and sharp and lively, not large, empty, and boring. Most important, it is so dense and concentrated that the uniformity it does possess is a relatively small episode in the area. As one result of its extreme density; Rockefeller Center had to put the overflow of its street activity underground, and as is so often the case with successful projects, planners have drawn the wrong moral: to keep the ground level more open, they are sending the people into underground streets although the theoretical purpose of the open space is to endow people with more air and sky, not less. It would be hard to think of a more expeditious way to dampen downtown than to shove its liveliest activities and brightest lights underground, yet this is what Philadelphia's Penn Center and Pittsburgh's Gateway Center do. Any department-store management that followed such a policy with its vital groundfloor space, instead of using it as a village of streets, would go out of business.
The animated alley
The real potential is in the street, and there are far more opportunities for exploiting it than are realized. Consider, for example, Maiden Lane, an odd two-block-long, narrow, back-door alley in San Francisco. Starting with nothing more remarkable than the dirty, neglected back sides of department stores and nondescript buildings, a group of merchants made this alley into one of the finest shopping streets in America. Maiden Lane has trees along its sidewalks, redwood benches to invite the sightseer or window shopper or buyer to linger, sidewalks of colored paving, sidewalk umbrellas when the sun gets hot. All the merchants do things differently: some put out tables with their wares, some hang out window boxes and grow vines. All the buildings, old and new, look individual; the most celebrated is an expanse of tan brick with a curved doorway, by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The pedestrian's welfare is supreme; during the rush of the day, he has the street. Maiden Lane is an oasis with an irresistible sense of intimacy, cheerfulness, and spontaneity. It is one of San Francisco's most powerful downtown magnets.
Downtown can't be remade into a bunch of Maiden Lanes; and it would be insufferably quaint if it were. But the potential illustrated can be realized by any city and in its own particular way. The plan by Victor Gruen Associates for Fort Worth is an outstanding example. It has been publicized chiefly for its arrangements to provide enormous perimeter parking garages and convert the downtown into a pedestrian island, but its main purpose is to enliven the streets with variety and detail. This is a point being overlooked by most of the eighty-odd cities that, at last count, were seriously considering emulation of the Gruen plan's traffic principles.
There is no magic in simply removing cars from downtown, and certainly none in stressing peace, quiet, and dead space. The removal of the cars is important only because of the great opportunities it opens to make the streets work harder and to keep downtown activities compact and concentrated. To these ends, the excellent Gruen plan includes, in its street treatment, sidewalk arcades, poster columns, flags, vending kiosks, display stands, outdoor cafes, bandstands, flower beds, and special lighting effects. Street concerts; dances, and exhibits are to be fostered. The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before — not less so.
One of the beauties of the Fort Worth plan is that it works with existing buildings, and this is a positive virtue not jusf a cost-saving expedient. Think of any city street that people enjoy and you will see that characteristically it has old buildings mixed with the new. This mixture is one of downtown's greatest advantages, for downtown streets need high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield, and no-yield enterprises. The intimate restaurant or good steak house, the art store, the university club, the fine tailor, even the bookstores and antique stores - it is these kinds of enterprises for which old buildings are so congenial. Downtown streets should play up their mixture of buildings with all its unspoken -- but well understood -- implications of choice.
The issue is whether the elements of a city should be designed or selected on the basis of what works; i.e., planning versus the results of performance evolution. The French-Swiss architect-city planner Le Corbusier is representative of the planning school.
It is more difficult to provide an introduction to Le Corbusier's thought. However a brief biography provides a start.
(To be continued.)
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