Monumental Design?

At an architecture symposium conducted several weeks ago at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design of the University of Toronto a student asked roundtable members why they thought that urban designers do not enjoy the notoriety of star architects. One of the symposium’s themes was the effect of architect-celebrities upon the practice and reception of architecture.

Premise 1: What Quandary Urban Design?

Amongst other things, the question points to the enigmatic status of urban design as a discipline today. Because its dedication is to the artifact of the city, its objects are monumental in nature. Urban design shares with architecture a faith in the power of built form to shape metropolitan life. More often than not, urban designs are strategic in nature, orchestrating the urban matrix–establishing block structure, street and infrastructure layouts, open space networks, and the parameters of buildings (but not the design of buildings in and of themselves). Urban design’s objects, which are bigger than individual building, and the nature of its instruments, which are indirect, make their effect upon the urban environment seem diffuse by comparison to the immediacy of architecture.

Urban design straddles the policy abstractions of modern planning and the concreteness of architecture. It recognizes that the physical substance of the city–the material structure of our social life–is the emanation of myriad intangible forces. Social, economic, political, technical and ecological dynamics are organized in a fluid galaxy of customs and laws, and these networks give rise to the artifact of the city. And yet, the artifact of the city impresses itself upon and directs the very forces that produce it. Urban design’s quandary arises from its recognition that the urban artifact is both the generator of metropolitan life and the consequence of it. The particular predicament of urban design has its roots in the historical dialogues of architecture and urbanism reaching back the better part of a century.

Premise 2: Idolatrous Form, Part I

Form provoked suspicion amongst architects in the early years of Modernism and continues to haunt the commitments of the urban designer to this day. In 1929 the Czech functionalist Karl Tiege entered into one of modern architecture’s important thematic debates. He criticized Le Corbusier’s Mundaneum, objecting to its formalism. Its use of axes, symmetry and established conventions of monumental figure–a pyramid–struck Tiege as flying in the face of Modernist architecture’s ethos. The monumentality of Le Corbusier’s forms did not seem to act as sponsors to an unpredictable human life, but rather to proffer aesthetic idols–a priori forms that substituted their own spectacle for the very human actions that they were supposed to shelter.

Modernist architecture’s confidence in the potential agency of its forms sat side by side with the sense that architecture should simply be absorbed into the “life” of the city. The latter view reflected a nagging suspicion that architecture perpetuates in its attention to form an ethically dubious aesthetic idolatry. In the place of formally driven practices, advocates of a modern architecture like Tiege hoped to refashion architecture as no more than a framework for the more important arena of human action–something that Tiege called “life.” Perhaps the most extreme case of such thought appeared late in Modernism’s development: in SuperStudio’s Cartesian grids, naked families were to enact lives unregulated by the ministrations of any urban artifact (or sartorial entrapment). Architecture disappeared and all that remained (presumably) were the intangible networks of social and technical organization. The urban under such circumstances simply became a flux of events. The discipline of planning might recognize in such intangibility an arena of legal and quantifiable abstractions, but urban design, with its split personality, was harried by the suspicion cast upon almost any definitive commitments to form.

Premise 3: Idolatrous Form, Part II

The theoretical positions that dominated architecture in the 1990s returned to this earlier spirit of criticism. Urbanism entered into a new vogue. The ascendancy in the preceding decade of Post-Modern architecture’s faith in historical form was the immediate provocation for the latter decade’s suspicions. It also seemed to be a return to earlier themes that were never fully forgotten. The city seemed to offer an arena in which urban and architectural forms occurred within a flux that was like the life of the city itself. Form was a field arising from and framing the intangible actions of social, economic and technical spheres of the metropolis.

Recent analyses from outside of the discipline of urbanism lend support to the view of the city as a field of activity resistant to totalizing formalization. Works like Manuel de Landa’s 1000 Years of Non-linear History (1997) and more recently in a more popular vein, Steven Johnson’s Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2001) reassess how cities take shape. These works describe the city as a “self-organizing” phenomenon. The decisions of millions of its inhabitants in the course of their everyday lives produce a kind of horizontal intelligence that is its own rationality and is reflected in the coherence of the city as it is. These accounts of the city hit an ethical chord with propositions inherited from the earliest days of architectural and urban modernism. The arguments of these books suggest, perhaps more indirectly than programmatically, that a “bottom up” urbanism may exist that can eschew the imposition of pre-determined and hierarchically established (and presumably less democratic) forms on the life of the city.

The ethos of historical modernism, re-emergent in the illuminating theses of De Landa and Johnson, may reflect an attractive democratic notion of the city–“self-organizing,” dedicated to the broad sweep of metropolitan life. Yet there is something perhaps too biological: a version of the city that is neither political nor cultural enough. The city does not simply emerge. In confronting the scale of urban design’s 21st-century project, urban design will have to do more than simply facilitate the emergent city even while recognizing its own role within an urban totality that will exceed all limiting intents.

Premise 4: Urban Design is not “life.”

For all the moral traction that such theoretical models might offer–resonating as they do with the ethical sensibilities that have played across Modernist architecture and urbanism for the better part of a century–it is also true that the unprecedented scale of the contemporary city in all its dimensions raises questions for which these models are simply inadequate. This scale compels urban design to conceive of the city as something more than sheer accumulation of horizontally arrayed social forces. It demands a vision that will permit us to at once capitalize on new opportunities and to foresee and avert new dangers. For example, the de-industrialization of Canadian cities alongside those of other advanced economies has all of a sudden put huge tracts of formerly unavailable and, in some respects, invisible land up for grabs. Toronto’s waterfront is a good example here. On the one hand, it illustrates the familiar contemporary phenomenon of the disuse and abandonment of former industrial sites. On the other hand, these sites present an opportunity for imagining future forms of collective life. Such sites raise questions that beggar the resources of piecemeal intervention while suggesting prospects for accommodating, within urban borders, our increasing metropolitan populations. At the same time, the public’s sense of, or actual legal franchise on such lands broach questions of how to construct large-scale public domains such as Downsview Park in Toronto.

In sum, urban design today cannot escape questions of big metropolitan forms. While urban design must undertake the large-scale organizing projects of the city at lar
ge–projects that at times will seem more strategic than formally definitive, it cannot shy away from the power that its involvement with architecture holds in shaping the new lands and transformed circumstances of the burgeoning metropolis. It must also recognize as part of its purview those moments of urban form and architecture that are exceptional either in figure or scale, or both. Its commitment to form at any scale is a project that recognizes that the life of the city, like the customs that shape behaviour, implies an aesthetic project that exceeds the metaphors of process.

Urban design should propose decisive formal goals for the city–at times these will be of a monumental nature. In so doing, urban design should be critical and suspicious of Modernist scruples regarding form. It should be wary of new models of urban analysis and how they may be used as a cover for the return of a more passive role for formal intervention. Who can doubt that the city is a complex system forever emerging through an elaborate web of power and will? Yet the city is not an organism, and the symbolic forms that its social life assumes are not reducible to vague metaphors of “life.”

Robert Levit is Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Urban Design Program at the Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.

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