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How cities killed desire Urban architecture is inhuman

Why isn't more civil engineering like the Elizabeth Line? Credit: David Levenson/Bloomberg/ Getty

Why isn't more civil engineering like the Elizabeth Line? Credit: David Levenson/Bloomberg/ Getty


May 25, 2022   6 mins

Crossrail took 20 years, and ran billions over budget, and only one of the three lines is open so far. But it’s open. And that’s something. For over the past decade or so I’ve grown pessimistic about the prospect of any work of civil engineering ever being delivered, to any kind of schedule or budget, in modern Britain.

Some of the difficulty seems to arise from the sheer weight of what’s already there, whether it’s regulations, houses, roads, communities, title deeds, drains, vested interests and so on. A nation that’s centuries into its current iteration, on an island continuously inhabited by humans for 40,000 years, has had the opportunity to accumulate a hefty overlay of stuff, at least some of which has to be flattened or else worked around if you’re going to build anything new.

But it isn’t just the weight of history gumming us up. The Victorians had nearly as much history as we did, and they managed to crack on: Paddington Station went from planning decision to opening Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent steel-framed structure in three years, between 1851 and 1854. But somewhere between Brunel and today, urban planners first began to worry about the impact of grand plans on ordinary people, and then to grow just as worried about the impact of ordinary human activities on our ability to deliver grand architectural schemes. And the entire contemporary urban and ex-urban layout of the whole South East is shot through with this tussle, which we could characterise as the politics of abstraction.

To explain what I mean by such a politics, let me describe two consecutive days of getting lost, in two similar but also very different woodlands: the Ramble in New York’s Central Park, and a patch of publicly owned forest close to me in Britain. These spaces cover a similar amount of ground, and are both (in human terms anyway) mainly used for leisure. Both are riddled with little paths. But how they got their walkways, and thus how it feels to move through them, couldn’t be more different; and this difference illustrates something subtle and characteristically modern about how we build today.

The term for a path that appears spontaneously, because someone or something often needs to pass that way, is a “desire path”. Here’s one near me, crossing a field of half-grown wheat.

Desire paths are rarely straight, but rather follow the line of least effort through the landscape. They’re maintained by usage: the one in the picture disappears briefly, every year, when the farmer ploughs and sows the field — then, every time, it’s trodden back in within a few days. Such footways capture an emergent, organic way of using space, which blurs the boundaries between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. We are, after all, not the only species to take regular routes through our home areas — and by doing so, over time, write on the soil with our feet.

On a dogwalk the other day, I turned off the main path down what looked like a well-trodden side route, only to find it getting narrower and more overgrown and eventually disappearing altogether, into an obstacle-course of brambles and fallen trees. At that point, I realised it probably wasn’t made by humans at all, but the badgers, foxes and muntjac deer that make their homes there. For a moment, the woods felt uncanny — as though (despite the distant sound of car noise, and a plane overhead) I had left the human world briefly behind.

Nothing like this happens in Central Park, even though the maze of winding paths known as the Ramble is designed to simulate that experience. First formally opened in 1859, a few years after Paddington Station and with the ambition typical of both Britain and America in the 19th century, it was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as a “wild garden”.

Unlike my local woodland, though, here the paths mark a distinct boundary between the human and animal worlds, neatly delineated by little fences that make it clear where humans are invited to tread. And while it’s possible to get pleasantly lost there, as I did, in doing so you never leave the human world for even a second.

The desire-path-like experience of the Ramble has been, for perhaps a century and a half, the closest urban planners have got to creating spaces that feel as though they emerge organically from a place. Rather, the emphasis has been on grand visions, set out by confident men on big pieces of paper, then imposed from the top down: the architecture of abstraction.

In Brunel’s day, at the height of British imperial self-confidence, engineers and architects alike felt a God-given right to remodel the world and everything in it according to such grand visions. The result, along with many fine railways and canals, was mile upon mile of suburban terraces in London, laid out on loosely rectangular patterns of side-streets. More abstract still, the streets on New York’s Manhattan Island were given their grid layout between 1811 and 1821.

By the late 19th century, though, a new generation of planners worried about the alienation from nature that came from living in such built-up environments. One influential thinker, Ebenezer Howard, responded to this with a new vision: garden cities. In Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), Howard set out his dream of a new kind of conurbation, that would reduce urban alienation by blending green space with wide, curving streets intended to mimic the natural curvature of organically-emerging desire paths.

Howard’s vision still wasn’t very organic, though. The original garden-city vision was formed of concentric circles, bisected at equal intervals by straight lines: a very geometric kind of naturalness. But if Ebenezer Howard sought to improve British city life by re-introducing (however stiffly) more curvature into the built environment, a few decades later another influential urbanist would try to fix cities not with an orderly echo of the organic, but by doing away with it altogether.

In The City of Tomorrow, (1929) the modernist architect and urban planner le Corbusier dismissed desire paths derisively as chemins de l’ñne – donkey paths. For him, such routes expressed animalistic “looseness and lack of concentration”: physical signs of our failure to strive for a life of pure reason. Le Corbusier denounced any urbanism that gave space to such meandering routes as a threat to the man who “walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going”.

Instead of encouraging such slackness, le Corbusier declared that homes should serve as “machines for living in”: engines to power rationality and productivity for both sexes. He dreamed of demolishing chaotic, human-scale buildings, envisioning instead a high-rise, symmetrical and orderly Radiant City where streets would follow a grid and humans could be kept from the “ruinous, difficult and dangerous curve of animality”.

These twin poles of modern urbanism’s fraught relationship with “naturalness” shape the whole South-East of England. City centres follow le Corbusier’s footsteps, sprouting glass-and-steel skyscrapers that tower over older structures like alien arrivals formed of pure idea. On the periphery, new construction takes a more Howardesque approach, rolling out vaguely garden-inflected dormitory estates (all without Howard’s integrated Garden City amenities, but complete with “naturally” meandering cul-de-sac roads).

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the South East is also the part of Britain most hopelessly gripped by housebuilding paralysis, and a more general Nimby-ish resistance to new architectural impositions. It’s not just about traffic, or noise, or population: somewhere in the resistance to every such scheme is an inchoate rejection of how abstract they all are.

Not one is of a place. Not one is built in accordance with local vernacular, or even local topography — let alone local desire paths. Every bit as much as the tower blocks that now dwarf London’s skyline, or the artificially meandering synthetic randomness of the Ramble, such estates owe their approach — and unpopularity, whenever they are proposed — to a worldview less grounded in place than in pure abstraction.

Perhaps, one might say, the key thing is to build more houses; but perhaps, too, we might wonder whether this resistance isn’t a sign of deeper malaise. That’s certainly the sense emerging from the architectural campaign group Create Streets. Longstanding advocates of walkable streets, human-scale building and construction for place and community, their Restitch summit hopes to find answers to a growing fear, across political divides, that “the fabric of Western society is unravelling”.

I doubt this unravelling is happening merely because people think new-build estates are ugly. But there’s a sense across both architecture and politics that something fundamental about the compact between the great (who make abstract plans), and the small (who have to live in them), has come radically adrift. The Elizabeth line is surely the exception. For if it stumbled to fruition, it is surely down to bucking this trend.

As a project, it is place-bound in just the way every skyscraper and housing-estate is not. It may be a large-scale civil engineering project, but it’s laboriously built round, through and under what’s already there. And, importantly London needs and wants it. For the rest of us, though, it’s a matter of luck if you get any say in how the place where you live is remodelled around you — or if such a remodelling has any regard at all to the organic paths that were there before the bulldozers arrived.

How likely are we to see this change? A pessimist might say: for desire paths to express the organic social fabric, there has to be a social fabric to express. A more upbeat response might be: simply leading ordinary lives in a place is what forms such a fabric, as well as what forms desire paths. But we need leaders with the courage not just to impose a vision, but also to be guided by those emerging patterns.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Another remarkably erudite essay from M. Harrington. She seems able to write at this level about almost any subject.
I’ve visited the south east of England and everywhere within commuting distance of London seems to be very overcrowded. I’m not sure how you square high housing density with the type of connectedness to nature people seem to desire.

Richard Hoard
Richard Hoard
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Sad

Adrian Doble
Adrian Doble
2 years ago

We should reconnect people with deserted town centres by changing the assumption that rows of shops can only be shops! Even when there’s no demand for shops. Turn them into dwellings. Repopulate the high street with people, as they were in medieval times.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Doble

I would agree if you lived in a megacity like London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City or any other megacity. However, I doubt that this will be the case in the foreseeable future, as most rural towns simply don’t have the infrastructure to attract people. But who knows what the next generation will decide for themselves: to work for a huge company or to start something smaller with personal commitment that wins the loyalty of customers and employees. What is not mentioned in this article is the corporate culture, which also alienates people because the pursuit of profit takes precedence over everything else. You end up living in an expensive environment where prices skyrocket and living standards become increasingly difficult for an ever-growing number of people working in a service-based economy. A service sector that produces a constant stream of substitutes working at ever lower wages in a very sterile cityscape.

Last edited 2 years ago by Raymond Inauen
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

As always, excellent from Mary. I was particularly struck by

“to a growing fear, across political divides, that “the fabric of Western society is unravelling”.”

Glad to know it’s not just me then!

No doubt the built environment is part of it, but I’m not sure architecture is going to fix what seems to be a much deeper malaise.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

What about “bread and circuses “ as Juvenal so politely put it?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Plenty of circuses, but the bread seems to be in short supply at the moment.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Watch the Premier League. I am sure there is a good book to be written somewhere comparing gladiators and footballers – the imagery, pageantry and financial incentives etc.

Might make an interesting Unheard article – Tom Holland or Giles Fraser would be my picks to write it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Milton Gibbon
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Agreed! But why not invite Mary Beard*? Her scholarship dwarfs that of Holland or Fraser, plus she can be rather anarchic when required.

(*Convincingly thrashed our beloved Boris in the Greece versus Rome debate few years ago (2016) in Westminster Central Hall.)

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Whilst i broadly agree with Mary’s analysis, her point with regard to “the fabric of Western society is unravelling” being at least partly due to the built environment, including supposedly natural spaces which have been manufactured, omits the even more inhuman architecture of the major cities of the East, such as Beijing, Shanghai (away from the waterfront) and any number of other connurbations; or the Soviet-era built environment in that bloc.
If such an environment is pushing us towards a disconnect with our own societies, how must it feel to live in those metropoli of the East? There is a difference of course, and that’s the plurality of Western society, which allows for greater debate and analysis of where we feel we are, as humans.
There’s a fair chance that we in the West will recover our nerve and continue to progress with equilibrium restored. I wouldn’t bet on that happening to any significant degree in the authoritarian societies of the East.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

As long as these emerging patterns don’t lead people out of the south-east. The rest of the country’s quite nice.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

It will spread, though. I live in central southern England and it’s starting to affect us now; so, complacency can be mis-placed.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Excellent as ever. Friedensreich Hundertwasser is maybe more the polar opposite to Le Corbusier , and might be prefered to Howard by someone with Mary’s sensibilities.

F K
F K
2 years ago

Thank you Mary for another well written, highly readable and thought provoking essay which has, as always with you, so much greater depth than at first we might have expected! To add my tuppence-worth I found the ideas here to be another exploration of the bi-polarity in human consciousness that you do so very well (and if you like this sort of thing then ‘The Divided Brain’ by Iain Mcgilchrist is worth a read, otherwise, please move on past the rest of my particular ramblings!). Isn’t it the ability we have for spotting patterns and the need to then categorise and create ‘order’ that makes us human. Then extending the pincer grip (that only humans have) to wield the tools to make those thoughts a reality and thus create (to some of us anyway, depending on who we are) beauty or, on the flip side, destroying with conflict and war. Ideas, art, science, architecture, medicine, economics (chaos theory and fractals – an essay on the physical forces in nature that effect the financial system and politics maybe?). Applying the thoughts in Mary’s essay to the human condition, surely what we all really and truly want to be is happy and healthy and, in turn, we wish that for our families and communities too because, well, that has to be the ultimate reason for life beyond securing the basics (for most of us)? Sometimes though we can be neither happy nor healthy and need medicine, science, government to help us. But we need both art and reason to temper those left and right brain activities. We need to be able to keep our humanity and also understand the place we find ourselves in and how to navigate that particular world. If government, big pharma, business, etc provides that goal then great (though that rarely seems to have a happy ending). However, sometimes life takes us into that overgrown dead end in Mary’s local forest (the path the animals use). It is, as you say Mary, a little unworldly and can start to feel a little frightening and then what we desire most is a friend to guide us back to feeling safe and in control again. Isn’t this also true in architecture and medicine; government, economics and politics too. Isn’t this true with everything, everywhere because, without wishing to annoy most of you who may be bothered to read this, everything does feed into everything else, one way or another. But when we find ourselves wandering down that increasingly overgrown track, who might be that friend, professional or otherwise? Can we trust them, and maybe that is the big one. And maybe that is what we truly desire when we wander down that squiggly animal track. To find a beautiful clearing, fresh with the scent of sweet flowers and dew, a tree canopy reminding us of a cathedral and a chorus of friendly birds.. and, passing quietly by the shy and inquisitive deer who may be watching us from afar, perhaps all we really hope for is that that there may be someone holding out a hand for us to steady us on our way. And, we know that, just for a moment at least, we are safe and relevant and cared for.

Sophy T
Sophy T
2 years ago

Tower blocks are ugly and most people would rather not live in them – in the UK at any rate.
In World’s End, Chelsea, 30 or so acres of decent terraced housing was demolished and replaced with tower blocks. Not only are they eyesores but the people who were forcibly evicted and rehoused in the tower blocks have missed out.
A 833 sq ft. flat in one of the towers is for sale for ÂŁ550,000.
A 835 sq ft flat 50 yards away in Lamont Road, is on the market for ÂŁ1,370,000.
The housing estate should be demolished and replaced with decent housing. Why should council tenants not have acceptable dwellings?

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

It seems, to me, that the most influential architect and ‘planner for the built environment ‘ isn’t Le Corbusier, or Howard, but instead, Ole Kirk Christiansen (LEGO). Most urban planners and architects don’t seem to be able to move past their adolescent experiences. Maybe a ‘new’ generation, brought up with the likes of Minecraft, will have a more inspired vision for the future.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

It seems to me that the very best artists and architects know when to stop fiddling. Delivering an 80% design and allowing the locals to apply their own desires for the remainder is probably better than specifying the colours to be used, the door furniture, and ‘permitted’ activities for common spaces.
Of course such ‘organic’ designs are unlikely to win any awards.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

It took the Romans a mere ten years to throw up the Colosseum*, and that included draining the lake that previously occupied the site. The Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, plus Hagia Sophia all seem to have been completed within five years, so the sainted Victorians were not the first to complete projects on time!

However surely the great joy of London is its sprawling nature complete with formal squares and ‘irregular’ parks? In total contrast to many European cities, forever stunted by having been enclosed by fortifications for centuries; Vienna being a good example.

As to the title “Urban architecture is inhuman”, some would say that cities are the very basis of civilisation and thus very human. Again the Ancients led the way as can still be seen in Ostia (Italy), Lepcis Magna (Libya), Timgad (Algeria), Aphrodisias (Turkey) and many more. “Occ est vivere!”- that is to live! As ‘they’ used to say.

(* ‘Weighs’ approximately the same as four ‘Gothic’ Cathedrals.)

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Ah, but you really can’t get the slaves these days.

Just something interesting (at least to me) I have read in a number of places the way that large engineering projects over-run, in both time and money, in Germany. This paper German paper is an interesting example :
Large Infrastructure Projects in Germany: A Cross-Sectional Analysis

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

The idea of then being built by slaves is common misconception. I believe the vast majority of Roman public buildings were constructed by day labourers, or wage slaves if you will. It was actually a large reason they were built in the first place: to provide jobs to the great mass of the urban poor. State owned slaves were mostly used for other tasks like mining or security.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

As an aficionado of the 1959 film Ben-Hur, it came as a great shock to me to later learn that the Romans did not employ galley slaves. Thus all those schoolboy jokes such as : “row faster, the Legate wants to water-ski”, became instantly redundant!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thank you for that, fascinating!
Ever since 1914, if not before we seem to have been in awe of Germany, particularly their engineering prowess, so how refreshing to read such an honest analysis! The castigation of the IT sector, with its “Black Swan “ projects served to remind me how fortunate we were to abandon the idea of ID cards. The comparative analysis of State versus PPPs* came as no surprise, although the precise details did. There is so much more, we could discuss, but that would be to exhaust UnHerd’s patience I think.
Incidentally as to ‘slaves’ I think R Wright Esq (above) has put it perfectly. “Hire & Fire” is in fact far cheaper, and arguably crueller.

(* Private-Public-Partnerships.)

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I’m pleased that you found the paper as interesting as I did.
Generally the Roman state employed contractors on building projects and these people owned the slaves.Unemployment among the proles (those whose contribution to the state was to produce children – prole meaning off-spring) was high because of the number of slaves performing unskilled (and skilled work too), hence ‘bread and circuses’ and the high proportion who voluntarily joined a more professionalised army after the Marian reforms of 107BC, which allowed proles to join. As you say above, galley rowing was not a slave’s job it was performed by free-men who were part of the Roman navy, and most building projects in the empire, Hadrian’s Wall for example, were constructed by trained legionary soldiers, probably with some local unskilled helpers. However, slaves were an important integral part of the Roman economy and worked on the land, in mines, in households, and on city projects.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

I have yet to read a comparative analysis of the diet and perhaps longevity of say household slaves with that of urban proles? Do you happen to know of one? I suspect the slaves came of better.
I does seem extraordinary that there was a property qualification to join the Legions before the Marian reforms, just imagine that today!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I haven’t got this information to hand. However, some years ago I did manage to find out that a day-labourer got something just over 2Âœ sestertii per day (on average), how far that went though is a matter of speculation. A solder got pretty much the same pay and seemed to be able to save some even after expenses were deducted, so a day labourer could probably take care of himself IF he got work and IF he had no-one to support. The plight of slaves depended on where they worked, if they worked in a wealthy house-hold they could often do quite well, even accumulating enough wealth to buy their freedom; if they worked in the mines they didn’t live long enough to accumulate money or get freedom. Generally though, a reasonable master would want to get the best out of his investment and his human “tools” (as Aristotle put it) so would look after them to ensure peak performance, which would ensure providing sufficient “fuel”; quantity rather than quality I assume.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thank you.
I had been leafing through SLAVERY, by T.E.J. Wiedemann, OUP 1997, without much success.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

There is a whole airport built and unused in Germany… whilst the aging Templehof is overloaded.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

Templehof closed in 2008.

David U
David U
2 years ago

One of the most inhuman aspects of urban life is the lack of desire lines or more prosaically short cuts for pedestrians. Getting to the nearest shop or bus stop often requires you to walk half a mile along traffic clogged streets. Most developments built since the war have a single entry point and are isolated from surrounding areas on three sides. By contrast Victorian and earlier developments had multiple entrances so were effectively porous to walkers.

Simo O
Simo O
2 years ago

excellent article- How did Le Corbusier become so renowned building such monstrosities which still plague our landscapes?

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

I’m reminded of Poundbury, an experimental new town or urban extension on the outskirts of Dorchester in the county of Dorset, England.
It has been built to ‘human scale’ and avoids most ordinary suburban rules. I like to visit every now and again to see how it ages. It is beginning to look more settled now as the rendering on houses is no longer pristine and there are a few tiny front gardens planted.
But I still come away thinking it looks like a film set. Grimly cute as others have said. And there doesn’t appear to be any provision for desire lines. So I guess that’s one way not to rebuild a social fabric.

Last edited 2 years ago by AC Harper
Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Just had a look at Poundbury on GE – I can see what you mean, although that is fairly nifty as far as new developments go.
It does look like the back of Disneyland from the circular road, but I’d still prefer it to the equivalent in Hartlepool.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I really wanted to like Poundbury, mostly because the architects don’t like it, but it all looks so ersatz, and it seems as soul-less as many of the “modern” towns. Is it not possible to design something that is modern as well as organic? At Poundbury it is an amalgam of structures all trying to look older than they are; an artificiality based on nostalgia.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

Eh… perhaps Poundberry needs a community or a local ambience.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

It needs to be the location of a truly epically dreadful film such as ‘Return to Downton Abbey’ and thus become a pilgrimage centre for masochists and the like.

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Apparently in Scotland… ‘Outlander’ tours are a thing. Never got into that series. Did enjoy my Game of Thrones day near Belfast… my mum and I tried archery for the first time, she’s way better than me, lol. It’s lame, but I enjoyed getting into costume!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Yet barely a mile to the south lies Maiden Castle, arguably the finest Iron Age Fortress in the country.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Absolutely wonderful place. I’ve been there many times and its a better use of one’s time.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

An interesting article again from MH, and I was pleased to learn the new term “desire path”. However, I am always suspicious about pleas for more “English vernacular” architecture, which often seem to provide cover for a conservative approach to planning and development, verging on the kitsch: Poundbury is an example in my opinion. I prefer to see modern design and modern materials in contemporary buildings, which does not imply that they have to be concrete “machines for living” per Le Corbusier. Although it was a massive white elephant so far as cost is concerned, I would cite the Scottish Parliament building as a modern, attractive piece of architecture.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Personally, I find the Scottish Parliament ugly. And we’ve had ‘modern design and modern materials’ for the last sixty years it’s time for a change.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

What was wrong with Hamilton’s magnificent neo-classical Royal High School building, perhaps the finest in the country?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

I was with you until your last sentence

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Admittedly I’ve only seen photographs of it, and we have yet to see how it weathers, but I’m with you about the Scottish Parliament building, I rather like it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Ugh. I don’t know when it was built, but it looks like a display of the future at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
2 years ago

“simply leading ordinary lives in a place is what forms such a fabric”
That’s simple and profound. I would change it in one minor way:
*simply leading ordinary lives in a place, and with your people, is what forms such a fabric*

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

Where does the author get the idea that geometric cities are purely a function of modernity? It contradicts basic facts anyone who had vaguely studied archaeology know. The vast majority of ancient civilizations that reached a level of sophistication to construct cities – Indus Valley, Egypt, Babylonia, Aztecs, Chinese, Etruscans, Greeks and of course most famously the Romans – built square, grid-based cities at least in new land and colonies. The Spanish were consciously copying the Roman models in the new world. The Russians built St Petersburg self-consciously as a grid opposing it to the maze like streets of Moscow, representing Peter the Great’s Westernising vision. If this use of reason is so inhuman and unnatural why did this pattern emerge repeatedly in different contexts and environments widely separated from each other?
Crazy, uneven cities emerge when there is no planning and people construct when and where they like. This was the case in old established cities say in the Roman empire (like the suburbs of ancient Rome), or Medieval Europe when there was no strong central authorities and the relatively small towns were constantly seeking new people to replace the a population with a death rate higher than birth rate, often by bribes like munumission of serfdom. In modern cities you see this happened: take Barcelona with a grid in the centre and the sprawling mess on the periphery, legacy of the cheap lawless development of the 60s and 70s. Or Latin American cities like Vallparaiso, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires where the centre has a rationalistic planned Spanish/Portugese grid and the outskirts are the result of influxes of workers building their own slum housing on empty land.
Both of these outcomes are just as ‘natural’ and depend on the history of a city in question, and each city has different phases and spurts of growth.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
2 years ago

However lovely and romantic is this vision, the unfortunate relality is that city tower blocks and brownfield site developments leave the smallest environmental footprint. There is no need for huge additional infrastructure, or massive use of private cars to get to amenities.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Langridge
Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr
2 years ago

Highish density and brownfield yes, but not tower blocks please! It is possible to create human scale built environments without reference to modernist styles and the obsession with exclusively using ugly engineering materials to build human habitation. The entire architectural establishment and its eighty year embrace of modernism and its derived forms is one of the most disappointing and soul crushing features of the 20th century.

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Kerr
Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
2 years ago

The urban environment encourages involvement, while limiting perspective. In the countryside it’s the other way round.
I also remember reading something by Dominic Cummings where he lamented the ever-increasing ‘time to market’ of new defence equipment. I suspect the inertia effects of bureaucracy are at play in this and Crossrail. The bureaucratic instinct is never to ‘do’ but to ‘talk about doing’

G F
G F
2 years ago

@wrathofgnon writes about exactly this sort of thing. It’s an entire philosophy we would do well to follow..but architects hate us.

If you believe form follows function but don’t believe beauty or ornamentation has a function.. but also don’t really grasp how people function in the built environment, then we end up with the post-modern dross that has ruined the country and blighted community.

Beautiful is cheap because it out lives many generations. This is no use to the property developers who care for only money and the QS who only wants to save expenditure while budgets are inflated by pointless consultants. People who steal your watch and then tell you the time.

Last edited 2 years ago by G F
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

A very interesting piece. And well-written. Perhaps another name for a skyscraper should be a sky-blocker. The Victorians, I imagine, had more earthy pungent smells in their towns and cities. The clip-clopping of horses going past, even today, amid the noise of vehicles is like standing next to a waterfall: a tonic to the nerves. But we forget how things smelled and were heard as well as looked in the past. Horse manure would have been common. The environment of concrete and beat music, if not balanced by the occasional cry of paperboy hawkers (wearing cloth caps and shouting “Read all about it!”) and the clip-clopping of horses, as well as their waste, would drive one demented. Strong, earthy smells are good. The old milk floats sounded nice, a bit like Tesla cars today. If not for the noise of vehicles and the smell of leaded petrol and the occasional alarm and the odd radio blaring out Bay City Rollers, the smells of the Seventies probably had more familiarity with fifty or eighty years earlier than in the 2020s. For one thing, cigar smoke and ashtrays and mouldy and leather seats go some way to explain that.
I’ll stop now lest I lose marks for increasing irrelevancy.
Just one more thing. There was an article on Unherd recently about the New Town of a concrete city next to Glasgow that’s earmarked, I think, for destruction. It was meant to be the new and fancy way of living. If I recall from the article, it was opened by some grand person, lady it was, back in 1967 or thereabouts.

rob monks
rob monks
2 years ago

Another interesting piece