How Do the Critics of Yesteryear Think About Urban Density?
This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of critiques of the modern city appeared. Jane Jacobs’s attack on those intent on redeveloping New York City was the most immediately impactful, loosening the grip of Robert Moses and his followers, but others had a broader influence on practicing architects and planners. As an observer of San Francisco Bay Region’s cities, I wondered if their books from this period would shed light on current issues of adding density in urban contexts.
I started with Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City and Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia, two books that loomed large in the era of Postmodernism. Both approaches the European city through the lens of history, with Rossi stressing the importance of types, seeing cities in themselves as works of architecture, and arguing against function as a generator of form. In considering types, Rossi lights on urban artifacts as valid exceptions to a city’s existing contexts. He points to a “people’s palace” in Padua, a landmark building that has housed a great variety of uses. (So, he asks, where is function?) In all, Rossi doesn’t provide much guidance about adding density, but Tafuri, citing Piranesi, cautions us to use urban artifacts sparingly.
Kevin Lynch’s Good City Form and The Image of the City are addressed to architects and planners. He stresses the need to observe cities over time and to plan incrementally, with an awareness of the past and of the imprecise nature of any intervention. Like Jacobs, but aimed specifically at planners and architects, Lynch argues for a richer texture and a finer grain, noting that modern planning too often fails to achieve them. What he provides are notes and sketches, not a set of principles, and a new vocabulary for describing cities. As a result, “fine grain” quickly entered the developer lexicon, often claimed but less often achieved.
John Habraken’s Supports, Alternative to Mass Housing critique is aimed at urban mass housing, blaming the loss of human scale in cities on the way it denies individual householders the ability to house themselves. This results in top-down planning that “knows best” what households want and fails to engage them. That “knows best” extends from households to neighborhoods to districts, cutting through these levels to deliver housing as a mass product to its captive consumers. He recasts multi-unit housing as ribbons of frameworks, drawing on loft buildings and precedents like Le Corbusier’s Marseilles Block, with housing infill that can be tailored with prefabricated elements.
Thirty years later, in The Structure of the Ordinary, Habraken finds his framework and infill idea present in vernacular and traditional housing. To guide growth effectively, we have to bring form (“the physical order”), place (“the territorial order”), and understanding (“the cultural order”) into play as the raw material with which cities can be made suitable for human life. As part of this, we need to give communities and neighbors the ability to lead development.
Gauging Proportion, Setting Limits
In a series of books, especially Tools for Conviviality, the social critic Ivan Illich offered a more sweeping takedown of what he called “the modern project,” tracing it back to the Enlightenment’s privileging the universal over the local, a move that made gauging proportion and setting difficult limits. As Illich’s biographer, David Cayley, writes,
It was Illich’s view that “all worlds before our own” were shaped by a sense of proportion. There was no individual thing or person able to define itself—everything depended on its other and on “the net of correspondences” in which it was enmeshed. People and place were similarly related—the people’s way of life given by the landscape and natural endowments of that place. Cultures differed, but sharing this “experience of fit” provided its “ethical” standard, insofar as ethics, originally, was nothing other than this ability to discern what is proper to a given setting. This world has now gone, replaced by a reality ruled by contract, choice, and self-determination. The “common sense” by which people discerned what was fitting was washed away, and we now live in “social constellations” to which nothings, “a womb-less world” in which every frontier leads out not to a beyond but only to more of the same.
Illich used the word “conviviality” to describe what a communally shared “experience of fit” among neighbors could achieve: a locally appropriate agreement on proportion and limits.
The word “urbanity” speaks to the pleasures a city affords at whatever densities people find congenial. These densities will vary across a city’s territory and across time in response to the ebb and flow of human activity. When setting density is the question, the answers will be arbitrary or contingent without a shared understanding to guide fit and set limits in terms of proportion as a convivial respect for others. Zoning is a blunt instrument in this regard, and form-mandating legislation “from above” is worse. Both mandate answers to the density question which, to the extent they fail to account for the unforeseen, whether locally or in terms of their implications, immediately push a supposedly worked-out, by-right process back into case by case, defeating the rationale for them that planners and politicians offer.
Planning for Neighborhood Fit
Neighborhoods evolve at different paces. As Lynch points out, even the modern city reflects a search for order to supplement what tradition omitted or no longer affects. Growth increases the pace, coming up against the existing order and its political dimensions. Where the weight of entitlements is lighter, community-based developers experiment with fit at a smaller scale. Interface Studio Architects’ XS House made use of Philadelphia’s building code to fit seven apartments on an 11-by-93-foot lot. (Over-sidewalk air-rights give the top three floors 14 feet.)
Corvidae Coop in Seattle, developed by Frolic Housing with Allied8 Architects, builds on zoning changes in that city that permits up to three units per single-family lot. By combining two lots and using a cohousing approach, with two shared kitchens, the project provides 10 affordable units, including two studios, two cottages, five one-bedrooms, and one two-bedroom.
XS House was a locally commissioned project, while Frolic’s business model seeks to engage owners of existing single-family houses in their redevelopment, keeping them in place with a smaller unit while giving them a return on their investment. Both reflect an interest in helping people in their communities to house themselves albeit at small scale. At a larger scale, the most interesting examples are nonprofit developers committed to neighborhood participation in their multi-unit housing projects planning and design; the building societies of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands identify residents and similarly involve them. The resulting housing has a family resemblance, in that they prioritize communal settings over private ones, and pay attention to the neighbors beyond their property lines. This goes beyond form and fit to improve cross-neighborhood access, for example, or provide shared outdoor amenities.
In the book Missing Middle Housing, Daniel Parolek and Arthur C. Nelson lay out their effort over several decades to bridge in scale between the single-family house and the urban apartment block. The authors, influenced by Postmodernism and New Urbanism, mine the past for examples of how to add to the capacity of downzoned neighborhoods without overwhelming them. They credit Lynch’s student Michael Southworth as a mentoring, pointing to scale, form, and housing type as more important to urbanity and fitting in than density per se. He and Nelson also propose zoning reforms that deliberately limit ways zoning is exploited, needlessly sacrificing urbanity to density. Like the New Urbanists he admires, Parolek looks to tradition for inspiration. Others, including those noted above, aim consciously to evolve these typologies. If zoning is a “language game,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, these parallel efforts are engaged in one. It’s a different game from the often glacial one of entitlements—more creative and more open to local inflection.
Over time, the steady welling up of examples changes the cities around them. What works in Philadelphia, with its unusual lot sizes, will be different from what works in Seattle, but Lynch’s impulse to observe and learn from these changes over time, and Habraken’s and Illich’s faith in the vernacular as the wellspring on which convivial urbanity draws, suggest that fit as a locally aware sense of proportion and limit, acknowledging form, place, and understanding as order, make it possible to answer in the affirmative Christopher Alexander’s essential question: “Does it have life?”