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More of the same

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Mario Chiattone was a Swiss architect who fell in with The Futurists. This is his 1914 Futurist City. He’s showing it’s the future by going for mixed-use superblocks linked by elevated pedestrian walkways on perimeter buildings bordering ground level roads futuristically congested with automobiles. This unit is then repeated X-Y.

A decade later was Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Highrise City (Hochhausstadt) proposal. The arrangement is much like Chiattone’s but minus the sentimentality. Hilbersimer’s project has always had the power to shock and give rise to comments such as “lack of human scale”. Perhaps, but buildings are larger than humans. The Chiattone project may be large in size but, judging by the depicted floor-to-floor heights and the people on the footbridge, it is human in scale whereas the Hilberseimer proposal isn’t human in scale because it’s simply a bad drawing. The sizes of the people, the buildings and the automobiles five storeys below don’t agree. And even the non-agreement is inconsistent. If anything, the buildings look too small but you’d think someone would have noticed in the century since? It doesn’t matter anymore. Weirdly, the traffic in Hilberseimer’s proposal is far less than the roads seem to require. The drawing would have been less misleading if the person with the black pen had stayed away from it. In passing, traffic control must have been a problem in 1868 because that’s when traffic signals were invented in London. However, the first electric traffic lights appeared in 1912. In Salt Lake City, I read. Daylighting in Hilberseimer’s proposal would have been less of a problem than in Chattone’s because those podium blocks have central courtyards and less depth. Those courtyards are probably more akin to lightwells and have car parking rather than gardens. Hilberseimer never said, and the drawings don’t show.

Between these two proposals came Le Corbusier’s 1922 Ville Contemporaine for Paris. To be fair, Le Corbusier didn’t suggest all of Paris be razed and replaced with his office tower module. There were other modules. Here’s two somewhat conflicting impressions of how it would have looked. Seen worse.

I’m showing this next proposal out of sequence because it’s not all that different from the three above. It’s titled Seagram Building, it was produced by Xinue Zhang, and in 2013 for the Intermediate 13 unit at London’s AA School of Architecture. To me at least, it questions the value we place on the non-reproducibility of what we call architecture. If one believes The Seagram Building is an excellent example of whatever it’s supposed to be an excellent example of, then does repetition diminish or enhance that value? Or, putting it another way, if it’s so great then why not multiply the joy? Getting real however, if one believes that buildings are art, then similar conditions of uniqueness apply, reproductions are valued less and copies are infringement. Limited edition prints, whether woodblock or photographic, play it both ways. On the other hand, a single printed copy is never going to work with literature or music so it’s not as if art exists in the physical manifestation. There are fifty known copies of Rodin’s The Thinker.

Fifty years prior yet somehow more futuristically in 1971 was Achizoom’s No Stop City proposing a world where all goods including washing machines, bananas and pools are evenly distributed so that, in effect, there was no need to go anywhere. For once we have a project of repeats that’s not based around transportation and getting from A to B.

Superstudio’s Megaton City proposal from the same year was also not designed around a transportation infrastructure. It simply repeated an artificial (i.e. urban unit) to infinity while, at the same time, repeating a unit of Nature. There were few details but it did show artificial and natural environments complementing each other conceptually as well as physically. Fifty years on, it would’ve been good to have given this some more thought. Ignoring the virtues of replication hasn’t got us far.

Ricardo Bofill’s 1985 Les Echelles du Baroque in Paris is built around some transportation infrastructure but also provides outdoor spaces that, though not rural, are provided as communal amenity space. Between the two shared courtyard spaces is a public pedestrian space. I remember writing in 2018 how the circular place didn’t seem empty even though there was nothing at its centre. Perhaps its because the tilting of the empty centerpiece implies the presence of a force if nothing else?

Wanting to see how far this idea could be taken, I found that Bofill’s implied urban unit at Les Echelles du Baroque adapts well to diagrid superblocks with internal spaces accessible to the public, and communal spaces accessible to each of the three blocks making each superblock. [c.f. The Spaces Between Buildings] It’s not bad. It’s no No Stop City, but perhaps a Ten Minute City.

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There are grander hotels to stay at in Shanghai but it was about January 20 last year and I was staying at the Shanghai Metropolo Hotel designed by Palmer & Tomlinson [now P&T] architects in 1934. It’s a fine building. You enter and the elevators are directly in front, with reception to the left and the excellently sized and proportioned dining room to the right. This is the hotel.

I like how the floor of this dining room is about one meter above the sidewalk outside, making you feel part of the street but minus the passersby eye contact. But what I like most about this building is how it relates to the intersection and its corner. Although not a hotel, the building on the adjacent south corner is identical but hasn’t been renovated to have ducted air conditioning like the hotel. Its interiors are most likely still intact. A third building on the corner diagonally opposite the hotel is similar in both height and shape.

The building on the fourth corner is lower but curves to acknowlege the symmetries already set up on the other three sides. The site behind its facades is currently being redeveloped.

All four buildings acknowledge their corner positions and the intersection in the same way and form something much larger than any of them individually. That something could be what many might call a sense of place. It’s a very functional space though as the various buildings’ drop-offs are lay-bys cutting the corner of the intersection. Drivers reverse in, passengers are discharged, guests are greeted, porters carry luggage. There’s even four trees. There are crosswalks and traffic lights but no overabundance of signage. The lack of marked turning lanes brings a sensibility of shared surface to the intersection. Ricardo Bofill had just died the week before and that perhaps made me think of his Eschelles du Baroque project when I looked out the window.

I thought this hotel building and the space it formed at the front would be a more realistic starting point for another repeatable urban unit proposal with four to an intersection and no fancy geometry this time. As before, there’d be public space to the front and communal private space to the rear while the intersections would be shared space. The building depth would average 20–25 metres. Such a proposal would be small strokes with a big brush, and practically designs itself. A mixed-use urban building repeatable four to a block. The combination of tower and low-rise is essential but their actual use is arbitrary. The result wouldn’t be worlds apart from the Chiattone proposal but it would be more about the intersections than the roads, and without any of Chiattone’s futuristic posturing. Buildings wouldn’t have to be identical but how these urban units were laid out would allow for a variety and (metabolic?) change of buildings within the urban structure. A public transportation system would make it the perfect city.

Or so I thought before I realized I’d just reinvented Barcelona’s Xieample District 170 years after Illdefons Cerdà. The only difference is that my proposal has more accommodation overlooking the intersections. This links to an excellent article on the design and realization of its design and development. I wouldn’t call it Failed Architecture though, even if it didn’t develop exactly as Cerdà had intended.

Eixample’s urban hardware might be resistant to change but Barcelona’s superblock plan that groups nine traditional blocks into a superblock with restricted traffic flow, shows that the urban firmware can be updated to enhance the quality of the living environment. If the European perimeter block uses buildings to separate public from private space and the communal space on the other side, then the superblock idea creates a new shared space between the two and shows there’s still some life in the idea of repeatable urban units.

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