In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
His younger contemporaries Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier got there first, but Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential American architect in history, finally made the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a Board Member of the Frank Lloyd Wright .Building Conservancy, I am very pleased that the long-awaiting recognition came today in Baku, Azerbaijan. A total of eight works were included, including Unity Temple in Oak Park and Robie House in Chicago.
The inscription of Wright’s work took almost 20 years, twice as long as the effort that saw the San Antonio Missions inscribed four years ago. Two buildings originally proposed, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK and the Marin County Courthouse in California were dropped as the nomination was extensively revised.
The selected sites do reflect Wright’s genius, from his pre-World War I Prairie period that gave us the incomparable Unity Temple and Robie House, through his California textile block houses (represented by the Hollyhock or Barnsdale House) and his mid-century Usonian style that began with the Jacobs I house in Madison Wisconsin.
The inscription also includes both of Wright’s sprawling “schools” – Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, where his apprentices learned for over 20 years.
And of course, Wright’s famous “comeback” building, Fallingwater, is included, where he ditched the idea that he was a 19th century architect and cemented his reputation with a building that not only balances above a waterfall and integrates with the landscape, but becomes a landscape. Wright loved nature and his gift was not simple integrating buildings with nature, but allowing buildings to be inspired by nature, designed by nature, so that they elevated and improved the landscapes they occupied.
Wright’s early apprentice Barry Byrne said Wright only needed to sketch plans and elevations, because he could think in three dimensions. When Ken Burns did that documentary on Wright, even his needling adversary Philip Johnson admitted that Wright could imagine space in a way few mortals can.
The recognition is long overdue, but well deserved. For decades I have said that Unity Temple is one of the best buildings in the world. I lived less than a block from it for a dozen years and my children grew up with it. There is no question in my mind that it belongs in the company of the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat.
Shortly after moving to San Antonio in 2016, I encountered this house just a couple blocks from my apartment. Immediately I was struck by the appearance of a full-on Wrightian Prairie House in the heart of San Antonio.
I posted it on Instagram and was immediately informed that this was the Lawrence T. Wright (no relation) house by George Willis. After a day or two I realized Willis’ name had appeared in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Bringing the Prairie School to Europe. Willis had been a draftsman nearly four years when Byrne arrived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio in 1902.
Willis practiced a few years in California with Myron Hunt and a few more in Dallas before relocating to San Antonio in 1911. Willis is probably best known for his 1928 Milam Building, known as the first fully air-conditioned office building in America. By this time he had adopted the streamlined revival styles of the 1920s, decorating the upper levels of the building’s 21 stories with Spanish Revival terra-cotta.
Willis arrived in San Antonio as a Wrightian, and his houses show the influence up until 1919 or so. Many are attributed to Atlee Ayres, in whose office Willis worked until 1916. Here are a few of the ones we have found:
A couple of years ago I stumbled across this one in Beacon Hill, and I promise you it IS by George Willis and from the same period, c. 1915, even though we haven’t found documentary evidence.
There are a number of other Prairie Style houses that could be from Willis’ time under Ayres or immediately afterwards – here are a few candidates:
By 1919 George Willis has departed from Modernist Prairie style for the revival styles that would dominate the 1920s, as seen in the house below on West Woodlawn in Beacon Hill. A recent article in the Express-News claims that this is the first Spanish Colonial house in San Antonio, and one of the first built with air conditioning.
Willis was a major San Antonio figure by this time, collaborating with Atlee Ayres and Emmett Jackson on such major projects as the Municipal Auditorium and 1926 addition to the Bexar County Courthouse.
Willis worked on the Sunken Garden Theater WPA Project in 1937 with Harvey Smith and Charles Boelhauwe. He continued practicing in San Antonio until his death in 1960 and has left a significant architectural legacy throughout the city.
MAY 2020 UPDATE: A couple of Willis’ postwar works:
Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities. The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning. Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.
San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere. The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill. So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?
The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems. Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis. Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.” In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot. King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:
At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity. We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below. It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre. But it is not intense. It fits in.
Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.
After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago. Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat. The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk. Super intense.
Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before. Better, actually.
So did preservation mean gentrification? Nope. Turns out you are looking at seven units. You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back. What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.
In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area. Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.
There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture. They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification.
Got it? Yes, you heard that right.
Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.
This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported. Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.
It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification. I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts.
Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning.
But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character. Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂
Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified. There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.
This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others. There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not. San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.
As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory. IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.
Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives. The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much. The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.
The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines. Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.
These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years. Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century. Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization. Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.
I have had the good fortune to serve on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Board for the last three years, and this has availed me of several opportunities to tour this great architect’s work.
The living room in Robie House, Chicago, shot by my daughter Felicity.
Everyone in every borough goes to the Met, right?
I was going to write a blog about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, now that I have been on hand to witness its demise on two waterfronts, one saltwater, one freshwater. I spoke to fierce advocates, including a friend who was on the committee that selected the Chicago site south of Soldier Field. I wondered why advocates had not developed a clear vision of what the museum was supposed to be, and I wondered whether lakefront museums designed for international tourists ever really serve the local population. Continue Reading
Nothing to see here, move along, please.
In my last blog, I took the new leaders of historic Oak Park to task for forgetting why the Village is an attractive place and proposing the demolition of three nice old buildings (one of which definitely rates as a landmark) on Madison Street. The proposed demolition is part of a road-bending plan that completely redeveloped several blocks. Continue Reading
Oak Park Avenue in the 1970s
Well I have been back in Oak Park for over half a year now, and it just got listed as the coolest suburb in the Chicago area, in large part for its incredible historic architecture (over two dozen buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright – more than ANYWHERE, and tons more by other Prairie architects) and a rising restaurant and nightlife scene.