My dear friend and once and future architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Lee Bey wrote a piece today about the “Mistake By the Lake,” a giant Modernist exhibition hall built in 1971 as part of the McCormick Place convention center. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns it, is releasing an RFI (Request for Information) to solicit ideas about its reuse and development.
The refreshing thing about the RFI is the attitude of the owner. As Bey reports:
“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”
That is how you save a building. You don’t put it in a corner and say it has to be this or that and if it can’t be that, it goes. You ask the world for ideas. We are finally reaching a period in history where the ecological and economic costs of demolition are starting to be calculated. Bey starts out noting that no one is proposing demolition because that could cost a significant chunk of the $400 million it needs in rehab. Plus, they are open to an incremental approach, which is what I have been advocating for a certain building here in San Antonio.
I advocated this for our own large Modernist building earlier this year in my blog, specifically detailing the challenges of single-use Modernist projects that need to be approached in a new way. Our own Institute of Texan Cultures is one of our current preservation issues, built three years before McCormick Place. The University of Texas at San Antonio is studying some options over the next nine months, but maybe an RFI is what is needed?
A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.
Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.
A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.
So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.
You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.
They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.
Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!
“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.
And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.
Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.
Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.
The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.
I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.
Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.
The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.
I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.
SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?
But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.
A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.
This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.
Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.
- The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.
UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).
“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”
Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.
There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:
First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:
This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.
The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.
Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.
Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.
His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.
The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.
A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.
But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.
It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)
He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???
Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.
We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.
Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!
February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years:
The main image here is our 1870 Wulff House, now for sale after 47 years of Conservation Society ownership. We maintain all of our properties with regular maintenance and cyclical maintenance for major systems and features like roofs, porches and facades. We need to be good stewards and set an example. This story is not about us.
A year ago I wrote a blog about how preservation laws and agreements were just being ignored. This week the ongoing story of the Whitt Building took another turn when the owners filed a press release (and a lawsuit) against the city for preventing their demolition of the Whitt Building. The Whitt made news back on Memorial Day Weekend when the City briefly ordered demolition of the structure after the roof collapsed a bit more, only to overrule itself when a structural report and the Historic and Design Review Commission held an emergency meeting to save it.
The story really begins in 1990, when prominent local family who owns the restaurant behind the building, bought the structure, which is a landmark in the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. So….they bought a LANDMARK and then left it out in the rain for 30 years, hoping for the worst. The problem is that this particular building has a concrete structure with mad cred, so much so that the roof does not hold the walls together as it does on many other buildings.
The press release has already had an impact the trailing lawsuit likely can’t match, eliciting sympathy for the poor owners of this eyesore.
Which they bought thirty years ago. WHEN IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A LANDMARK FOR FIVE YEARS. You can see why I don’t have any sympathy – this didn’t sneak up on y’all.
But the press release is timed very well – there is another story about a guy who bought the shotgun house next to his own for the purpose of tearing it down so his kids could play in a bigger yard. Unlike the owners above and below, they were not aware that the building was being considered a landmark. Add the Whitt owners’ press release and the pity party gets some legs.
So maybe this year’s theme is not “Mejor perdon que permiso” but “Feel bad for me, look what I caused” or “Pity the Negligent.” Same story at 503 Urban Loop, which I wrote about last time, owned by ANOTHER prominent restaurant family. We got a tour not long ago and the homeless have taken it over and trashed the inside. They have not trashed the structure, but you got the sense that the tour was meant to make you feel bad for the poor owner, as in the Whitt Building press release.
Dude, I’m old. I’ve seen this muck a thousand times before and you can’t tell me this four-by-four 1883 column is going anywhere.
This is called demolition by neglect. The phrase correctly captures the agency involved – it is the owner’s responsibility, and no amount of press releases (or lawsuits) can paper over that.
Meanwhile in the neighborhoods, out-of-town developers are famous for buying up properties and letting nature do their dirty work. This is the second fire at this house which has been laying fallow due to absentee owners.
I have heard building owners explain how hard it is for them to secure their property.
So why is it still their property?
Call me old-fashioned, but I take responsibility for my property and I feel cheated when others get away with doing the opposite.
“Conservation means all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance.”
“Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, its setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.”
This is from the document I consider the northstar of my field, the Burra Charter. While we call it historic preservation in the U.S., I have argued for a dozen years that it is in fact heritage conservation. It is not a set of rules or standards. It is a process.
The process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into its future. The community must determine what is significant, how significant it is, and how it should be conserved and treated in the future. Professionals can help the community do this, but they have to do it or it is worthless.
The quotations above from the Burra Charter illustrate that heritage conservation is a process, and that different types of resources follow different types of rules. The quotation also iterates a concept that we in the United States call integrity but elsewhere is authenticity.
That is because integrity tends to be a mechanistic and formalistic concept that reinforces the primacy of materiality. It doesn’t have to be so. Integrity’s seven aspects include feeling and association and I have been involved in the effort to redefine integrity in order to diversify heritage conservation and preserve the full range of our history.
I am currently Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, part of a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. Our field is still clogged with the remnants of a history that empowered white males to the exclusion of others, and integrity aided and abetted that exclusion.
How do you define the integrity of a building that housed decades of history for a marginalized community? Shouldn’t it in fact illustrate the fact that it survived on the margins of the power structure and economic hegemony? Doesn’t the fact that it lost its cornice or replaced stone with brick in fact define its cultural significance?
Following years of work on this issue, I wrote a paper that became a book chapter published in 2018 that dove fairly deeply into the specific mechanics of integrity and diversity – the bottom line is that the preservation world has much to repair in its relation to the whole of history and the whole of the country. Recognizing the bias in the rules – and those who interpret them – is the first step.
Yesterday I watched a webinar conversation with Moshe Safdie and Balkrishna Doshi, two legendary architects who met in Louis Kahn’s office in the early 1960s. What was fascinating about the discussion was how little it was about “architecture” in terms of form or object. They spent most of the time talking about nature and culture and festivals and journeys.
Safdie noted that in the Abrahamic traditions, paradise is a garden, not a building. Doshi said that if you study nature, it is integrated and sustainable. It reminded me of what Frank Lloyd Wright said about his “organic” architecture – that everything belonged like the fingers on a hand or the branches on a tree.
But the analogy is still form-based at this point. Doshi’s main point was about festivals and culture and how a building is not complete until it is inhabited. That reminded me of Barry Byrne’s declaration that the design of the church was not complete until the priest was at the altar celebrating mass.
Doshi gave the 300-year old example of Maharajah Jai Singh II who built the Jantar Mantar, a series of scalable structures designed to allow people to study the stars and sky. He relished the action encouraged by these structures where a family could go and look at the sky.
Safdie talked about how Crystal Bridges art museum has become a community center for Bentonville. He also lamented the loss of urbanism – noting that in the 1960s it was impossible to think of architecture without urbanism, and today it is the opposite. We are focused on the form, not the process, on the object, not the activity, and on the individual rather than the community.
When I met Doshi in 2008 in Ahmedabad I had a fantastic architectural journey, including the stunning IIM, Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners Building and City Hall, the Adalaj stepwell and of course Doshi’s own work. But there were two sites that struck me not for their design, but their use. The first was the Manek Chowk, a plaza in the center of town that transforms its purpose three times every day, from livestock forage to shopping market to food court. It is a place defined by activities, not architectural forms.
I also happened to be there for Uttarayan, the kite festival where thousands of people go to their rooftops with their fighting kites (the Kite Runner is set in an Afghani version of this festival.) Hearing Doshi talk about festivals yesterday reminded me of this particular one, where the architecture is literally underfoot.
Both architects lamented to erosion of culture and while neither mentioned it, I thought about the radical individualization – atomization, really – occasioned by social media and the intergalactic webernet. Online interactions are the opposite of looking at the stars with your family.
It begins with Nature. People then create culture in and of the natural environment – agriculture, ritual, art and shelter. The essence of culture is in the gathering of people to work, to eat, to gather resources, to study, to play and to sing. Conserving culture is ever conserving place.
Well, it is once again time to win the “I canceled it first” race as the headless response to COVID-19 coronavirus spends its fifth month in the fifty random states of America. Here in Texas we are in a severe situation, outgunned only by Florida, Arizona and Southern California.
Something of this scale has not happened in a century, and a virus this virile and multidextrous has not been seen in modern times. Ebola was tons deadlier, but it killed fast, whereas the novel coronavirus doesn’t even let you know you are spreading it until you have.
Leadership, versed only in the news cycle, has failed badly in response to the longer cycle of the disease. The needless and childish politicization of masks and social distancing has led to the ONLY POSSIBLE OUTCOME it could, and the former USA no longer has the respect of other nations. Pity, perhaps, from a few. Schadenfreude, likely, from the majority.
Recently the Fiesta Commission, in concert with the Mayor, canceled the November Fiesta. Back in March it had been rescheduled from April to November. Now November is gone. The action followed both a spike in cases and hospitalizations, although what it really followed was the news cycle, beginning with an editorial telling the Mayor to do it on Sunday and the cancellation of Austin City Limits and the Texas State Fair. The original decision date was six weeks away.
It is amazing how well things go when you operate with a few basic protocols. Masks. Temperature scans. Sanitizing and hand washing. Over the last ten weeks in my company we have done these things and we have had no spread. Just like Hong Kong and Vietnam and South Korea.
But at the end of the day we are not on lockdown anymore – certain businesses like bars and hotels are being ruined – but you can still hold events, like the farmer’s market where everyone follows the rules and it is pretty much the same density and diversity it was before COVID. We will have to live like this for longer – we could take a cue from the countries that have been doing it for a full generation.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
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.
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: COVID death rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas in the U.S.