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.
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:
A week ago the Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously to designate the Woolworth Building in San Antonio as a State Antiquities Landmark. While no landmark designation can absolutely prevent demolition, this status is significant. More importantly, unlike the earlier designations (National Register and City) this nomination included a detailed discussion of the civil rights history of the site.
The big week began on Tuesday, when the San Antonio Conservation Society, joined by the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, released a compromise plan that would wall off Alamo Plaza and expose the location of the mission’s west wall – while preserving the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings. The event got good coverage in print and television and even radio!
One of the ironies of the decades-old attempt to reveal the site of the western wall is that the northern wall – beneath the Post Office and Gibbs Building – was more significant in the 1836 battle. This is where Santa Anna broke through and this is where commanding officer Lt. Col. Travis fell.
No remains of the western wall survive – not only were the walls destroyed after the 1836 battle, but the Crockett Block buildings have full basements, which eliminates any remnant of 17th century foundations (unless the Franciscans were sinking 14-foot deep footings).
Our plan preserves the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings while adding a large 4-story addition to the rear to achieve the stated goal of a 130,000 square foot museum. We also carve an arcade through the buildings to reveal where the wall was. This provides a “teaser” for the exhibits inside, which can include in the Woolworth site both the Castañeda and Treviño houses along the wall, as well as the Woolworth lunch counter site.
Unlike the Conservation Society’s earlier position, the fences and walls enclosing the plaza are illustrated in this plan. Moreover, the Palace theater facade is removed to allow for a grand entrance to the new museum. This displeases some preservationists.
The Alamo management (the buildings have been owned by the Texas General Land Office since 2015) dismissed our effort to share a vision that includes BOTH a new museum and enclosed plaza AND preserved landmarks. As I said to a reporter following the press conference – you can walk along the line of the wall and when you reach the Woolworth interior, you can turn right and learn about the battle, then turn left and learn about the lunch counter integration.
We have been advocating for the Woolworth Building since 2015 and it was a rewarding week thanks to the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, who participated in both the press conference and the trip to Austin for State Antiquities Landmark designation!
Paper or plastic?
For years we have been offered this choice at the supermarket checkout, and it annoys me. Why can’t I have both? I sometimes reply “Some of each,” which confuses people. But I actually have some need for plastic and some for paper. I’m NOT one or the other.
Our “polarized” 2019 world has been caused by many such false choices – politically and otherwise – between categories that seem to exclude each other. But they don’t. Making the categories more extreme (i.e., you are either Communist or Fascist) makes the duality seem real. It’s not.
Let’s leave the hoary hoardings of the politicalifragilistic to one side and remain in our expertise: architectural history and preservation. 13 years ago in this blog I celebrated a debate which I witnessed several times between modernist Paul Byard and classicist Steven Semes (who is a good friend) on the appropriate way to design additions to historic buildings. Byard, who has since passed away, advocated modernist additions while Semes has written a book arguing for contextual additions. The debate was AWESOME because each speaker was so convincing you actually suspended your own bias and wandered back and forth between the camps.
The debate and the dichotomy struck me yesterday as I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, a late Victorian building with two contemporary additions.
One satisfies the contextualists, and one uses contemporary materials to distinguish itself from the original. Both defer to the original building in scale, massing and setback. If you are sensitive to brick color and the patina of time, both read clearly as additions. I like them BOTH.
SAMA has both MODERNIST and CONTEXTUAL additions. Or perhaps I should say SAMA has BOTH Modernist AND Contextual additions.
BOTH AND is the actual dynamic state of the world. The binaries and categories we use to make sense of this world are intellectual constructs that negate a major physical reality: Time.
A thing now does not equal a thing ten years from now. This is manifest at the quantum level but it is also true up here in the everyday. Styles change, technologies change, and materials age, each at their own rate.
There are continuities, of course, and indeed the task of heritage conservation is about maintaining continuities amid change. To do that job, you need to see things as they are, not as you would have them be. You need to understand BOTH now AND then.
The dynamic nature of experience and existence belies clumsy categorizations. We, and our work, are always in the process of becoming.
I explained this better in my 2012 blog: Categories are your Frenemies.
Recently in San Francisco a house flipper illegally demolished a significant 1936 home by the famous Richard Neutra. Here is some coverage.
Perhaps he expected to be treated like the last lawbreaker, who had demolished a Willis Polk house in the same city and was fined a record $400,000. In that case the flipper paid the fine and quickly made 7 or 8 million on the flip. Price of doing business.
Except our Neutra Exterminator didn’t get a fine – he was told he had to rebuild the house in the same materials just as it was, and then put up a plaque explaining the history of the building and making sure everyone understands that they are looking at a replica.
I’m sure we can find a “property rights” type who would cry for this poor flipper,. but not me. The value of this harsh but entirely equitable judgement is that it discourages the unfortunate tendency of some to “ask forgiveness” rather than ask permission. This approach undercuts the law and rewards lawbreakers. Making someone FIX their lawbreaking actually discourages further lawbreaking.
(By the way, you can always tell a flipper because they SAY that they are going to live in the house with their family. Dead giveaway.)
We have some of this “backwards planning” here in San Antonio. First, we have a structural problem in Planning. Public hearings on planning issues are only held AFTER the applicant has dealt with the city planners and there is a big sign that clearly states that there can be no changes at that point. So public input is rendered worthless.
We have the “ask forgiveness” problem in epidemic proportions. Applicants come before a citizen board with limited experience, plead that they have already invested in their non-permitted scheme, and the board feels sorry for them and grants the permit retroactively. Awful precedent, and everyone is taking it up. It happens at Board of Adjustment all the time – “I didn’t know I needed a permit. Sorry. Can I keep it?”
This also happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which has several new members and it still getting used to its processes and purview.
I guess, technically, we are the Wild West, but planning anarchy is no way to welcome tens of thousands of new residents a year. With a series of political and administrative shifts in our city (and an increase in borrowing costs) it is high time we fixed our backwards planning.
I am on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Planning and Construction at the University of Texas at San Antonio and we had a retreat yesterday. Heavy in the discussion was the fact that many architecture students do not get “real world” training or experience. They emerge especially underschooled in zoning and codes and the permitting process.
Let’s not forget plumbing.
I kinda don’t get it because I used to cover these issues extensively in my Master of Science in Historic Preservation classes. I guess there is an historical tendency for architecture curriculum to focus on designing new buildings.
I want my name in lights! And my tower the tallest!
My friend Stuart Cohen used to introduce my presentation to his class at UIC by saying “75% of all the architectural work you will ever do is on existing buildings.” Add to this the tendency of architectural accreditation to load on course requirements and you have little leeway to help students navigate the actual path of constructing or reconstructing buildings.
Hence the proliferation of “C” level work.
The discussion turned on how both architecture professors and students use “creativity” as the reason they do not study rehabilitation and process. This is a hoary word and a hoarier concept. The implication is that creativity is GREATER or MORE when there are no constraints.
See how much MORE you can do with a blank slate? Like, it must be at least 68% MORE!
The idea is that a blank slate allows more creativity. But it is wrong. Demonstrably wrong. The “Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis” was proved years ago. Look here.
This was designed in an extremely constrained environment. By Frank Lloyd Wright, but still.
In fact, it is LAZIER to start from scratch. Nothing to figure out, just let your mind wander, let your creative juices flow, and you will get…..something like the Libeskind building above where the creative juices just really, really flowed, like flowed. And the mind wandered. And we who confront the building wander as well.
Unless it looks like it is going to crush us, then we walk purposefully away.
In any kind of education there is always a tension between information and practices that must be learned and the mechanism of learning. One does not simply decant information into a vessel. The best kinds of education create a permanent pathway for learning, so that new challenges that were never considered before can be met, not by specific example, but by processes developed and exercised. Not so much gray matter memory as muscle memory.
Baby I’ve been there before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.
My friend Bruce Sheridan has written extensively on how science and art are both underpinned by the same human capacities, and that education must reintegrate art and science. How our brains and even our emotions work reinforces this concept. Creativity does not arise magically from an absence, but robustly from a muscled presence.
So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.
This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old. It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style. This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.
After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.
Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.
What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France. Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.
Huth House, Castroville, 1846.
But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture. If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum. In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV. This is what it looked like:
Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure. All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.
Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.