design of cities

Edmund Bacon in his book, Design of Cities believes that cities are the result of human will - the visible result of many individual decisions shaped by a particular culture's values and customs. This creation finds form in the city's buildings and its streets, producing impressions and sensations in its inhabitants that further shape the view of their surroundings. For Bacon, harmonious urban forms find their beginnings in "design structures" - elemental ideas that organize and enhance movement of people through spaces.

Cities, for the most part, take decades, even centuries to evolve. Bacon finds that the most successful urban forms develop when each new layer of building is inserted with great care into the existing urban fabric. This respect for existing fabric or design structure reinforces the bonds that tie the community together. It is a philosophy that values the spaces of the city more than the forms of its buildings.

Using historical examples, Bacon demonstrates the power of design structures to shape urban form. In Athens, the facade of the Temple of Hephaestos created a shaft of space that organized the Greek Agora for over 700 years. Similar spatial orders occur in the development of Michaelangelo's Campidoglio, 18th century Paris and Wren's design at Greenwich.

In contrast to these cities, Bacon shows how coherent yet diverse urban forms can result from the grid plans of colonial Greek and New World cities. At Miletus, 500 years of rule by the Greeks and then the Romans, transformed a square grid into a complex series of spaces. In the 18th century, the human quality of Savannah's grid of public spaces and housing blocks was powerful enough to be extended in the same manner over a period of 120 years.

Bacon also describes how new political structures overlaid a new order onto the intimate scale of the medieval city, creating larger urban networks. In the 16th century, Sixtus V used broad avenues to connect distant pilgrimage churches, creating a new symbol of Papal Rome's power. Three hundred years later, the King of England's patronage allowed John Nash to cut a new street through the central core of London. Regent Street led to a new housing development and park on the city's outskirts, creating a fashionable new meeting place for the rising gentry class.

The arrival of the Modern movement in this century dramatically changed the conception of city structure. Buildings were raised onto pilotis above a free-flowing landscape, separate and independent from one another. Le Corbusier's government buildings at Chandigarh and his plan for Paris were beautifully rendered and detailed, but they denied the existing fabric of the city and did not create places for people to interact. When each building asserts its independence from the environment, they are placed in a "thoughtless, arbitrary" manner "without regard to total design principles."

Bacon is hopeful that several new design trends will return the shaping of the urban environment to an involved and comprehensive process. He cites Costa and Niemeyer's work in Brasilia to create new city forms adapted to the movement of the automobile. Burley Griffin's design for Canberra and Bacon's own work in Philadelphia are examples of where the new superscale of fast speeds and long distances are tamed by focusing on the structure of movement. He puts great faith in the tools of comprehensive planning and the process of hypothesis and feedback because they encompass the total picture but are open to change and growth. The power of Bacon's philosophy comes from a simple, time-proven idea: sensitive changes to the urban environment and participation in a continuous process can result in a noble statement of a culture's aspirations.

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december 1999