Frederick L. Ackerman
Proceedings of the Seventh National Conference on City Planning.
(Boston: National Conference on City Planning, 1915):107-128.
The term "architecture" in connection with city planning brings to the minds of most of us visions of well ordered cities containing elements of beauty, things monumental in character, things decorative. Our group of associated ideas is limited by our experience. We differentiate for example between engineering and architectural conceptions in a very curious way. I do not wish to quibble over these terms. A mere definition is of no consequence. All that I desire to express is that I shall use the term "architecture" in a broader sense than is our custom. I shall use it as an all inclusive term embracing both the utilitarian and the esthetic in our physical environment.
Likewise, for a better mutual understanding, let me surround the term "city planning" with a number of associate ideas. As I conceive the term, city planning is not a series of legislative acts, as so many assume, imposing upon a people a set of conditions to which their lives must be warped into conformity; it is not merely the carrying out of certain theories developed by city planning engineers, and by students of social and economic conditions or of the ideals of the architect. It is not merely the providing for adequate transportation, proper sanitation, better housing or more beautiful surroundings. It is more than all of these. City planning is the act of providing a more adequate physical expression for the composite ideals of groups of people thrown together by social and economic forces in our communities.
Our composite thought, our culture, is expressed in our physical environment through many subtle forces and influences, both conscious and unconscious. City planning is not a substitute for these forces; it is rather a conscious effort to transform our vague ideals of community living into forms which will accurately express such ideals.
So much for the general meaning of the terms. I shall not attempt here to discuss merely the esthetic side of the subject, nor the value of such. I believe most of us have developed beyond the point where it is first necessary that the economic value of beauty be established before its worth may be considered. I believe also that most of us recognize in art that there is a set of values quite apart from any measured by a monetary scale. I shall confine my remarks to the broader phase of architectural expression as already suggested and shall consider the causes which have to do with the character of physical environment.
We all recognize the compound temperamental traits, moral attitudes, artistic styles, literary values, customs, manners, which make the various nations so strikingly different one from another. Through an interweaving of sociological and physical causes too complex to unravel, national cultures have grown up side by side upon every continent. Some subtle influence stamps everything from look of town and countryside to personality of the individual with a peculiar quality. A New England village is a New England village. A Western town is a town with a design and a personality of its own.
Now the expression of all the subtle, complex influences makes itself manifest to us, to a very great degree, through our sense of sight and the inert medium of materials. Natural conditions, such as geographical location and climate, exert influences; but in the main, human agencies work the transformations and make things expressive of ideas. When the expression is phrased in certain forms, it is called "engineering," "architecture," "art."
The term "art" to the American mind suggests a very limited group of associate ideas. For the great part, such ideas relate to ages past and to other peoples. We assume "art" as being synonomous[sic] with "beauty"--a nonessential quality--an expression in no wise intimately related to the conditions surrounding our bread and butter existence
The term should be interpreted in a broader sense, for it is alone through some sort of creative impulse that every subtle phase and variation of a people's composite nature finds an accurate expression.
Does sculpture or painting, or do the "works of art" or even the "monuments of architecture" or our "great feats of engineering" completely and adequately reveal the story of a civilization ? Is it not also in the more prosaic forms of expression that we find the story told with equal accuracy and by the use of terms of more intimate appeal? Our rural homes, our villages, our cities--all that they contain, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, tell the true story--reveal the secrets. Into the great physical composite has been wrought, for the greater part by the unguided hand, all of our hopes, our aspirations and our fears. It is this physical composite which constitutes the real, vital art of a people. It is not the degree of attainment in a single phase alone which should serve as the basis of a true valuation; but rather it is the degree of attainment and the co-relation of all. With this broad interpretation of the term "art" in mind, it may be assumed that art is not so much an expression of a people's concept of beauty as it is a physical expression of their composite ideas, or in other words, their culture.
A language, to be universal must be composed of sounds representing exactly the same associate ideas. So it is with art. Beauty is not a quality of universal appeal, for the basis of valuation depends upon a group of associate ideas rather than upon an intrinsic quality in beauty.
Ideas are expressed through forms, lines and colors in art in the same way that ideas are expressed in language by sound. We are responsive; we understand in exactly the degree that the forms, lines or colors represent or define ideas which we possess. We speak lightly of a "universal art"; that does not now nor will it ever exist until there shall have been a complete standardization of ideas--or cultures. There are in art expressions a certain few elements or phases of more or less universal appeal; to that extent is art universal.
We possess a group of ideas or conceptions which differ in a fundamental way from those of Europe, both past and present. The foundation of our government rests not upon the principle that "Might makes Right," nor upon the principle known as the "Survival of the Fittest," but rather upon another theory known as that of "mutual dependence." It is this latter principle, recognized first by individuals which led men to abandon their body arms, to discard the moat and drawbridge, to destroy the walls of their cities and therefor to substitute parks and rural homes.
The last quarter century in America, in Europe, and at the points where the great nations of Asia have come in contact with the rest of the world, has witnessed a chaotic condition of thought. Literature, art, and the processes of government illustrate this fact. In America, and particularly in Europe, is this true. In Europe it is the old against the new. In America it is the new endeavoring to express itself through vocabularies and forms not only old but foreign as well. Not only in the lives of individuals, as witnessed by our many societies working for better social and economic conditions, but in our governmental institutions do we express an acceptance of the theory of mutual dependence.
We have not as yet developed the political mechanism of democratic government; the present appears principally as a conflict of interests. Yet it seems to me that interwoven in the fabric of our complex social structure there is a definite tendency, so positive in its nature that it can well be termed an ideal. The deeper channels of our thought spring from a source, our conception of democracy, which is as clear and as well defined as were the sources of inspiration which evolved the great civilizations and their architecture of the past. In our effort toward self expression we have been adapting the institutions to the past and in the same way we have endeavored to find an adequate physical expression through the use of old forms, at best possessing but a very limited number of elements of universal appeal.
We speak of our cities as being "typically American"-- suggesting that they are adequately expressive of our day and of our people. Superficially this may be true, but if one looks more deeply into their structure, he finds that they fall far short of being adequately expressive.
A structural element, the steel frame, came into existence but a generation ago; it gave to an individual a power undreamed of before. The old balanced relations of rights and privileges in the ownership of property were completely upset; this element had for an individual a power which made it possible for him to turn his "rights," under the old conditions, into acts detrimental to his neighbors. More than that--the old conditions regarding light and air were based upon an evolution of the idea of "mutual dependence." Suddenly the whole scheme of relations was changed by the multiplication of ground areas; and the previous provision for light within the block, established by tradition and law, was made absolutely inadequate. Individual owners of property, clinging to the traditional relations, asserted themselves against any new laws which would make proper provision for light and air, not because they had ceased to believe in the necessity for the same, but rather and solely because they did not understand that changed structural conditions had developed an entirely new set of relations between individual owners of property. They assumed that the city block could be developed plot by plot; and that the idea of voluntary cooperation and economic laws would solve the problem. They did not realize that voluntary cooperation is an impossibility in such cases; nor that the laws and ordinances restraining the individual were not a set of restrictions but rather simple acts insuring the principle of cooperation in building.
Our physical surroundings result from both a conscious and an unconscious effort. Forces, agencies and ideals go into the crucible of human endeavor and the product is that which we see and feel about us.
The impulse urging on the inventor or the man of science may be well defined; the reasons for, the object to be attained by, and the ultimate effect of the effort may be perfectly clear, yet the first attempts in the search for an adequate physical expression are always crude. These initial, halting steps must of a necessity be taken. Man must have something tangible with which to work. He is blind to the errors of his reasoning until those errors confront him as forms which he can see and feel.
So it is with a people. They likewise are urged on by many complex impulses toward a definite goal; and as with the inventor, if those impulses are to become other than mere aspirations, there must be provided a series of tangible forms to serve as the initial stepping stones of progress these first crude attempts, inadequate though they may be, are absolutely necessary, for it is alone through the struggle for a proper and an adequate expression and the partial successes that the ideal behind an impulse can be kept alive. It is thus that the evolution of a people is insured and augmented.
It is not of value here to discuss the agencies through which other peoples have expressed their composite natures. Our concern is with the agencies in our democracy through which our peculiar culture may find an adequate expression.
If it be true that we have a definite ideal which we have failed to adequately express in our institutions and in our physical surroundings; if it also be true that progress or evolution can only result from a series of tangible expressions of our aspirations or our ideals; then the question arises: What are the elements lacking and how can they be supplied?
Without attempting an analysis of this complex question, I shall assume as a premise that education is the foundation upon which we must build, and also that the educational methods of the present day do not provide a proper foundation. Not until we shall have abandoned our system of "puzzle education" in our schools and introduced a system based upon some such educational philosophy, for example, as advocated by Dr. John Dewey and as carried out by Mr. Wirt in the schools of Gary, Ind., can we hope to provide conditions of the present day which will have a very direct relation to ourselves as individuals. The motive for study must be a knowledge of its value; the knowledge of a need must precede the process of supplying the need. Our whole educational policy has been a sort of memorizing process; few elements in it have been related to the world of today. Our institutions and our physical surroundings are accepted as being the result of natural laws and in themselves quite unrelated to ourselves. Our schools consider things in the abstract only; the application is left to chance. This curious process--for it is a process and little else--has led us to accept as a matter of course the most stupid physical arrangements in our cities, our villages and our rural homes.
In a book, "A Civic Biology," by Mr. George W. Hunter there is presented a method of teaching which is most suggestive. The chapter on "Man's Improvement of his Environment" indicates in a very specific way the possibilities of presenting the subject of physical surroundings, architecture and art to pupils whose previous experience had not provided them with even the most primary concepts concerning such things. This chapter in itself has little directly to do with architecture; it considers methods of improving sanitary conditions and subjects of a similar nature. It would be a simple matter indeed to extend the scope and include a group of subjects which would awaken in the minds of the pupils a keen interest in other phases of their physical environment of equal interest and importance. The beginning of the chapter states that its purpose is "to show how we as individuals may better our home environments, and secondly how we may aid civic authorities in bettering the conditions in the city in which we live." The few phases of this subject touched upon in this chapter cannot fail to awaken a keen interest, but it leaves quite untouched the larger group of ideas upon which town planning rests. This is too complex a subject to discuss in detail here, but I can see the possibility and I entertain the hope that someone will complete that chapter, adding the ideas which will make it clear to the child that there are things of interest for him to consider in our towns and our cities which are of vital interest to his comfort and his well being and which incidentally have to do with architecture and art.
All this may seem like a utopian dream. Why should it? In the public schools of New Jersey, under the direction of Mr. Dana, city planning is being taught, together with other subjects of a similar nature. Leaflet No. 23, issued by the superintendent of the public schools of Newark, illustrates the scope and nature of the work. The subject is made interesting and personal through the use of a local application of general principles. The child is induced to see that his physical surroundings are not, in many cases, adequate, and he is shown how few changes would be required to make them right. The esthetic phase of the subject appears as a resultant, and a more accurate valuation is given to the many elements which constitute our physical environment.
Upon the walls of our schoolhouses we hang only the most noble examples of the art and architecture of the past; we conjure up theories of how the elements of beauty therein contained will somehow elevate the taste of the child from the farm or the crowded spaces within our cities. I doubt whether they do anything of the kind. Under certain conditions, when used as Dr. Haney uses them in his art teaching in the public schools of New York, they become of value and an inspiration, but as used at present in most schools they are almost as inert as the plaster walls upon which they hang; they do not contain elements at all related to the child's life. It would be possible by induction, through the methods suggested by Dr. Dewey, and by starting with simple physical illustrations most intimately related to the child's life, to build up a sympathetic understanding of the meaning of simple forms and by comparison to create a definite ideal of such a nature that when the child went out into the world things would possess a new meaning, and that meaning would be expressed in terms of present day human interest.
It is quite possible through methods of suggestion to create in the minds of the children in urban and rural schools a definite ideal of adequate physical environment. If we were to select from the best examples the world has produced photographs and slides illustrative of adequate physical conditions of a simple, intimate nature, and see to it that the children were made acquainted with such ideas, there would be developed not only a higher ideal, but there would also be provided a very definite conception of the thing which would express that ideal. If in these illustrative examples there were elements of beauty, then beauty would become intimately related to life.
In our universities of higher education, with students thus provided with an educational background, relating forms to living conditions, it would be possible to extend the teaching. Instead of filling the mind with a mass of facts and formulas quite abstract in their nature, again we might by inductive methods and suggestion show how it is that the physical expression of community life results from a multitude of social and community functions; that political methods and processes are the channels through which the community expresses itself in its institutions and in its physical aspects.
If we could demonstrate to the student that his ideal of liberty, when expressed in terms of community life, means a subordination of self-interest; that it is alone through the acceptance of such an idea that he who lives in a community can actually possess in the concrete that liberty which he assumes the Constitution to give him; if we can give up a sufficient number of our theorems and our formulas to find time for such things, then we shall have established the solid foundation upon which city planning must stand if it is to be other than an empty phrase. Why not teach, by illustrated lectures in our universities, the subject of town planning? Why not relate the student's abstract notions of life and the vague ideas he holds to things of actuality? Why not arouse his interest in the processes of government by relating them to the things of a physical nature which he can see and feel? Again would the beauty of the thing assume a new meaning, and art and architecture would become a vital thing related to life.
In the same way in our schools of architecture we have failed to relate the teaching to the forces of our day. We teach the resultant expression of past ideals and past cultures. By some method similar to those already suggested we must add to the training of the architect something which will force upon him the fact that it is not alone through his efforts that a modern architecture may be developed, but rather that he shall be the medium through which the forces shall be accurately expressed.
Our architectural schools have developed a splendid system of logical thought in regard to the subject of plan. All that is lacking is that it should be made more intimate to our present day conditions and we should force home to the architectural student the fact that our communities are primarily social rather than physical structures.
The training of the architect as it is now carried on has to do primarily with adequacy. Notwithstanding the criticisms directed at our schools, which criticisms result from the nature of the materials presented in our school exhibitions, there is clearly to be observed a very serious attempt, in the study of plan arrangement, to make form follow function in a logical way. Most of the time spent in study is devoted to the work of reasoning from a premise--the program--and the object of that reasoning is to find an adequate physical envelope for a set of stated conditions.
For us to assume that the school can evolve a new art, that it can bring about the evolution of new forms, or for us to further assume that it is the architect who can evolve for us a modern architecture is absurd. Architecture is not alone for the school, the university, the office or the studio; it is the resultant of endless varying impulses acting through those who design and those who fabricate.
I will say but a word regarding the function of the architect in the work of developing our cities. The work of the architect of today is complex indeed; the greater part of his effort centers about single problems, but the principles which he applies to their solution are subject to the broadest application. He is a coordinator of many things, and his constant study of bringing things into harmony and proper arrangement enables him to render a service in the field of city planning which no other individual is now trained to render. To him in many cases facts and figures are not necessary. A sort of intuitive judgment in the application of the principles of planning enables him to vision rather than to calculate the forms which will adequately express.
If the architect is to render the greatest possible service in the work of city planning, two things are of fundamental importance: he must assume the great responsibility imposed upon him by his training, his knowledge and his citizenship. It is also of equal importance that his ability;' and his fitness to perform certain functions be recognized and given a proper valuation. His point of view must be recognized in the development of the program and something of his visions must be included in the solution of the problem. As I view the situation from the standpoint of the architect, the object is to provide an adequate and a proper envelope for a set of reasonable conditions rather than to require of him, as we do now, that he attempt to render pleasing a set of conditions the very nature of which prohibits absolutely such a possibility.
It was but a few years ago that we recognized the serious state of affairs existing within our cities, and when we first endeavored to call them to the attention of the people, we turned for our inspiration to the cities of Europe. We were rather hasty in our choice of material by which we hoped to arouse an interest in the work of city planning, and we selected elements related to the esthetic side of city planning in the hope that these would awaken a general interest in the more serious side of the subject. Our first appeal was expressed in the advocacy of the "City Beautiful." In this we failed. The people had not developed to a point where such considerations seemed pertinent, nor did this phase appear to them to have anything whatever to do with their more fundamental ideals concerning living conditions. That the esthetic had a definite economic value in a community was not easily demonstrated, for the simple reason that the mind was working along other directions. A little later, however, when we had gone into the subject more deeply and when we approached the problem from the standpoint of social and economic values, considering such subjects as housing, sanitation, congestion, etc., there was a response. This response resulted not from the fact that the new proposition was more easily demonstrated, but rather from the fact that in our argument the people recognized that there was an intimate relation between our effort and their ideals of individual rights and liberty and adequate physical environment.
I recognize that I have offered little of a definite nature concerning the architectural side of city planning which may be applied with immediate results. I have not dwelt upon the specific contributions of the architect which affect, in a material way, the physical aspect of our cities. I do not ignore that phase of city planning because I deem it of secondary importance; I simply pass it by because I recognize that the time is not yet ripe for such a discussion. The ugliness, the inadequacy of our surroundings are not due to viciousness of character or commercialism, as so many would have it, but to plain ignorance--a chaotic condition of thought which has set up a false standard of values. Our battle--and it is a battle which we must wage--is not so much against a definite or an established order of things as it is against chaos. Chaos is our problem. To go on in an endeavor to express chaos more adequately is about as futile in developing a better civic architecture as is the attempt to sound a bell in a vacuum.
It is for this reason that I say that it is alone through the proper methods of education that we can hope in the future to realize our vision. We may struggle with the problem of the day, and through our effort we may slightly deflect the current of our chaotic progress. But we cannot hope that the generations which follow will find conditions much less chaotic, nor can we hope that they will find the task less difficult unless we follow the current of influence to the source and there establish an educational system which will develop such an interest in our physical environment that things will have an intimate relation to our lives.
When we shall have accomplished this, then it will be possible for those who think in terms wherein utility and beauty are related as cause and effect to use a language in which the symbols of expression will not only have a universal meaning, but will also be related to the impulses of our lives.