Charles Mulford Robinson

Architectural Record 13 (March 1903):233-247)

The headnote to Robinson's earlier essay "Improvement in City Life: Aesthetic Progress," summarizes his impressive activities as a consulting city planner, teacher, and member of municipal boards. Busy as he was with these responsibilities, Robinson continued his journalistic endeavors. He wrote a number of long articles for the Architectural Record describing and commenting on planning studies for Washington, Cleveland, St. Paul, Boston, St. Louis, Harrisburg, and Baltimore, along with more theoretical works concerning such matters as the planning of streets in business districts, the subject of the essay to follow. An editorial note at the end announced "The foregoing article is a chapter from Mr. Robinson's book on "Civic Aesthetics," which will be published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, this spring. Mr. Robinson is recognized as the leading authority on civic art."
Modern civic art, When it has fixed certain definite foci, when it has determined that here shall be the formal entrance to the town by water, there its entrance for those who come by land, and that in such a place its public business shall be transacted; when it has laid down the principle that an open space is desirable at each of these "nerve centres," and that important streets should converge to them--civic art, when it has established these bases and gone so far, is ready to take up the larger and more intricate problem of the "street plan" of the business district. The problem is important, interesting, and difficult. In the anatomy of the city there is no point at which the circulatory demands are so great, so insistent, so impatient, or where failure to provide adequately for them is so injurious. In the existing city there is no portion where it is more difficult to make changes, nor is there any district that has been allowed to grow with so little scientific planning.

In the average town in the United States the broad straight main street of the village has become in fact, as it already is in name, the main thoroughfare of the town. From it the business has overflowed into a series of narrow streets crossing it at right angles, and if one of these be broad, it may extend some distance on it. The arrangement, stretching the business along two sides of an uncompleted triangle, is the most inconvenient possible, involving greatest loss of energy and time. Or the business having found no cross street of especial invitation, may extend equally along a series of them, and then spread over a thoroughfare that, paralleling the main street, connects them. So it will overflow a rectangle, and perhaps a series of these, until there is a large business district tending to the rectangular. In no other equal area is space so precious, or time and distance more important factors, yet to go from any point on one street to any point on one that is parallel, two sides of the triangle must be traversed. Furthermore, the traffic, far larger than had been intended for these streets, doubtless chokes them. Every slowly moving truck impedes every vehicle behind it. The great business houses, barely seen from the mean and narrow thoroughfares, lose their dignity. Rapid transit facilities, crowded on to one or two broad highways, contract these for general traffic, and, so far as it is on the surface, is itself delayed. In London where, thanks to excellent police regulation, the traffic moves with relative celerity, a calculation has been made that "every omnibus and cab that uses the main streets of the `city' and its approaches, is delayed on an average half an hour each day through blocks and partial blocks." Could the money loss of this to passengers in cab and omnibus be estimated, consider what would be the aggregate!

A problem that, for all its difficulty, so urgently invites solution, has not lacked for thought. There are such practical requirements that civic art must have had pressing claims to be heard among them; and yet it is heard, for if the heart of the city be not imposing, if there be here no handsome sites, no stateliness, no majestic thoroughfares, and the convenience of the city's business be not consulted, the modern city has lamentably failed to realize the ends of civic art. The courage with which this hardest of all the problems has been attacked in the world's great cities is one of the most interesting and inspiring, as it is one of the most suggestive, episodes in the history that relates the rise of the new ideal for cities--that ideal born of new conditions and which cannot, therefore, be a fruitless dream.

This essential newness of the problem is well illustrated by one of the most striking attempts that have been made to solve it. On Christmas day in 1857, as a result of preliminary agitation, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria issued a decree addressed to the minister of the interior, requiring that "the enlargement of the inner city of Vienna, for the purpose of its suitable connection with the suburbs, should be undertaken as speedily as possible." It was suggested that the surrounding fortifications and ditches, which are always the great opportunity of the cramped old foreign cities, be removed, and that at the same time there be made adequate provision of sites for a new war office, a city marshal's office, an opera house, imperial archives, a town hall, and the necessary buildings for museums and galleries. The decree required that there be opened a competition for plans for the improvement, the jury to consist of a commission of high officials representing various interests, these commissioners before making the awards, however, to "submit the plans to a committee of specialists appointed by them." Three designs were to be selected for prizes and the premiums were to be 2,000, 1,000 and 500 gold ducats. This was the opportunity the perception and courageous seizure of which has since made Vienna so superb and famous. Eighty-five designs were submitted, and, though none of the premiated plans was literally carried out, they gave suggestions and set the standard for the final scheme. But this, as the decree required, dealt rather with the enlargement of the inner city and its convenient connection with the suburbs than with a remodeling of the district itself. Thirty-five years later, then, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the municipality took up the latter problem, inviting the architects and engineers of the world to compete in the submission of plans for the remodeling of old central Vienna. There were two prizes of 10,000 florins,three of 5,000 and three of 3,000 florins. For "part designs which do not comprise the whole city, but consider only a few questions of the improvement, or means of communication." The jury was composed mainly of professors, leading architects, and engineers, and far off Vienna proved again that she had nothing to learn either as to modern municipal ideals or civic spirit from Berlin or Paris or Rome, or from the hurrying cities of England and America.

The early days of Philadelphia and New York offered exceptional opportunities for a scientific planning of the business districts of communities that, as even then could be foreseen, were destined to become great cities. That the outcome in each case is a failure, an example of what not to do, shows how little progress had yet been made in the physical science of cities. There was, however, consciousness of the problem and its thoughtful consideration. For Philadelphia no less a personage than William Penn made a plan. Its feature was a long series of rectangles that were almost squares, the straight streets unrelieved by curve or diagonal, with two of the streets, which crossed at right angles in a big open space nearly in the middle of the tract, considerably broader than the others. If there was little of art or science about the design, there was enough forethought to appreciate the value of frequent open spaces--for the admission of light and air to a crowded district, for the provision of good building sites on the ground facing the public areas, and for relieving the monotony of the district. Penn's plan shows five such spaces, each half as large again as an ordinary block, in a district only five blocks broad by twenty- two long.... Had the same proportion been secured for the closely built up sections of the city when it extended beyond this district--as the Consolidation Act of 1854 directed should be done--there would have been 280 small parks in the city plan of Philadelphia at the beginning of the twentieth century instead of the 45 that were actually there. But there was not enough public appreciation of the importance of the problem to secure the adoption of even the one redeeming feature of Penn's plan. The straight streets and rectangular blocks, unrelieved by frequent open spaces, extended over the growing city and were adopted as a model by the 30 or more outlying towns and villages that have since been incorporated in it.

When New York came to wrestle with the problem, in 1807, the public held it serious enough to demand the consideration of a formally appointed commission. This laid down--tradition says with a mason's hand seive[sic]--the familiar gridiron plan. The one irregular thoroughfare was Broadway, already a road of too much importance to be molested, and to that happy chance New York owes the only opportunities for civic stateliness of beauty afforded in its street arrangement. Broadway has developed, too, as the great business street, just as the diagonal Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia has become, in spite of its narrowness, a street of shops. If as wisely remarked, "the shop-keepers go where the travel is."

But there are other faults in the rectalineal[sic] plan. Frederick Law Olmsted has put some of them well in saying of the commission's work, "Some two thousand blocks were provided, each theoretically two hundred feet wide, no more, no less; and ever since, if a building site is wanted, whether with a view to a church or a blast furnace, an opera house, or a toy shop, there is, of intention, no better place in one of these blocks than in another. * * * If a proposed cathedral, military depot, great manufacturing enterprise, house of religious seclusion or seat of learning needs a space of ground more than sixty-six yards in extent, from north to south, the system forbids that it shall be built in New York. * * * There is no place in New York where a stately building can be looked up to from base to turret, none where it can even be seen full in the face and all at once taken in by the eye; none where it can be viewed in advantageous perspective. * * * Such distinctive advantage of position as Rome gives St. Peter's, Paris the Madeleine, London, St. Paul's, New York, under her system, gives to nothing." The plan offers the maximum of building area, but the minimum of effect.

Costly failures where there might have been magnificent successes are not confined to the United States. If modern civic art has learned the world over a lesson, if it has been taught to recognize the worth of a street plan for the business district that shall consult convenience of travel and stateliness of result, it has done so by dear experience widely distributed. To devise on paper a plan intelligent and comprehensive required no impossible genius; to secure public appreciation of such a plan required examples not secure only its success but of the failure of simpler plans. In London after the great fire there was presented an opportunity as thrilling as any that America has had. Here in the heart of the world's greatest and richest city, a large district could be replanned. There was a genius who saw the chance and contrived a scheme that would have rendered London superb among the cities of to-day; but the design of Sir Christopher Wrenn[sic] was in advance of the age, and you must seek diligently now to find it in the archives of an Oxford College. Four hundred and thirty-six acres had been burned over; a cathedral and eighty-seven churches were to be rebuilt; a site was to be found for a new exchange and for other public buildings, and of about 14,000 structures, some of which might have stood in the way of a new planning, not one was left.

But London was rebuilt in the old way, and such improvements as have since been made, unsatisfactory as they are, have cost enormously. From 1798 to 1821 ten select committees made reports on particular improvements. In another twenty years, from 1832 to 1851, Parliament appointed eleven or twelve select committees to take into consideration plans for the improvement of London and to advise as to the best means for carrying out the plans. These committees did little more than report on the causes of the crowding--which were obvious enough--and on the difficulty of making changes owing to the great cost. All this was impressing the lesson. At last, however, conditions became so serious that enormous expenses had to be assumed. In the thirty-four years from 1855 to 1889 the metropolitan board of works expended upon street changes and improvements more than fifteen millions sterling. The net cost, after recoupments from the sale of surplus land, exceeded ten millions sterling, while a million and a half pounds more had been paid out by the board in grants to local districts, to aid them in bearing the cost of the smaller street improvements. It was at about the end of this period that the chairman of the improvement committee of the London county council observed that the streets of London measured some 2,000 miles, and that in the thirty years ending with 1889 the board of public works had succeeded, with its great expenditure, in constructing a total length of 15 4/5 miles of new streets, with an average width of sixty feet. He noted this with pride; but those who knew Wrenn's[sic] plan, who recalled how easily it might have been adopted, and its lines extended over the whole metropolitan area as London stretched farther into the country, saw only pathos in his figures, and realized more keenly the value of care in original street planning.

The plan of Sir Christopher Wrenn[sic] for the rebuilding of burned London was in accord with the principles of civic art as they are recognized to-day. Wrenn[sic] was surveyor-general, so that his masterly design took a natural precedence; it was accepted also by the King; and what now seems the mere accident of a lack of ever so little ready money and a desire for haste was allowed to prevent the future splendor and convenience of the great city. The main features of his plan, which well repays study, were to be, going from west to east (1), a circular space at the top of Fleet Street Hill, about on the site of St. Dunstan's Church. From this eight streets were to radiate, the eight to be connected with one another at a suitable distance from the centre by cross streets, these forming an octagon in relation to the circle; (2), a triangular space in full view from Fleet Street Hill. This was to widen toward the east and was to include St. Paul's and Doctors' Commons; (3) an open space in the centre of which should stand, on its old site, the Royal Exchange, and grouped around this space were to be the public buildings. From this space, which was to be the topographical centre, there were to radiate ten streets, each sixty feet wide. Three of these reached directly down to the river, offering from it a noble view of the Exchange. Along the river bank there was to be a broad quay, and opposite London Bridge a large semi- circular space with arterial streets radiating outward. Here and there, where radials of different systems crossed, there were established new open spaces and new centres. The plan showed, in brief, that use of broad straight streets linked together by monumental buildings, that provision of commanding sites for important structures, that use of diagonals, of open areas and of curving streets with their changing viewpoints, which the accepted plans of Paris, of Vienna, and of Washington have now made familiar.

The opportunity was allowed to pass, and all the subsequent and costly changes in the London plan have proved inadequate, because it has been impossible since to devise and carry out a single comprehensive scheme that should bring every part into direct relations with every other. In all street planning there must be regard for the through lines of travel as surely as for the local, and it is these through courses, which scattered improvements fail to benefit to any great extent. The through travel, in its usually heavy volume, demands arterial thoroughfares that shall be wide, uniform in their width, straight, of easy gradiant[sic], and on the direct line between important foci. These requirements alone involve a certain dignity of aspect. To gain the best spectacular results, however, civic art must be mindful also of other factors. Perhaps the most notable of these in the business district is the architectural effect.

The relation between the architecture and the street plan is reciprocal. Each can do so much for the other that while, on the one hand, a street may be opened or widened simply that a monumental structure may be the better seen, on the other hand the precise location of a new street may be determined by the position of existing structures that are prominent, according as they would or would not close the vista of the street, and so enhance its beauty. For civic art does not hold mere distance to be fine. It would set up visible limits, or at least accents, and its ideal would be to proportion the breadth of the thoroughfare to the distance between these limits or main accents. We have seen in this connection how Sir Christopher Wrenn[sic] built up his street plan from the focal points offered by important buildings and then on the minor axes obtained variety of treatment. We may observe also how the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is made a topographical centre whence twelve great streets radiate, and how fully again the method is exemplified in the plan of Washington.

A few years ago there was a project on foot in Brussels to prolong a certain order to establish direct communication between two important points. The utilitarian advantages of the proposed street were overwhelming, but the matter was not decided until that national society of workers for civic art, L'Oeuvre Nationale Belge, had prepared a report on the aesthetic effect. This report showed what view of the Palais de Justice the new street would reveal, what views it would afford of two churches that were on its line, the character of the new view it would open of the Hotel de Ville, and finally what would be the general aspect of the street itself and of the lateral streets as seen from it. The incident is a happy illustration of the many points that civic art would have kept in mind when arranging or changing the street plan of a city's centre.

And there are some other requirements even than these. There is to be considered the general line of frontage, or building line, for this may be set back to widen a narrow street; the erection of porticos[sic] over the walk, the projection and height of balconies and awnings, and finally the regulation of building heights if we would have an imposing thoroughfare. In the European cities, where more frequently than in the United States the central authority pushes new streets through closely built up districts, there are statutes to control all these matters; and though these deal so directly with the architectural aspect of the city that they may be considered more fittingly under that head, it is well to observe here that their special design is to preserve the dignity of the street.

In laying down, then, an ideal street plan, for the business district of a city, there should be first a comprehensive scheme, a skeleton of arterial thoroughfares to provide for the through travel from point to point. These great roads will be direct, broad, straight, and free from heavy grades. At the focal points there will be open spaces, and from these the great streets will radiate. Then, in laying down the precise location of any one of them, we shall note what views it opens, what its accents are, and, if possible, we shall proportion its width to its length or seeming length. On the lateral and minor streets, designed for local traffic, we shall obtain a pleasing variety in the street lines--even if it be only that of sudden regularity. Later on we will safeguard the appearance of the street by building regulations; we may even swerve it a little to preserve an historic or beautiful edifice; and we will take care that if it is to pass upon viaduct or bridge, or if a bridge is to be suspended over it, the majesty and beauty of the street be not destroyed by a hideous structure. In carelessness of civic art, in haste, in wonder at the prowess of modern industrialism and awe of our cunning with iron and steel, we have suffered a hopelessly unaesthetic truss bridge, cheaply made and quickly put together, to become a common and well nigh prevailing type. The marvel is not that iron and steel are used, but that we submit to their use in ugly lines. Suppose, it has been suggested, that under the eaves of Notre Dame in Paris, there were, instead of the graceful sweeps of the arched bridge across the Seine, a couple of truss constructions-like, for example, the bridge by which rich Chicago has permitted State Street to be disfigured. How the aspect not of a street alone, but of Paris, would be changed!

As to focal points--the government buildings, the entrances to the town, by water and by land--these are sure receiving and distributing centres. Wrenn's[sic] plan has suggested the artificial creation of additional and local, foci at convenient points, and the plan of Paris shows how such topographical centres may be located with reference to monumental constructions (as the Arc de Triomphe) that are not in themselves magnets of travel, but the conspicuousness of which is desirable spectacularly. That the creation of such local centres may very greatly enhance the commercial value of certain building sites, in the business districts of cities, is obvious enough. But the importance of the focus can be still further enhanced, so that it becomes more than local.

An interesting example is found in the plan of Dalny, the new city that Russia is building as a Pacific seaport terminal for its Trans-Siberian railroad. The street plan of this entire city was made in the office of the Russian engineers before building was commenced. There are many diagonal arterial thoroughfares, the crossing points of the different systems of radials creating local centres, and in front of the railway station there is a plaza which is an important centre. But in the heart of the town a circular public space has been laid out. Ten long straight streets converge upon it, joined in the circular street that forms the circle's circumference. Built around this, with excellent effect it can be imagined, there are ten structures, each in its separate little block. Yet they include--and it must be remembered that the list was made out in an office, before a house had been put up--buildings of as little individual importance as a private bank (three), a theatre, a club house, a post and telegraph office. Still the aggregate result, the town hall and some government offices being added, locates the heart of the city. It is a valuable suggestion for towns of minor importance, a suggestion to the worth of which the old villages of New England bring a strangely distant evidence in the naturalness with which their most consequential structures gather around the Common in the centre of the village.

But the opportunity for new planning on the scale of Dalny may come only once in a hundred years. Such transformations as have been wrought in Paris and Vienna, such extensive changes of street plan and aspect as Berlin and Rome have brought about, such a magnificent study as has been made for Washington, are possible only under a government that is locally autocratic. Most cities of England, and especially of America, must make their revisions step by step. For this there is no less need of a good general scheme. That every step may count, that every improvement shall bring a little nearer to realization that complete scheme which would be best, there must be a fixed ideal in mind. That is why civic art insists so earnestly on the value of the principles of a general street plan. If we have not these we shall be in danger of widening at great cost a street that comes from nowhere and leads to nothing, that for all its width will be deserted because the through travel takes a route that is more direct; we shall be opening spaces to which there is no convergence of thoroughfares, or we shall make a mockery of "improvement" by choking a corner with criss-cross travel through focusing important streets where there is only a street's width to handle the converging traffic.

That such dangers are before us always, that the problem of the street plan even in the business district is not theoretic, there is abundant proof. Consider the changes that London is making, while this is written, in the widening of the Strand and the opening of the great new thoroughfare from Holborn to the Strand. In New York the administration is having public hearings on the plans for street approaches to the new bridges. In Pittsburg[h] the Architectural Club has lately had a competition of plans "for the improvement of the down town district." In Toronto the like project is under earnest public discussion. In San Francisco it has been seriously taken up. New stations, new bridges, new buildings, and, above all, the growing congestion of an increasing population--so sadly felt where there is no scientific plan of circulation--are forcing these problems ever before us.

When the new charter for Greater New York was prepared, the need of rectifying the street system, and of doing this in accordance with a comprehensive scheme that should not be unduly influenced by local considerations, was felt so keenly that provision was made for a general board of public improvements. An accident of politics composed the first board of incompetent men, and in disgust the board was abolished when the charter was revised. But the need remained, and there came to be demanded even the creation of an expert commission, such as that which was working so successfully for Washington. The problem in its universal application is not, as we have seen, merely that of circulation. The traffic is not alone in clamoring for its solution. It is presented also that adequate building sites may be provided--sites that may be large enough for a great building, sites to which impressiveness of effect belong, and to which there may be noble approaches, sites that can offer a frontage on at least three streets without the necessity of owning half a block.

There is, perhaps, too common a notion that the way to secure comfort and convenience for the travel and to bestow on the business district of a city splendor of appearance is simply to widen streets. As well might one think that the one way to emphasize a word in speaking is to scream it and therein lay the secret of the art of oratory! The error must be clear from what has been said; but to emphasize it we may note that in Paris the Avenue de l'Opera is 120 feet wide and the Rue de Rivoli 100 feet wide, while in London, Holborn, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road are 70 feet broad (and reach for four miles). Regent Street is 80 feet broad and Queen Victoria Street 75 feet. We may ask ourselves how much of the difference in the impressions that these streets make is due to difference of width. As far as appearance goes, the architectural termini and the relative length are always stronger factors. The width demanded by the traffic alone is not, also, to be determined by the traffic's mass. The grade and the speed at which the travel moves must be carefully considered in interpreting the requirements of its volume.

There is, too, something to be said about the choice of the local improvements that are to be undertaken for bettering the urban conditions; There should be remembrance that it is the municipal, rather than the local, condition which it is desired to improve. The committee of the London county council which has this matter in charge states that in preparing its annual recommendations to the council, it "gives the fullest consideration to the requirements of each district and accordingly selects, from all parts of London, such improvements as are most urgently needed and which will be of the greatest advantage to the general through travel." This states the rule precisely.

Now, as to securing the radical street changes that may be required, there are in general five methods of procedure: First, the constructing authority may acquire only those properties the whole or portions of which are actually needed for the new or widened street. This is the method usually adopted by the London county council. Second, there may be acquired more land than is actually needed for the improvement, with a view to the gaining of valuable building sites. This plan is suggested in the quoted decree for the improvement of Vienna. Third, property over a large area through which the improvement passes may be acquired with a view to abolishing a slum district for instance. Examples of this are found in some of the provincial cities of Great Britain, and where large land improvement companies have operated. Fourth, the acquisition of only that property which is to be added to the public way and the levying of an improvement charge upon the adjacent lands. This is a familiar American method. Fifth, a modification of the third scheme to the extent that the acquirements are confined to freehold and long leasehold interests, the short leaseholds being allowed to run out. When the acquirements exceed the needs of the new or widened street itself, there may be important recoupments by the sale of the sites made so much more valuable through the improvements. When the acquirements are not so considerable as to constitute good sites, or when no land is acquired beyond that needed for the street itself, which is pushed ruthlessly through, regardless of the cutting of lots, there may be left along its edges building sites so meagre and fragmentary as to be comparatively worthless. In such case the improvement instead of affording a handsome thoroughfare results only in a dismal collection of the backs of buildings and of patches of vacant land. Such an outcome must be foreseen and guarded against in making the new street.

There is one other consideration to influence sometimes the location of new business thoroughfares, or to add to the estimate of their value. It has been found that often there is no better way to redeem a slum district than by cutting into it a great highway that will be filled with the through travel of a city's industry. Like a stream of pure water cleansing what it touches this tide of traffic, pulsing with the joyousness of the city's life of toil and purpose, when flowing through an idle or suffering district wakes it to larger interests and higher purpose. We have, too, this thing to remember, and it is the especial text of municipal aesthetics. Until there is a good street plan modern civic art can come to little. A Greek sculptor charged his pupil with having richly ornamented a statue because he "knew not how to make it beautiful." Beauty is dependent on a fineness of line, a chastity of form, the lack of which can be atoned for by no ornament that is superimposed, by no added decoration. And this is no more true in sculpture than in the street plan, which is the skeleton of the city, the framework of the structure in the highest and most complex of all the arts--the art of noble city building.

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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