THE ARCHITECTURAL SIDE OF CITY PLANNING
Arthur A. Stoughton
Proceedings of the Seventh National Conference on City Planning. Boston, 1915:121-128.The conference proceedings identifies the author as a member of the American Institute of Architecture from Winnipeg. Manitoba. Stoughton here upholds the goals and methods of the city beautiful movement, clearly reacting against what was by the time he wrote the concept that the proper goal of planning was to create the city efficient.For the last few years we have been so industrious in telling city officials and commissions that city planning does not mean the city beautiful that we have almost persuaded ourselves that this is true. We have been so much concerned with street widths and angles of light and building laws and subsurface structures and areas of courts that the opportunity to discuss beautiful architectural accessories of city planning comes to me as an agreeable surprise. This country is making rapid progress toward fulfilling the scientific requirements of our trade because so much planning is being done in the light of so much highly organized study. It is relatively easy to fix the width of streets and not impossible to tell how far apart to put them in a given case; the books will tell how to orient them and anyone can make a round point or traffic place. There are more and more instances of good street planning in this country because more new districts are being laid out here than elsewhere and we have plenty of competent men to do it, but such good work, with all its merits and its scientific accuracy, leaves the man in the street cold. Only a city planner raves over a fine scheme on paper or made concrete only in walks and curbs and pavements, because he only can visualize its total effect in beauty which may never be fully realized. I have in mind a grand avenue recently constructed in upper New York, 250 feet wide, with all the potentiality of an Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which should have been lined with fine residences, but on which the high property values created justifies nothing short of tenement houses. It is the total effect in beauty which we are to consider briefly.
City planning, being so comprehensive, cannot consider its duty discharged until its street system is given its proper natural and architectural setting or background, is furnished with the necessary fixtures conceived in an artistic spirit and is enriched with objects of sentiment and beauty for the enjoyment of all, such as those the old-world peoples have always loved to place in their streets and open spaces. What would the streets of most European cities be, fine as their buildings are, lacking the fountains and statues and columns, the commemorative tablets and monuments, which speak in various language to the passer-by of patriotism and glory and history of science and art, of the things of the mind, of local pride, of aspirations and moral values, of humor and gayety, of religious faith and of life and death, running the gamut of the emotions, appealing to every sentiment and stirring thoughts in every cranny of the mind? We think of many towns only in terms of their ornamental features, which towns would be uninteresting and bare without them, like an unfurnished house. More than anything else, this furnishing of the streets with objects making a varied appeal--the gathered mementos of the past, the artistic heritage of local and race history and achievement--gives a place a personality' and an intimate and hospitable character.
From earliest times it has been a most natural custom to decorate the highways and public places with memorials. Our minds run back to the avenues of sphinxes, the obelisks and the figures of men and animals, symbolizing the gods of Egypt. Among the Greeks and Romans the votive offerings, the religious figures, the effigies and war memorials and edicules of various kinds added greatly to the interest of the streets. The Romans were, par excellence, the decorators of the public place, their architecture supplying the finest setting possible in the noble colonnades and porticoes, tying all the separate features into a harmonious piece of decoration. The altars and rostra, the statues of emperors and gods, the columns and triumphal arches have each their part in the composition. The fine tradition was followed by the Italians of the Gothic period and of the Renaissance, whose spires and campanili and fountains added a different though no less decorative note. The enrichment of the street picture was not by any means peculiar to the sunny southern countries where the open air is natural, but northern places have held the same custom, and especially in modern times, with expanding resources, they have beautified the setting of their external life. In the smaller ones we have a fountain, a market cross, a wayside shrine, a figure of the local hero or the glorification of the signal event. In the larger ones we have an Arc de l'Etoile, a Fontaine de l'Observatoire, a Pont Alexandre III, an Albert Memorial, a Thames Embankment, a Scott Memorial, a Sièges Allée, a Kaiser William I Monument, a Washington Monument, a Grant Monument, and the like, of too many species to mention even the types.
In the logical development of a town come first the necessaries--the fixtures for lighting, the standards for carrying wires and signboards, mail and fire boxes, the receptacles for waste, benches, shelters and waiting stations, drinking fountains for man and beast, kiosks for vending and advertising, public conveniences, entrances for subsurface structures, bridges and elevated structures. All of these utilities must, of course, be treated decoratively so as to be agreeable in form and to harmonize in scale and character with their surroundings. In many cases the original useful purpose is merged in the decorative, and certain of them, as fountains for instance, exist for the latter only. In the next class may be put such conveniences as ramps and steps, retaining walls, bridge approaches and waterside constructions generally, city gateways, park enclosures, towers for beacons or bells, clocks and sundials, bandstands and pavilions, which present an even more natural appeal for artistic treatment. Then there are all the resources of nature, the plantation of mass and surface, the green of the tapis vert with the glow of the parterre, and the sparkle and tinkle of water. Then come the purely ornamental features, in which art and sentiment join hands to add the highest touch of grace to the street picture, varying in a wide range between the bowlder bearing an inscription and the triumphal arch or the many figured group. Finally, above all there is the embellishment by buildings, private or public, which line the streets or occupy open spaces and make or mar them. This phase of the subject is without the scope of this paper, but I may say that if buildings are to enter into the decorative scheme of the streets, they should at least be visible. It is sad to think how much of the possible effect of fine buildings is never realized on account of our long narrow streets and the rigid adherence to the rectangular block. For buildings as for monuments, a short vista gained by cutting off or turning a street or broadening it into a decorative place is necessary. I come from a place which glories in the possession of several fine avenues 132 feet wide, giving unusual opportunities for architectural effect. One of them is notable as being the longest street in the world. But although running nearly straight for 875 miles, it turns as it crosses another principal avenue and is faced on the latter by a fine building by McKim, Mead & White, which therefore has its full effect. Perhaps I should add in another category those embellishments for which former times give no precedent, which are the most obtrusive and insistent of all and from which the most enlightened society has so far been unable to protect itself--the advertisements. I will say only that the state which finds a remedy for this outrageous evil which renders nugatory all beauty in our streets deserves a reward equal to that of the man who conquers cancer or typhoid.
There are no rules for designing street features other than those applying to works of art in general. The book of suggestions is wide open and the aspect of foreign cities and towns. When we turn its pages we find an astonishing variety in the choice of motive, in treating and in placing. Every problem of treatment and adjustment has its own special conditions and its own best solution by which the object shall be related most agreeably to its purpose and sight and surroundings to give it individuality and distinction. To pass about the grand boulevards and along the great east-and-west axis of Paris--one of our most common mental promenades--gives a most complete exposition of the subject. We see the monument, isolated or adossed, the column and the obelisk, the architectural setting of sculpture, the group and the equestrian statue, the fountain and pool, the triumphal arch and the city gate, the decorative avenue leading up to a monument or building, open places of various sorts, the splendid building enhancing and being enhanced by its surroundings, the careful use of the green of nature, the color of flowers and the flow of water, the variety of effect of changing angles of view, the terraces and balustrades and ramps and bridges. Mr. Mawson has treated the subject so suggestively in his civic art that it would be traversing ground too well covered by him and too well known to you and for which the time fails to discuss details here.
Our cities will scarcely put on the garment of beauty and wear it with an air of ease and accustomedness until our people gain that real culture which shows itself in the appreciation of the fitness of things. Now, even in places where objects of art are set up, we often see glaring and ridiculous contrasts, like a man in full dress with tan shoes or with dirty hands. I have in mind an example of this where, in one of the most fashionably frequented city squares in America, opposite one of our proudest hotels, there is an island decorated with a bronze lamp, specially designed, provided by an art association. The man who operated a switch near by had made himself comfortable by installing against this lamp a dilapidated rocking chair which was kept in countenance by a battery of street cleaners' rubbish cans, brooms, etc., as a permanent furnishing of the spot.
But without this culture and love of beauty for its own sake, and basing our plea on a lower plane, we should accomplish something if we could convince the authorities of the money value of civic art. Just as many foreign products command a high price purely for the element of beauty of design in them, so a beautiful street or square or bridge or building or monument raises the value of real estate in the vicinity, while a city which as a whole is organized on attractive lines draws people and business and enterprises to itself; as its fame is carried far and wide by every chance visitor, and recoups itself directly and indirectly for the outlay many times over. Beauty as an asset convertible into real estate values and tax returns is recognized by most foreign cities, not yet sufficiently by ours. As soon as our people, who are rather fond of dollars, realize this they will, of course, hasten to invest in public art.
We of this country are fortunate in that few monuments have been inflicted upon our cities, and that other fixtures are not of a very permanent nature. Sculpture has developed as rapidly as architecture in the present generation, and we are now for the first time in a position to memorialize great deeds and events by monuments that future generations will not feel like removing to sequestered depths of the parks. Sunset Cox hailing a trolley car on Fourth Avenue, New York, will hardly have any replicas, to mention but one artless object set in high places. Despite the absence of art commissions in many places and of competent committees for the erection of memorials, much better work is being done by reason of the general elevation of intelligence which impels committees to seek expert advice in such matters, and because better talent is available. It is far better to leave our streets and parks bare of everything but the necessaries for a long time than to fill them with meretricious ornaments, debasing rather than elevating taste, setting a low standard preëmpting good sites, as it is practically impossible to dislodge them on the score of bad art once they have dug themselves in. It is well to proceed slowly. All cities and towns, large or small, should be urged to appoint art commissions or at least to secure competent advisers for special occasions, and all such experts should be encouraged to do their whole duty in maintaining the highest standard in civic art.
The placing of works of art with us is especially difficult on account of the paucity of good sites furnished by the gridiron plan, unmitigated by studied modifications or accidental irregularities. Our street system reduces us to the necessity of placing our ornamental features, other than those in parks, against buildings or near them or along the edge of parks facing sidewalks, seen as we pass by, not as we approach along a vista. This may be well enough for small and minor objects, if we have enough of them to spare for inconspicuous places, but the wisdom of grouping these things, whether they be few or many, is generally conceded. For larger schemes and formal arrangements the city planner must create sites and provide vistas for the architect and sculptor and the gardener to use. When we see the marvelous impressiveness and dignity of the Place de la Concorde or the Kaiser Wilhelm Platz, the distinction each gives to a whole city, or the fine effect of many smaller squares which may be simply the widenings of the highway, artfully shaped and treated, it is strange that our new cities, while they are in the making, should not provide such advantages for the future. As traffic places or resting spots for pedestrians, or accents in a general effect, or opportunities for formal embellishment they would be invaluable.
Our planning, or our city growth without plan, has not taken into account the amenities of street life, the chance to pause in the mad rush to get a glimpse of nobler things than trolley cars; to get a new hold on common life by a suggestion of greatness from a monument or of grace from an object of art; to get the uplifting effect of a noble colonnade or tower seen at the end of a vista or to get a refreshment of mind from the greenness of ordered trees or sward. It has sought only to furnish the greatest number of rectangular blocks. It is time for a new idea to replace this one. The city planner and the monumentalist must cooperate in creating sites capable of a decorative setting and of furnishing them suitably as time goes on, as places for the embodiment of the city's sentiments and ideals and taste and for the elevation and distinction of its life. Our inspiration is in the fountain of art; our copybook is the achievements of the past; our teacher the artistic instinct of the ages.
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: email@example.com To Top of Page To Homepage