(Dancing) In The Streets

Maiden Lane 1849

A few days ago, I dropped another title into the Summer Reading post. My local library isn’t very big and doesn’t carry most of the books I’ve been looking for, but I’ve been making myself go at least weekly for those previously mentioned chance encounters with books I’ve never heard of.

Brooklyn Bridge promenade

This time, the book WAS correctly shelved, but I hadn’t noticed it before. Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People. With biking on the mind, I thought it might be a good read. Littered with photographs and drawings (most black and white), I read it “on shuffle” for a week or so before actually hunkering down to the written content. His sources and references range from Hemingway to Palladio to Rousseau, his case studies from New York to Tokyo to Verona. It is an extensive review of what makes some streets pleasantly beautiful to walk through and some a near-death experience. It is a persuasive plea to bring back the pedestrian street. Published in 1964 (the binding is falling apart), but still very relevant, if not more so. Here is a summary and some notes of my own. All of the images come from the book, unless otherwise noted.

——–> ON FEET


So many people forget that they can walk, or feel inconvenienced by what is actually the most convenient mode of transportation. While car traffic is a frustration to people going to and coming from work on a daily basis, rush hour filled with honking and stress, people traffic promotes a more civil interaction among “drivers”. It’s healthy, refreshing, and in many cases (in a more urban setting, for example), doesn’t take up much more time.

Kahn Traffic Study

I remember watching My Architect and hearing Louis Kahn’s proposal to build a walkable city center for Philadelphia, where cars would be left OUTSIDE of city limits. As Kahn said, “In the center of town, the streets should become buildings.” He studied traffic movement in Philly (drawing above is from MoMA’s collection) and searched for a way to tame the sea of asphalt. The proposal included a system of viaducts for people and shops (see the section of this post, On Floating”, below), and the cars kept away (with parking “towers” on the perimeter). This is wonderful idea (in the movie, Edmund Bacon makes it clear that he thinks it is idealistic and ridiculous, but his son, and hopefully the viewer, sees that neither is completely true), and not the first of its kind, but, as Rudofsky points out, Americans are in love with their cars (they are “capricious love objects”) and balk at any suggestion that we abandon them.

Bolognese porticoes market canopy in Morocco

And weather, as we see in other countries, can be the “protagonist of design” (sound familiar?).  Porticoes turn streets into shelters from downpours and snowstorms.  A canopy makes unbearable heat less so. Just think of the buildings that flank the Cut, where you can walk inside, outside, or somewhere in between.  This semi-covered space is popular among universities in America and abroad, and cities, and is similar to canopy-covered markets (each shop another arch between columns).  I’d have to say that the canopied street is probably Rudofsky’s favorite “improvement”; it receives the heaviest amount of examples and text in the book, and is discussed at length in not one, but two chapters.  I won’t dedicate too much time to it here (already, this is a lengthy post…), but just mention that it serves as both a cause and effect to many of the types of streets in the section below.


Parisian bridge

Allow me to introduce the pont-maison.  It is a bridge that is also a city street.  Or, perhaps more accurately, a city street that is also a bridge.  In fact, from the bridge, you would hardly be able to tell that the city was discontinuous at that point (except from within the buildings perched on the structure).  Merchants loved it (no cutting corners to avoid a shop), and in some cases, it became a mini city in and of itself (a non-island, self-isolating?).  The idea reminds me of a sort-of two-sided boardwalk, or, in the case of the Old London Bridge, miniature castles on heavy stilts.  It is a fascinating way to generate space where there is none (unless you’re building a more literal floating house…).  Think Gunkanjima.  Think Venice.

floating houses in Perugia Via dellAcquedotto

And if there isn’t any water, that’s all the more reason to build bridges.  Rudofsky calls for the pedestrian version of the overpass (New Jersey breeds the latter like rabbits – why can’t we give a few to people instead of cars?).  Some of the book’s examples are long strips of streets that seem to float in the air, taking generous strides over buildings below to reach higher ground, while others are clustered mini-spans wedged between conglomerated houses.  One is a public flyover of the city, exposed to the same sights and sounds without being immersed in cough-inducing exhaust fumes, while the other is more secluded, a private, compact space that is perpetually transitional, straddling its neighbors, yet can serve as a house of its own.

High Line underbelly

Of course, this makes us think of the High Line, our new favorite example of an elevated street.  Despite the fact that it was written decades before construction began, Streets for People mentions New York’s floating railroads, and that during rush hour, walking is the fastest way to get around the city (though he never puts the two together).  The spaces underneath the High Line have been mentioned (and criticized) quite a lot. Regarding any development of the “underbelly” of the new park (photo found on Flickr), inspiration can perhaps be drawn from Rudofsky’s Italian examples, where the spaces below are programatically and visually linked to the spaces above.

hanging city dweller

All this talk of bridges and elevated streets comes back to one very important theme: people are on top.  We love our cars and have sacrificed plenty for them, but when we are forced to reconcile both vehicular and pedestrian traffic in one space, stacking them, at least the people aren’t forced below.  So not ALL common sense has been lost.  The sketch above is curious, because the proposed city would be entirely raised above the ground, with the exception of cars – it is curious because it would be a lot less complex and a bit less intriguing if everything stayed at ground level, but the cars were forced UNDERground (rather than creating a pseudo-groundplane above the actual groundplane, as the architect here has done).  Unless, of course, you’re working with a preexisting city, such as…

Corbett and Manhattan Corbett and Manhattan II

New York.  Or rather, Delirious New York.  This section of the Streets book, particularly Friedman’s sketch, reminded me of a proposed solution to NYC’s traffic problem, by Harvey Wiley Corbett (images from Koolhaas’s book, Delirious New York).  It involved “elevated and arcaded walkways” – creating a new level for people – while, step-by-step, giving up the groundplane to the cars (sacrificial appeasement of the unruly beasts).  It is Venice (again), but with “an ocean of cars”.  Corbett carves away at the existing buildings: the city becomes an active mine of some precious metal they call Public Space.


flooding Piazza Navona

“The love and veneration that great civilizations bestowed on water as a life-giving force are unknown to Americans.”  We buy it by the bottle.  But what of fountains?  Public water fountains are rare, here, and there is an implied “look but don’t touch” sign on most.  Yet, on a hot day, I am thankful that some of my neighbors are wasteful enough to leave their sprinklers on near the street (after the summer NJ has had so far?! what are these people thinking???) so that I can ride through them.  And I have to go five miles out of my usual route to fill up a water bottle at the public library (“How many more times is she going to try to convince us that libraries are wonderful places?”), rather than buy a new one.  Fountains work in plenty of places – they aren’t just for tossing loose change into.  One of my favorite images in the book is the one above.  It isn’t a natural disaster – it is a human solution.  Think Ancient Egypt.  Think of flooding as a solution.  Not only to walk (or ride) through the swollen fountain / submerged piazza – it is an outdoor air-conditioning system.

Fountain of Freedom

Last weekend (for the 4th), my family took a trip down to Princeton (some Revolutionary War history, good ice cream, and places for the puppy to wander about – a good place for Independence Day).  It got hot quickly, and Hampton (dog) was thirsty, so I brought my family to the university’s Fountain of Freedom (in front of Yamasaki’s Robertson Hall). The fountain is a pool (not even two-feet at its deepest), surrounded by trees (and tree-like columns) and air around it cool.  I’m not sure how drinking-safe it is (from the fountain directly, I mean, not the spillover), though Hampton lapped it up happily.  Pleasant place to stop if you’re walking around the town/university.

——–> FINAL (inconclusive) THOUGHTS

Is the architect loved by all, or, like so many other heroes (Batman, etc.), considered a menace?  “There still remains the architect’s role to be assessed in connection with the urban nightmare.  Despite an uninterrupted record of bungled cities, Americans have preserved a touching faith in the practitioners of architecture.”  He quotes Ada Louise Huztable: “Architects never felt the urge to establish ethical precepts for the performance of their profession, as did the medical fraternity.  No equivalent of the Hippocratic oath exists for them.”  Do we need one?  Are architects like journalists, still actually on a quest for truth but with a bad name?  Rudofsky urges architecture students to travel, “and I do not mean what passes today [or TODAY] for travel, but the methodical cultivation of one’s powers of observation and discrimination through exposure to civilizations other than one’s own.”

Sorry for the length.  I’m heading over the the library now to pick up a new book.

So now, what are YOUR thoughts?


2 Responses to “(Dancing) In The Streets”

  1. 2009/07/09 at 10:58 am

    And I forgot to mention stairs…

  2. 2 Richman Neumann
    2009/08/16 at 12:04 am

    The comparison of architects to doctors is fabulously interesting. Today, doctors are hired to interact with, diagnose, operate on, etc. a person’s private property – their body. Architecture could be considered a public service like medicine.

    However, architecture crosses over with art as well, a quality absent in medicine. But just think if medicine operated like architecture!

    A client hires an architect to produce them an inhabitable building meeting criteria A, B, and C (“I need a house for a growing family”, for instance). The architect comes through with a finished design which satisfies the requirements, but beyond which, the details are his decision. Ideally, every building is unique as per the artistic flair of the architect.

    A patient hires a surgeon to produce them an organ meeting criteria A, B, and C (“I need a kidney”, for instance). The surgeon comes through with a functional organ which satisfies the requirements, but beyond which, the details are his decision. Ideally, every organ is unique as per the artistic flair of the surgeon.

    Could this be in the future of bioengineering?

    Just food for thought.

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