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The Old Urbanism: how cities happened


It may come as no surprise that I am no fan of the so-called “New Urbanism”, especially as it has been defined by Seaside and Ave Maria in Florida. It may be unfair to judge the movement by those early example, but I invite you to visit them on Zillow, RedFin or some other real estate website and investigate the realities of property values.

Seaside was touted at its beginning as cross-cultural and inclusive — words I may be putting in New Urbanist mouths but which I have heard applied to it. The notion that the resident who strolls to the city center for a burger at the Malt Shoppe will be served by a waitperson who lives in the apartment upstairs is ludicrous. Those residents will have come from a single-family detached home on a single-lane residential street that is appraised at something between $1.5 and $2.8 million [i.e., a monthly mortgage payment between $6K and $10K]. Meanwhile that person slinging burgers had better be making a bundle in tips: their second-floor condo is valued at just shy of $1M, with a monthly mortgage of $3.5K. The reality is that everyone staffing the dry cleaner, the bank, or the post office may very well live in a trailer park ten miles down the road. New Urbanism is trickle-down economics. But, remember, these observations are coming from a Marxist.

There is much to recommend a return to the aesthetic of small-town America; what is depicted in films like “The Truman Show” and “Pleasantville” or episodes of “Twilight Zone” that I’ve mentioned in the section here called “Additional Reading and Viewing.” One of the issues inherent in those paradigms is the unapologetic absence of diversity: Seaside or Ave Maria are not places to seek out “the other.” Returning to Smallville will not make America greater; it will simply make it whiter.

Agincourt #3

I invoke the New Urbanist agenda as preface to an idea for the third iteration of an Agincourt exhibit. In retrospect I wonder whether this ten-year-long experiment may not have touched upon at least a few principles of the Old Urbanism — the situation that got us in this fix in the first place.

At 4:oo a.m. today I settled on that topic of urbanism [spellcheck does not like that word] and a revisitation of the early phases of the project and an exploration of the principles that may have underlain it. So imagine if you will an October exhibit titled “The Old Urbanism: how cities happened” and its late 19th and early 20th century context.

Elbert Peets, Werner Hegemann, Charles Mulford Robinson, et al.

Messrs Hegemann and Peets published in 1922 The American Vitruvius: An Architect’s Handbook of Civic Art, a seminal work on civic design in America. Peets had served as an engineer-planner in the U.S. Army during WWI and subsequently expanded his knowledge through a traveling scholarship that allowed him to investigate various European capitals in 1920. His collaboration with Hegemman had begun in 1916 (before our entry to the war) and continued post-1919, resulting in the joint authorship of American Vitruvius.

Charles Mulford Robinson, on the other hand, had died three years prior to the Hegemann-Peets volume. He was untrained academically and entered the field of planning by the side door, through a career in journalism. Robinson had written a guidebook to the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair, a landmark event at the beginning of the City Beautiful movement. On the basis of that work  and the publication in 1901 of The Improvement of Towns and Cities, possibly America’s first guide to city planning. I haven’t investigated what influence, if any, he may have had on Hegemann-Peets.

Insofar as the American Midwest is concerned, Robinson had a more direct influence here, having received commission from St Joseph, Missouri, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Stillwater, Minnesota for planning reports that applied City Beautiful principles to modest communities in Middle America. Proposals for Colorado Spring and as far as Honolulu followed prior to his death in 1917.

Frank Lloyd Wright would never had admitted any knowledge of C. M. Robinson, but his son Lloyd’s design for the Los Angeles Civic Center owes much to Robinson’s influence.

Los Angeles Civic Center proposal / Lloyd Wright, architect

So where does this leave me? It outlines a good deal of required study and analysis: What if any were the ideas that influenced the appearance and growth of America’s smaller towns and cities? And what role might they have played in the creation of Agincourt? Peets, Hegemann, Robinson and a handful of others were not unknown to me throughout these past dozen years; their influence had to have been subliminal.

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