The heart of the city – From core to cell

We recently found some bits and pieces of text we wrote in October 2015 – a period that shaped the core ideas for the outset of MMKM. After an invisible life on a local hard disk for nearly 18 months, we recomposed them into a new blog post. Happy reading!

 

The longing for an altered city core is by no means a new given. Even in the early days of the automobile – decades before the car would become an ultra-popular and invasive species that took over modern urban life – well-known architects expressed their love(-hate) relationship with the automobile in various ways. These ambiguous feelings for the personal car resulted in a continuous search for the balance between embracing and repulsing mobility technology.

Villa Stein - de Monzie and Le Corbusier's beloved Voisin automobile, 1927. At the time, both as fresh and modern as could be.

Villa Stein - de Monzie and Le Corbusier's beloved Voisin automobile, 1927. At the time, both as fresh and modern as could be.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, was a big fan of the automobile and its entire automatised industry. The Plan Voisin, the maison Citrohan and the Voiture Maximum are perhaps the best-known direct links between automobiles and the architect. Nevertheless, nearly his entire oeuvre is drenched with a glowing passion for the automobile. The promenade architecturale in Villa Savoye that starts and ends with riding in a personal car; the modernistic high-rise city planning that located traffic in generous wide and straight roads with elevated crossings in order not to slow down its flow; the attempt to unite infrastructure and architecture in one continuous building that meandered the world: shops and housing underneath, a road on top…

Alas, all this wonder and adoration for the automobile and the car industry had a backside. Already in 1933, the attending members of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) discussed the intolerable appropriation of the city by the personal car. They reasoned that the European urban centre was formed by a successive extension of the medieval street pattern and therefore was completely unsuitable to host this new type of traffic. The congress participants argued that the distances between the crossings were too short for the new speed of traffic and therefore formed a threat to the user of the road, resulting in a large quantity of casualties.  An arbitrary grown city would furthermore be very unsuitable to navigate. False representation such as axes or monumental buildings would often impede a fluent traffic management. The solution to these rising problems was bundled in clear guidelines for further city organisation. The resulting Charter of Athens was set-up around one central idea: there should be a clear division of four urban functions: living, working, recreation and traffic. It is obvious that these guidelines are subject to a certain ambiguity. On one hand, they uncovered a new dimension of urbanity in which each individual function can grow and perform unrestrained to its own logic. On the other hand though, the city becomes completely dismantled and resembles the lay-out of a giant machine.
Then war came.

During the reconstruction of European cities that were partially or completely destroyed during the war, new questions raised about the completeness of the Athens Charter. Could one build pleasantly liveable new city centres, suburban expansions or new towns for the baby-boomers by only using the guidelines of the charter? Diverse investigations concerning social planning (MARS group, Giedion, Sert, Léger…) lead to an ill-balanced synthesis in which the initial pre-War charter was revised and humanised at the CIAM congress of 1951. The material expression of a community feeling was added as a primary function of the city and was called ‘the core’ – in the language of Le Corbusier le cœur: the heart . While initially the core was investigated as monumentality to express the community, it swiftly became the expression of the human scale, spontaneity and a synthesis of arts.

Saul Steinberg, Piazza San Marco, Venice (1951). The car-free core par excellence.

Saul Steinberg, Piazza San Marco, Venice (1951). The car-free core par excellence.

The resulting document stated that a core should be a place where the pedestrian could wander freely and therefore should be traffic free. Automobiles should not be able to cross the core, but should be lead around it, or should be parked in the periphery, so their drivers could access the centre by other means of transportation. These measures had one primary preoccupation: the core should above all be a place where people spontaneously meet each other to exchange ideas. It should be a means to liberate the citizen from its passive role as an observer, a listener and a sufferer to an active human being that is again able to participate in society. The core should be a suggestion to move freely again, and be an escape from loneliness and boredom. It should be an atmosphere of participation in a spontaneous and impartial game; a whiff of warm humanity with the possibility for new encounters, generating a renewed urban consciousness.
The heart of a city should be an expression of the collective mentality and spirit of the community, which humanises, shapes, and gives meaning to the city itself. Maybe it is here that things got a bit confusing and implementation got slightly out of hand. The glorious rise of the empire of the affordable car for the masses was still to come. Soon, the collective mentality and spirit of the community pointed out that a car free centre was a violation of citizens' individual freedom...

The sixties at Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples, Italy. The collective spirit of community gives a new expression to public space. It would take until 1994 for the square to become car-free again.

The sixties at Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples, Italy. The collective spirit of community gives a new expression to public space. It would take until 1994 for the square to become car-free again.

By the end of the sixties, the broad consensus in urban planning and architecture was that the presence of the car should be seen as a normal occurrence and should be accepted the same way as audio systems and higher standards of living were accepted as a normal evolution of modernity. Alison and Peter Smithson, who had critiqued CIAM's machine-like approach with their own concept of urban re-identification (a sort of scalable nostalgia for community) by this time were in search of contemporary spatial expressions that reflected modern society. They claimed that until then, we were not able to capture the spirit of our time and did not taste the sweet fruits of the new possibilities brought to us by the recently optimised means because we do not know where to walk and where to ride in our bouncy new clothes and our shiny new cars. They observed that these new means demanded a lower urban density and a larger distance between all things in order to generate a space where it all can happen. The biggest difference with former life, they say, is that modern people seldom walk from one place to another, if the distance is larger than 500 meters. The car does not allow us to see people, houses or even the sky, and thus we experience the city no longer as a continuous entity, but as a series of events. According to the Smithsons, a city that responds to these new life forms is a widespread configuration of comprehensive elements with in-between easy and anonymous ways to move ourselves around. This would lead to an organisation of space that corresponds to the image people have in their minds about the daily urban life.

It is somehow curious to note that it was commonly known that people are not willing to walk more than 7 minutes. But instead of proposing an ancient urban set-up that supports all daily needs and is organised around neighbourhoods within walking distance, growing cities were the longer the more formed around the idea of widening everything up, which made the car indispensable. A lot of American cities are built upon this principle: one storey high, widespread, no clear centre and a main road or even highway passing through. The obligatory possession of a car is clearly noticeable in the fact that American citizens do not even have an identity card. Since everybody owns a car and has thus a driver’s licence, an extra identity document became redundant, or at least quite rare.

Saul Steinberg, Stops for the night (1958).

Saul Steinberg, Stops for the night (1958).

Europe was subject to a variation of the same story. Earle Hitchner wrote a splendid line that stresses the dissimilarity between both continents: "The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.".  European cities are mainly the product of many centuries of evolution and adaptation without (the space for) drastic changes. Their streets used to be a common space that served as a platform for social encounter. Most streets were not designed, but came to existence as a result of everything else around them. They are a direct part of daily life and as a consequence are in origin as complex, capricious and intangible as life itself. Streets are the place of freedom, of changeability and receptiveness while keeping an own character: no two streets are the same. From the end of the sixties on, groups of people started to revolt against the loss of the street as a common place: a battle that is still ongoing. Mainly in the last decade, the street that glances at its original signification is slowly gaining the upper hand. Historical European city centres are increasingly being liberated from motorised traffic: almost every big city started to experiment with its own pedestrian zone, although usually as a monofunctional shopping street.

The traffic road which used to stop at the city gates, and did not bear the name "street", has now invaded the city. The common space of a city, the street, has degenerated into mere traffic space. For this new feature, the street is naturally so unfit that it can only be used with complicated regulations. There is no longer place for a spontaneous encounter, talking, playing, strolling... Every human contact is reduced to an abstract sign; usually a prohibition sign. – Still and text from Jef Cornelis' documentary: "De straat", 1972 (translated)

The traffic road which used to stop at the city gates, and did not bear the name "street", has now invaded the city. The common space of a city, the street, has degenerated into mere traffic space. For this new feature, the street is naturally so unfit that it can only be used with complicated regulations. There is no longer place for a spontaneous encounter, talking, playing, strolling... Every human contact is reduced to an abstract sign; usually a prohibition sign.
– Still and text from Jef Cornelis' documentary: "De straat", 1972 (translated)

The idea of an urban heart that is dedicated to a human scale has been yo-yoing its way through the past century. The current trend is again to reclaim the city by (re)creating spaces where citizens can dwell at their own pace: on foot, by bicycle or by micro-mobility. The main problem is that cities evolve at a much slower rate than vehicles, fashion or technology. They should thus be constructed as a resilient buffer that can cope with the perks of ever evolving modern life. Nevertheless, the idea of a single constant, a resting point within the ever evolving city, does not appear out of thin air. The human scale in its broadest sense probably evolves even slower than the city and will always be a relevant tool to give a spatial expression to humanity.

The core as described in the 1951 report of CIAM VIII has quite a bit in common with the cell as described by MMKM. Although the modernist idea of a rigorous separation between urban functions is absolutely not what we envision, the theoretical approach of the core as distinct human entity is quite appealing: a thought that does not de facto excludes a sense of humanity from the rest of the city. As James Lendall Basford once wrote: new ideas are but gathered fragments from the past...

(Wouter Haspeslagh)