There is some debate going around the blogosphere concerning the aesthetics of traditional building designs: start here, go here, but you should keep looking up David Sucher’s City Comforts (he has no answer yet, but I bet he will speak authoritatively). The central question is as compelling as it is poignant: can what we build now be as beautiful as what we inherit from the past?

Much of the discussion concerns modernism (or new brutalism, as my friend Lars called it):

  • big boxes
  • no ornamentation
  • no vision from the urban oligarchies
  • no sidewalk shops
  • (st)architects do not design with respect to the look of the neighborhoods
  • artisans have become expensive
  • cities do not have the power they once had

Some blame corporate capitalism; others the lose of aesthetic sensibilities. It’s hard to argue that new architecture is an improvement. No one praised the new buildings that were put in place of those destroyed by bombing in Germany. Instead everyone gushes over the restoration and reconstruction of lost buildings (like Dresden’s Frauenkirche).

And yet, some of these problems are not new. I have been pouring over Victor Hugo’s travel letters. Hugo is great: he takes great pains to describe how a city looks and feels. Someone described Hunchback of Notre-Dame as a biography of Paris through architecture. I love this reflection that he gives of the small cities nestled up against the Rhine River Valley, giving a sense to how interconnected and vertical they were:

At every turn of the river there appears a group of houses, cité or bourgade. Above each group of homes appears a keep in ruins. The cities and villages, spiked with gables, towers and bells, look like a barbed spire at the place at the base of the mountain from afar.

Looking out to the Munster of Strasbourg, he notes how the buildings around it frame the image of this monster in pink stone: the narrow streets, the high gables, the half-timbered homes. Everything around it lends beauty to the building.

However, Hugo has little positive to say about Mannheim, a city that was quite modern for its time: the prince electors followed good enlightened advice and called for straight streets that intersected at right angles, turning the whole city into a giant grid. Even today, there are coordinates rather than street names. Other writers, like Forster and Cooper, viewed Mannheim with contempt. Even redesigned in the Classical style, Mannheim did not work.

Similarly, the large neo-Classical buildings that the Germans erected in the late nineteenth century are alienating. Not because they are not aesthetic, but because they are these monstrosities that crowd out all life. They are dead space.

None of this clears up the question. Neither “Big Plans” nor independence of design made for beautiful cities. Those places that retained their charm were built piecemeal.

I must admit that I feel that the better preserved/better rebuilt cities are more pleasing. I have many great memories of wandering through small urban streets, almost lost as the buildings close me in, seeing small shops, turning the corner to have a national monument revealed to me. Even the ultramodern tram in Strasbourg is magical in the backdrop of the old houses.


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