Paris was a big idea. The early XIX century French capital was muddy, dark, and unsanitary. Versailles had represented an earlier attempt of the aristocracy to abandon it. Napoleon III set about to change it. By all accounts the tactics used by his main man Haussmann were heavy handed, and Haussmann’s ideas were absolutist, and autocratic. They were also smart ideas. Paris became known as the world’s most beautiful city, the city of love, the city of light, the city of romance. But the process wasn’t chaotic. It was orderly to the point of obsessive compulsion. And today the Parisians have Paris.
A century earlier Madrid was benefitting from the rule of their finest Bourbon King; Carlos III. He became known as the best mayor Madrid ever had. His political philosophy was despotic, but (most of) his ideas were good. Madrid works today and has both the grandeur and the fine grained texture it does in large part because of Carlos III. As a some time resident and frequent visitor to the city I still delight in his enlightened despotism; thank god he didn’t wait for a chaotic, incremental, self organizing solution to Madrid’s problems.
What we are suffering from in the early XXI century is the trauma of the bad ideas of the XX century. In much the same way that generals get caught in the trap of always fighting the last war, urbanists are still fighting against the catastrophe that was urban renewal. Governments have always interfered in grand ways with the development of their most important cities. This has always created an interplay between small scale incremental growth and large scale expansion. The difference between the urban renewal of Springfield in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the “ensanches” of Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao of a century earlier is that the latter were done based on ideas and concepts which worked well, could be adapted, and which would endure, and that the former embodied everything that is the opposite of those qualities.
I would go so far as to say that the American project, the American experiment if you will may need a top-down large scale fix. What if, either due to the limits of fossil energy or climatological risks, or both millions of Americans need to live typologically in a less auto-dependent framework in short order? Carlos III and Baron Haussmann didn’t wait for “market solutions” to the problems of disease and poor sanitation, they knew that their contemporary modes of living were dangerous, unsustainable, and unenlightened. Their decisions to move forward with expensive large scale plans involving the government taking on huge amounts of debt was smart; because it created an infrastructure which can still be used to facilitate modern, robust, healthy lifestyles for the citizens of their respective communities all the while paying back over and over and over and over the initial investment supported by these visionaries.
The problem with XX century urban renewal was one of design. Large scale projects being executed in a time when art and architecture were going through an epoch of crisis were going to reflect that trauma.
During my visit to Montreal last week I visited that city’s archeological museum. The building has a tower whose sole purpose is to be an observation deck. The moronic design of that tower is such that the only door to the platform accesses a tiny space with a pinch point between that and the large, still poorly arranged, main platform in such a way that only a 5 year old can pass through it without great difficulty. Rather than providing some transparent or semi permeable railing on the “viewing” platform, enormous, very opaque, slabs of concrete obstruct the view for anyone under 5′ tall, but the internal access point to the elevator (I used the stairs) is surrounded by glass…which due to the “jersey barrier” deck rails don’t facilitate viewing in bad weather but DO create a hothouse effect which (In 50 degree ambient temperatures!) with even a little sunshine makes waiting for the lift feel like being imprisoned in a hot box.
The primary problem with the urban renewal of the XX century was the XX century, not urban renewal.