Peterson and Littenberg contrast a Modernist environment of freestanding buildings as ‘objects in space,’ as in Edge Cities like Tyson’s Corner Virginia, Pudong in Shanghai, or Dubai, with buildings as ‘space making objects’ working together to create the rich tapestry of the traditional city. Their comparison between Lower Manhattan and Shanghai’s Pudong, two similar-sized urban centers bounded by water, is most striking.
Whereas Manhattan’s 16th Century pattern of small blocks, narrow streets and street-wall holding buildings has been able to adapt to changing circumstances and maintain the continuity of its urban fabric, Pudong has adopted a pattern of isolated freestanding buildings set in large mega-blocks surrounded by multi-lane highways. The authors see this as a warning, comparing the richness of Manhattan’s streets and blocks with the ‘melancholy emptiness’ of Pudong.
The shaping and design of public spaces within the fabric of the city should be as important as the design of buildings themselves. It is the armature of the urban framework onto which the continuous form of the urban fabric is created. Open space is more than just the voids between buildings, the white on the black figure ground drawing. Figurative urban space can be made from what Michael Dennis calls urban poché, the solid form of space-defining buildings.
The book explores these ideas in three of the authors’ most significant urban design projects; the ‘Roma Interrotta’ competition of 1978; their Les Halles competition in Paris of 1980; and their hauntingly-provocative proposals for Ground Zero in New York after 9/11.
In 1978 a dozen well-regarded architects were invited to participate in an exercise to explore how Nolli’s famous map of Rome could be reimagined. Unlike all the others, including Michael Graves and James Stirling, who indulged in either pattern making or self-promotion of their own buildings, the Colin Rowe/ Peterson team developed a plan for how Rome could have been expanded in Nolli’s manner. They did this by responding to the existing urban fragments on their site, such as the outline of the Circus Maximus or the ancient fortifications.
They proposed new axial relationships with other parts of the city and introduced new cultural references, such as a reinterpretation of the plan of the Rockefeller Center, or Nash’s terraces to parts of their urban design. Their plan remains one of the most intriguing examples of a complex urban form. It is filled with subtle references to obscure case studies and should be a source of endless delight for the cognoscenti.
John G. Ellis AIA RIBA
Les Halles, Paris
The Les Halles plan for Paris took these ideas further by proposing a delicate repair to the damaged fabric of the district following the civic vandalism with the destruction of Baltard’s market halls and the crude insertion of the underground Le Forum shopping mall. The Peterson Littenberg plan proposed a new urban pattern of public squares, courts and small blocks that weaved themselves into the surrounding context, acknowledging the presence of the Bourse and the transept tower of the Saint-Eustache church. Their plan recalls references such as the main courtyard of the Palais Royale or the Climat de France design in Algiers by Fernand Pouillon with its walled urban room.
Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero
Their most interesting plans are those for Lower Manhattan starting with plans commissioned by the City in 1994 for repairing the urban fabric by replacing the West Side Highway with a boulevard and integrating Battery Park City into the Financial District. This study also introduced new public squares as well as identified sites for new residential development.
After 9/11 the Peterson Littenberg team was one of the six finalists for the plans for rebuilding Ground Zero. Their proposal is one of the great ‘might-have-been’ urban designs, a tragic missed opportunity to both repair the city fabric, but also to have created a truly dignified garden of remembrance and a coherent urbanism of towers, blocks, streets and squares.
Their design is worthy of detailed analysis, Colin Rowe referred to it as the struggle between ‘object versus context.’ Not only did they propose reintroducing the original street grid that had been obliterated when the twin towers were built, but also to recreate the iconic forms of the two destroyed towers. In contrast to the inept jumble of forms and vacuous spaces that characterizes what was built, their design would have created one of New York’s great public spaces matching the coherence of the Rockefeller Center. They write poignantly about the dramas involved between a multi-headed group of clients and political leaders, the competing egos amongst the architects and the role of the media.
There are important lessons to be learned from these three projects. One is how urban design and architecture should be taught, regulated and practiced in an integrated manner. Another is the need for strong leadership both at a political level and by city planners.
There are enough good examples both historical and contemporary to learn from where urban design regulation and civic leadership coalesce to deliver coherent urbanism. These include the clarity and simplicity of New York’s 1916 Zoning Ordinances that integrated architecture to urban form through the setback rules related to street widths and street wall heights. This resulted in an architecture that defined the city’s urban form for over 50 years until the era of Lever House and the Seagram Building.
Similarly, Hans Stimmann’s guidelines for the rebuilding of Berlin based on the research of the historic figure ground maps of the city before and after WW2 established the rules for the reconstruction after the Wall came down and the preservation of Berlin’s urban scale and character. Larry Beasley’s leadership in downtown Vancouver BC restricted the number of permitted building types to slender high-rise towers and street-wall holding rowhouses. More recently Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad District demonstrates the benefits of sustainable urbanism with a variety of carefully designed urban spaces from boulevards, streets, courts and crescents.
The book ends with lessons on how cities should be designed and repaired by understanding how they are planned and the multiple ways they are built. According to Peterson and Littenberg, urban fabric is composed of a network of spaces composed of solids and voids, a matrix of blocks, the creation of defined urban spaces, the continuity of the street wall membrane and the design of buildings embedded and entangled in the city form. Case studies range from Rome to Berlin, Chicago, Paris, Barcelona, Turin and their beloved New York. The work and ideas in this book should be required reading in architecture schools and studied by urban designers and city planners for its valuable lessons and insights.