As I was leaving to visit some of the world’s most treasured landscapes and one of our most beloved cities, I returned to a work I reread every few years for refreshment and inspiration.
Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) (2012) is architect Daniel Solomon‘s call to arms for all of us — architects, planners, politicians, developers, citizens — to understand and care for our cities. In this short collection, Solomon is focused on what makes cities vibrant. What makes cities livable. What makes cities sustainable. What makes for a great city where we would all want to live.
Cities are complex places with innumerable moving parts. The need to find solutions that work in cities is made more urgent by factors such as climate change, justice, and inequality. And there are many voices in the mix. “Like the fifteenth-century’s great voyages of discovery,” Solomon writes, “the twenty-first century’s path to sustainability is a highly competitive sport.”
But Solomon has important things to say. To support sustainability in urban areas, we need to pay more attention to nurturing what Solomon calls “continuous cities.”
While for many cities growth is inevitable, the form that growth takes is not. There are three main ways in which cities can grow, each profoundly different from the others: (1) Cities can sprawl and decentralize; (2) cities can erase themselves and build anew; or (3) cities can regenerate themselves more densely within their own structure.
Forms one and two are lumped together, in Solomon’s description as the Ruptured City, while the third form of growth constitutes the Continuous City. The latter is “the old champion with victories in all the great cities of the world large and small.” There “streets are lined and shaped by city blocks. The blocks in the continuous city are known as perimeter blocks because buildings usually face streets all the way around.” Then Solomon turns to the challenger, “still battling hard despite a record of all defeats and no victories.” The Ruptured City is “where streets and buildings each go their own way without a nod, and blocks, where they exist at all, are freestanding slabs of building. This is the grandchild of the city laid out in ninety-five dogmatic prescriptions in 1943 by Le Corbusier in The Athens Charter.”
In continuous cities, Solomon points out, there is always change.
The continuous city is not a static thing. It changes all the time because that is what living organisms do. But change in the continuous city is evolution, not upheaval; the living honor the dead and make sure that the unborn get to know them. New buildings, new institutions, new technologies in the continuous city don’t rip apart the old and wreck it. They accommodate, they act with respect, and they add vibrant new chapters to history without eradicating it.
I’ve written about Solomon’s book before, most especially when discussing San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains) in Rome. This design — a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini — is both “extraordinary and complex.” Working with a very difficult site and needing to include a number of elements to complete the architectural program, Borramini came up with a design that works and thrills at the same time.
To give you a sense of Solomon’s style and perspective, I’ll leave you with this paragraph about Borramini’s masterpiece.
Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth. But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street. Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out. In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.
Lovers of cities should read Daniel Solomon.
More to come…
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Glasgow image by Pirkko Seitsenpiste from Pixabay.