Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Visual Order of Cities

One of the arguments Jane Jacobs makes in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities 372-91 (1961), is that "a city cannot be a work of art."  She writes:

When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.  Because this is so, there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities:  A city cannot be a work of art.

We need art, in the arrangements of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illumintate the relationship between the life that each us embodies and the life outside us.  We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity.  However, although art and life are interwoven, they are not the same things.  Confusion between them is, in part, why efforts at city design are so disappointing.  It is important, in arriving at better design strategies and tactics, to clear up this confusion.

To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. 

The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither life nor art.  They are taxidermy.  In its place, taxidermy can be a useful and decent craft.  However, it goes too far when the specimens put on display are exhibitions of dead, stuffed cities.

Jacobs goes on to write that the best approach to civic design is to allow myriad uses and forms to develop organically.  If not, city plans miss out on containing a "living collection of interdependent uses," resulting in a loss of "intricate order--a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans." 

Diversity of land uses and plans makes the world's great cities exciting places in which to work and live.  It will be interesting to observe whether and to what extent "smart codes" ultimately foster it.

Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

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