Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Exile from Main Street: Reconstructing Urban Renewal

Chicago mural. Image Wikipedi
In Chicago, where I grew up, people often said that because they had no mountains, they built their own. The city is undoubtedly one of the world's great architectural metropolises. Its mountain-like skyline of structures is the envy of the world. And for a long time, their notion urban renewal was typical of any modern city: When buildings got old, they tore them down and put up new ones. This was the definition of progress, and it gave the city an opportunity to show the world the depth of its innovation.

But for a few dissenters, it was a nightmare.

A book published not long ago, titled Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, highlighted the tragic aspects of that era. Against the prevailing currents of modernity, many architectural historians fought hard to stop the destruction of Chicago's masterfully designed structures. At the apex of the period, Mr. Nickel, a photographer and preservation activist, died while trying to document architectural elements in Louis Sullivan's breathtaking Stock Exchange building as it was demolished to make way for a new edifice. The tragedy was not in vain - in the wake of the incident, a comprehensive preservationist movement took hold in the city. Some say the decision to re-create the trading floor of the Stock Exchange in a wing of Chicago's Art Institute was a result of the deep-felt guilt for the city's relentless swings of the wrecking ball.

As the movement grew, the city's historic groups took back and restored numerous buildings, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, which had been leased as a college dorm. (Preservationists eventually were able to track down and buy back many of the original priceless chairs and such that had gone missing during the dorm usage stage).

Philadelphia. image Wikipedia.
When I moved to Philadelphia, especially to its Fishtown neighborhood, I quickly learned that not all cities followed the wrecking ball approach to urban development. One thing in particular that seemed different here was something called the gentleman's agreement, a longstanding rule among developers that they would construct no building taller than William Penn's statue atop City Hall. That rule was eventually surpassed to grant Philadelphia membership to the 20th century, and thus allow it a marketable skyline. Thus, it's no irony that Liberty Place One and Two, Philadelphia's first modern skyscrapers, were designed by Helmut Jahn, one of Chicago's premier modern architects. Nor is it odd that Louis Sullivan, a master of finite detail, started his journey here in traditional Philadelphia before moving to the Midwest.

But the preservation of Philadelphia's old historic neighborhoods is often regarded by urban planners as a pivotal time for many American cities. By renovating its dilapidated housing stock, the city challenged the demolition impulse of modernity, and proved that historic preservation could be essential for economic-development, a guiding principle that has kept Philadelphia on a disciplined, measured pace of revival for several decades. It's a likely reason the city remained high on the list of cities with good real-estate investment ratings during the worst of our nation's the economic downturn, when a multitude of overbuilt urban centers faced unprecedented levels of vacancies.

Yet there are always those who will pose challenging theories when it comes to issues as complex as urban renewal. This is nothing new, evidenced by this archaically worded article dated as early as 1965 in The Carolina Times, which calls out the socioeconomic downside of preserving main street. Recently, though, as spelled out in a feature titled History vs. high-risies: An urban debate by Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, the concept of historic preservation is now being reconsidered by some of the least likely minds of the design world, including Rem Koolhaas and Edward Glaeser. Their contention is that rather than helping our cities become rejuvenated, historic preservation is strangling them. They essentially blame our sentimental affection for old buildings for everything from sky-high rents to the economic imbalance developed between the US and China.
Rem Koolhaas's Beijing Skyscrapers. Image: Wikipedia
McCormick Tribune Campus, Chicago. Image: Wikipedia

"The problem is the darn preservationists won't let American cities behave like Shenzhen," says Ms Saffron, satirically summarizing the contrarian view. "Places like Philadelphia are so irrationally attached to their old, low-rise, inefficient row-houses that they protect them with a Byzantine web of preservation laws. The occupants of those fine Society Hill houses are effectively keeping prices high for everyone else, forcing people to seek housing and work in less expensive places."

Her rebuttal puts a gaping hole in their shiny stainless steel argument:

"Even as they decry totalitarian preservationists, both Koolhaas and Glaeser seek to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to cities. Skyscrapers have their place, and Philadelphia could do with a few more. But tall buildings aren't the only way to achieve high density. With 11 people to the acre, Philadelphia holds its own with parts of New York. A neighborhood of tightly packed rowhouses is a far more attractive place to live than one made up of widely spaced high-rises - like Koolhaas' CCTV tower in Beijing, almost a mile from its nearest neighbor."

"I also wonder if Glaeser knows that most of the Philadelphia condo towers built in the boom decade now sit half empty," she contends, "while individual row-houses continue to be built and sold. Or that the city has no shortage of vacant land for affordable new housing."

Philadelphia's greatest asset is its historic ribbon of neighborhoods. The city's revival has been built on solid foundations - form and function, brick and mortar, a true identity. The shiny modern high rises may seem impressive to the eyes of an architect, but are they really the things that make people want to live here? Not in my neighborhood--D.A. DeMers.

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  1. The most efficient building is one that his standing. How much energy is used to tear down a structure? What about all of the particulate matter and toxic fumes that are emitted during demolition? I agree with reuse and restore! I'm working with several teams from IIT right now on the restoration of a historic movie theater on the South Side of Chicago. We're in the planning stages of creating as close to a 24 x 7 center as possible. Learning a lot and seeing that there is a way to blend preservation and sustainability.