Our December issue has several essays examining urban transformations in Atlanta, Miami, and elsewhere, and how they have changed the context for making art. We looked in our archives for past analyses of urban life. One of the most intriguing articles, from our November–December 1970 issue, reported on a Minneapolis forum on the overlooked potential of streets to affect the quality of city life. “The street as an arena for activity, for exchange, as a place to rest, to observe, to meet, to play, is seemingly anathema to contemporary planners,” wrote urban-policy specialist Peter Wolf. The street can be more than what’s left after architects and urban planners have finished their designs, he argued. We present his article in full below. —Eds.
If anything in cities is designed, it isn’t the streets. They are merely the spaces generally left by the architect and urban designer to the traffic engineer. The mechanical engineer gets a review privilege, too—because, after all, the urban street is his ventilation shaft, and yours.
For all the talk and money spent on planning and environmental design, the street (vehicle right-of-way plus sidewalks) has been forgotten. To the architect nowadays what is a street? Something to wrap around the base of his monumental building so that people can get to it (secondarily); principally a way of “protecting” his handiwork from visual encroachment, hopefully for all time. To the physical planner what is it? A space requirement that had better take no more than 17.5 percent of all land if the plan is to be declared economically sound. More street space means too much space lost for renting and selling and mortgaging and taxing. To the traffic engineer what is it? A network of traffic lanes designed to anticipate more and larger vehicles. These are connected by a matrix of expensive minicomputers encased in the bottom of immense aluminum lighting poles which the intersection signals and signs-regulators of urban life. (In Miami computers also ring bells at signal changes so that pedestrians are sure to march off the curb in ranks.)
There should be “somebody who cares” in charge. But there isn’t. The street in most cities is under the control of the Department of Traffic. And it, principally, must approve design. The urban street, the one common element of the city used by all, the location of public experience in urban places, and actually the roof over the utility system needed by all, is paved over with as little premeditation as possible. Potential functional groupings of activities along the street, esthetic diversity and/or unification or/and impact (anything will do), recreation and gathering places, and appropriate and diverse circulation channels, are old notions about street-arrangement potential which scarcely enter today’s design process. Almost never do they enter the administrative deliberations and real estate operative’s calculations which truly determine the form, formation and functioning of most parts of most cities.
Last spring some people in Minneapolis began to worry about all this. A two-day event, disguised as a forum, was called by an unusual consortium composed of the Minneapolis Planning and Development Department, the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Walker Art Center. The planning and architecture people wanted to think about programs and planning. The business people wanted to think about business (reversing the declining downtown sales and even improving them). And the art people wanted to think about art, artists and their role in urbanism.
Planning and architecture people invited were: Robert Venturi, the talented and articulate Philadelphia architect (see Art in America, No. Four 1970), who can manipulate social and architectural history with sly intelligence; Walter A. Netsch, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design partner out of Chicago and Baltimore with a lot of urban design and social action under his belt; Philip Johnson, whose crisp grace with structure is mirrored by his glib articulateness; and M. Paul Friedberg, the New York landscape architect.
The art team was represented by James Seawright (New York by way of Mississippi) and Otto Piene (Cambridge, Massachusetts, by way of Germany), who are both involved in the transformation of natural and invisible forces or energies into experienceable entities, or simply experiences; Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, graphic designer from San Francisco who has moved into work of architectonic and urbanistic scale; and Tony Smith, whose experience as an architect for Frank Lloyd Wright has led to a subsequent career in sculpture of large scale and three-dimensional impact.
Hennepin Avenue, a wide “downtown” Minneapolis street specializing in entertainment, drug stores, modest restaurants and the like, was the focus of the two-day event billed as “Hennepin: The Future of an Avenue.” Art Siedenbaum, moderator and Los Angeles Times columnist, sized up Hennepin pretty well as “not bold enough to be seductive; not wrinkled enough to be replaced—a sort of forty-five-year-old courtesan.” A more prosaic description might be a two-story Street with the second floor for rent.
[pq]The impulse was there to think about a street itself, its functions, its responsibilities, its potentialities within the city and as part of the region.[/pq]
A lot was said. People showed their own work about other things for other places; and one or two actually considered Henepin Avenue, the alleged subject of the gathering, as a potential entity for new form, related activities and its role in the astonishingly barren Minneapolis grid, where the best buildings are spectacular nineteenth-century warehouses and the most dramatic design is found in the dockside grain elevators at the nexus of mid-America’s rail network. Nevertheless, the impulse was there to think about a street itself, its functions, its responsibilities, its potentialities within the city and as part of the region. What, after all, could become of our urban streets if recognized as more than nearly similar utility roofs, vehicle ramps and air shafts?
In relation to this question it must be asked: Can the practicing architect even see and hope to function at neighborhood, district, environmental scale? Little evidence in our age suggests that he can. His problem is generally a single structure, and his concern is with its multiple requirements for complete insularity of energy services and interior spaces.
I would suggest that the attitudes of the artist and the sculptor and the urban designer and the people in the neighborhoods be allowed a new and significant role in building and arranging the viewed city, the experienced city, and this is in general the tack taken by most of the participants in the Minneapolis forum. Ideally, the city might be recognized as a place to do more than insert buildings or even arrange works of art en plein air. It might be seen and revealed as a place of immense physical presence extraordinary space complexity formed by intricate planar molulation, arrangement and mass that is super-scale, flagrantly various, and yet intimately related. It might be seen as object, as surfaces, as spaces, that could be transformed through simple techniques like color emphasis, light selection, material modulation, into a heightened and experienceable ambience for urban man, to whom the city is now visually lost in a dismal gray blur of indiscernible sameness as he sees it from the crowded urban street.
Little of this—let’s say—purist attitude toward the city is yet apparent. Groups have formed recently which use city walls as surfaces for their paintings, and city places as spaces to exhibit their sculpture, at least bringing traditional works of art and traditional attitudes toward art as separate object out of the parlor and museum, into the street and into public places.
At Spoleto, occasionally in New York, here and there in Washington and elsewhere, it is possible to experience tentative movement toward heightened exposure to visual arts in the context of the urban street. Sculptors like Calder, Moore and Tony Smith have moved into the gap, working at a scale and with forms that can be appreciated by the moving spectator, even apprehended at the rate of traffic flow through city streets. But most of their pieces are not made for the city; they are simply inserted into it.
Nevertheless, there are a number of encouraging indications that a revised relationship is emerging between the artist and his urban surroundings. In the field of graphic design Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, by making signs of intense clarity on bright color-field surfaces in large planes, is moving off the page into the cityscape. In using the found city as surface she is signaling the potential for enhanced design experience in much that already exists.
A tentative start has been made in exploring the street’s energy as a progenitor of design response, receivable back to city man in a transmuted and heightened form. Otto Piene has begun to consider simple ways to bring joy and delight to individuals in the urban street, using what is already there-people’s presence, their willingness to communicate, varieties of materials and energy sources-all seen and received in new ways. The mingling of objects and events created from the energy of wind, sunlight and the evocative potentials of night and artificial light have stimulated a creative response and strong direction in Piene’s work for the city. James Seawright has begun to make sculptures which are activated by a sound-responsive computer. His sound-activated light-sculptures hold potential to be expanded in scale and to become responsive to energy emissions in the city that affect us all, such as traffic sounds and the shrill of sirens. To display these city sounds visibly, and through energy transformation create receivable impulse as changing forms, could mitigate their effect, or heighten them, in a revelatory return of stimuli.
[pq]Most of their pieces are not made for the city; they are simply inserted into it.[/pq]
Designing streets for specific activity, anticipated or required utilization, desirable variety and future change is seldom recognized as a difficult and fundamental determinant of urban viability. The simplest questions are seldom asked—such as, is this a place to be prepared for diversity of activity over long periods of the day, or for concentration of similar activities at short intervals? The traditional marketplace, for instance, was sufficiently well understood by the nineteenth century so that it could be created to utilize the street, and modify the street to its own purposes as an integral component of the overall design. Thus Les Halles Centrales in Paris, a market of utility and elegance, were conceived by Baltard and Callet with a new kind of street network composed of roofed boulevards and linked pavilions, all serviced by wide thoroughfares suitable to the transport needs of the day, and related to the intensity of demand.
The opposite problem—the required diversity of the pedestrian shopping street in the urban context—is one of the few street design potentials now generally recognized, and receiving significant attention. A schematic arrangement offering pedestrians separation from cars and tight concentration of multiple activities has been called “Stem” by Shadrach Woods, suggesting the potential for growth. A less comprehensive analysis, but one which nevertheless recognizes alternatives in street design related to functional intensity, has been codified recently by traffic people into schematic gradations from ordinary traffic artery with modified sidewalks to closed shopping mall to multi-level vertical street.
Nevertheless, activity centers along streets are rarely designed together, and even less often are appropriate types of transportation provided and inappropriate types excluded. Provision for required special utility systems and freight delivery is almost unknown. Thus, expanding office clusters cause decades of street upheaval to enlarge and extend utility lines; trucking in Manhattan’s garment center renders local streets impassable. Street design related to special uses and integrated with services for anticipated activity is possible, but seldom undertaken.
The street as an arena for activity, for exchange, as a place to rest, to observe, to meet, to play, is seemingly anathema to contemporary planners. Yet recognition that all streets need not be used the same way—and designing for activities as simple as café-sitting or resting in a small park—is possible. An urban street can be more than a means of arriving at a place to spend money or to work. It should be more diverse. What about the twenty-four-hour street, the seven-day-a-week street, the 365-day-a-year street? The eight-hour-a-day/five-day-a-week street provides a conspicuous display of our inherent wastefulness of space, of land, of material, of machinery, of money and of vitality. Most of our urban streets are most of the time deserted, dull, quiet, dark, sometimes dangerous. Why not think through design potential and the design of what exists, why not consider activity cycles, human needs for work places, and provide them in meaningful horizontal and vertical proximity? The urban street could again become the central thread of city organization; the need of private wheeled transportation would be diminished, and the street might be recognized as a needed central element in the life of urban man.