Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

April 18, 2005 Urban Form in Vienna.

Rebecca and I signed up for a ten-hour membership at an internet café across the street from our hotel. We had to laugh at ourselves. Other people arrive in Vienna on holiday and rush out to drink coffee and eat pastries, or to see the Lippizaner stallions. Not us, we rush out to check our emails and get on the web.

The café had a free book shelf. I love free bookshelves, not because I need books, but because I am intrigued by what lands up there. Most of the books on this one were in German, of course, but a few were in English. One was a science fiction novel that Rebecca turned out to want. Another was a book that I picked up, Carl Schorske’s, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. I left something else in its place; I try to get rid of a book whenever I acquire a new one.

Schorske’s book is a collection of five essays. The one that interested me was on urban form. Entitled “The Ringstrasse, Its Critics, and the Birth of Urban Modernism,” it considered how the form of the city changed in the 19th century as a reflection of economic and technological change at the time. In the 1860s Vienna’s leaders recognized that they no longer needed a 300-meter band of open space surrounding the city to protect against invasion. The political situation had changed, so physical protection wasn’t needed. And military technology had changed; a physical barrier wouldn’t help even if protection were needed. So bit by bit, the city’s leaders reclaimed the land from the army to use for urban growth. Thus the question at hand was how to grow the city.

The debate on which the article focuses is between two leading city planners of the time. Camillo Sitte was from a background in the arts. The other, Otto Wagner, was an architect and engineer who did major road projects before winning a competition to do a plan for the newly-opened region. Sitte wanted to create spaces in what was even then becoming an old fashioned style, focused on creating areas that were pleasant to walk and linger in, small spaces on a human scale where the space itself was a destination and a place to be. He focused on the patterns of medieval urbanism, which he sought to recreate deliberately in a planned environment. In contrast Wagner wanted to orient the space towards efficient movement, with the focus on the Ringstrasse as a transportation axis rather than a space that invited people to linger. Wagner’s approach is what Schorske refers to as urban modernism. The article then focused on the architectural form that followed from these conflicting approaches to urban space – somewhat to my disappointment, as I found the discussion of space itself more interesting.

The dichotomy between these two approaches to urban form added a dimension to my perception of Vienna. Tourists typically spend their time in the Innere Stadt, the neighborhoods inside the old military buffer zone, which grew organically according to medieval land use patterns. The Innere Stadt is delightful to meander through, with carfree plazas and pockets where people can congregate, sitting in cafes, or on benches or ledges. The Ringstrasse marks the edge of that area, and the Wagnerian focus on traffic flow rather than design for pedestrians or community comes through with a vengeance. But the pedestrian orientation is not totally gone from other parts of the city. The area between the Donau Canal and the river itself, where I walked to get to the kite festival, is a newer area, with fairly modern buildings. While the street layout does not wind and twist like the Innere Stadt, there are pockets and squares with the same sense of community. Indeed, they may have even more sense of community, because they are not tourist destinations, they are simply neighborhood squares or pocket parks, filled with local markets and shops.

The dichotomy between Sitte and Wagner also provides a way to articulate much of what is wrong with US urban form. Here, we are totally oriented towards transportation flow. Perhaps the medievals were too – but their traffic was on foot or horse, at a pace compatible with talking to the neighbors and feeling part of the community one passed through. Whereas unlike even modern Vienna, all of our traffic is by car, so we have sacrificed urban amenities even more fully than Wagner did in his vision of an efficient modern city.

Nowadays, with the “urban village” phenomenon in contemporary urban design, we too are attempting to recreate the medieval urban form, or at least some features of it – being able to walk outdoors in something other than a parking lot. But our urban villages seem to be little more than outdoor shopping malls. Pentagon Village in Arlington has at least some element of reality because people do walk from the metro through the “village” to the apartment buildings up the hill. But the area near Clarendon is simply a shopping mall at the street level with an underground parking garage, instead of a shopping mall with parking garages around it. I suppose some people do walk through it to get to the metro, so perhaps it feels real to them. But the stores are just like those in any shopping mall. Independent stores scarcely exist in the US any more, and when they do, they can’t afford the rents in shopping malls. So in all of these areas the only question is which chain stores will move in; there’s no possibility of community businesses opening up.

Ah, my endless and no-doubt-tiresome attempts to diagnose the sources of America’s dreadful cities!

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