THE PLEASURES OF THE DEMOTIC CITY

THE ROOFSCAPE OF ROME'S HISTORIC CENTER

THE ROOFSCAPE OF ROME’S HISTORIC CENTER

By demotic I mean arising from the individual, everyday actions of ordinary people, motivated by their immediate needs and circumstances and responding intuitively and sometimes creatively to the traditions and patterns of the society in which they find themselves. The pleasures that a city offers reflect both the nature and administration of its underlying framework and the tastes and initiatives of its citizens. They also reflect the relative power and influence of these two realms. Ideally, each is a check to the excesses of the other—and the cityscape is a useful indicator of where this balance stands. (By cityscape, I mean everything that pedestrians can reasonably expect to take in as they walk, including the parts of buildings in public view, the activities they house that are publicly accessible, the adjoining public and semi-public open spaces.) A recent review by the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff discusses one aspect of this. In doing so, he shows how this demotic realm has become a tug-of-war between these two interests, polis and demos.

Atlantic Yards’ public settings

In his critique of the proposed redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, Ouroussoff commented on the weaknesses of its public settings. He bemoaned the city’s abdication of its role as their steward and sponsor, and noted how the architect, Frank Gehry, turned public courtyards into private enclaves, embedded in the complex’s larger mass. This, Ouroussoff wrote, reflects Gehry’s professional “coming of age…during the planning debates of the 1970s, when architects were dismantling the planning formulas of late Modernism in favor of dense urban villages.” Since then, “a growing number of architects, mostly European, have challenged that approach. Rather than splitting sprawling developments into more intimate spaces, they deliberately focus on the collision between the two: between the heroic scale of urban infrastructure and the fine-grained texture of the home.” Ouroussoff speculated that architects of this stripe “might have chosen to create a dialogue between the public zones at ground level” and elements of the surrounding city. He lamented the decision by Bruce Ratner, Atlantic Yards’ developer, not to implement—on grounds of cost—a proposal to cap the roof of the project’s basketball arena with a public garden that “seemingly floating in the skyline, might have evolved into one of New York’s most original public spaces.” He added that “such decisions could well determine whether Atlantic Yards will feel like a privileged enclave or belong to the community as a whole. One imagines what might have been possible if the city had the resources or the will to support such a vision.”[1]

To me, a shift in power from the developer to the city does not fundamentally change the duopoly they both enjoy over projects of this scale. And isn’t this scale itself really the inevitable result of that circumstance? To justify an investment that includes the built-in political diversions that are the developer’s price of entry and the politicians’ main motivation requires a large, intensively redeveloped site. Yet we know from bitter experience how often this formula disappoints. The devil’s bargain that these projects represent fatally compromises the larger community’s ability to shape and influence the citys- cape over time. We experience this here, too, and our cities are less pleasurable in consequence.

Paved with good intentions

In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek noted that socialist regimes always opt for the case-by-case regulation of development, rather than allowing it to be based on rule of law. He argued that the he- gemony of political power that characterizes socialist regimes inevitably breeds corruption. The fact that the money doesn’t directly change hands here doesn’t make its effects any less corrosive. Thanks to case-by-case regulation, an apparatus of scrutiny is now in place in San Francisco that bottlenecks the flow of projects and shifts the owner’s focus primarily to securing entitlements. This has proven to be destructive to the city’s urbanity. While the interest in better design quality shown recently by San Francisco’s Mayor and Planning Director is welcome, it is meaningless without a concomitant willingness to loosen the grip of political power. That means limiting case-by-case assessment and restoring rule of law and the reasonable use of precedent. In his final book, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek pointed to the traditions and patterns that are the real basis of society. A fallacy of socialism is its belief that laws and institutions are the result of conscious design. They are not, he argues; society is self-organizing, and traditions and patterns persist because they are robust in an evolutionary sense. This is not to say that “design” is absent, but rather that so- ciety in all its aspects is the unfolding outcome of different contributions, some from above, many more from below. This flow of ideas from every quarter is the source of the demotic city’s pleasures. The duopoly of power that gives us an Atlantic Yards and its equivalents here produces behemoths, mostly, that even when phased lack the vitality that cities built by other means usually manage to achieve. Ironically, a single owner—Tokyo’s Minoru Mori comes to mind—has more incentive than a duopoly to loosen the frame initially and then work like hell to keep it interesting. In San Francisco, classic build-and-sell developers of large projects have tended toward bulkiness and mediocrity. The Port and Airport, both monopolies, have done better with projects of this scale. True public-private partnerships, like Mission Bay and Yerba Buena Center, have shown mixed results. With culture in the 3 mix, Yerba Buena Center has a better middle block than Mission Bay has a UCSF research campus. Given the decades and millions of dollars expended on these different projects, the results are mixed. There has to be a better way to approach the city’s development.

Restoring the virtuous circle

In a recent article in the Financial Times, the food writer Philippa Davenport commented on the “virtuous circle of producers, chefs, and public” she found in San Francisco. She cited the Ferry Building— its shops, restaurants, and farmers’ markets—as exemplifying a region in which city and countryside have made a common cause of food. “The quality, the imagination, and the innovation are breathtaking,” she wrote.[2] How is it that the food of northern California is so widely and generously celebrated, but contemporary placemaking here is not? Restaurants and markets, chefs, farmers, and the public have managed to join forces around this source of daily pleasure, raising it to a global standard, but our buildings and settings have not experienced a comparable transformation. There are instances when everyone rallies round and the results are good, but urbanity is mostly missing in action.

Anyone who has seen Ostia Antico outside of Rome knows that the press of in-migration to the capital region (as we would call it now) at the height of Roman power led to an urban density—five- story walkups—that looks familiar. That same pressure led to real efforts to achieve a level of public sanitation that is recognizably modern, and to the aqueducts and other monuments of infrastructure. Like the Spanish in reference to their American colonies, the Romans had a clear, almost archetypal sense of what a city should be. One function of the Roman state was to provide this frame, but Roman citizens had a corresponding obligation to defend and enliven it. The whole arc of Roman life was focused on this symbiotic relationship, which posited an active, socially mobile, and above all pleasure- loving existence, rooted in family, friends, the city, and the land. We have no comparably demotic impulse to create a framework that orders the city and yet encourages, even demands that its citizens fill it in—a constant flux of activity within that greater whole. This happens here and there, but it is not yet a guiding idea that would rebalance things.

So how can we begin to realize it in San Francisco? We cook and garden, watching things change from this to that to something else, seeing the rich variation that tradition afford sand how chance and even error can prod a creative response. Part of the pleasure a city affords is its ability to allow for this. It’s what gives the city’s parts and pieces their authenticity, and it argues for a looser frame and for agreements on placemaking that make room for the demotic, establishing patterns that ordinary citizens can activate, both as their right and as a vitally necessary role.

We need a looser frame because there are limits to what that frame can do. So much of what is bad in recent development flows from the hubris of politicians and their planners about what can actually be achieved through regulation. However well-intentioned, what officials think about the design of an entry or of fenestration is really just their opinions, matters of individual taste. That’s not really their business. We expect the city to inspect the food and the kitchens of our restaurants, but not to choose the restaurant’s cuisine or dictate our choices from the menu. Placemaking is no different.

Allowing for a demotic impulse is a way of “cultivating” the cityscape through its buildings and other elements. The roof terraces and substantial balconies of Rome’s historic core create a secondary order of variation that brings the public realm alive and reconnects people to nature, even in the heart of the city. This is an aspect of green design that has gone missing here in new development: the deliberate and fertile expression of human habitation. At Tokyo’s Ark Hills complex, tenants and neighbors pay for the privilege of tending the gardens that are this private development’s public realm. This is a reasonable transaction in a crowded city—one that gives Ark Hills such beauty as it has.

A city is like a river, but we’ve turned ours into a glacier. Too much is fixed that should really be the city’s demotic flux. In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander suggests the presence of life as the way to gauge the rightness of things. That measure of vitality also speaks to the demotic nature of much of the pleasure that a city gives us. We need more of it here. —John Parman

Notes

1. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Skyline for Sale,” New York Times, June 4, 2006. He uses the term “late Modernism” here to describe the Modernism of the seventies, but this has also been used to describe Modernism’s revival in the late 1990s. So which is it? Perhaps we should rename the latter “neo-modernism” or even “modernist revival.”
2. Philippa Davenport, “America’s golden state enjoys its salad daze,” Financial Times, July 1/2, 2006.

Written in September and October 2006 and published in LINE’s “Pleasure” issue, fall 2006.

Photo of the Roman roofscape by Patricia Sonnino.

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)

Website: http://complace.j2parman.com

Contact: j2parman@yahoo.com

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