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Saturday, October 4, 2008

II: Design of a Good City - Building Components

Beginning with the basics and working backwards, Cities are made up of Towns, Towns are made up of Neighborhoods, and Neighborhoods are up of streets and blocks (S&B). In essence the DNA of a City is its system of Streets and Blocks (S&B). Thus, the basic character of a city is derived from the configuration of its S&B (and the articulation of its architecture). The axial grids of many American cities to the more organic feel of European cities are all a direct consequence of how its S&B have been planned and laid out.

Once the S&B system has been configured, next is the disposition of buildings within the system to create groups of neighborhoods which form a town, and groups of towns which form the city.

As I discussed in the first article of this series, the traditional neighborhood is one where daily human activity can be lived to its fullest within a half mile walking radius. The building typologies required to make this feasible were also discussed in the first article. Below are the six building typologies in their basic forms, and some images of how these typologies have been applied in different places.

Pictures: 1. Statue of Liberty, NYC - Tholos 2. The Parthenon, Greece - Temple 3. Palazzo Farnese, Italy - Regia 4. Flatbush Apartments, NYC - Domus 5. Theater at Epidaurus, Greece - Theater 6. Typical Shops, USA - Taberna/ Shops.

The characteristics of a good city is one which pays attention to the disposition of these buildings with respect to how the citizens of the city live from day to day. In other words, a good city is a place where a citizen can live, eat, work, play, pray and sleep, and be able to accomplish these 6 basic needs within a reasonable radius. If a citizen can accomplish a majority of these basic activities within a half mile radius (or a 15 minute walk), that is the characteristic of a city with an excellent S&B system and an excellent disposition of building typologies.

As I discussed in the previous article, the two factors holding back most African cities are the lack of different building types, and the zoning of buildings according to use. This means that everyone lives in a residential area, and everyone commutes to work on the same street networks to the business district (typically known as “downtown”), and at the end of the workday, everyone commutes back to their residential neighborhoods leaving downtown a literal ghost town.

When cities are configured according to building types (which will be addressed in the third article), the result is a place like New York City where citizens are able to live, eat, work, play, pray, and sleep within a reasonable distance.

The purpose of this article is to introduce the six (6) building typologies with respect to the six (6) basic human daily activities. As Africans, let’s begin to see if our cities conform to the way we live, or whether we conform to the way our cities are designed. If it’s the latter, then that is unacceptable. We should demand more from our government officials. The problem that I see is the government officials do not have a clue about how to proceed or what measures to take in resolving this critical issue.

The goals of these articles are twofold – to point out the problems, and to propose a solution. I sincerely hope that we can make a commitment to change the way we live in our African cities, and my goal is to make sure that if we do change, it’s for a better way to live. The next article will propose how a good city is planned, and how to transform our current cities into good cities. As always, my opinions are quite humble and I look forward to a good debate on how to bring about positive change.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I: Design of a Good City - Introduction

As we discuss the issues of Architecture and Urbanism in African cities, we must begin to talk about how to make things better. Most African cities are already set up to become self-sustaining places, and the missing pieces are good planning, a sound infrastructure, and designing permanent structures.

The basic problem which exists in a majority of African cities is the feeling of overcrowded chaos which can be attributed to two issues; (1) a lack of multiple centers and (2) a lack of proper planning. Typical images of African cities show crowded open markets, gridlocked streets where people on foot move faster than cars, temporary structures for commerce (and sometimes as a residence), and a basic lack of order to the urban landscape.

In large part, there are no established mixed-use building types in these cities which leads to a separation of uses and creates different areas of commerce, residential, entertainment, etc. The result is a dependency on the automobile when there aren’t enough roads to sustain the growing development, and the existing roads are in poor conditions. As conditions worsen, certain enlightened entrepreneurs have been able to grasp the notion of starting businesses away from the designated commercial areas by putting up temporary sheds along highways to sell their produce. Some even use parts of their homes as stores. So we begin to see that the natural instinct of living in a self-sustaining community can still rise amidst all the chaos. All that is needed to enhance the infrastructure is a sound masterplan and a development of new building types to sustain the quality of life that the citizens of the cities are seeking.

So what constitutes the design of a good city? After years of studying existing traditional cities, the common thread appears to be the ability for a person to live a self-sustaining life within a 15 minute (or ½ mile) walking radius. Giving thought to all the different activities the typical person experiences on any given day, creating categories for these activities and designing them into the fabric of the neighborhood, grouping these neighborhoods together to form a good town, and all these self-sustaining towns together create a good city.

Prof. Westfall at the University of Notre Dame has defined six (6) basic architectural typologies which I believe to be the building blocks for designing a good city. 1. Tholos – for venerating 2. Temple – for celebrating 3. Dwelling 4. Regia – for governing 5. Theater – for imagining 6. Taberna – for mercantile activities.

Within these “Westfallian” typologies, one can pray, eat, study, shop, work, play, and sleep, essential components experienced on a daily basis by almost everyone. Neighborhoods designed in this fashion can make citizens less dependable on the automobile. This does not however make automobiles obsolete. There will always be something needed which can not be found in one’s neighborhood and require a drive, and there’s always the need to drive to amenities which can not be designed into every town, such as a golf course or beach.

The thoughtful arranging of these building typologies into a system of streets and blocks form a well designed neighborhood. A group of well designed neighborhoods form a town. A group of well designed towns form a city. A simple ideal, and easily achieved if there is a plan to follow. In my humble opinion, the infrastructure already exists to make neighborhoods such as I have described a reality in most African cities. The question is, are we willing to take on the responsibility of re-defining the way we live.