Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Food for Thought: Revitalizing Detroit

Watch the full episode. See more Blueprint America.

An excellent look at current proposals to revitalize Detroit, Michigan, the birthplace of the American automobile industry.

In effect Detroit is almost the most advanced case of the effects an automobile centric culture has on the urban fabric and social landscape. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Detroit was a thriving city of almost 2 million thanks to the automobile industry; today the population is less than half that. What was once a dense urban environment is now a virtual ghost town. It’s quite ironic to see what fueled its meteoric rise is ultimately leading to its demise.

However, Detroit’s situation highlights difficulties facing many cities and communities across the country. By relying solely on the automobile in lieu of diverse transportation options and lack of investment in infrastructure, Detroit's current predicament gives room for pause. This is most apparent as a Spanish Transportation Official describes the effect of a country’s infrastructure and how a lack of investment leads to,“a slow decline in importance and their weight in the world.” This is indeed, food for thought.

The Ruins of Detroit

Thursday, January 13, 2011


In 1947 after the partition of British controlled India into, India and Pakistan, the Punjab region was split between the two newly formed countries. Pakistan retained the traditional capital of Punjab, Lahore; however, the Indian state of Punjab required a new administrative center. Thus the stage was set for the creation of Chandigarh, Jawaharlal Nehru the first Prime Minister of India saw this as an opportunity to showcase a modern India.

Le Corbusier, the pseudonym of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was a Swiss architect, urban designer, painter, writer, and one of the pioneers of modernist architecture in the early 20th century. Although Le Corbusier was not the first architect/urban designer, Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki had that honor; ultimately Le Cobusier’s name would become synonymous with that of Chandigarh.

Le Corbusier ultimately retained many seminal ideas of Mayer and Nowicki; however, Le Corbusier reorganized the plan, to include a series of rectangular sectors which were self-sufficient units within the larger framework of Chandigarh. This post will focus on the sector containing the High Court, Assembly, Secretariat, the Museum and Art Gallery, School of Art and the Lake Club with drawings and sketches by Le Corbusier.

A sketch from Le Corbusier's first meeting with Nehru in 1951

Plan of Chandigarh with High Court, Assembly, Secretariat, the Museum and
Art Gallery, School of Art and the Lake Club

Plan of Museum of Knowledge, Parliament Building, and Palace of Justice

Study sketch by Le Corbusier for the brise-soleil and facades of the Museum of Knowledge

Sketch of the Club House.

Drawing of the Monument of the Open Hand

Public and Private Realms

"It is...suggested that neither object nor space fixation are, in themselves, any longer representative of valuable attitudes. The one may, indeed, characterize the 'new' city and the other the old; but if these are situations which must be transcended rather than emulated, the situation to be hoped for should be recognized as one in which both buildings and spaces exist in an equality of sustained debate. A debate in which victory consists in each component emerging undefeated, the imagined condition is a type of solid-void dialectic which might allow for the joint existence of the overtly planned and the genuinely unplanned, of the set-piece and the accident, of the public and the private, of the state and the individual."

- Colin Rowe & Fred Koetter

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Roman London

Map of London with Roman fortifications superimposed with the street grid of present day London.

The early history of London remains shrouded in the clouds of time. One thing is certain, London was founded by the Romans in the First Century AD, however there are two hypotheses, it was founded as a military camp and subsequently a settlement grew around it. Or the second hypothesis, London was founded as a planned town from inception. Regardless of the origin, the natural geography of the area surround London was conducive to the formation of a settlement, which as it were compliments both hypotheses. The hills surrounding the Thames were suited to defense, and the River Fleet to the west added an additional defensive barrier. Most importantly, the Thames was easily navigable and it would be precisely at this area that the Romans would construct a bridge over the Thames. It was at this point where the Thames was narrow enough to span, yet deep enough to handle marine vessels.

Archeological remains of a massive pier base for a roman bridge were discovered in 1981, only yards away from modern day London Bridge. However, one does not need to look underwater for traces of Roman London. It is possible to see the effect of Roman fortifications on the urban fabric of present day London. In the image above it is possible to see how the Roman wall to the North influenced the path of the street grid. Even the names Ludgate, Newgate, Moorgate, Bishopgate, and Aldgate make reference to the original gates of the Roman fortification. It is possible to see this influence throughout present day cities that were once part of the Roman Empire.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Plaza as Town Generator

Map of the Cartagena de Indies (Cartagena, Colombia) recently established and without walls circa 1550. Note the public space beneath the Cathedral and subsequent grid pattern.

Cities constructed by the Spanish Conquistadores made extensive use of a grid pattern, no doubt derived from Roman military planning. Following guidelines set forth in the Laws of the Indies, one of the primary steps in creating a new settlement was the creating of a plaza which in turn became an ordering device for the new settlement.

Here are the specific excerpts from the Laws of the Indies:

112. The main plaza is to be the starting point for the town; if the town is situated on the sea coast, it should be placed at the landing place of the port, but inland it should be at the center of the town. The plaza should be square or rectangular, in which case it should have at least one and a half its width for length inasmuch as this shape is best for fiestas in which horses are used and for any other fiestas that should be held.

113. The size of the plaza shall be proportioned to the number of inhabitants, taking into consideration the fact that in Indian towns, inasmuch as they are new, the intention is that they will increase, and thus the plaza should be decided upon taking into consideration the growth the town may experience. [The Plaza] shall be not less that two hundred feet wide and three hundred feet long, nor larger than eight hundred feet long and five hundred and thirty feet wide. A good proportion is six hundred feet long and four hundred wide.

114. From the plaza shall begin four principal street: One [shall be] from the middle of each side, and two streets from each corner of the plaza; the four corners of the plaza shall face the four principal winds, because in this manner, the streets running from the plaza will not be exposed to the four principal winds, which would cause much inconvenience.

115. Around the plaza as well as along the four principal streets which begin there, there shall be portals, for these are of considerable convenience to the merchants who generally gather there; the eight streets running from the plaza at the four corners shall open on the plaza without encountering these porticoes, which shall be kept back in order that there may be sidewalks even with the streets and plaza.

116. In cold places, the streets shall be wide and in hot places narrow; but for purposes of defense in areas where there are horses, it would be better if they are wide.

117. The streets shall run from the main plaza in such manner that even if the town increases considerably in size, it shall not result in some inconvenience that will make ugly what needed to be rebuilt, or endanger its defense or comfort.

118. Here and there in the town, smaller plazas of good proportion shall be laid out, where the temples associated with the principal church, the parish churches, and the monasteries can be built, [in] such [manner] that everything may be distributed in a good proportion for the instruction of religion.

119. For the temple of the principal church, parish, or monastery, there shall be assigned specific lots; the first after the streets and plazas have been laid out, and these shall be a complete block so as to avoid having other buildings nearby, unless it were for practical or ornamental reasons.

120. The temple of the cathedral [principal church] where the town is situated on the coast shall be built in part so that it may be seen on going out to sea and in a place where its buildings may serve as a means of defense for the port itself.

121. Next, a site and lot shall be assigned for the royal council and cabildo house and for the custom house and arsenal, near the temple, located in such a manner that in times of need the one may aid the other; the hospital for the poor and those sick of noncontagious diseases shall be built near the temple and its cloister; and the hospital for the sick with contagious diseases shall be built in such a way that no harmful wind blowing through it may cause harm to the rest of the town. If the latter be built in an elevated place, so much the better.

122. The site and building lots for slaughter houses, fisheries, tanneries, and other business which produce filth shall be so placed that the filth can easily be disposed of.

123. It shall be of considerable convenience if those towns that are laid out away from seaports, inland, be built if possible on the shore of a navigable river, and attempts should be made to place the town on the side from which the cold north wind blows and that buildings that cause filth be placed on the side of the river or sea below the town.

124. The temple in inland places shall not be placed on the square but at a distance and shall be separated from any other nearby building, or from adjoining buildings, and ought to be seen from all sides so that it can be decorated better, thus acquiring more authority; efforts should be made that it be somewhat raised from ground level in order that it be approached by steps, and near it, next to the main plaza, the royal council and cabildo and customs houses shall be built. [These shall be built] in a manner that would not embarrass the temple but add to its prestige. The hospital for the poor who are not affected by contagious diseases shall be built near the temple and near its cloister, and the [hospital] for contagious diseases shall be built in an area where the cold north wind blows, but arranged in such a way that it may enjoy the south wind.

125. The same plan shall be observed in any inland place without shore, taking considerable care to ascertain the availability of those conveniences that are required.

126. In the plaza, no lots shall be assigned to private individuals; instead, they shall be used for the buildings of the church and royal houses and for city use, but shops and houses for the merchants should be built first, to which all the settlers of the town shall contribute, and a moderate tax shall be imposed on goods so that these buildings may be built.

The Laws of the Indies became so widespread and durable, it is possible to see the urban arrangement of a main plaza with surrounding church and governmental buildings in former Spanish settlements from the southwestern United States to South America.

Friday, January 7, 2011


“It’s not how dense you make it, it’s how you make it dense”
- Jonathan Barnett

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Palacio del Segundo Cabo

Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Havana, Cuba

Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies)

During the age of discovery, Spain began to settle the North and South American mainlands and the Caribbean islands and conquistadors soon toppled native empires such as the Aztecs and Incas on mainland South America. Isolated in the new world, with Native Americans all around them, the colonists did not know where or how to build communities in which to live. To assist in the establishment of presidios (military towns), missions, and pueblos (civilian towns), King Phillip II developed the laws of the indies, a comprehensive guide comprising of 148 ordinances to aid colonists in locating, building, and populating settlements. The last revision of the Law of the Indies was signed in 1573 which codified the city planning process and represented some of the first attempts at a general plan. The Laws of the Indies were a body of laws issued by the Spanish crown concerning the regulation of social, political and economic life in its overseas possessions. They evolved from a multitude of decrees issued over several centuries and important 16th century legislation such as the Laws of Burgos (1512) enacted by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, which were meant to ensure the welfare of conquered peoples. The Laws of Burgos were later revised by the New Laws of 1542 issued by King Charles I, and subsequently revised again in 1552 after Bartolome de Las Casas brought attention to abuses being carried out by encomenderos.

The importance of these Laws from the standpoint of an urban designer is that they represent the first comprehensive set of development laws in the New World. As former Spanish colonies were acquired by the United States, the Laws of the Indies greatly influenced subsequent development laws most notably the 1785 Land Ordinance. Further posts will deal with specific laws guiding development of new settlements.

Translated Laws of the Indies

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plan & Section

Sectional Drawing of Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
Plan of Segment of Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland

In addition to the figure ground plan mentioned in yesterday's post, additional tools in the designer's tool kit are the plan and section. The plan and section are the most common drawings utilized by designers to communicate ideas. The plan deals with the horizontal elements, and the section vertical.

Similar to a map, a plan shares orientation in that the viewer is looking downward from above the particular area shown; however, unlike a map, a plan is draw from a vertical plane approximately 4 feet from the ground, hence objects below this plane are shown, and objects above are omitted.

A section is similar to a plan, however it deals with the vertical elements of a drawing. The section can be a powerful tool to illustrate the topographical changes of a city or project site as well as the interior spaces within a building.

Further posts will include additional techniques and tools to assist viewers in future posts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Palazzo Salviati

Facade sketch Palazzo Salviati, Rome, Italy

Figure ground & Nolli

Figure ground diagram of Washington, DC

One of the basic tools urban designers use is a figure ground map. A figure ground diagram represents the relationship between built and unbuilt space wherein white represents unbuilt space while black represents the built space.

A figure-ground diagram clearly illustrates the relationship between mass and void, and it is a powerful tool that can be used to study the urban fabric of a city. A high ratio of building mass to open space allows for clearly articulated urban space and well defined connective elements to link those spaces. A low ratio of building mass to open space can lead to buildings disconnected from the urban fabric and can be indicative of surface elements such as parking lots.

A historical extension of this idea was utilized by Giambattista Nolli in his famous map of Rome in 1748. His map utilizes the same mass to void relationship utilized in the figure ground diagram; however, Nolli added an additional layer of information which included public spaces. Thus, when one views the Nolli map, not only is the void of street elements apparent against the mass of buildings, but the voids of public spaces such as churches are visible as well.

A nice little exercise involving figure ground diagrams is found here. The objective being to name American cities by their figure-ground diagram.

Urban Design

What is Urban design?

Urban design is the glue that connects the disciplines of architecture and planning. The architect is primarily concerned with the spatial relations of an urban environment, and the planner with public policy issues. The Urban designer combines these two elements to create a cohesive and implementable vision for the urban environment.

Urban design an individual entity is a relatively new discipline, whereas for centuries the relationship between the individual building and the public realm was an integral concept known to architects and designers, until the 20th century this relationship was 'lost' then 'rediscovered'. It was 'lost' during the early 20th century with the advent of modernism and its obsession with the building as an object; thus completely neglecting the building/public realm relationship. Additionally the massive urban redevelopment projects post WWII destroyed entire precincts within cities and replacing them with buildings embracing modernist principles further neglecting the public realm.

The concept of Urban design was 'rediscovered' during the the late 1960's in response to the failure of post WWII projects, ultimately returning to the integral relationship between the individual building and the public realm.


Greetings, and welcome to my new blog entitled The Creative Path. What is this blog about? Well, I intend to focus primarily on Architecture, Sustainability, and Urban Design. However, I will not rule out occasional posts on my other passions: Food, Fashion, and Travel.

To assist readers, the first few posts will include common techniques and tools utilized by designers. So grab a drink, relax, and get ready to follow The Creative Path!