Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML on Flickr.

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

We’ve come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston’s fortress-like City Hall, a structure that only architects love (yes, I love it). This style of architecture was called brutalism, supposedly after Le Corbusier’s beton brut—rough concrete—but the name stuck for other reasons.

It was characterized by walls so abrasive they could rip your arm open. Happily, this technique is no longer in vogue, but many architects, especially the starchitects, still build blank walls where they least belong.

My old professor, the Spaniard Rafael Moneo, is probably the leading blank wall composer, a veritable Copland of Concrete. In his studios, like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk.

We did discuss such things as a façade’s thickness and depth—“sickness and death,” in Moneo’s formidable accent—but these were architectonic qualities, not practical ones. Most architecture schools still promote an intellectual and artistic sensibility that has little patience for such mundane questions as whether a building will sustain pedestrian activity.

This issue was the subject of a now famous exchange that took place at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival between Frank Gehry and a prominent audience member, Fred Kent. Kent, who runs the Project for Public Spaces, pointedly asked Gehry why so many “iconic” buildings by star architects fail to give life to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry, who was once quoted as saying “I don’t do context,”  claimed to be above this criticism, but Kent didn’t buy it. I wasn’t there, so we’ll let The Atlantic’s James Fallows tell the rest:

But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. “You are a pompous man,” he said—and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior—again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.


Gehry was clearly having a bad day, but his imperiousness is worth recounting as a metaphor for some of his work—not all, but some. Kent was no doubt recalling his son Ethan’s visit to Gehry’s masterpiece, the Guggenheim Bilbao, an experience he describes in the Project for Public Spaces website’s “Hall of Shame.” After failing to find the front door and taking note of the treeless, depopulated plaza, Ethan observed a mugging, something he later learned was common there. He adds, “In the span of 10 minutes that we spent around the museum, I witnessed the first mugging of my life—and I’ve lived my entire life in New York City.”

Robberies are no longer very common in New York, but the same goes for Bilbao—except for certain problem places. That one of these places enfronts the Guggenheim is partly Gehry’s fault, the outcome of a landscape (more of a landscrape) conceived as a tabula rasa to show off the building to its best effect.  Gehry is actually perfectly capable of contributing to attractive, engaging landscapes—as he has done in Chicago’s Millennium Park—but he rarely does so with his buildings, most of which do not reward proximity. His Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, has about 1500 feet of perimeter, perhaps 1000 feet of which is blank wall of the most slippery sort.

But it’s a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston’s Symphony Hall, and let’s talk again. These older buildings’ facades are awash in engaging detail, so that even their blank walls don’t feel blank. Walking next to them is a pleasure.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier, in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows.

As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now observe the palace’s decorative string course, window frames, and the rafter-tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to its front door but received no reward.

Krier presents these drawings as a powerful argument against modernism. But this is not merely a question of style. Any architectural style—except minimalism, I suppose—is capable of providing those medium- and small-scale details that engage people as they approach and walk by.

The high-tech Pompidou Center, by celebrating its mechanical systems on its exterior, gives life to one of the most successful public spaces in Paris. What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all. Too many contemporary architects fail to understand this point, or understand it but don’t care.

But a preponderance of human-scaled detail is still not enough if a streetscape lacks variety. However delicate and lovely a building façade, there is little to entice a walker past 500 feet of it. As Jane Jacobs noted, “Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial.” 

Getting the scale of the detail right is only half the battle; what matters even more is getting the scale of the buildings right, so that each block contains as many different buildings as reasonably possible. Only in this way will the pedestrian be rewarded with the continuously unfolding panorama that comes from many hands at work.

This fact seems to be lost on the vast majority of architects, especially the big names, whose unspoken goal is to claim as much territory as possible for their trademarked signature, even if it means a numbingly repetitive streetscape. It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture, such that most urban design projects are seen as an opportunity to create a single humongous building. Design superstars like Rem Koolhaas, in their giddy celebration of “bigness,” have adopted this confusion as doctrine.

To be fair, egotism and the desire for celebrity are only partly responsible for this orientation. It also comes from an insistence on intellectual honesty. Just as a building supposedly bears the obligation to be “of its time,” it must also be “of its author.” For the designer of a large structure to pretend to be many different designers is to falsify the historical record, especially since the modern myth of the genius architect insists that every designer’s personal style is as unique as his fingerprint.

I still remember (how could I not) the critic at my architectural-school thesis final review who said, “I don’t understand: your two buildings seem to have been designed by two different architects.” My fantasy-world response, twenty years after the fact: “Why, thank you, sir.”

Speck’s book came out on November 13. You can order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first and second excerpts. Speck will also be appearing at Politics & Prose this Saturday.

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Jeff Speck is a city planner who, through writing, public service, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design. As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Mr. Speck oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design. Mr. Speck spent the prior 10 years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., and currently leads a boutique design consultancy based in Washington, DC.