Nathan Storring on ‘Visual order: its limitations and possibilities’ in Toronto and West Hollywood

It’s not for naught that the word “authoritarian” starts with “author.” In societies where grand artistic ambitions are successfully imposed onto the life of cities, restrictions often extend far beyond the aesthetic realm—to an extent unacceptable in contemporary North America.

In this chapter, Jacobs contests this overbearing aesthetic control, advocating for a more open-ended approach to urban visual order—“a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans”—that complements and clarifies the complex functional order she sets out in the rest of the book.

As a point of departure, Jacobs proposes a fundamental conflict between the view across the street and the view down the street in healthy cities. The density and intricacy of a vibrant street scene becomes overwhelming when duplicated endlessly into the distance, so if the viewer wants to concentrate on looking either at the nearby city or the city in the distance, they have to struggle to suppress the other view.

Ossington Avenue, by Nathan Storring

I live on Ossington Avenue north of College Street in Toronto, and this stretch of road suffers from exactly the kind of visual confusion that Jacobs describes, made worse by a distinct lack of functional diversity between major East-West intersections. Looking either way down the street is daunting and off-putting.

Jacobs suggests that designers should avoid emphasizing the endless view down the street, because in order to do so, they must destroy the distracting nearby diversity necessary to the proper functioning of the city. By emphasizing the immediate view, on the other hand, the designer leaves the necessary diversity intact and also visually communicates the functional importance of this diversity to the observer. She goes on to describe various aesthetic interruptions—parks that divide the road in two, new roads that break up large blocks in a jagged pattern, bridges between buildings, landmarks, small setbacks interspersed amongst buildings on the street, etc.—that can achieve intimate views in the city on previously long stretches of street.

Jacobs identifies an emphasis on the endless streetscape as a preoccupation of the trained architectural eye, while the intimate streetscape is how “most of us” see things since as users of the city the uses of the city are our primary concern. In the context of New York City in the 1960s, fixating on the connection between the architectural eye and this endless view of city streets made perfect sense given the popularity of restrictive zoning laws and enormous, mono-functional projects that crushed the diversity of the intimate street scene; that said, I think this anticity attitude could be equally attributed to seeing the city through maps, models, renderings and graphs rather than any view of the street itself.

‘Gateway Village Rendering’ by Michael Allen

I would argue that currently (if not then as well) this division of visual comprehension lies more between “foot people and car people” than between city-users and architects. As wayfinding theorist Kevin Lynch writes in The View From The Road, drivers are “a captive, somewhat fearful, but partly inattentive audience, whose vision is filtered and directed forward.” If this view down the street can be considered integral to the driver’s visual understanding of the city, it may complicate Jacobs’ conclusion that the intimate street scene is more in tune with city uses and users. Car people do not aestheticize the urban environment like the architects of her time; they are as much users of the city as foot people, but require different visual cues to make sense of the street. Almost a decade after Death and Life was released, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi published Learning from Las Vegas, a book as averse to “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” architectural ideals as Jane Jacobs herself. It popularized a new kind of endless-streetscape design based on the sparse everyday landscape and big bold signs of Las Vegas—ideal for the forward-focused, nervous, distracted perspective of drivers.

Many great cities today contain disjointed patches of Venturian and Jacobsian landscapes, not to mention Radiant Garden City Beautiful ones, but here and there landscapes that attempt to accommodate the former two simultaneously have been emerging. Some of the most noteworthy experiments that I’ve found are in Everyday Urbanism, a collection of essays advocating for design that responds to the day-to-day routines and concerns of city dwellers, as seen in projects and urban phenomena throughout Los Angeles.

West Hollywood by Randy Stern

In one such study, John Leighton Chase explores how West Hollywood accommodates both foot people and car people. Recognizing the desirability of the area to competitive developers, the city exchanges the right to locate in West Hollywood for concessions to the active local pedestrian population. In some areas, the view down the street is mitigated, much as Jacobs would recommend. On Santa Monica Boulevard, for instance, landscaped islands complete with palm trees divide the road, periodically limiting how far ahead one can see; yet drivers can trust that the uncompromising rhythm of Los Angeles’ street grid endures throughout. Chain stores are discouraged from constructing “cookie-cutter franchise clones” in the area, resulting in storefronts that balance equal parts image-making and place-making; the theatrical and familiar signage can still easily be recognized from a moving car, but at the same time, the locations feel specific to West Hollywood. There is a there there.

Streets of LA by Anika Malone

The city also negotiates the inclusion of modest pedestrian amenities in these developments, like seating nooks and water fountains (for adults, children and dogs). In general, the character of West Hollywood combines the clarity and simplicity of sprawl’s symbols floating in a somewhat homogenous landscape with the density, diversity and intricacy of close-grained pedestrian usage by hiding the latter in nooks and crannies or behind repetitive rows of oak, camphor and palm trees. While this arrangement is neither perfect nor fully transferable to other locales, it is one alternative way of negotiating the tension of city imageability that Jacobs observes with a greater emphasis on the view down the street, a view so characteristic of Los Angeles.

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