Gillian Mason on ‘Visual order: Its limitations and possibilities’ – Can we talk about beauty in a post-utopian society?

Re-reading this chapter almost made me long for an era when town planners proposed top-down utopian schemes in the manner of the City Beautiful movement with their compelling, neat pen and ink renderings.

Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago: Michigan Avenue looking South: rendering, Image from Penn State Libraries Pictures Collection

I say ‘almost’ because, although these schemes speak strongly to a desire for visual order, beauty, and aesthetics which I share, they were dead ends intellectually and in practice. Unfortunately, I feel that in banishing the utopianism movement so completely (and rightly so!) we have perhaps lost much of our motivation to plan with even a nod towards beauty and order.

I begin with these musings because this chapter quickly disabuses us of the idea that the city can be seen as a work of art. This is absolutely correct and we should be very wary of approaches that attempt to solve problems through top-down architectural design.

Fifty years on from Death and Life, however, no one in the western world seriously views the modern city as a work of art in its totality as we are cautioned about in the chapter. In fact, I would argue that in the intervening time the tendency has been to relegate much overall city design to an afterthought. Our default bias is to eschew any discussion of art or beauty in cities. I base this, unfortunately, on my own direct experience over many years walking extensively in Toronto and other Canadian cities.

Beautiful? Toronto’s Ellesmere Road in 1952 and 2009 (City of Toronto Archives and Flickr user Lone Primate)

I can only surmise as to the causes for our neglect of visual order, but the following would be good places to start:

  • the messiness of arriving at consensus on the meaning of beauty and order,
  • the transformation of town planning into a “pseudo science” (Jane Jacobs’ description) with nothing to say on aesthetics,
  • and the pressure to accommodate economic and efficiency concerns.

These factors effectively squash any discussion of the actual experience and view of a person walking the streets shown on a plan, let alone something on a grander scale. We are only now ex post facto revisiting the experience and visual design aspects of many of our streets, particularly those developed during the expansive decades following the Second World War.

This chapter suggests where and on what scale we might effectively intervene to bring visual order to streets (the principal visual scenes in cities, as noted). With apologies, I am not going to discuss Jacobs’ specific suggestions in any depth. They are well worth reading, but I wish to address the idea of bringing a serious discussion of art, beauty and overall city design back to the table. Aesthetics should not dominate or have primacy, but they should be considered.

How can we do this? As a first step, we must reclaim a language to describe aspects of city form and design in order to have conversations with our neighbours and other citizens. I don’t wish to engage in wistful nor utopian thinking, but I would like to try to reveal and share alternative designs (“the possible”) that help to shape humane environments. If citizens are not engaged in this conversation, we will still be asking ourselves: “Is this the best we can do?” without knowing the answer.

Which parking garage would you like on your street? (Photo by UrbanGrammar)

In banishing utopianism so completely, have we almost lost an entire language to describe our relationship to good city form and design? I think so. Happily, books such as Great Streetsby Alan B. Jacobs, which offer many fine examples of good street design, are gaining in popularity.

Dead street tree at Richmond and Spadina

A final observation

Towards the end of Chapter 19, trees are suggested as a visual unifier along a street with much detail and cacophony. As a design tactic to tie together such a street there is much to applaud (not to mention a tree’s many other benefits). Yet our single failure to maintain trees on our larger arterial streets in Toronto speaks volumes about how we have discounted the importance of visual order and humane design. Such is our neglect that we are failing at implementing even the most basic touchstones. I don’t expect Toronto (or Calgary, or North Bay, or Los Angeles) to look like Rome, but is it too much to expect some modest steps in that direction?

Some questions

If, as I believe, the pendulum has swung too far one way in not considering the importance of overall visual order and harmony and beauty, how does one right the situation? First, by acknowledging that the long and noble history of city design might hold lessons for our current situation. And secondly, by re-claiming a language to describe aspects of city form and design to share with citizens. Is it possible to achieve all of our other aims and some semblance of visual order that we all agree on too? What could this area look like?

Those pen and ink renderings are not coming back, but there are many times when I wish that utilitarian concerns had not completely trumped the humanizing effect of visual order and harmony seen in the designs of yore.

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