6 Questions with AIA|LA Board President, Scott Johnson, FAIA


In ancient Rome, the term, urbs, referred to the totality of human settlement, a process which led to cities like Rome and encompassed the expansionary logic of Roman territories far afield. Unlike its predecessor, the Greek polis, which referred to a specific local city-state, urbs embodied the universal grid, a model for urban replication and imperial ambition.

In 1867, the engineer and planner, Ildefons Cerda, invented the term, urbanization,derived from the Roman, urbs. Cerda's book, Teoria General de la Urbanizacion, became an a posteriori addendum to his 1860 master plan for the expansion of Barcelona. Looking to transform the idea of a city from the medieval center of political power and monumentality to an open network of social and commercial mobility, Cerda imagined a physical space which would incorporate scientific criteria from demographics, proximity theory and hygiene into its formulation. "...Cerda drafted an isotropic grid of 133 by 133 meter blocks, which articulated the equal distribution of services and roads throughout the city area. A religious center appeared in every nine block district, a marketplace every four blocks, a park every eight, a hospital every sixteen."

The first half of the twentieth century saw European visionaries including Le Corbusier, St. Elia, Mies and Hilberseimer drafting radical city plans for both familiar and theoretical cities. For a decade, Le Corbusier theorized the makeover of Paris while later in life he created master plans for Montevideo, Algiers and Chandigarh. Architects such as St. Elia and Mies were more architecturally-focused while Hilberseimer realized the grids of the Roman urbs and the work of Cerda in the third dimension, envisioning the future city as repetitive building blocks, outside of nature, in which all programmatic variety was sublimated. The city became a highly rationalized medium for its own cycle of reproduction and consumption. Following the Second World War, urban design emerged as a professional term in Europe and Britain. Patrick Abercrombie and John Henry Forshaw, commissioned to produce the 1943 County of London Plan in the war's aftermath, first coined it. Aimed at rebuilding the war damage, urban design attended to reconstruction and planning for a growing auto-based population.

In 1956, Jose Luis Sert, then dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design and president of CIAM, attempted to steer the European emphasis on urban design to include major US cities. Sert aspired to redefine the field from one which had been dominated by planners and social scientists in the aftermath of the war to one in which physical design and the participation of architects would be central. Sert stated that the new arena of urban design was now to be "that part of city planning which deals with the physical part of the city...the most creative phase of city planning and that in which imagination and artistic capacities can play a more important part." Sert's position came at a time of emerging rifts in the definition of urban design, be it the realization of a social mission, a physical platform for expanding commerce or an aestheticized formalism growing ever less relevant.

These critiques were soon lampooned by the likes of Archizoom's No-StopCity (1968-1972) which envisioned a borderless plan devoid of traditional forms and symbols and emptied of "bourgeois ideological representations of the city." Urban design became the pure representation of commerce unleashed. Rem Koolhaas' City of the Captive Globe (1972) appeared, followed by Bernard Tschumi's plan for Paris' Parc de la Villette (1985), outlining two more forays into urban design as a kind of dominant formalism.

Urban design today has been largely redirected toward the effects of gross urbanization. Two years ago the world's population was estimated to reach 7 billion with over half located in cities and one in six living in slums. By 2050, seventy-five per cent will inhabit cities, the largest of which will be in developing and poor nations. Meanwhile, wealthier Western cities such as Los Angeles have mushroomed into vast regional conurbations. These sprawling mixtures of varying land use overlaid by complex infrastructure have been amply documented in recent books such as Alan Berger’s Drosscape (2006).

A new pragmatism is emerging in which urban design is inevitably tied to an understanding of social and environmental policy. A sensitivity to evolving cultural issues such as immigration, labor, social policy and sustainability is now key to establishing links between physical design in the city and increased quality of life for the widest possible population. Urban design continues to reinvent itself. In less than a century it has migrated from singular manifestos conceived by artful visionaries to a multidimensional field of interrelated global actors.

Last updated: 19-Apr-2013 04:12 PM
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