“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Biophilic Cities Project and the Urban Imagination

From the point of view of the citizen, wilderness, however beautifully it is ordered in an ecological sense, represents   
a chaotic and destructive force. It is the job of the city to organize and channel the forces of nature into patterns that 
support the art of living together.

NEWS: The Biophilic Cities Project at the University of Virginia School of Architecture is a multiyear initiative engaging cities across the globe. From Oct. 17 to 20, 2013, it hosted the launch of a “Biophilic Cities Peer Network” to advance the theory and practice of planning for cities that contain abundant nature. Biophilic cities care about, seek to protect, restore and grow nature, and strive to foster deep connections and daily contact with the natural world, said Tim Beatly, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and a self-described “biophilic urbanist.”

Professor Beatly is seen here in a natural setting. Courtesy of UVAToday

When asked “What is a biophilic city?” Tim Beatly, Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and a founder of the Biophilic Cities Project responds that “perhaps the simplest answer is that it is a city that puts nature first in its design, planning and management: it recognizes the essential need for human contact with nature as well as the many environmental and economic values provided by nature and natural systems."
Urbanismo prides itself on putting the city itself first when it comes to design, planning and management, but we understand about the innate human requirements that are met by parks, gardens, and forests. We have written previously on Richmond’s “great, wet, Central Park.” And we have charted, in Tyler Potterfield’s Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape, the growth of a city-wide park system. Richmond’s “urban forest” sprang directly from municipal determination to make the benefits of public landscapes and street foliage available to the citizens from the earliest days. 
Residents of the town and city of Richmond have enjoyed open access to natural settings for recreation and work since its founding in the 1730s. William Byrd’s original plat provided common land along the river and Shockoe Creek for activities like walking, fishing, and washing laundry. Richmonders later set aside public squares, planted trees, and made both private and public gardens in which they strolled, to played, and found a respite from the heat and summer sun. Mostly, however, they attempted, in an inevitably flawed way, to provide an approximation of “the good life” for themselves. Over time, the settlement at the falls of the James developed markets, court and education systems, extensive parks, and a great tradition of public and private architecture. The perennial city as the site of civil life materialized, in spite of inherent challenges, along the unpredictable, untamable James River.  
The hopeful arguments underlying the marketing of Biophilia as a new kind of urbanism are based in a popular idea-- that there is a deep psychological connection between humans and natural processes-- posited by biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson. The Biophilic Cities Project merges this idea with a utilitarian goal of increasing contentment and productivity and an up-to-date foreboding about the future. According to Tim Beatly, Biophilic cities may be “partly defined by the qualities and biodiversity present and designed into urban life, but also the many activities and lifestyle choices and patterns, the many opportunities residents have to learn about and be engaged directly in nature, and the local institutions and commitments expressed, for instance, in local government budgets and policies.” 

The Biophilic Cities vision, as articulated on the official website, consists of a series of concepts grounded in the Green and Sustainability movements. Many of these appear to be self-evident, even banal. Residents of Biophilic cities feel a deep affinity with the unique flora, fauna and fungi found there.” People are happier, more relaxed, and more productive, in the presence of nature.” Not only is it true that a “near-constant ability to see and experience nature is an important antidote to the stresses of modern life,” but the experience of nature in the city may “supply the essential background and building blocks for creativity, imagination, and artistic expression.” 

Biophilic architects assert with confidence that "the benefits of natural daylight and ventilation have been proven to improve productivity and reduce sick days in office workers." 

The project anticipates that things may turn unpleasant in the coming years, perhaps as resources grow scarce. Biophilic gardens and natural features will, however, “help to make cities and urban residents more resilient in the face of a host of likely pressures and shocks” to come in the future.
The project to build a Biophilic City may seem, at first, like an attempt to recover some of the architectural and social features that have gone missing from urban landscapes over the past fifty years. A loss of intensity in public life can be seen to have a close relationship with ongoing developments in technology. These included mass transit systems, which, by the 1890s, enabled workers to live outside the city center in new streetcar suburbs. The changes were extended by newer transformative technologies like the automobile and air conditioning. Over time, the schools, commercial centers, office buildings, and manufactories that were not relocated to the outskirts of the city were sealed off from direct exposure to natural forces. 
The public square, once the focus of political, commercial, and social interaction, has been depopulated. New building materials and technologies have made possible the nearly complete industrialization of the architectural and building professions, even as much of the population has moved into the “leafy” suburbs. In fact, the move to semi-forested suburbs like those around most American cities may represent Wilson’s biophilic urge at its peak.  It is possible that the Biophilic movement will even lead us toward a merging of suburb and city center-- a hybridizing process which we might be tempted to call “surbanism.”     
The Biophilic use of the word nature seems to us to suffer from a lack of clarity. There are several definitions of nature that range from “everything there is and how it works” to “everything there is except man and all his works.” The second definition sets the city apart from natural things, giving it a license to control and exploit the world. Bringing nature into the city would then be introducing a kind of anti-matter into the streets and squares of the city, unable to engage with the civilization they channel and support.
On the other hand, if the city is itself natural, the nonhuman elements of nature that are incorporated into the urban fabric would “naturally” participate in the city’s project of perfecting the life of its inhabitants. In other words, trees and water and animals, including wildlife, would take their place in the urban order, along with public art, rotary clubs, civic buildings, squares, and streets. 

From the point of view of the citizen, wilderness, however beautifully it is ordered in an ecological sense, represents a chaotic and destructive force. It is the job of the city to organize and channel the forces of nature into patterns that support the art of living together. For instance, we are sure that urban parks, in order to be useful and used, are best planned as responses to essentially urban activities. 
Stephanie Pincetl, Director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities, which studies the “urban metabolism” of “human created ecosystem[s]” like Los Angeles, is onto something when she says: 
Nature surrounds us everywhere in the city, we live in the midst of it all the time, but are not even aware of it. Buildings are made from concrete, made with aggregate and water. Roads are asphalt, from fossil fuel. The resources that we build with and make all our daily items with are sourced from nature. When we begin to be more aware of that, it helps us understand the fundamental materiality of cities and how much they are made from nature, far flung, perhaps, and remanufactured, but nature nonetheless. That kind of awareness can better inform our decisions about building materials, their energy intensivity -- or how much energy is embedded in the things we make -- and how the built environment is both the product of transformed nature and then transforms nature where we build.

As we have written elsewhere, “nature includes not only the natural objects around us, such as plants, animals and rocks, but the system of principles by which things can be explained according to reason and which were true prior to their discovery. More importantly, nature provides the mark against which rational judgment is made possible, the moral order which allows us to state confidently that democracy is the best form of government because it has as its goal the good of every citizen, and the goal of all our efforts as human beings.”   

Any failure in our relationship with the natural world is a failure, not of access, but of imagination. City dwellers will recognize that Richmond’s problems do not stem at all from lack of access to the river. We already drink from it, drive over it, and keep its powerful image in our imaginations, where rivers and other similarly potent forces of nature do their most effective work. In fact, the heart of the city is most certainly not the James River: real wilderness has only a small place in the city’s necessary order. Our life as citizens- practicing politics- the great art of living together- is at the heart of the city.  

Neglecting our urban life and its finely crafted architectural setting, we have somehow abandoned a shared understanding of what it takes to build and maintain a good city. Our sidewalks have been depopulated, the prosperity that serves the civic good has fled, and our schools seem unable to fully reform themselves. Richmond’s fragile urban connective tissues should be of more immediate interest.

In the end, we devoutly disagree with the goals of the Biophilic Cities Project, simply because the project fails to engage with the most pressing questions posed by our city(s). Its set of proposals, presented as an alternative to traditional urbanism, constitutes an end-run around the existential crisis which afflicts the city.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Founding Mythologies

How very differently do we shape our history in
 Virginia, where we accept such facts as we find
 desirable and dismiss those which are not to our
 purpose! . . . The great epic of Virginia’s settlement
 may not have occurred precisely as Virginians narrate
 it; yet that suspicion may be raised likewise as to the
 Odyssey and the Aeneid without prompting us to
 contemn any one of these three masterworks.
James Branch Cabell, Let Me Lie, 1947

The Gov. Botetourt statue when it stood at William and Mary College [Louise Manly, Southern Literature, 1900]
Richmond’s self-understanding has long paid lip-service to the ancient importance of a founding myth. Richmond was said, implausibly, by its nineteenth-century promoters, to have seven hills, like Rome, in order to lend it a classical air. Civic leaders across the nation had always employed rhetorical narratives that venerated their ancient founders. Virginia, indeed, began a tradition of public statuary with the statue of a much loved royal governor. One of the earliest examples of public statuary in the colonies, the statue of Lord Botetourt was placed in the central arcade of the Williamsburg Capitol in 1773. 

At first, Richmond, in its role as capitol of the commonwealth, built its narrative around political (and military) figures. The state’s leaders memorialized the founding fathers and the larger-than life role Virginians played in the founding of the nation. In 1796, Houdon’s virtuoso life-size sculpture of George Washington took a central place in the new Capitol, the same position that was occupied by Lord Botetourt’s statue in Williamsburg. Both Botetourt and Washington were here dressed in modern garb, although Washington was accompanied by the symbols of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, who, like Washington, turned from war-craft to farming. 

The Washington Monument of 1858 [Joel Cook, 1900]
The Houdon Washington was followed in Capitol Square in 1858 by a great monument to the Revolutionary generation by sculptor Thomas Crawford, hoped by its planners to be the burial place for Washington himself.  It was topped with an equestrian statue of Washington placed on axis with Grace Street. The huge allegorical composition was completed with encircling statues of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Lewis, John Marshall, George Mason, and Thomas Nelson in 1869. Other statues followed in Capitol Square, including Henry Clay (sculptor Joel Hart, 1860). After 1865, the city’s former role as Confederate Capital meant that it carried the weight of much of the post-war symbol-making that overlaid the essentially tragic viewpoint of the Lost Cause. The Confederate heroes were treated much the same as the Revolutionary generation in former years. None of the Confederates, not even Lee, could participate in the city’s founding narratives.   

As the nation’s wealth increased, the number of monuments and dedicatory inscriptions multiplied, with the hope that the increasing numbers of immigrants would absorb the values of the republic. Some have seen in the veneration of heroes the establishment of a “civil religion,” a nonsectarian national faith which serves to promote cultural and social integration. At the same time, the conflation of faith with national symbols and heroes may result more from the historic permeation of American civil life with both classical and religious imagery and the strong connections, perceived by Tocqueville, between individual liberty and historic American forms of Protestantism. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American Renaissance, a broad-based design movement looking back to Europe as a source for urban and architectural patterns, gave physical form to the search for narrative meaning expressed in the nation’s many new statues and monumental settings. Richmond’s leaders looked to the region’s earliest history for municipal heroes eligible for veneration.

Roman legend acknowledges the heroes Aeneas, Romulus, and Evander as alternate founders. In much the same way, (but probably not with any intentional parallel) there are at least three putative founders for Richmond, each of whom is remembered and celebrated through the naming of civic buildings or parks and by means of monuments or memorial tablets. These founders are, first, the English settlers (sometimes personified by Captain John Smith), who, like Aeneas and his men, came from the old country, claimed the land, and conquered the natives. The city recognizes a second founder, William Byrd II, who, like Romulus, later subdivided the land to form a town. Thirdly, the city remembers Powhatan, who, like Evander at Rome, was a powerful “king” of the natives whose principal village was believed to have previously been located at the falls of the James. Each of these “founders” demonstrated classical virtues that gave mythical weight to the project of building the New South city of Richmond. 

Aeneas from the Ara Pacis (above) and Capt. John Smith (below)

Virginia honored the hardships associated with first English settlements as the heroic sacrifice of a determined band of colonists (instead of, as James Branch Cabell observed, “a rather commonplace set [of] thieving opportunists”). The first monument of the city’s “founding” may be the copper cross atop a rough pyramid of stones placed on Gamble’s Hill to mark the first visit to the falls by English explorers headed by Christopher Newport. Newport’s band, which included the far better known John Smith, ventured up what they called the Powhatan River only a month after their first arrival in Virginia. 

The “Newport Cross” today [wikipedia]
The monument was dedicated by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1907 (and relocated to the Canal Walk in 2003). The act of re-planting the cross that was erected three hundred years before to claim the land for the English monarch gave legitimacy to the ongoing project of making a city.  Captain John Smith, who purchased the native village at the falls from Powhatan and renamed it “Nonesuch,” has been attributed with heroic, even mythological status for many years in connection with the founding of the state and nation. 

Romulus, Victorious (detail) by Ingres (above) 
and Col. William Byrd (below) 
by Paul Cadmus (after Hans Hysing) 1939, one of a 
mural series in the Lewis Powell Federal Courthouse Annex, 
Richmond, Virginia [Carol M. Highsmith Archive LOC].

Oddly, William Byrd, the putative father of Richmond, who was an accomplished founder and namer of cities, was never honored with a monument or statue at all, perhaps because of his ironic, rakish attitude, although his name has been applied to a park, a hotel, a movie theater, and a community center. William Byrd, a compelling writer, explorer, and scholarly jokester, would have very much enjoyed the unconsciously mock heroic tone of the tablet placed at Westover in his honor (and that of the early settlers at the falls) at the Bicentenary celebrations of the city’s founding in 1937:

From this spacious dwelling Colonel WILLIAM BYRD
 the Second of WESTOVER set out in 1737 to lay
 the foundations and to project the future of the CITY
 OF RICHMOND. Its grateful citizens, recalling the
 sufferings bourne and the glories experienced, the
 duties met and the common purposes achieved, the
 physical conquests realized and the spiritual powers
 evoked, by this tablet record their debt to the large 
concept of the FOUNDER and their obligation for the
 unfailing courage, the ever-springing foresight, and
 the controlling patriotism of their forbears. 


The Byrd Theatre (above) and the William Byrd Hotel (below)


Evander (above) and Powhatan (romanticized by John Gadsby Chapman, below)

In the case of Powhatan, his ambiguous legacy lives on in the many place names that honor him as the aboriginal king who aided but was displaced by newly arrived colonists. The Mayo family, descendants of the city’s original surveyor, had lived for generations at a house called by them Powhatan’s Seat, on the hill east of Richmond that probably was the location of the local village of the Powhatan’s own tribe. The family carefully preserved at their house a talisman in the form of a stone said to have formed part of Powhatan’s house, sited in the native village at the falls which had been purchased by Captain John Smith and named by him “Nonesuch.” According to one source, the stone, covered with "Indian designs", also marked the grave of William Mayo. This stone, formerly located along the river, was moved to the crest of Chimborazo Hill, overlooking the river, when it was displaced by the city’s gasworks about 1911 [Christian 531]. 

The Powhatan Stone (Church Hill People’s News)
The antebellum Powhatan House Hotel on Broad Street where the Patrick 
Henry Building (the former State Library) stands today (above) 
and a bronze statue of Powhatan placed at Short Pump Town Square, 
a Henrico County shopping center (below).