“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.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


StudioAmmons submitted a proposal over a year ago for the redesign of the historic Seventeenth Street or First Market Square in Shockoe Bottom. The members of Urbanismo were closely involved in the preparation of the detailed plan for the redefinition of a great urban place.  We publish the proposal now in the hope that it will help to clarify widely-held concerns about the City’s recently published Ballpark plan. The baseball stadium was not part of the “First Market Square” proposal originally solicited by the city. We are convinced that the ballpark plan will negatively affect the quality of the Market Square and its neighborhood.

StudioAmmons’ proposal is intended to revitalize the First Market Square by ensuring that it will serve the city in multiple ways:
  • as an active framework for urban life
  • as an engaging and flexible public place
  • as an attraction in its own right to increase tourist visitation to the neighborhood
  • as a catalyst for the relocation of small business to the area, including artists, creative businesses, and restaurants 
  • as an embodiment of the local ethos to ensure longterm vitality

The Public Square and the City

Planners have recognized the economic and cultural potential associated with healthy civic places. The reclamation of outdoor public places is increasingly emphasized by advocates of thriving and healthy American cities. Most city squares ceased to function in the latter part of the twentieth century as urban centers declined, traditional community activities slowed, and commercial functions moved to the suburbs. More importantly, the loss of public space for assembly, socializing, and reflection has resulted in an impoverishment of civic life. The failure of many large-scale rehabilitation projects to fully realize their part in the public realm results from an emphasis on economic development without consideration of the direct benefit public places can provide to the community as incubators of the civic good.

As stated in the Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy of 2011, a major goal of the new First Market Square should be “reinforcing Main Street Station’s position as an epicenter driving the culture, creativity and identity” of the Shockoe neighborhood. The market, by incorporating flexible programming, top-notch design values, and ‘round-the-clock scheduling, should be a catalyst for the success of the larger neighborhood. A fully functioning square could underline the kinds of urbane values conducive to the creative entrepreneurship that has already transformed the Shockoe area into a dynamic place to live and work.

Essential to the long-term success of any commercially-oriented public precinct, such as a market square, is its adaptability over time and under unpredictable economic conditions. Large static developments undertaken by direct public or private investment are particularly liable to loss of market share over time as the infrastructure deteriorates and the inflexibility of programming prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances. A highly structured project like the network of proposals associated with the Shockoe Bottom Baseball Stadium will actually undermine public values over its limited lifetime. The fine grain of the traditional city, in contrast, permits countless quick adaptations at each cumulative sign of cultural and economic change. Richmond’s First Market has survived two centuries of flooding and cyclical change by relying on this kind of nimble adaptation.

Sanborn Map of First Market Square, 1887. Main Street is at the left and Grace Street
to the right. The main Market Hall faced Main Street. The archway between 

segments of the Public Market is shown spanning Arch Alley midway 
between Main and Franklin streets. Note the narrowing of Market Square 
that occurs north of Franklin.  

Place, Form, and Meaning

As we have explored in detail in this post, the proposed First Market Square represents the sixth intervention at the site of Richmond’s historic city market. From its earliest days on the bank of Shockoe Creek, the City Market has been an accretionary, transformative place, changing its character with the changing shape of the city. The Market Square was originally placed on the edge of the settlement. One contemporary remembered the “green pasture” of the town's Common, which extended from the Market House down to Shockoe Creek. Eventually the area around the market was lined with shops and it took on a more enclosed form. Like its predecessors in Europe, Richmond's First Market Square embeds centuries of change and growth, although over time it assumed the form of a conventional enclosed square. In fact, American public places like First Market Square have traditionally embodied the kinds of urbane social and economic values that we usually associate with European plazas. 

The market, which began in the half-block between Main Street and Arch (Walnut) Alley, was extended over time as far as Grace Street, two blocks to the north. In this it showed similarities to markets which extend along the center of widened streets such as those in Charleston and Philadelphia. The First Market buildings, as they were extended along this armature, embodied their functions in a hierarchical manner, diminishing in scale and elaboration as the shopper moved away from Main Street, from a butchers' hall to an open produce shed, and so on to ranks of pushcarts filled with farm products. The Market Square was eventually surrounded by brick buildings housing grocers and butchers' shops. As time passed, the dynamic nature of the market, changing in response to shifting economic forces, resulted in a gradual replacement of most of the early shops with a layered mixture of commercial buildings of every period and style. 

Guiding Ideas

The Urban Scale

Urban Scale Architecture is design at the level of the city at large. Design at this scale gives form and direction to the urban fabric. It supports the importance of living in community. 

Saverio Muratori and his school, including Mario Gallerati, have explored the meaning of “architettura a scala urbana.” According to this approach to urban morphology, fully developed cities operate on four scales, the territorial, the urban, the aggregate, and the building. Architecture at the urban scale is manifested in at least three ways: (1) by the provision of specialized buildings to serve the civic life, (2) by the placement of these buildings in relation to each other on a scale larger than that of the urban fabric, and (3) by a deliberate overlay of serial, rhythmic design to unify the urban tissue.  

According to urban historian Carroll William Westfall, design at the urban scale serves the city by underlining a hierarchy in which the civic life takes precedence over the private. It is the elements of design at the urban scale that make cities not only meaningful but legible, even after centuries of alterations and more recent decades of forgetfulness and crisis.  The most important public places receive the highest levels of ornament and the most thorough treatment. Public architecture can make sense of the city for its users by clarifying the political, social, commercial, and civic order by which the inhabitants strive together to live the best life.

A Market Square

Richmond’s redesigned First Market Square, without its current central market structure, will be transformed into an urban form at once new and familiar. The building walls that define the square will become more obviously the boundaries of a great urban room, and the central area will be less clearly defined. The square will be more clearly rectangular and the missing building fabric at the north end will be more obvious. The greater width of Seventeenth Street along the eastern side will make it harder to unify the space.

The City has made it clear that the new First Market Square will function in a dual role: civic space and market space. This double role is informed by a further requirement that the square serve as an attractor for tourism and the arts. The civic function will be accommodated by a provision of an open area for larger gatherings and festivals, as well as a potential for subdivision at times for use by outdoor cafes, small groups, and individuals.

Looking south along the market stalls flanked by planted margins and shaded by trees.

A Market

The square will function as a market at specified times each week. A miniature street grid of temporary canopies will be set up either in the main plaza or in a subsection reserved for more diverse activities. It is also probably desirable to provide for the regular stall holders who are at the market on most days. To provide for a year-round market and close off the north end of the square, StudioAmmons suggests placing a new Market Hall on the original part of the square that extends north of Franklin Street to Grace Street, now a city-owned parking lot, but once part of the market square.

One of the key characteristics of the historic First Market was the way its form changed and diminished as it proceeded to the north. The site retains clues indicating the value to designers of reasserting the progressive nature of movement through the square. The crossing point of Arch (or Walnut) Alley, the cobblestone alley that bisects the Market Square at mid-point, served as a telling division for the first architectural transformation from a two-story to a one-story market building. The extraordinary bell tower arch that spanned the alley and gave it its name provides a built-in opportunity for place-making that is built into the site.

Open to Traffic

It is essential to the square that it retain its historic articulation into both traffic and marketplace zones. Historic curbs and spallstone paving enhance its definition as an historic part of the city. Pedestrianization does not reinforce commercial success. Vehicles (both cars and delivery trucks) and people are part of the urban environment and can be integrated into the square in ways that promote a sense of safety and a necessary level of activity. It will be important to come up with strategies to integrate traffic, parking, and foot traffic with the special activities characteristic of this public square. This can be done by prohibiting vehicular traffic at certain times of the day and week while retaining the minimal differentiation of street, sidewalk, and plaza paving.

Street Lighting

Streetlighting will be completely redesigned based on what has proved effective in other successful plazas. Richmond historic precedent should be followed as closely as possible to avoid the generic quality typical of many urban projects. This would indicate small, pedestrian-scaled streetlights augmented by gaslight-style lanterns attached to buildings at corners and along the sidewalks to add warmth and character. Moonlighting, used in New York’s Bryant Park, could be employed to create an attractive wash of light over the central portion of the square. 


Permanent furniture should be avoided as limiting flexibility, and instead temporary furniture, including market stalls, seats, tables, planters, and cafe dividers, should be used wherever possible. Low steps, placed so as to avoid serving as barriers to mobility, provide effective seating for visitors.

A Fountain and a Bell

The city's first public fountain, piped from a spring on Libbie Hill, stood in the Market Square. Like the fountains in many historic European markets, a new fountain should probably be placed off-center to permit flexible use of the square and to enhance the perspective of views from the fountain. The basin should be raised on a stepped base to enhance seating. The market bell, which survives in the current market shed, marked opening and closing times and raised the alarm in case of a fire or other emergency. The market bell should be suitably housed in the marketplace and should once again sound the hours.

Overview of the Design

The analysis of the form and history of First Market Square suggests several design ideas capable of a range of alternative expressions: 

(1) First of all, the urban ensemble might mimic the progressive formal transformations that were experienced by the historic visitor in moving from south to north. This shading of form could be implemented in a number of ways:

    • a central circulation spine could recall the market aisle that ran for nearly two blocks. 
    • the half of the square south of Arch Alley could be kept clear of permanent structures and plantings for the purpose of concerts and other gatherings
    • the northern half of the square could be provided with plantings, providing diffused shade as well as stormwater management. 
(2) Squares from the time of the Renaissance have often gained aesthetic depth and clarity of purpose from internal subdivisions. The loggia form, with its capacity of openness and shelter from the weather, has been associated with markets, including Richmond's First Market, since ancient times. An arcaded structure (loggia) at the central point would not only recall the former archway, but would serve as an engaging market-themed focal point to attract the attention of passers-by. 

Such a structure would, at the same time: 

    • form a gateway to a temporary enfilade of market tents 
    • make a crossing point for the alley 
    • serve as a platform for overlooking or lighting the square
    • creates an opportunity to apply a different character to the northern and southern halves of the square without losing a sense of the whole. 
    • provide shelter during bad weather 
    • serve as an event backdrop

(3) It is important to emphasize that the buildings, not the streets, form the edge of the square. This can be emphasized by blending the paving materials so that the textures and colors minimize the difference between the streets and the central part of the square. For instance, the central area could be paved in granite spallstone in a contrasting pattern, while the brick paving of the sidewalks would be maintained to form a outside border. In the same way, placing most of the streetlights and other furniture along the sidewalks, rather than in the center, will visually confirm the full width of the square. Finally, widening the sidewalk on the east side of the square by 10–12 feet would diminish the apparent width of that street and provide space for outdoor cafes without sacrificing a lane of parking, a key to the success of small businesses around the square.

(4) The essence of a traditional square or piazza is its sense of enclosure, forming what some historians of the city refer to as an “urban room.” Most American squares fail in this regard because they are too large or too open at the corners. The vacancy at the north end of First Market Square will become much more apparent once the existing market shed is removed. This “leaky” north end will make it difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill the promise of the square as an “urban room.” This would be an excellent place to put a new public building. 

A new market building, reminiscent of the old First Market Hall, could be added in a later phase. With an open first floor, it would meet flood control regulations by allowing water to flow through its arcades. A new First Market Hall would permit a more powerful connection with the form of the historic market, reinforcing the sense of place by firmly grounding the square in the local context.


The rehabilitation of First Market Square presented here is intended to be lively, flexible, engaging, and sustainable. In summary, we propose the following interventions:

  • A wide, open plaza at the south half of the square which:
    • permits complete flexibility
    • houses movable furniture for cafes and visitor seating
    • features a broad central area of smooth flagstone
    • has aisles along the sides paved with spallstone to match the adjacent streets
    • has a sunken area in front of the central loggia defining a projecting apron or stage
  • Stone paving designed to reinforce the shape of the market as defined by the building walls on three sides, not by the curbing around the central plaza.
  • A central arched element (loggia) which will:
    • form a focal point when seen from the Main Street
    • serve as a focus and crossing point for Arch (Walnut) Alley
    • recall the archway that formerly spanned the alley midway along the market.
    • provide a backdrop for concerts and other productions taking place in the square
    • separate the square into hierarchical sections with distinct functions and shared forms
    • be small enough not to interrupt the flow of the eye along the full length of the square
    • use forms traditionally associated with markets
    • recall the tripartite form of the Market Hall of 1794
  • A widened sidewalk on the east side of the market will permit outdoor dining. 
  • A green northern half, with a central walk flanked by plantings along the sides, which:
    • is structured to contain temporary market stalls and other uses on specified days
    • permits sustainable plantings to help control conventional water runoff
    • accommodates shade trees along the sides as well as informal seating in the shade
  • An off-center fountain south of the loggia which:
    • recalls the historic early public water source at the market square
    • provides a focal point for seating
    • imparts the refreshing sound and sight of moving water
  • An optional short market shed building extending north of the loggia which could provide a shaded area during the day for regular stall holders and shelter during rainy weather for visitors.
Digital and watercolor renderings by Bay Koulabdara and Richard Worsham 
for StudioAmmons, 2012-2013


These maps showing the development of the Seventeenth Street Market over time 
were prepared at StudioAmmons by Gibson Worsham and Dolly Holmes.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Richard Worsham, Proposed First Market fountain, thesis, Notre Dame, 2011. 
"Even as places like Austin and Seattle are thriving, much of the country is failing to adapt to the demands of the creative age. . . . They pay lip service to the need to "attract talent," but continue to pour resources into recruiting call centers, underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing downtown malls, and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes. Or they try to create facsimiles of neighborhoods or retail districts, replacing the old and authentic with the new and generic---and in doing so drive the creative class away."    Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class
At Urbanismo, we have been putting our heads together this week, sounding out the best way to respond to the Mayor’s announcement of the proposed redevelopment of the 17th Street Market area as the setting for a new baseball field. We have championed the market for years, bought our produce and handmade Christmas wreaths there for decades, and researched its history in considerable detailWe have even adapted it for a master’s thesis towards a degree in architecture. Most recently, we developed a design for its full rehabilitation as a major civic asset, in response to a request for proposals from the city, although our proposal was not selected from among those submitted. All of this attention should have made us feel a little possessive of the currently “down at heel” district, were it possible to “own” a public space that holds such potential for the entire city’s benefit. 

Detail of proposed Shockoe Bottom project, showing the historic Market Square as a redesigned "promenade,"
 a long esplanade leading to the ball park and filled with a meandering "water feature." 

We have decided to focus our attention here on the Market Square itself, rather than the totality of the baseball diamond project, which is already the subject of much contention and  critical attention. This ill-conceived land deal will transform the heart of a gritty, vital urban district into what will be, in essence, a shopping mall development, and an economically risky one at that. It seems to us that the Market Square is the most vulnerable part of this long-contested area known as “Shockoe Bottom.” 

Detail of the "Promenade" to replace the First Market Square
 from the city's official proposal for the Shockoe Bottom Development.  

When the city's intention for First Market Square was described by Lee Downey, Richmond's director of Economic and Community Development as "establishing a 'Shockoe Promenade' that links Main Street to Broad Street," we realized that the city has been approaching the project from exactly the wrong direction all along. The goal of making the "square" into a pass-through to the ballpark is just what is illustrated in the renderings shown above. The new "promenade" represents the transformation of a historic square, with its inimitable textures and special character, into yet another extended suburban-style pedestrian mall. 

The Market Square as polling place in 1865, after the Civil War's end.   

What is remarkable about the Market Square is the astonishing layering that characterizes its historic associations. Only a few of the buildings that define its edges actually date from before 1880, yet the square embodies over 300 years of built history. It has been the scene of celebration, petty crime and public shaming, political rallies, riots, public announcements, parades, and, most of all, the highly regulated sale of the foodstuffs required to feed the households of a city. While the market was not directly associated with the selling of slaves, a function which was mostly carried on, out of sight, a few blocks away, it is, nevertheless, intimately associated with every aspect of Richmond’s history, both good and evil. 

Historic paving at Arch Alley Seen from the Market Square
As part of the rich, bottom-up, market-driven development that has characterized the area along Shockoe Creek since the late seventeenth century, the area around the Seventeenth Street or First Market is an increasingly vital neighborhood in its own right. Most of what is significant about the market area is embedded in its street layout, its pavement, and its shape. The curbing, street pavement, and sidewalks carry its history as strongly as the buildings that surround it. 

While it is very likely that the designs published for the proposed ball park do not accurately represent the final appearance of the Market Square, it is clear that the project's planners treat the square simply as a corridor leading to the ball park. It isn’t acceptable, however, to treat the square as if it was just a link in a grand scheme seen from a privileged, bird’s eye perspective. There are subtle formal and historical distinctions that must be made in order to take full advantage of the gifts this valuable civic resource offers to the city.

Market Square, Richmond, boundaries, 150 x 300 feet, 1793.
The Market Square is made up of at least two parts. The earliest part of the present square is the southern half. Its legal boundaries laid out in 1792. It contained the two-story building that served as the market house, municipal building, assembly hall, records office, and seat of justice. This building was later rebuilt and expanded to the north as far as Franklin Street. Most importantly, its two main sections were linked by a central archway in the form of a tower that spanned “Arch Alley” midway along the market, permitting movement from east to west across the square. The elongated form of the now-vanished market buildings is defined by the cobbled streets and the granite curbing, each of which dates to the heyday of the market in the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the market extended all the way to Grace Street in a series of shed-like buildings that diminished as they moved north.

Market Square in 1889 from Sanborn Map. Note the archway corresponding
to Walnut or Arch Alley.
The square did not evolve as an open piazza. While the edges of the square are formed by building facades on the south, east, and west, there is no closure at the north. The square was meant to be filled with architecture. This does not mean that it cannot be adapted for use as a piazza designed to serve the civic good. It is, however, long and narrow and “leaky” at the corners. Without careful handling, it will appear merely as an unusually wide street running uninterrupted from Main to Grace.

Market Square from Beer's Map of 1876.
We suggest that, if the project isn't going to involve our preferred option, rebuilding the Market Hall, the following points should be considered:   
  • this place has been at the heart of commerce in Richmond for over two hundred years. This area with a growing population should retain a market function, preferably with a number of permanent stalls.
  • it is essential that cars and trucks be, at least during the daylight hours, able to travel along the existing streets through the square. As the recent Richmond Downtown Master Plan indicates, areas without traffic do not feel safe, seem empty, and suffer commercially. 
  • “pedestrianization” sounds humane, but, except in certain high density areas, can be deadly to an area. Cars underline the activity in the area and parked cars even make visitors feel safer on the sidewalks. Keep the cars! 
  • retain existing pavement, not only in the square , but along the adjacent streets that, in some cases, is the principal reminder of the historic context. 
  • pave the central part of the Square to match the granite street pavers and curbs in color, so that the square visually flows from sidewalk to sidewalk. A central granite walkway from north to south could represent the central aisle that defined each of the three previous market halls on the site.
  • keep the brick sidewalks to help define the edge of the square in Richmond's traditional manner, reinforcing the continuity of the city and the square. Paving with one flat plane from one side to the other will look just like Short Pump Mall! 
  • widen the sidewalk in front of the restaurants along the east side of the square, where the street is too wide for comfort. 
  • don’t “brand” the Market Square with aggressively stylized benches, trash receptacles, or light fixtures. Use historic lamp standards less than ten feet tall in order to meet a pedestrian scale.
  • the Market Square is the site of the first public water fountain in Richmond, fed by pipes from a spring on Church Hill. Consider adding a well-designed, substantial, traditional fountain in an off-center location, but not any other sort of “water feature.” 
  • avoid filling the Market Square with franchise restaurants, as is typical in many similar downtown rehabilitation projects (see downtown Chattanooga). Go out of the way to make the Market Square friendly to owner-operated small businesses.  

Shopping yesterday for a Christmas wreath with Lucille Allen (seen at right above) and her son. 
With her sister, Rosa Fleming, she has been selling home-grown vegetables and
hand-made Christmas decorations on the market for more than fifty years. 
In short, by treating the project with the care it deserves, the Market Square can become, once again, as flexible, serviceable, and exciting as any American public square or Italian piazza of today. 

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).