Michael Dennis







    By design as well as by default, the language of modern architecture is alien to the traditional city. If one of the results of this language was the destruction of the city, then surely one of our principal tasks is the development of a language capable of its reconstruction. In fact, the current revival of interest in traditional cities and the search for an expanded architectural and urban vocabulary seem to represent a new sensibility common to several otherwise diverse groups of architects and urbanists. One obvious litmus test of this changing sensibility is a renewed interest in the street. Rationalized in the nineteenth century and banished by Le Corbusier and most of CIAM in the twentieth, the street is undergoing a revival that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The following remarks should be sufficiently illustrative:

    In other terms as well, traditional urban values are being rediscovered and examined. Indeed, it is the attitude toward the city that most clearly distinguishes the last quarter of the twentieth century from the preceding half of modernism. If anything is in a positive sense “postmodern,” it might be the city rather than architecture.

    But architecture can never be separated from urbanism, and it is not surprising that the object building, the domino frame, and the free plan should be inadequate as sole instruments in the formation of the city. However, a return to purely traditional techniques (“Neo-Trad” or “B.C. Beaux-Arts”) is equally untenable. What might be proposed instead is a hybrid architecture for a hybrid city,  an architecture of traditional rooms as well as “modern” space, of facades as well as frames — an architecture that makes urban space as well as consumes it. If the reintroduction of enclosed urban space is the essence of the post-modern city, and if inclusion of both the present and the past is a desirable urban condition, then something similar should define the architecture that is to form this city.


    Fortunately, we are now in possession of not one but two architectural and urban traditions — premodern and modern — and although they may conflict, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Both traditions may on occasion be useful; they might be made to complement each other; and neither need necessarily be disposed of as obsolete cultural debris, nor nostalgically preserved as solution-by-default. Rather, they might be realigned and reexamined as mutually beneficial adjacencies.

    In the premodern (would pre-Englightenment be more accurate?) tradition, the city is generally composed of a hierarchy of articulated spaces supported by a more or less continuous urban fabric or texture. Except for a very few important public buildings, space takes precedence over object. Streets and squares are sacrosant; and it is usually the solids, or buildings, that must absorb and accommodate any urban idiosyncrasies. The architectural analogy to this city is a series of discrete rooms articulated by thick, load-bearing walls. Primary spaces are rationalized, and if anything is left over or subordinate, it is absorbed by solid material or service elements. In the premodern city, the facade mediates between the public and private realms, providing both public closure and private symbol.

    The modern city is the opposite of its ancestor in almost every respect. If the “solid city” of the past and its architecture embody a value system that requires determination from the outside in, then the “tower city” of modern architecture reveals a value system that specifies development from the inside out. This system favors rationalized and articulate solids instead of contiguous ones. As a result, the quantifiable aspects of buildings, such as the structure and service elements, are rationalized and expressed, while the habitable spaces are left over. This same condition is generally true on an urban level, where buildings are articulated as free objects in continuous and largely undifferentiated space. In the modern city, open space absorbs any urban idiosyncrasy; and, because the street has disappeared as an enclosed space, the facade functions only as private symbol.

    Together these two traditions constitute a rich legacy, not a confusing obstacle. They are the conventions that allow invention, and need only will and the recognition of necessity to be activated. Here temper or disposition of mind is critical, for neither system is wholly acceptable. The city requires both public and private accommodation, and it is architecture that must mediate between the two related but not integrated realms. If the two realms are at odds with each other, so much the better; for necessity may then encourage will; and thus a particular state of mind — one which has the capacity to function without the assist of necessity or program — may escape the guilt of capriciousness and be reassured by having acted with social and civic responsibility.



    It might be useful to rearrange history a bit and shake out revised definitions of “old” and “new.” Comparing the projects of Le Corbusier and August Perret for the Palace of the Soviets competition offers reversed definitions. That Le Corbusier may be artistically better only heightens the architectural challenge in the search for the architecture of the cumulative city. James Stirling’s project for the Northrhine-Westphalia Art Museum competition in Düsseldorf (1975) provides an equally important pivot in the late twentieth century. Through its collage of ideas and its acknowledgment of the traditional urban elements of street and square, Stirling’s project confirms a revised agenda for architecture and the city.


    return to top

















    Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1910–1929 (Zurich, 1960), 118. The quote is from "The Street," which originally appeared in L'Intransigéant in May 1929.

    S. Gideon, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge, Mass., 1941), 548.

    Le Corbusier, Concerning Town Planning (London, 1947), 22.

    A. Smithson and P. Smithson, Team 10 Primer (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 78.

    L. Krier, Rational Architecture (Brussells, 1978), 58.

    Le Corbusier, Concerning Town Planning, 22.

    Ibid., 22.

    The Caffé Pedrocchi is for Jorge Silvetti, who first put me on to it.

    The basic equation of the competition for the new Paris Opera was not without contradiction and irony: a socialist government proposed to build a monumental opera house on a small, off-hand infill site adjacent to the irresolute but historically important Place de la Bastille at the opposite end of the main east-west route through Paris from the Place de l'Etoile. For political reasons construction was limited to the designated site boundaries, and unfortunately, this was a fatal flaw. The problem of an opera house at the Place de la Bastille is not so much an architectural problem as it is an urban problem in the most profound formal and cultural sense.

    Regarding the detached building as an urban system, see "Paris discret ou l'autre systeme," Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale 3 (Paris, 1979).

    return to top