Embracing diversity — and cities

August 11, 2010

The widespread back-to-the-city movement is being spurred by more than just a reaction to the spread of sprawl. Another draw is urban character.

A seminar sponsored recently by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects provided a forum for exploring this subject, and related ones. While it is a widely held belief that cities are inherently more interesting than the suburbs, it was enlightening to hear this view expressed by an architect and an architectural critic. The architect was Joseph Valerio of the Chicago-based firm of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates. The architectural critic was Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe.

Valerio set the stage for his remarks by suggesting that the whole romantic vision of suburbia could be disturbed by the unruliness of an uncut lawn. The inherent tolerance of the city, on the other hand, is in part a function of the density and the relentlessness of its street grids, according to Valerio. "The city is a marvelously flexible, embracing entity," he said. "A city street has the strength to accept and embrace all manner of disobedient and unruly behavior. That's not true in the suburbs.

"The city provides a great platform for innovation in architecture," Valerio continued. "You can get away with a lot of things you couldn't get away with in a suburban environment." Valerio views the city "as a laboratory for this kind of exercise. I think we should take advantage of it, and experiment as much as we can. We're going to build some ugly buildings — I know that I have — but I think that in the end, we'll build a lot of very good buildings."

Campbell expanded on Valerio's theme. "The suburbs since World War II have been predicated on the desire for predictability," he said. "Everything about the suburbs is about predictability. You get in your car and program it down the asphalt track to recreate, then to shop, and then to make money. Nothing accidental happens along the way.

"The city is the place of the accidental encounter, the unchosen, the unpredictable. That's what distinguishes it from suburban life. If you're afraid of unpredictability, you don't belong in the city."

Campbell also called for "an argumentative architecture" in our cities, to enliven the ongoing discussion over what constitutes good architecture.

The renewed influence of cities is documented by the 2000 Census. Only two of the 10 largest U.S. cities — Detroit and Philadelphia — lost population between 1990 and 2000. The remainder of the largest cities gained residents, ranging from an increase of 4 percent in Chicago to a whopping 34 percent in Phoenix. Three Texas cities — Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — recorded gains of 18 percent or more. The largest cities in order are New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit.

As the revitalization of cities continues, the comments of Valerio and Campbell remind us of the fundamental need for building designs to reflect their environment, and of the influential role that cities play in fostering design innovation.


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