News & Opinion

Global City Blues


Review by Robert Steuteville


June 2003

Issue Date:

Sun, 2003-06-01

Page Number:


By Daniel Solomon

Island Press, 2003, 227 pp. Hardcover, $24.

Daniel Solomon is a modernist and a new urbanist, and this makes him a rarity. Not many other new urbanists are so committed to the modernist design aesthetic. His new book, Global City Blues, is part history of Modernism and part personal journey of a modernist’s appreciation and understanding of urbanism. Solomon offers solutions to one of the New Urbanism’s knottiest problems — how to reconcile modernist architecture and traditional urbanism.

Having spent much of the last decade reading and listening to debates on that subject, I can say that Solomon offers original and compelling ideas in Global City Blues — although I wasn’t always convinced by his arguments. The book takes the form of 33 linked essays — a structure that could be tiresome in the hands of a less skillful storyteller. Solomon brings these essays together to form a narrative spanning eight decades, and sometimes stretching back even further, as with the history of San Francisco’s multiple street grids. The characters are what makes this book come to life — they include Colin Rowe, the late director of Cornell’s architecture school; Catherine Bauer, the dynamic housing reformer of the 1930s; urban critic Lewis Mumford; and many others.

Solomon himself is a character in Global City Blues. We meet him, for example, in the early 1960s as a youthful architect intoxicated with abstract modernist notions, such as Sigfried Giedion’s concept that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity permanently changed architecture. “When people said they hated what the [then-new Embarcadero] freeway did to the city, how it ruined the waterfront, how dark, dirty, and noisy it was, I thought they just didn’t get it. They had not even read Giedion. They had failed to become kinetic observers, and they were stuck in modes of perception that were completely out of date. I believed that not liking the Embarcadero Freeway in 1960 was like not liking Picasso in 1914, a short-lived philistine rejection of a prophetic but not yet familiar way of seeing.”

Solomon, San Francisco, and the field of architecture have come a long way in the last four decades. The Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, was replaced by a “beautiful boulevard,” and nobody shed a tear. Certainly nobody was making weird arguments for the freeway’s value based on the relation of architecture to physics.

Turning points
Two things changed the direction of Solomon’s career. One was working on an update of San Francisco’s planning code in the mid-1970s. “The work we (principally Mark Winogrond of the planning department and I) produced was a proposal for some 28 changes to the Planning Code based on simple, commonsense observations about the differences between the old city fabric that people liked and the new one that people detested,” Solomon explains. In other words, Solomon and Winogrond used a strategy that would become a standard approach of new urbanists.

The second turning point was reading Collage City by Fred Koetter and Rowe, an architectural theorist who, along with a few others like Leon Krier and Christopher Alexander, heavily influenced new urbanists. Solomon describes Rowe’s figure/ground drawings, or “black plans,” which dramatically highlight the negative space between buildings. Rowe went against the grain of modernist orthodoxy by maintaining that context — the relation between buildings — is at least as important as, and maybe more important than, the design of buildings themselves.

Global City Blues offers some useful insights into modernist precedents that produced good urbanism, and into why they were successful. New urbanists might examine the work of the “Red Vienna” architects between the world wars, cities such as Tel Aviv and Vancouver, and the work of British architect Michael Hopkins, he says. New urbanist work such as Addison Circle, Legacy Town Center, and the reconstruction of Berlin are also worth emulation, he adds. Solomon argues that the modernist rejection of the notion of style has done tremendous damage to both modern architecture and cities. “It is the concept of style” Solomon writes, that allows architects “to be interested in the new, but not obsessively, and interested in the past, but not slavishly.”

Solomon is less convincing when he discusses traditional architecture. He goes to great lengths to offer a refutation of the architecture based on time, and yet he is somewhat dismissive of “mere historicism.” I get the sense that Solomon’s early architectural training instilled prejudices against traditional design that still are reflected in inconsistent arguments.

Solomon recognizes, for example, that real scholarship went into the design of traditional houses in Celebration. But he can’t bring himself to say much that is good about Disney’s new town. Yet Global City Blues also lavishes great praise on Hope VI public housing projects, many of which use exactly the same techniques and materials as Celebration — the UDA Pattern Book, Hardiplank, vinyl, and simulation stucco. Celebration is something of a whipping boy in the book, yet Hope VI is the greatest new government building program in a half century. A similar inconsistency shows up in Solomon’s take on inexpensive materials — which apparently are okay in high-density modern architecture in infill locations but not in a new town.

Global City Blues bemoans the power of marketers, value engineers, and code enforcers, which he dubs the “Tribunal of the Grand Inquisitors.” Ultimately, architects cannot defeat these three, and can only achieve some kind of uneasy coexistence, Solomon believes. The most effective strategy, he says, is urbanism. First and foremost in this regard is the restoration of the street wall. Solomon also favors the strategy of building at a smaller scale (restoring traditional lot lines) and bringing life to the center of blocks. Solomon argues for a “density of detail” to bring liveliness to buildings — even modern buildings using inexpensive materials.

Global City Blues adds an important perspective to the literature of New Urbanism.

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