I’ve never been to Wiesbaden but I do know that it is a German city of some 275,000, that it is not far from Frankfurt, and that it is famous for the presence of large numbers of US troops, and for its, supposedly curative, thermal springs. Anyway, some time around 1910, the plan of the centre of the city assumed a rather unusual pattern. The buildings being black and the spaces between them white, you will detect at once a rather significant difference between the left (west) and right (east) sides. On the left side are the streets and squares of the old city which had been built and rebuilt to the same pattern for hundreds of years. There are relatively few freestanding buildings; there’s St Bonifatius at centre left, looking south down an enfilade of narrow and wider streets, and there’s the triangular Rathaus or town hall a little to the north east of St B’s, surrounded by the market place. Most of the rest of the left side is made up of an unknown number of individual buildings grouped together into blocks between which lie the streets and occasional squares within which the Wiesbadeners presumably went about their business.
On the right side, in complete contrast, there are no traditional or enclosed streets at all, simply a plethora of isolated buildings, many of them apparently distributed in random order. Apart from the Staatstheater of 1894 and the Kurhaus or thermal baths of 1907 (just right of centre, near the top) most of the rest are private villas built in the second half of the nineteenth century. Of course, those villas were, and still are, distributed along roads and, as far as one can tell from Google Earth, many of those roads look as if they might be quite pleasant; at least there seem to be plenty of trees, which usually helps. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that there has been a fundamental shift in the spatial experience, between the left and right sides of the city.
I will not go so far as to say that the building of large free standing villas was wrong but I will say that I am fairly certain that anyone, rich or poor, walking in the streets and squares of the west side of the city would experience a sense of being within something to which they belonged, in some sense a ‘nest’. I am equally certain that anyone, apart perhaps from the owners of the villas themselves, would not experience the same sense of belonging in the east side of the city. I think most of us would there feel ourselves in some sort of ‘no man’s land’.
Of course, we’re beginning to touch on fundamental questions of what a city is and who it is for. That, naturally, is a political question but it is not one where it is necessary to side with either the rich or the poor, a point well made a few years later in Paris.
Sponsored, significantly, by the luxury Automobile brand Avions Voisin, Le Corbusier drew up, in 1925, his Plan Voisin for the centre of Paris.
You can see the Ile de la Cite and the Ile St Louis at the bottom. For the rest, the stark contrasts in the arrangements of buildings and spaces are rather similar to those of Wiesbaden, but with two crucial differences. Firstly, Corb’s plan to rip the centre out of Paris and replace it with a series of sixty storey cruciform tower blocks set in open park land was not, mercifully, built. And, secondly, his intention was, at least in part, to find an answer to some of the appalling slums and provide clean, light homes and offices for working Parisian citizens. So you see that this change in the way we think about cities is not always something which the rich do at the expense of the poor. It is far more fundamental than that.
In coming posts, I expect to explore some of the reasons why this shift has taken place, reasons including the rise of the automobile (why not just say “car”?), the advent of Town Planning, different ways in which architects are educated, the dissemination of architectural ideas through photography, tourism and the rise of ‘celebrity culture’.
For the moment, I only want to make the point that this issue is not just one of passing historical interest. It seems to me that how we make our cities is genuinely important for all citizens now and, even more important, it is something which, for the first time in history, citizens can do something about, thanks to the internet.
It is no longer necessary for all citizens to be the victims of politicians, planners, highways engineers, architects, developers or big businesses. It is quite within the power of the internet and a few tens of thousands of followers to effect genuine change, a sort of ‘Place Spring’. Oh come off it!, you may think. But how often do you walk through your own city or town and feel that sense of contentment and belonging that you feel wandering through the streets of an old city? This is not about style, it is not about what buildings look like. It is just about how we allow buildings to be placed relative to one another on the surface of our earth, about whether a city should be a collection of objects or a sequence of places.
And, admitting, unshamefacedly, to my ambition for this blog, if I can persuade enough intelligent interested citizens to see their city for what it has become and to imagine how it might be, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t make a huge difference. Of course, there are many individuals and organisations who are already committed to improving our cities. There are conferences and courses, books and White Papers, initiatives and charities which attempt to address the plight and pleasures of cities in all their complexity. So far, though, I have yet to meet anyone with the sole aim of encouraging such a simple change of mindset as I am attempting here to achieve, to perceive the place created (or more often just left) between buildings, rather than the buildings themselves, to ask whether that place is more like a nest or a no man’s land, and, whenever the opportunity arises to expect better. People need Places!