Two blocks south, a fine row of houses on Benton Street shows one of the many possibilities of the urban street.
These houses were once part of a similar streetscape.
What Makes It "Urban"?
I wanted to investigate ways to rebuild a city block without just flattening what's there already. I wanted to look at the character of the neighborhood, and of all these beautiful old buildings that are still there, and try to really respond to them and enhance them. And I wanted to demonstrate one possible way to rebuild the city as a true urban environment.
To do this, one must first grasp the physical differences between an urban and a suburban environment.
In the suburban environment, buildings stand clearly separated from one another. We see them in isolation. We perceive them as objects -- ideally, a jewel or crown surrounded by a neutral setting, a yard or a field. St. Louis's Art Museum and Planetarium (both city examples, ironically) are examples of this ideal. What happens more often, however, is that the setting is so overrun with bland buildings and signs and car-filled parking lots, loosely piled together, that it all blends together into an inhospitable slurb -- neither defined space nor a set of defined objects.
In city neighborhoods, however, buildings close ranks, and begin to define space instead of occupying it. The city becomes a series of outdoor rooms, which are defined and given character by the buildings. The ultimate examples of this are the "concrete canyons" of downtowns like New York and Chicago, but more important are the human-scaled spaces of city neighborhoods.
In much of St. Louis, those outdoor rooms have fallen apart. The buildings that once defined them are largely gone. We see the survivors in a way they were never meant to be seen. These old houses are social creatures. They need their neighbors. They want to be part of a context. They are not designed for an environment with large tracts of empty land; they are meant to sit on a fairly minimal lot, lowering the buyer's cost, and allowing more houses to be built on a given amount of land, maximizing the developer's profit. The fronts are dressed up, made for the public realm. The sides are undecorated, not meant to be seen; the vast exposed brick party wall is a raw wound, a faux pas. The ideal result is a space that
But there is far more than just the physical implications. Urban design also permits density, and with it a whole host of developments that cannot exist in suburbia: mass transit. Small independent businesses, the kind that thrive on foot traffic. Walkable neighborhoods. Chance encounters. The rich cultural and social diversity of city life.
The sense of enclosed space, together with the building types that define that space, is what gives a city its physical character. The more of these houses are lost, the more of that character slips away.
My project was intended to be a counterattack to this trend --- as should be any urban housing project. The rising clamor for urbanism begins with the claim that emulating suburbia will never bring the city back to life; it assumes that high density and active street life are the key ingredients of a functional city. It explores an approach to creating an urban living environment that balances high density with quality of space. It is a fight to respect context -- to build on the lessons of the old. It is a fight against context -- against scattered, disunified, anti-urban development like that now rising around the project site. It is a fight to remake context -- a call for the revival of architecturally shaped urban street, for the recreation of the city not as a scattering of carelessly realized "object buildings", but as a collection of designed spaces.