CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Viewpoints

Esthetics as Preservation in the Urban Renewal Landscape

by Alison B. Hirsch

This essay introduces the 1960s urban context that incited James Marston Fitch’s catalytic preservation efforts. Specifically, it presents how three landscape architects of the time were reacting to the institution of urban renewal programs. This small number of landscape architects working in the city attempted to preserve the human habitability of the urban environment, and restore the city as a place of social interaction and exchange. By restoring the experiential richness of the inherited city, their efforts paralleled those working for the tangible preservation of architectural fabric.

Fitch was passionately devoted to the city as a “generator of civilization.” In his essay “In Defense of the City” (1960-1961), he writes:

[The city] promised music, dancing, theater, and spectacle… But beneath all of these was the city’s most splendid gift: a range of choice, an entire spectrum of possible lines of action… Personal face-to-face contact; daily exposure to the friction of competitive ideas; continual exchange of information and opinion…1

When he set up the historic preservation program at Columbia, it was not driven by senseless nostalgia for the past, but as “critical to man’s psychic and emotional well-being.” Fitch believed that increasing interest in historic preservation was “an expression of [man’s] growing sense of alienation in his radically changing personal environment.” He established the program in response to this “psychic disorientation as a result of physical displacement.”2 Esthetics became a strategy for Fitch—to achieve reconnection, reorientation, and re-immersion in the environment experienced as a “multidimensional totality.” The ultimate aim of architecture, according to Fitch, was shaping the environment to the holistic satisfaction of humans’ psychological and physiological requirements.

At the same time Fitch was developing the field of historic preservation, a small number of landscape architects were attempting to accomplish similar goals in reaction to the same degenerating urban condition. To reorient people to their environment, and re-stimulate their cognitive and perceptual participation, landscape architects employed other place-based responses to urban renewal, demonstrating a similar a passion for the inherited city and its opportunities for chance and choice, encounter, and exchange.

The interdisciplinary firm Lawrence Halprin & Associates was composed of designers and artists, social scientists, and ecologists who devoted themselves to reorienting people to the alienating environment of urban renewal America. In 1967, the firm was commissioned to evaluate the environmental quality of six renewal projects executed in New York City. In the resultant report, “New York, New York: A Study of the Quality, Character, and Meaning of Open Space in Urban Design,” Halprin demonstrates the diminished balance within the figure-ground relationship or the loss of the fine-grained neighborhood scale and the dynamic complexity inherent to a healthy city.3 His diagrams demonstrate how one might re-knit these “figures” into the larger urban network through a consideration of the neglected “ground,” within which he considered a socialized public life should play out. (Figure 1)

By inviting psychologists and other social scientists to participate as consultants, Halprin studied community members’ behavioral response to the new developments and, from the findings, articulated alternatives. The report includes a section on “Ethnic Variation,” which claims that unique ethnic community structure should be recognized and enforced by renewal planning. Halprin’s friend and consultant to the project, anthropologist Dr. Edward T. Hall, analyzed the spatial community patterns of individual ethnic groups and called for the retention or preservation of these patterns in renewal schemes. To justify this potentially controversial proposal, the authors state:

Though this idea of ethnic individuality may be in conflict with the ‘American’ concept of integration of cultural and economic groups, we recommend it, if only for its allowance of choice—that most important of freedoms. The validity of the melting pot where every group gave up its characteristics in favor of a single uniformity is becoming more questionable.4

The biological idea of “Complexification” is featured as one of the report’s most significant recommendations. Halprin applies biological theories to the social landscape by explaining how all biotic communities evolve from a state of simplicity to a stable state of complexity. About this urban ecosystem, he states: “Complexification and diversity are a biological imperative. Isolation and similarity breed stupidity. Interaction and variety encourage creativity.”5 In other words, Halprin insisted on restoring the possibilities of chance and choice in what had become “a labyrinth of endless similarities,” in the words of geographer Edward Relph.6

In addition, Halprin designed public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s that serve as dynamic counterpoints to the bleakness of surrounding renewal development, such as in Portland, Oregon. The series of plazas linked by designed pedestrian passages were part of the 1960s South Auditorium Renewal Area, which had previously been a dense and vibrant immigrant neighborhood that had been razed. The open space network was designed to stimulate environmental participation, attempting to satisfy our psychological and physiological requirements through an emphasis on the kinesthetic effects of varying levels, materials, textures, and forms.

M. Paul Friedberg is another landscape architect carefully attuned to the restoration of cities as “intensely interactive arenas of socialization.”7 Like Halprin, he was invited to projects after clearance had already occurred and was asked to remediate or alleviate disorientation caused by displacement and relocation into alien and often hostile environments. In his book, Play and Interplay of 1970, Friedberg proposes a concept of “linked play” to restore the environment of choice, complexity, and social interaction. Friedberg’s theories on play targeted all ages. The transformation of the city’s “leftover spaces”—vacant lots, alleyways, and small parks—into a network of vital and stimulating places would offer a reorienting sense of continuity in the urban environment and would re-knit the city back together. One iconic example of Friedberg’s work is the now-demolished Jacob Riis Plaza (built 1964-1965) around New York’s Jacob Riis public housing towers, which were previously perfect examples of the “tower-in-the-park” typology. The matrix of active and quiet intimate spaces included, in Friedberg’s words, “an enclosed garden abandoned by the elderly, but taken over by teen-agers hungry for privacy; an amphitheater serving as a play space, theater, spray pool, or sitting area; a plaza for checkers or quiet socializing; a playground where play is more than just a physical exercise.”8

The most widely cited element of this design is, of course, the playground, designed for hard active wear and little maintenance. Friedberg condensed a mountain, a tunnel, and a tree house into a single play environment linked by planks, cable, ropes, slides, and climbing bars. In Play and Interplay, he claims, The moving from one experience to the next is an experience in itself. The choice of what to do next becomes an experience. The more complex the playground, the greater the choice and the more enriched the learning experience… The concept of linked play provides play activity far beyond [a] number of play pieces employed in isolation.9

Friedberg proposed linking the plaza to Tompkins Square Park by permanently closing two streets to through traffic, and redesigning them with the same rich inventiveness.

The plaza was demolished in the 1990s and the new design includes all the telltale signs of today’s preoccupation with safety. Friedberg claims the plaza’s demolition was “the rejection of faith in people... It suggests that people should be denied the use of their own space. It only addresses the symptoms of the problem.”10

Karl Linn serves as the final example demonstrating the alliance between preservation and urban landscape architectural practice in the 1960s. As Jews living in Germany, Linn’s family was forced to flee to Palestine in the 1930s. Like Halprin, Linn founded a kibbutz in Israel, after which he headed to Switzerland to train as a psychoanalyst. He immigrated to New York in 1948, to study the body-oriented therapy developed by Wilhelm Reich. Yet with a background in agriculture and gardening, Linn ultimately entered the “healing” profession of landscape architecture. In 1959 he accepted Ian McHarg’s invitation to join the faculty of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at Penn that Linn developed his concept of the “Neighborhood Commons,” in response to the physical conditions of ghettoized environments and the disruptive effects of urban renewal programs on the urban poor.

With his students, Linn worked with underserved communities of Philadelphia to develop these “Commons” on the vacant lots that were tangible reminders of municipal neglect. At Melon Commons in North Philadelphia, for instance, Linn and his students initially took a community resource inventory to find out what skills people had, what tools they owned, and how people in that neighborhood used or appropriated space. Based on the availability of resources, they tried to articulate a design that the people could implement using salvaged material from sweeping urban renewal demolitions in these areas. About improvising with such salvage, Linn claimed:

In human habitat… the incremental historical deposits of a place imbue the physical environment with a feeling of timelessness. Residues of former buildings, trees, and landscape features create an air of familiarity. ‘Historic’ building materials bearing the imprint of use and weather confer a sense of relatedness, which is often sorely lacking in new constructions.11

Melon Commons was demolished in the late 1960s. Because Linn’s interventions might be deemed grassroots, in contrast to the city-sanctioned interventions of Halprin and Friedberg, many of the commons were quickly razed in the name of continuing “renewal.” Yet Linn argues for the value of such spaces in the city:

People are alienated from their physical environment if they are unable to leave their personal imprints on their immediate surroundings. Relegating human beings to the role of passive spectators of their environment threatens their mental equilibrium…12

Each of these designers were interested in restoring the social life of the city, largely through the deployment of an esthetic approach, as defined by Fitch. Their place-based efforts were intended to re-engage human participation in the environment by offering creative opportunities for choice, involving communities in the process of design, and inspiring curiosity, playful exploration, and sensory stimulation. They introduced dynamic active spaces into the homogenizing environment, rather than passive palliatives or visual backdrops. Thus the disappearance of Friedberg’s Jacob Riis Plaza, Linn’s neighborhood commons, and Halprin’s Skyline Park, another plaza built to alleviate the pains of urban renewal, begs the question: Is there a place in the city for these optimistic spaces intended to cultivate utmost habitability in the shifting city? And, are these places painful reminders of the dislocations of urban renewal or do they continue to have value as part of the open space systems of today, perhaps by providing yet another layer of choice?

About the Author

Alison B. Hirsch received her M.S. in Historic Preservation and her Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a Lecturer in the Landscape Architecture Department of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She may be contacted at abhirsch@design.upenn.edu.

Notes

1. Reprinted in Martica Sawin, ed., James Marston Fitch, Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment (New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 2006), 260-261.

2. From James Marston Fitch, “The Philosophy of Restoration: Williamsburg to the Present,” 1992-1993, reprinted in Sawin, 174-176.

3. Lawrence Halprin & Associates, “New York, New York: A Study of the Quality, Character, and Meaning of Open Space in Urban Design” (prepared for The City of New York & Housing and Development Administration, March 1968). Jane Jacobs, among others, served as a consultant to the study.

4. Ibid., 53.

5. Ibid., 108-109.

6. Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (London, Pion, 1976).

7. M. Paul Friedberg, “Looking Back,” Process: Architecture, n. 82 (May 1989): 12.

8. M. Paul Friedberg, Play & Interplay: A Manifesto for New Design in Urban Recreational Environment (London, The Macmillan Co., Collier-Macmillan Ltd., 1970), 173.

9. Ibid., 45.

10. Quoted in “Lost in Translation,” by Paul Bennett, Landscape Architecture 56, n. 3 (May-June 2004): 39.

11. Karl Linn, Building Commons and Community (Oakland, New Village Press, 2007), 84-85.

12. Karl Linn, “Neighbourhood Commons,” Ekistics 27, n. 158 (Jan. 1969): 65.