The Generic City
Hitchcock Lecture 1
Berkeley, 20 April 2015
Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure and an even greater honor to be here, and to join this extraordinary series of Hitchcock Professors who have come to Berkeley over the last hundred years. For all that we are invited here to give of our knowledge, I suspect that most Hitchcock professors have received far more than they have given from the opportunity to spend some time on this great campus, and I know that will be my case as well, and so I am very grateful for this invitation to be here.
I am going to talk this week about cities, and what they mean right now in our culture, and what we can make of them now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century—about what cities are now, and about what they ought to be. I should tell you now, at the outset, that I have decided to make this talk something of a revolt against the thing that seems now all too often to define the modern lecture, which is PowerPoint. I am going to do something that is rare in the realm of lectures, and particularly rare in the realm of lectures that have some connection to architecture and architectural history, which is to talk without images. I think a lot of the things I will be talking about will be familiar to most of you—some of them are even right here, and are places you know better than I do—but I’m doing this mainly because I would prefer to talk about some ideas about the city more than to show you a parade of images of it. I think you have enough images in your head to understand where I will be going over the next few minutes. And the other reason I have decided to steer clear of PowerPoint is because I am not interested in using it to throw data at you. We are deluged with data today, and while much of it is useful and some of it even has the added benefit of being true, I don’t think the points I want to make are best explained by a cascade of numbers.
Today’s talk is entitled “The Generic City: Can the Twenty-first Century Ever Build Special Places?” a question that is not entirely rhetorical, I hope. Tomorrow I will talk about “The Creative City: Why Cities Remain the Catalysts of Creativity” and I recognize that there might seem to be a bit of a contradiction between these two topics. Obviously these two talks are conceived as a pair, but it would be a mistake to think of the first as pessimistic, intended to suggest that the city today is nothing but a generic, banal place, the victim of the global monoculture, and that the talk that I will give tomorrow is optimistic, intended to make the point that everything is fine after all, because good things happen in these dreary places. It is not nearly so simple as that, and I’m not sure, in the end, that it wouldn’t be more accurate to say that today and tomorrow I will be looking at the same subject through slightly different lenses, and showing how it is possible to look at the contemporary city and come to very different conclusions about what it is, how it functions, and what it means for our culture.
But that is getting ahead of the story. Let me start by going back forty or fifty years, to the cities of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when in the United States and in much of the rest of the world, if you did a free association test with the word “urban” the answer you would probably come up with most often was “crisis.” Or “problem.” Or “challenge.” The urban crisis was a given; cities were harsh, dirty and dangerous, and in this country, at least, if you could afford to live somewhere else, you quite often did. The Asian cities that now loom so large were large, but they did not loom; they had very little to do with the global economy, and they were technologically backward. The major cities on the world stage were American, and European, and a great many of them were a mess.
I began my professional life in New York in the 1970’s, and when I talk about it, I realize that the city I remember from my twenties is as disconnected from the reality of what students know today as the world of the Depression that my parents and grandparents talked about was disconnected from the reality that I knew. I don’t know that New York in the 1970’s was as truly horrific as it was made out to be in the various movies of the age, like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 or Taxi Driver, but it wasn’t pretty. It was dirty, and ill kempt. The subway, though it wasn’t too dangerous to ride in, was dirty and full of graffiti and various unsavory types, especially at night, and it had a weird tendency to stop between stations, mysteriously, as if the equipment had broken down, and there was either no announcement of what the problem is, or a message over a malfunctioning PA system that sounded sort of like “AAARHNFHRKFFO.”
In those days I worked at The New York Times, which was located, logically enough, at Times Square, which was not the prettified, somewhat Disneyfied tourist environment it is now. It was more of an amalgam of sleazy movie theaters, many pornographic, strip tease joints, massage parlors, pickpockets, muggers, you name it, all wrapped in a dazzling array of lights and signs. I remember from time to time seeing the occasional tourist wandering around, dazed and confused, and wanting to say to them, “Can’t I take you to the Metropolitan Museum? The Museum of Modern Art? Somewhere else so you don’t think that this is all there is to New York?”
You really did feel that the public realm was in disarray, that no one was in charge, or that the people who were nominally in charge had no power to fix what was broken, that even the best of the public officials seemed rather hapless, bewildered by the challenges they faced. We seemed unable to keep Central Park clean and safe, let alone the subway system, and while there were occasional extravaganzas that distracted everyone from the immediate problems at hand, such as the famous “Be-ins” in Central Park that attracted thousands, often to protest the Vietnam war—remember, this was the 1960’s—these events, inspiring though they were, only caused Frederick Law Olmsted’s astonishingly great work of landscape to deteriorate further, because nobody was putting any money into maintenance, and the park, like everything else, was falling apart.
Large corporations wanted none of any of this, and dozens of them moved their headquarters out of the city—most often, as the great urbanologist William H. Whyte discovered, to a suburban location in Connecticut or Westchester County or New Jersey that just happened to be within a few miles of where the chief executive lived. Now there, I admit, is a piece of data that was quite useful to have turned up.
The city seemed to be losing not only its middle class, which has always struggled somewhat under urban pressures, but its upper class, the people who in past generations had sailed blithely over everything and everyone else. It was terrifyingly easy to buy fancy real estate, because so few people wanted it. You could buy great apartments on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park for $100,000, or even less—a sum that today in New York won’t buy you a one-room studio apartment in a marginal neighborhood. If things were happening anywhere, it was in places like Houston, where there was still plenty of money and a fundamentally suburban, corporate culture that had only minimal interest in what we might call, or came to call later, a culture of urbanism, a culture of cities.
Let me talk for a moment about that culture, which was hardly limited to Houston. It was really the American culture, and it was a culture whose fundamental characteristic, at least so far as urbanism was concerned, was that it valued the private realm over the public realm. The public realm, such as it was, was disdained, distrusted, or ignored. I’m not sure it was even really understood, because when the public realm was really functioning in the great days of American urbanism, the decades before World War II, it was just a natural thing that people took for granted, like the air you breathed and the water you drank. You didn’t think you were “experiencing the public realm” when you walked down Main Street and went shopping, or when you took a stroll in the park; these were just the natural things that you did, and I don’t think there was much consciousness of how important it was, because it seemed like such a natural part of life, not just in a big city but in a small town or village, where the parks and village squares and sidewalks lined with stores were as much a part of life as the schools and the churches and the houses.
But by the 1950’s, we had begun to stop investing in this; we weren’t conscious of how much the public realm meant, how it was really the most important thing that the city could possibly symbolize, had always symbolized, which is the idea of common ground, the notion that the city expresses in physical form the commonweal, and that the public realm stands for the way in which our diverse, complex society can come together, not by papering over our differences but by acknowledging them and, by so doing, helping us to transcend them. These are always our aspirations, and it is in the nature of the city to facilitate them by privileging public space over private space.
But come the 1960’s and 1970’s, as with Central Park, so it was through much of the United States: we couldn’t even take care of the public realm we had, let alone build any more of it. We didn’t seem to want to build more of it—that’s my real point, that society seemed to have given up on caring about the notion of public space, the idea of the commonweal as being represented by our common public realm.
The suburbs, and the automobile culture, of course, do the exact opposite of this—they privilege private space over public space. And while I don’t mean to lay all of our urban issues at the foot of the automobile, there is no question that it has been a nearly constant enemy of cities—that there is something about the urban idea and something about the automobile that are in some fundamental way incompatible. When you make the city work well for the automobile, it almost invariably works less well for the pedestrian. The car is itself a form of private space, and when you are in it, you are disconnected from everything except that which you choose to connect yourself to, be it music, conversation, your smart phone, or, as is increasingly the situation with children sitting in the back seat, television, all of which somehow seem to have the effect not only of disconnecting people in a car from the world around them, but also from each other.
I am not here to rant about the automobile, as I said, or about technology, but it is hard not to think that, so far as the meaning of urban space is concerned, technology does not connect us, as we like to think, but separates us. Cars are private pods zipping around in public space, rendering it effectively private; but then again, people on telephones and listening to their iPods are in private space as well, disconnected from the people and the environment that is all around them.
The automobile and of course also the airplane changed our sense of place by making us mobile, and less wedded to a single place as our ancestors were, but the technology of today goes that one better, and allows us – wherever we may physically be – to function as if we were somewhere else. In effect, technology allows you to have a virtual presence anywhere, which is wonderful until you realize that this has the result, in some ways, of making you feel like you are less where you really are. And it makes all places seem more or less the same.
You know, once your very telephone number was a kind of badge of place, a sign of where you were. You couldn’t be reached unless you actually were in that place, on that piece of earth connected to that telephone, an instrument that we now quaintly call a “landline.” It’s increasingly common, I realize, for cell phone conversations today to begin with the question, “Where are you?” and for the answer, of course, to be anything from “out by the pool” to “Madagascar.” I don’t miss the age when phone charges were based on distance, but that did have the beneficial effect of reinforcing a sense that places were distinguishable from one another. Now, with your cell phone, calling across the street and calling from New York to California are precisely the same thing. They cost the same because, to the phone, they are the same. Every place is exactly the same as every other place. They are all just nodes on a network – and so, increasingly, are we. That is my point. Before we even get into the question of whether all places are physically the same, the idea I have called the Generic City, we can see that all places are equally accessible, and that wherever we are, we are no longer rooted in that place in a way that we once were. We may be physically in one place, but we are virtually anywhere, and everywhere.
Before we move on from technology I would like to come back for a moment to the automobile, and make another point that connects to the arguments Dr. Richard Jackson of UCLA has been making for years, which is that places in which people drive all the time are inherently unhealthy. If you need to walk, you will, and as a consequence, you are healthier. If you don’t need to walk, you probably won’t, or at least you will walk a lot less, and you will be less healthy. Health of course correlates to many things and not just this, but Dr. Jackson has done a vital service to the world of architecture and planning in giving us another reason for believing that the traditional, dense, pedestrian-oriented city is a good thing. Many architects and planners have believed this for a long time, and from time to time there has been other evidence about the benefits to the social fabric inherent in denser, pedestrian oriented towns and villages, not to mention the benefits in terms of energy use and sustainability. But Dr. Jackson has shown us that the greatest sustainability benefit we get from traditional cities is that we ourselves are sustained, because we are healthier. There, I concede, is another instance in which hard data is useful, even though I am not focusing on quantifiable data this afternoon.
I would like, instead, to talk about the nature of place, and what gives a place its identity. Here in the Bay area, that question is an easy one—it is the bay itself, the natural landscape of the hills, the landmarks of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the tower on this campus, the Maybeck buildings and the other classic buildings of Berkeley, just for a start. We could go on and on. No one has ever confused the Bay area with anyplace else, so in a way, this is an odd place in which to be talking about this problem, because it barely seems to be a problem here.
But let’s go down the peninsula a bit, to Silicon Valley, to San Jose, to Mountain View and Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Stanford aside, it is a landscape that looks pretty much like other landscapes; until recently at least, when a whole new wave of building began, there wasn’t much to tell you that this was the place in which the world was being remade, in which the technology of the 21st century was being developed and the great fortunes of our time made. What it was, for most of it, was a banal suburban landscape, a place that looked like other places—and, I should add, a place that depended, almost entirely, on the automobile.
Indeed, for a long time, the most notable thing about the appearance of Silicon Valley was how ordinary it was, how much it looked like everyplace else, or at least like every other collection of reasonably prosperous American suburbs. Yes, it has Stanford with its vast and beautiful campus, and some handsome mountain scenery marking its western edge, but the rest of the place, as you probably know from this side of the Bay, has always been made up of places that could have been almost anywhere else, like the 101 freeway and the strip malls and supermarkets and car dealerships and motels and low-rise office parks. Even after a few people began doing unusual things in their garages, and other people started inventing things in the university’s laboratories, and even after some of these turned into the beginnings of large corporations, some of which became successful beyond anyone’s imagination—even then, Silicon Valley still didn’t look very different from everyplace else. It was a landscape of freeways and strip malls. There was certainly nothing about it that told you it was the place that had generated more wealth than anywhere else in our time—or, more to the point, the place that seemed to demonstrate more creative imagination than any other place in our time.
You could go so far as to say that, at least for a while, a determined indifference to the physical world seemed an inherent part of the identity of Silicon Valley. In the same way that you don’t expect computer geeks to pay much attention to their wardrobes, it didn’t seem odd that the Valley towns had a dull, Anywhere U.S.A. veneer, or that the biggest and most successful companies seemed to operate out of low-rise buildings that looked as if they had been built off the Long Island Expressway to house insurance agencies. It wasn’t just because most of them started out on a shoestring and took what space they could, progressing from the garage to random office space wherever they could find it. It was also because, Steve Jobs aside, most people in Silicon Valley didn’t care much about what things looked like. Buildings were a kind of “whatever,” just like clothing, which is why the first Silicon Valley structures were to architecture as the fleece vest or hoodie is to haberdashery.
All of this is now changing rapidly in a couple of ways. There is a surge of interest in ambitious pieces of architecture in Silicon Valley, driven partly by Steve Jobs’s desire shortly before his death to create a home for Apple that would be as refined a work of design as Apple’s products are. The new Apple headquarters by Norman Foster looks rather too much like an Apple product, I think; it is an object more than a work of architecture, an iPod blown up to gargantuan scale. But that is another discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Apple raised the bar, and Facebook followed, commissioning Frank Gehry to design a new complex that has just been finished, and now Google is beginning work on a new headquarters designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, the Copenhagen architect now resettled in New York, and Thomas Heatherwick, the London designer. These companies are now so large, and there is so much money connected to them, and more importantly, so much determination to play a conspicuous role in the culture, that architecture inevitably had to enter the picture. The people whose job it is to make the virtual world for us had to acknowledge that they wanted a better presence in the real world. How successful all of this will be remains to be seen, but it is surely making Silicon Valley far less the generic, almost banal environment that it has been for so long.
The other way in which this is changing is arguably more important, but I will talk more about it tomorrow, since it involves a profound change in the relationship between Silicon Valley and the city of San Francisco, and says a lot about the role of the city as a creative engine. So I will come back to San Francisco, as well as to Silicon Valley, tomorrow, and look at their relationship from a very different standpoint, I think a more positive one.
For now, let’s go to other large cities, to ones that are not San Francisco, and talk for a moment about how they work at this moment in time. I think it is almost a truism to state that cities are more alike than they used to be: the experience of arrival into similar-looking airports is often the same, the trip to the center of the city takes you along similar freeways past similar landscapes, and upon arrival in the center city you see similar skyscrapers. You unpack your bags in a hotel that could be anywhere, and it doesn’t even have to be a tired Hilton or Marriott; it might be a trendy W or Andaz, and it still is the same, or feels the same, from city to city. You take a walk and grab a snack at the Shake Shack or you shop at J Crew or Ralph Lauren or Williams-Sonoma or whatever, the same places you find at home.
But it is not just the places that are increasingly the same. It is also all of us. We are more the same, because we are less shaped by the culture of our individual places in which we live, and more shaped by the culture of the world, which we are exposed to at every moment, thanks to technology. If we can be anywhere, as I said before, it amounts, in a sense, to being nowhere—nowhere, that is, except the virtual everyplace/anyplace that is the world of technology, accessible to all of us. “How can you keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” goes the old line. Well, you can’t, and now, you don’t have to go to Paree or anyplace else to receive a shot of its culture.
Everyplace is, to a greater or lesser extent, a product of its time. Cities built in the eighteenth century, at least in this country, had certain similarities, as did cities built in the nineteenth, and cities built in the twentieth. I say that not to deny regional or cultural or geographical differences, but to suggest that time has always played some role in shaping urban identity. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but I think that the factor of time will become ever more important, as cultural and geographical influences become less important. They will become less important because every place is exposed to the same ones. The forces that made Paris different from London, that made Rome grow into a place different from Milan or Jerusalem or Istanbul or Tokyo—those forces no longer exist. Those seven places are now exposed to, and shaped by, similar forces as global culture continues to homogenize.
This has been understood, if not always welcomed, as a by-product of modernism for a long time. Marshall McLuhan spoke of the “global village,” although he said later that he did not envision the connections wrought by technology as reducing differences, as they appear to have done. In 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson coined the term “The International Style” to represent the austere, minimalist modern architecture that they saw, correctly, was moving rapidly across the globe. They were, of course, celebrating its spread, not thinking about its consequences.
Okay. We all know that globalization, which often means the increasing Westernization of all places, has a staggering impact, and that in the face of this, it is becoming harder and harder for places to maintain a clear physical, not to say cultural, identity. What can we do about this? Let me bring our focus back to architecture by quoting from a recent blog posting by the architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, who tried to tie this to the never-ending debate in the world of architecture about—and I apologize in advance for using this ersatz word—“starchitects,” the celebrated architects who travel around the globe, dropping new buildings into cities and then moving on to the next. You know who I mean: Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel are at the top of the list right now. Rybczynski, said that such “high-powered” architects diminish rather than help cities, largely because they don’t understand the places in which they build, and he suggested that globetrotting architects merely delivered the shapes that interested them, with little concern for context. “In the long run it’s wiser to nurture local talent; instead of starchitects, locatects,” he wrote.
But is it so? And if skylines around the world are looking too much the same, is this because the new and important buildings are done by the big names from far away and not by the locals? I’m more inclined to think that the opposite is true, that the distinguishing new buildings in many cities are the very ones that were done by outsiders: Cesar Pelli’s Petronas towers in Malaysia, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Shanghai World Center in Shanghai and Mori Tower in Tokyo; Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar in Barcelona, Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street tower in New York, and Renzo Piano’s Shard in London, to name a half dozen. No, they’re not all great, but they’re distinctive, and they help give their cities skylines that push back against the forces of sameness, the tendencies toward the generic. In Tokyo, Kajima Design, an enormous design and construction firm that is as local as you can get, designed the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, the eighth tallest building in Japan and a conspicuous element on the skyline, to look like a knockoff of the Empire State Building.
So much for the natives having an innate feel for the DNA of a particular place. I’ll take the work of the carpetbaggers over these locals, thanks. Even taller than NTT is the new Toranomon Hills tower, designed by another Japanese mega-firm, Nihon Sekkai, and it looks a lot like the angled, slightly sculpted glass towers that you see in almost every city in the United States. I don’t see much that is inherently Tokyo-esque in either of these skyscrapers.
And I’ve been talking only about skyscrapers, the buildings that define the skyline. Museums, civic centers, concert halls, bridges, libraries and opera houses also give cities their identity, and many of the ones that succeed best, and make places feel special, were not designed by local architects but by architects who were hired because they could bring more imagination and a sense of freshness to the problem. And often enough, they have. One of the best new buildings I saw last summer was the expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is about as un-Berkshires as you can get. Everybody knows how successful Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is, but I’m mystified as to why Rybcynzski felt compelled to say that Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is superior to it “because Gehry knows and understands Los Angeles better than Bilbao.” I admire both buildings, but if you ask me, Bilbao is the one that shows a much more inventive, understanding and subtle connection to its urban context than Gehry’s concert hall in his home city.
By the same token, is Norman Foster’s round “Gherkin” skyscraper really a better addition to London than his Hearst Tower in New York because Foster “exhibits a surer touch” on his “home ground”? Foster hasn’t lived in London in more than a decade, though his firm is based there, and for many years he’s lived part-time in New York (he’s in Switzerland the rest of the time) and his building in midtown Manhattan possesses a swagger that makes it, to my mind, very much in character with its place. To Rybcynski, Hearst isn’t New York enough because its sculptural shape stops abruptly at the 46th floor and gives way to a flat top. I bow to no one in my love of the crowns of the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building, but I hardly see how that means that the flat-topped Seagram Building (by Mies van der Rohe, of Chicago) or the CBS Building (Eero Saarinen, then of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) were inappropriate for New York.
Iconic structures confer a sense of identity on a city at least as much as they reflect the identity it already has. This is where the issue of urban identity gets interesting, in my mind, if not a little perplexing. By that I mean that there was nothing particularly Parisian about the Eiffel Tower until it was built, and now, for much of the world, it defines Paris. What made it Parisian? Certainly not its height, since Paris, either then or now, was not known as a city of tall structures. Yes, Gustave Eiffel was a great engineer and there was a tradition of advanced engineering in France, but France was not unique in this regard. The fact that the tower combines engineering brilliance with a lyrical beauty, and that this is particularly Parisian? Maybe, but you could say the same thing about Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch, or the CN television tower in Toronto, each of which has made its form symbolic of its city, and by doing so has rescued the skylines of those cities from ordinariness. If the lyricism of the Eiffel Tower made it right for Paris, what is there about the graceful curves of the St. Louis Arch that speaks to something in the nature of St. Louis?
Nothing. That’s my point. We conferred the St. Louis-ness, so to speak, on it later, which is how this process almost always works. Surely the quirky Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco by William Pereira, now as identifiable a part of the skyline as the towers of the bridges, was not inherently San Franciscan. But it has come to be identified with the city, perhaps only because the very quirkiness that made critics dislike it at first has made it memorable, and over the years, the association with the identify of the city has grown and developed. Now, of course, so many huge skyscrapers have been built in San Francisco that Transamerica, which once seemed to punctuate the skyline, now is barely visible within it. But again, the point is that there was not much about this building that made it right for San Francisco, at first. Over time, it has become so. By the same token I would venture to say that the only thing that made the Empire State Building feel like it belonged in the New York of 1931, the year it was finished, was its great height. The Empire State’s magnificent profile, the thing that really says New York to us now and is as much a symbol of the city as the Statue of Liberty, was the creation of its architects, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, and it had no precise precedent. Neither did William van Alen’s glorious top for the Chrysler Building. They were invented symbols, and they have served as, and their cities, just fine.
So the problem isn’t the famous architects. It’s the banal and unimaginative buildings being designed by other architects, and the fact that the skylines of most cities are made up of too many mediocre buildings that are much too big. Of course we don’t like them. I would venture to say that a lot of the complaints about cities looking all the same these days—complaints that, as I’ve said, I agree with to a large extent—nevertheless are really complaints about too much building, period. If those buildings were better, and not all so big, I guarantee that people wouldn’t hate them so much, no matter how many of them there were. The real problem, for most people, isn’t that the buildings are the same from city to city. It’s that there are too many buildings, and they are too big.
Case in point: let’s go back a little more than a hundred years, to the heyday of the Beaux-Arts in the United States, when architects were contorting classical temples into art museums, courthouses, libraries, City Halls and even, yes, skyscrapers. They were doing it in cities all across the country, and they weren’t making the actual buildings very different from city to city. Cleveland’s skyline for years was defined mainly by the Terminal Tower, a late 1920’s masterpiece with a classical top designed by the Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, who more or less copied the crown of the Municipal Building in New York by McKim, Mead & White. Nobody complained that the buildings in these two cities were too similar, or too generic; they have always been so well liked that it hardly seemed to matter. I don’t think there were ever complaints that the Palace Hotel in San Francisco looked like it could have been built in Boston or New York, where its architects, Trowbridge & Livingston, did similar hotels.
This was a time when scale, by and large, was reasonable, when very large buildings were the exception and not the rule, and when the natural order of things gave us cities that were more or less comfortable places, at least if you were not in the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and stuck in a tiny tenement apartment with a shared bathroom. The natural order of things did not give us housing for everyone that met minimum standards, and that did not happen until planners intervened with building codes and zoning laws. But a hundred years ago, it did not take either building codes or zoning laws, or the intervention of planners and urban designers, to give us so many of the neighborhoods of San Francisco and Berkeley that we still cherish and admire, or Greenwich Village, or Beacon Hill, or Georgetown—the last three being places, by the way, that seemed to have just the right amount of individual identity, but which also shared a great deal from city to city.
And it wasn’t only attractive residential neighborhoods that were similar from city to city. You could say the same thing about the museums and courthouses and state capitols all over the country. They were widely accepted and admired despite how similar they were from one place to the next. Yes, there was plenty of dissent from the likes of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, who hated the Beaux-Arts and thought classicism was the scourge of the age, but that’s another issue. Sullivan, for his part, built office towers in St. Louis and Buffalo that were sublime, but not, when you get right down to it, all that different from each other; he may have been a genius, but he was not always much for genius loci. And Wright—well, the Guggenheim Museum is one of the greatest things ever built in New York City, but you’re on pretty thin ice if you try to say that Wright was reflecting the spirit of New York when he designed it. He was doing exactly the opposite: he was giving New York a new spirit that, in time, would become a key part of the city’s identity.
Most of those traditional architects were quite happy to jump from city to city, designing more or less similar buildings, just as Witold Rybcynski accuses today’s big names of doing. Henry Hobson Richardson was the starchitect par excellence of the 1880’s, and “Richardsonian Romanesque” buildings in imitation of his style went up every major city from Boston to San Francisco, not to mention Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver and St. Louis, but you didn’t hear anybody complain that those cities looked generic. McKim, Mead & White, based in New York, built magnificently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Providence, Minneapolis, Washington and even Rome, so you could call them the first global stars. But they weren’t the only ones. Daniel Burnham, the Chicagoan who is celebrated for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C., also built Selfridges Department Store in London, a wonderful building but one that, if truth be told, has nothing particularly British about it.
But we can’t deny, as I said before, that globalization has made things different in architecture, as it has in everything. Daniel Burnham had to sail across the ocean to work on Selfridges, and his trips probably spanned weeks; he inevitably immersed himself in life in London, and experienced it in a way that is totally different from an international architect of today, who spends his or her life in constant motion. That same Burnham, one of our first architecture powerhouses, came to San Francisco in 1904, invited by the city’s business leaders to design a plan. He and his wife stayed for two weeks, and as his biographer Thomas Hines tells us, he “explored in great detail…. talking, dining, and socializing with personal friends and with civic and association officials. He swam and fished in the ocean at Carmel, and he particularly enjoyed the exciting novelty of touring by automobile. He gave speeches and shared his initial ideas, then returned to his office in Chicago to think about the city for several more weeks, and then requested that upon his return he be provided with an office in a structure atop Twin Peaks, so that he could be “where the influence about me shall stimulate Golden Gate Thoughts.” Downtown, Burnham thought, would not do, since he needed a place where he could see and grasp the city’s remarkable landscape in its entirety.
Weeks and weeks of deep engagement, and a desire to have the big picture of the city in front of him at all times. What did Burnham produce the following year, when his Plan for San Francisco was finished? A plan whose most significant element was the Civic Center, the area at Market and Van Ness where City Hall and other civic structures are clustered—and a place that, I think all of us would agree, is about the least San Francisco-like part of the entire city, whatever its other virtues. Burnham was trained in the Beaux Arts, and he liked its grand classical buildings and formal, axial boulevards. He proposed several wide diagonal avenues for San Francisco that, unlike the Civic Center, were never built.
There is another irony to Daniel Burnham’s involvement in San Francisco, which is that the element in the city that he most disliked, and wished to obliterate though he knew he could not, was the city’s street grid. It denied the special qualities of the city’s great hills, Burnham believed, and pretended that the city’s magnificent topography did not exist. By rejecting the city’s straight streets, knowing he was stuck with most of them anyway, Burnham thought he was proving how well he understood the city, and how much his plan spoke to San Francisco’s unique nature—how much it was not generic, in other words.
But as all of you know, the relentlessness of the grid across San Francisco’s striking topography is in itself one of the key elements of the city’s identity. It provides a kind of drama that exists nowhere else, and it makes real and powerful the juxtaposition of man-made world and unusual natural feature. Paradoxically, if the grid could have been made to have disappeared and Burnham’s preferred plan for curving, contoured roadways wrapping around the hills and gradually climbing up them had been brought into being, San Francisco might have felt less distinctive, not more distinctive. Sometimes, the best way to play to the character of a place is to do the conventional thing where it might be least expected.
Still, Burnham’s deep engagement with San Francisco and his sincere attempt to respond to its unique qualities, whether or not he succeeded, can’t be doubted. And this could not be more different from how things work today, with architects flying in and flying out. Today, Burnham, would have flown to San Francisco from Chicago, been given a helicopter tour, and been back home in Chicago the next day, or maybe on to Singapore. And we all would have seen his proposals for San Francisco the moment they came out of his computer, unlike in 1905, when he presented his plan in the form of an elaborately printed book, drawings and models that were unveiled at a formal banquet at the St. Francis Hotel.
Now, of course, designs are created quickly and distributed even more quickly; everyone sees images of new buildings instantly on Instagram and Twitter and everywhere else; you hardly have to wait months, or years, to learn what is getting built. This means that if you are a real-estate developer who wants to make a mark, you want the latest thing, instantly. Architecture has never been immune from fashion, but it seems more tightly bound to trend today than ever before. I think it’s important to say again that it’s not just because of famous architects that too many buildings in too many cities look the same.
The vast forces of globalization push relentlessly toward homogenization, and most cities are powerless to push back. On the rare occasions that they do push back successfully, it’s often the celebrated architects who provide the best alternative to standard-issue commercial banality—who do the pushing back, so to speak, and if it that comes in the form of somewhat similar buildings from city to city, we need to remember that this is not a new phenomenon.
So am I saying that generic is okay, that it is just something we learn to live with? No, despite the fact that generic wasn’t invented in our time, that doesn’t make it desirable. I don’t think that acknowledging the enormity of the forces of globalization and recognizing that they are too large for any city fully to resist therefore means that we need to lie down and play dead. We want places to feel distinctive. Believing that you are in a place that is not entirely like other places is important not only for the places themselves, but for us. We receive a critical party of identity from where we are, most importantly from where we live, but also from where we are even for brief periods. If everyplace looks and feels the same, then we are, to a degree perhaps more than we wish, also the same.
Cities need to play to their strengths if they are to retain a sense of identity, which is to say that they need to recognize what it is that they have that makes them distinctive, even if all are not in a position to become quite as distinctive as San Francisco. Knowing what to do, of course, is another matter; as Daniel Burnham’s miscalculation 110 years ago reminds us, it is possible to understand and respect the essence of a place and still have the wrong response to it. A more contemporary example might be up the coast, in Vancouver, which as you surely know is an exceptionally pleasant city. It has a beautiful waterfront, expansive parks, appealing downtown neighborhoods and jaw-dropping scenery. The breathtaking mountains are, by and large, protected from overdevelopment. The only thing the place lacks is architecture that you can remember for more than five minutes. The city’s skyline, filled with gleaming new office towers and high-rise condominiums, is deadly dull. Vancouver does all the right things: its planners really do understand urban design, and they know how to make streets and public places. They believe in density, and they believe in walkability, two critical elements for a city, and it’s a joy to walk around downtown Vancouver, which is more than you can say for many cities. But why is it not an equal joy to look at the skyline? Why, in this place that is so distinctive, is the skyline so generic?
If the lesson San Francisco street grid teaches us is that it is sometimes necessary to be counterintuitive and to juxtapose the plainest and most conventional thing with an unconventional context, I think the lesson Vancouver offers is different: it is that you need architecture, at least some of the time. If streets are more important than buildings to making a city work—and I believe that they are—architecture still matters, and something, somewhere, has to be memorable. Vancouver has no risk of becoming truly generic: its scenery, not to mention its benign climate, ever-present waterfront and wonderful food, will always save it from falling into the chasm of the ordinary. But most of the architecture of that city puts the majesty of the scenery to the test. When you have your back to the water and to the mountains, you are no longer in a distinctive place.
Creatively responding to what is distinctive about the culture or the physical setting of a city is the first way a city can resist the push toward the generic, but as we have seen in both San Francisco and Vancouver, it is not always easy to figure out what that response should be. What goes hand in hand with these things is preservation, holding on to what you have, knowing it will become all the more precious as time goes on, because it cannot be recreated. Historic preservation increasingly means neighborhoods, not single buildings, which often look forlorn, not to say ridiculous, when they are adrift in a city of utterly different things. We could spend an entire afternoon talking only about issues of historic preservation, so let me say here only that since we know that it is becoming harder and harder to create places that are distinctive, and that the natural order of things does not bring us to them, we have all the more obligation to protect those that have been handed down to us—to learn from them, yes, but less to preserve them like precious hothouse orchids and more to integrate them into modern life.
And then, of course, a city needs to be willing to trust in architecture to help. It cannot save the day, but it can make an extraordinary difference. I am saying this not to give a free pass to famous architects, but to acknowledge that while making a coherent whole, and making decent, civilized background buildings is the greatest mission of urban design, even the best urban fabric is not enough. We also need exciting, special buildings that excite the emotions, those buildings that, as the critic and historian Lewis Mumford wrote, “cause people to hold their breath for a stabbing moment or that restore them to equilibrium by offering them a prospect of space and form joyfully mastered.” Yes. If you try to make an entire city of such buildings, the result is chaos. But that hardly means that we don’t need some of them. One of the silliest aspects of the backlash against “starchitects” is its implicit presumption that if you think that special, one-of-a-kind, distinctive buildings are good, then you must think every building ought to be like that. And since every building should not be like that, then, the logic goes, no building should be like that. No building should be exceptional.
Nothing could be more ridiculous. Of course Frank Gehry is not a model for anything except Frank Gehry, and his buildings work best when they have the chance to play off the everyday buildings that make up the urban fabric. But we are in danger these days of losing our belief in special buildings, largely, I think, because we have asked too much of them. We have asked them to shoulder the entire burden of making cities, and they cannot and should not do that. When did believing in the urban fabric and believing in the ability of architecture to bring us special, exhilarating, intense moments become incompatible with each other? We have got to begin to believe in both of these things again. Every city needs to be a place in which the basic idea of urban fabric, of streets and public places and decent but not spectacular architecture forms the foundation.
But if that is all we have, and if we lose our desire for great and special buildings that break out of all of this, then we have failed our cities just as much. The generic city is not only the place with identical glass towers and freeways and malls. It is also the place that stops caring about things that are different, and no longer builds buildings that break the rules and make you feel as if you are in a place that is like no place else. And that—the feeling of being in a special place—is one of the greatest gifts that any city can give us.