An aerial view of the planned Masdar City.
While most architects are remembered for a monumental structure or commission, many of the most prolific names in the field at one point or another set their sights on designing the entirety of a city. Often venturing abroad to see their aesthetic vision come to life across unfamiliar territory (and often, an unsuspecting populace), city planning posed the perfect opportunity to realize one’s architectural doctrine across unimaginable scales. Below, brush up on some of the biggest ventures into urban planning. Whether these plans failed or came to fruition, they ultimately function as crucial insights into the consequences of an outsider defining sense of place and space for a foreign audience for generations.
Daniel Burnham, 1905
Many cite Burnham’s Beaux-Arts plan for the city of Chicago as one of the architect’s defining legacies,
Although Burnham’s 1905 masterplan for Manila was never fully realized due to the outbreak of World War II, several aspects of it live on today, including Roxas Boulevard and several government buildings. It is easy to find the references to Burnham’s City Beautiful movement in his plans, as parkways and grand boulevards with terminating vistas radiate from the city center and take on an almost organic appearance reminiscent of Olmstead’s landscapes. His designs for Dewey Boulevard, now Roxas Boulevard, are reminiscent of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and Navy Pier, and Manila’s Central Post Office building and City Hall are echoes of some of Washington’s federal monuments. While Manila’s current population is exponentially larger than it was when Burnham drew his initial designs for the city, and continue to sprawl, the architect’s vision for a pedestrian-friendly city may not be entirely out-of-reach.
In his original plans for the city, Burnham intended for Manila to be The City Beautiful of the Orient, drawing from the architectural legacies and aesthetic leanings of Western cities such as Paris, Rome and Venice. His plan had five components, including designating certain sites for recreation and commerce, developing waterways for transportation, planning the city street system and creating summer resorts. While Burnham’s plan remains largely uncompleted in Manila and Baguio–which was intended to serve as the Philippines summer capital, aspects of both cities maintain the framework of his original vision, before receding into the more modern and frenetic fabric of these rapidly growing cities.
Victor Gruen, 1968 and Louis Kahn, 1973
Architects Victor Gruen and Louis Kahn were both solicited by the Iranian government in the mid and late 20th century to design master plans for Tehran’s urban center and lay the framework for future growth and expansion. While both plans ultimately failed–due to a combination of geopolitical pressures and upheaval, in addition to Kahn’s untimely passing–Gruen and Kahn’s visions for the Middle Eastern metropolis shed light on each architect’s understanding of urban life, nation-building and the role of sociopolitical forces.
Gruen’s masterplan for the city, which was prepared jointly with Farmanfarmaian Associates, laid the framework for city life at scales ranging from highways and road systems, to palaces, apartment complexes and even satellite towns. Gruen’s work in Tehran during the sixties was strongly influenced by the Shah’s autocratic agenda in the midst of political and ideological turmoil. As his hold over the country unraveled during the Cold War and Iranian Revolution, Gruen vision for Tehran similarly lost footing. Eventually, it was discarded due to its associations with Western power and modernization. Gruen’s urban plan for Tehran is heavily influenced by modernist design philosophy and communitarian ideals, lending the city meticulous hierarchies of order and structure. Reminiscent of Ebenezer Howard’s turn-of-the-century Garden City movement, Gruen’s expansive master plan realized the city at different scales. Around a metro core, he planned for there to be ten cities, each consisting of ten towns around a city center. Each town, in turn, would have four communities around a town center, and each community would contain five neighborhoods. (link to my Gruen article)
Kahn’s 1973 plan for Tehran’s city center built upon Gruen’s previous framework, but did much to change the spatial organization of the city. Kahn’s extended the urban center northward, lending the city a more linear form. He relocated Gruen’s plans for a central plaza to the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, in place of housing and greenspace, making the commercial center more removed from the city center. While Gruen’s cityscape appears to unravel organically from the base of the Alborz, Kahn’s version of urbanism is distinctly more symmetric and axial. His site plans reveal a purposeful balance and symbolism as a means of defining sense of place. While Kahn’s vision was never fully realized in the wake of his passing and the city’s rapid urbanization, his and Gruen’s monumental plans for Tehran reveal a drastic range of possibility and perspective regarding urban growth and nation-building.
Masdar City, United Arab Emirates
Foster + Partners, 2014
City plans spearheaded by architects are not just the product of a bygone era. The Middle East once again serves as the template for Foster + Partner’s latest venture in Abu Dhabi: Masdar City. Located near Abu Dhabi International Airport, the city is intended to serve as a new technological hub that will run entirely on solar power and other renewable energy sources, in addition to being walkable and featuring mixed use, high density building. In its original designs, automobiles were banned in favor of personal and public transit systems (currently, electric and clean-energy vehicles are allowed for mass transit inside the city). A perimeter wall designed to block hot desert winds and promote air circulation within the city also creates physical limits to the growth of Masdar City.
Arguably more so than the previously discussed plans, Foster + Partner’s design for Masdar City draws heavily from regional and vernacular architectural styles. Many of the buildings are constructed in terracotta and adorned with arabesque designs. A 45-meter-high wind tower, a raised site, short and narrow streets and closely clustered buildings all modeled after traditional and ancient Arabic building designs all work to keep the city 15 to 20 °C (27 to 36 °F) cooler than the surrounding desert.
Despite these considerations and substantial political and financial backing, the completion and habitation of Masdar City has been a slow and largely fraught process. Initiated in 2006 and projected to take eight years to finish, the first phase of the project has yet to be completed, with final completion pushed back to 2030. Originally intended to house 45,000 to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses in addition to supporting 60,000 commuting workers, several hundred Masdar Institute students are the sole residents on site and the city currently employs fewer than 2,000 people. As projects of this scale and vision continue to be pursued–especially in the Middle East and Asia–it is important to weigh the costs of constructing a city anew rather than retrofitting existing cities to be more environmentally resilient and supportive of socioeconomic diversity.
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