Eighth in the new series, in the urban world, juxtapositions matter

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Last week, a colleague in my day job contacted me in search of an expert witness in a large American city. This request for a recommendation—and its premise—was not unusual for a pending design review process. His client needed a credible opinion that proposed development, flanking a current urban open space, would be “incongruous” with the existing use.

For many, a dramatic contrast in height, bulk and density is the recipe for “incongruity”. But, in a larger sense, don’t today’s urban centerpieces by definition show the latent “incongruities” of city life?

Think of Chicago’s Millennium Park, and its multifaceted and controversial history of funding snafus, cost overruns and debates about building aesthetics, security practices and public access. Should default discussion about an urban project really be focused first on surrounding building height and modulated, architectural solutions (sometimes termed “density with grace“)? 

Actually, urban blending and any associated quest for balance are much broader topics, and my response to my colleague above was both quizzical and consistent with my New Year’s, series-framing premise: Once a potential urban overlap, overlay, or “juxtaposition” emerges, the search for harmony and agreement should travel far beyond physical limits, in a comprehensive fashion not limited by ambiguous words.

Many “experts” opining on tall, “densifying” edges of public open space are actually more concerned with broader issues, such as funding mechanisms that pay for the open space and improvements, as well as other key, urban “go-to” disciplines, including transportation and housing. This breadth of focus can lead to a very different view that leverages “incongruity” as the inevitable urban solution.

In other words, the “incongruity” that some would malign as an uneven landscape of height and imbalance, becomes a treasure-trove of irregular, provocative architecture and investment.  This investment generates aesthetic and monetary capital to enhance, and not detract from, the public realm nearby.

. . . .

As often happens, consideration of these issues reminded me of something more fundamental and traditional—a mix of human imprints on the natural environment that I have written about before, a world away.  In Iceland,  I characterized much of what I saw there as an unforgettable balance of human settlement and dramatic surroundings.

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As I said last year both here and in Atlantic Cities:

In Icelandic landscapes, in small towns, and in the resurgent capital city of Reykjavik, are scenes and stories that transcend nature, culture and the built environment. In the imagery of such places, we see scaled expressions of urban settlement and transport, both past and present, including dramatic examples of human interactions with the raw elements of nature.

In these photographs, the visual juxtaposition of fishing village and glacier, of small buildings and sky, is to me, nothing short of astounding. The harmony and agreement—the “congruity” that is the foil of this story—is clearly present where churches and outbuildings on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula  honor natural surroundings with simplicity and scale.

In the city, can we, and should we, aspire to such purity?

How much should regulations, and battles of noble NIMBY and developer, dance around the prospect of such resplendent and ideal visions?

While under our regulatory system, the whims of subjective citizen commissioners may be kept honest by largely objective city staff, project proponents will almost always argue the real cost of materials and the balance of profit that complicate the limited aesthetic orientation proffered above. In a “densifying” urban core, the marketplace often varies from an implementable, smaller scale of development.

The point of showing a vision as clear as the Snæfellsnes Peninsula—supplanting for a moment Millennium Park’s big city dimensions—is not to dwell in a nostalgia of lesser scale overseas. Rather, by showing examples of authentic harmony and agreement—at least as I see them—we can distinguish the balance humans still carry out in the raw landscapes of simpler places from the vocabulary of balance we often seek downtown.

. . . .

When faced with a juxtaposition such as the problem presented—an “incongruous” urban development—I have learned both as practitioner and pundit not to dwell on the perfect extremes sought by proponents and detractors.  Client permitting, I would rather spend time with the inherent compromises necessary when the discussion inevitably moves toward the merger of public and private realms.

If we remember these nuances in urban setting today, we will better understand that balance and “congruity” are not absolutes, but end-games with multiple meanings, dependent on context, and careful reflection.

Images composed by the author in Chicago and Hellnar and Budir, Iceland. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effortan e-book from Island Press.