📰 Leopold Kohr, the City as Convivial Centre
Full Title: Leopold Kohr, the City as Convivial Centre
In a paper The Training of Planners, read in March 1956 at the University of Puerto Rico, Sir WiIIiam Holford made the point that previous ages had the advantage of a precise moral aim giving direction to all planning. Classical antiquity strove for harmony; the Middle Ages for mystic fulfillment; the Renaissance for the elegance of proportions; more modern times for the enlightenment of humanism. All knew exactly what they wanted.
But what about the purpose of contemporary city planners? We have no clear picture of it except that it is animated by social service — a concept that shifts from day to day and, therefore, cannot easily be defined. Here, we are told, lies the great disadvantage of modern planners.
Contrary to Sir William's, interesting categorization of the changing purpose of city planning in the course of time, I should like to submit that there is no such thing as a changing purpose. The reason why old towns are so charming, and new ones are not, is due to the fact that city planners of former times — of ancient Greece, of medieval city states, of modern Paris — did not pursue different purposes as their age changed, but instinctively served always the one unchanging purpose for which people have at all times desired to live in urban centres or human communities of any kind.
This purpose was philosophically expressed by Aristotle when he said that men form communities not for justice, Peace, defence, or traffic, but for the sake of a good life.
And the good life in the community has at all times signified the satisfaction of man's three basic social Desires to which former planners have invariably given material shape in their structures. These Desires are conviviality, religiosity, and politics.
Hence, the nucleus of their Cities , with all their variation in styles, consisted always of the same basic structures. Taverns and theatres to satisfy conviviality, churches to satisfy religiosity, and city halls their political temperament. And because fulfilment of the community-creating desires required an economic base these structures were naturally grouped around the market place serving a fourth communal function, trade.
The reason that is driving people back into old San Juan seems therefore not the harbour, the labour force, the traffic facilities, the motorways. What brings them back from their locations without nucleus are the ancient blue cobblestones which do not speed up but slow down pace, the narrow lanes, the taverns on Cristo Street, the theatres, La Mallorquina, in short, the intensity and excitement of a town whose ancient planners did not think in terms of social service, mysticism, symmetry, or harmony, but in terms of conviviality, religiosity. politics, and trade.
If industry is to be successfully decentralized, what is necessary seems not the building of factories free of charge, or the promise of prolonged tax relief. What is needed seems to be the construction of urban nuclei at primitive cross roads — a sidewalk cafe, a restaurant serving excellent meals, a little theatre, a charming Henry Klumb church, a well styled assembly hall. Then industrialists will go there even if they have to build their own factories, and must pay taxes on top of it.
To summarize the success and failure of modern city planners in one sentence: ancient city planners, recognising the unchanging Aristotelian purpose of why people live in communities, put all their talent into the construction of the communal nucleus — inns, churches, city halls, market places. The rest of the city then followed by itself. Modern planners are forever building the rest of the city. But without nucleus nothing can be held together.
While traffic thrives on the removal of obstacles, trade thrives by putting them in its way. For the function of the city, unlike that of a refreshment or refuelling station in the open land, is to act as a terminus, not as a passage point.
It is a stop, not a flow concept; an end, not a means; a place for getting out, not for driving through. This is why nearly all good cities have developed at points where the flow of traffic was bound to come to a halt: at the base of mountains, or on their top; on the shores of lakes, by rivers, or on the sea; or, in the case of some of the most spectacular amongst them such as Venice, Manhattan, or San Juan — in the midst of lagoons or on the tips of thin islands where further progress was impeded not only in one but in all directions.
But what is it that makes old San Juan a soundly, and modern Santurce a badly, constructed city? What is the nature of their structural difference? The most superficial glance at their respective maps reveals it immediately. Santurce is a city of streets. San Juan is a city full of squares.
While the street, acting basically as an extension of the transit road passing through open country-side and suburb, is of course essential for bringing goods, traders, and customers to town, the square provides the shape which is alone capable of absorbing this influx without the danger of producing flood conditions. Widening at all its sides, it turns the bottle neck into the accommodating palmitude of the bottle itself.
Imposing a natural slowdown on all movement by having four instead of only two fronts facing each other, it not only captures the random activities of commerce in its magnetic field; it also orders them, brings them into functional relationships with each other, makes them surveyable and understandable.
Functioning thus in addition as a centre of rest and leisure in the midst of the buzz of commercial activities, the square invites, lastly, dedication not only to the useful but also to the beautiful, thereby concentrating in itself as its culminating achievement the very essence of urban civilization — the good life.
If the individual square represents functionally the most suitable form for trade, a system of squares represents functionally the most suitable structure for the city.
Historically, nearly all cities sprang up on squares and grew by squares. This permitted expansion in the healthy biological way: by means of an infinitely elastic process of cell splitting and duplication, setting in each time an existing square had reached the form most useful for the fulfillment of its communal function. By contrast, the modern way had adopted the method of cancer. It fosters the growth of cities through cell enlargement, elongation, and integration. No wonder that, instead of youth, it brings stagnation and decay not in spite of growth but as the very result of it.
For what really keeps pulling people into San Juan, often even at a considerable economic sacrifice, is not the market or the labour force. It is that it is the loveliest of cities. It is the psychic income it affords. It bewitches. It has beauty.
And by beauty as a location determinant one must understand not just physical beauty, such as can be found also in Ponce or San German. In the urban sense, it implies social beauty, the kind that provides for the good Aristotelian life. And by this one must again understand not just a good house, an ample table, a pleasing environment. It includes the enjoyment of the full range of urban conviviality, set against a background of exciting architecture, and ignited by the sparkle of theatres, restaurants and galleries.
In sum, just as a healthy city is a federation of separately flourishing squares, a healthy metropolis must be a federation of separately administered cities. And to strengthen their position as effective traffic scattering rivals, each of them must not only be given its own identity, its own flavour, its own administrative and political centre. It must also be seeded with its own distinctive kind of urban beauty.
In the first place, to talk aesthetics amongst theorists of industrial location and other economists nowadays is like raising the question of sex amongst pre-Freudian child educators. Half of them cannot grasp the connection, the other half are shocked. In their eyes nothing could be more irrelevant if not outright frivolous than the injection of beauty into economic or other utilitarian debate.
Yet, not only are aesthetic considerations, as every jeweller, car designer and musician knows, amongst the most outstanding determinants of economic forces such as consumer demand; it was the discernment of the possibility of dissolving aesthetics, as everything else that is based on the mathematics of proportions, into a system of laws that put Adam Smith on the path that caused him to become the much admired father of modern economics. Thus, what led him on to Hephaistos was precisely the appreciative eye he had for Aphrodite.
What is beauty? Who is to be the judge? M.I.T.? The Museum of Modern Art? Fidel Castro? The Chairman of the Planning Board? I? The answer is similar to the one that solved the problem of utility of which beauty is after all nothing but its aesthetic twin. Thus, while the individual concept of beauty, be it Picasso's, yours, or mine, differs with every person and is therefore useless as an acceptable standard of urban design, the concept of social beauty is an objectively thoroughly verifiable and measurable aggregate.
But quite apart from this, aesthetic concepts are highly objective even within an individual frame of reference. Just as the individual utility concept of a commodity rests on the wholly objective foundation that the commodity in question has the faculty of satisfying wants inherent in human nature, so does its individual beauty concept depend on a wholly objective faculty: the ability of the commodity of fulfilling the function inherent in its form. A crane cannot be a beautiful spoon. On the other hand, any shape capable of fulfilling its assigned function has at least the makings of beauty, so that one may say that, rather than individual taste being the determinant of beauty, beauty is actually the chief determinant of individual taste. Beauty is therefore in all its aspects an objectively measurable quantity, leaving a little individual leeway at the margin, but otherwise invariably expressed by the degree of nearness which the form of a thing reaches in relation to the function embodied in it.
If all communal structures are grouped in the manner best suited for fulfilling the Aristotelian purpose of the good life in common; and if all the distances between them are arranged on a scale reflecting the harmony of urban proportions gained from the mathematics not of traffic, engineering, or sewage disposal but of the human convivium, the result cannot be but functionally exact. And what is functionally exact cannot but be socially wholesome and aesthetically beautiful, a trinity that permits of no separation.
There is therefore much less leeway for subjective judgement, than is usually assumed, about what you or I or Picasso can consider a physically beautiful spoon, wheel, church, or city. Nor, however, does this mean that beauty permits only one best expression. For the function-determined archetype is materialized in a range of approximations that is as enchanting as it is infinite.
If the function of the city was serving air passengers on overflights as a tapestry soothing travel-tired eyes, the urbanization modern planners have built might indeed be called beautiful — in its capacity as a picture.
And the same could be said if the purpose of these aggregations were to serve airborne classes of medical students as mobiles illustrating the development of blood clots in the brain. But cities are not meant for either. Their function is the attainment of the good life.
In other words, if we are to escape the agonies of modern city life, we must not desert our cities but move back into them. We must once more take up residence close to our convivial nucleus.
The charm of the country is its spaciousness; of the city, that it is dense. The former is expansive, the latter closely packed. The one inspires serenity and contemplation; the other excitement and dialogue.
Thus, if we have found earlier that the good city must be a city of squares, and the good metropolis a polynuclear federation of cities, the velocity theory of urban density has now provided us with a third criterion. It must also be a pedestrian city — dense, tense, exciting, close and kept that way by a nucleus of sufficient aesthetic appeal. It must in fact be not unlike the walled towns of the Middle Ages, which were less plagued by conditions of traffic crowding and overpopulation not because their inhabitants were comparatively fewer than those of modern cities but because, within their car-less narrow confines, the velocity of their movement was so much slower.
Actually, one of the most basic causes of modern urban traffic problems lies in the opposite direction: in the fact that planning authorities are giving them not too little but too much thought. Indeed, such is their almost Freudian traffic fixation that they have ceased to care for anything but the swift movement of cars and its attendant problems, as if the sole purpose of the city were to serve as a race track for commuting drivers.
What has been completely overlooked in this obstacle-removing obsession of modern urban planners is that it is rapidly chewing up the greatest as well as the most precious obstacle to traffic of them all — the city itself. If cities existed for traffic, their gradual removal would indeed represent a significant improvement.