Wednesday, September 15, 2004
UPDATED: Munich, New York & Starchitects
Of course rules are made to be broken, especially in New York. But most of what we love best about New York was made by the rules of traditional urbanism. What would New York be without, for example, the City Beautiful monuments of Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum? All of them sit "on axis," terminating streets — that's unusual in New York's often relentless grid, but it's a traditional urban design technique to emphasize the importance of a public building.
Thinking about that, I added a new ending to What's Good For Starchitects Is Good For The World (and revised the text a little bit, and added links to photos of London towers). Here's the added text from the end:
In every good city, the city is more important than the building. On Park Avenue, Broadway or the side streets of rowhouses, the role of the typical urban building is first of all to contribute to the whole. For residential buildings, that means shaping the street so that it is a comfortable and pleasant place for the pedestrian to walk. Commercial buildings traditionally played a similar role, but that changed a little, particularly in Manhattan, with the rise of the skyscraper. Commerce grew and assumed a more important role in public life, and the great headquarters of Manhattan did become its symbol. Nevertheless in their siting, they still deferred to the civic buildings.How should we build our cities today? New Urbanists would say by studying why we love the places we love.
Buildings like the Standard Oil headquarters at the foot of Broadway tower over the United States Custom House, but they frame the more ornate and prominently sited public building designed by Cass Gilbert, the way a good ring sets off its diamond.
Frank Gehry's flamboyant, titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum has a similar relationship to the old, masonry city of Bilbao around it. Like Grand Central, it terminates the street, which focuses the view on the museum. Like the Customs House, it sits prominently near the river. The Custom House's position at the tip of Manhattan, framed by the buildings of Broadway, made it inescapably important as one sailed into the harbor and up the Hudson, as all immigrants and most tourists used to.
A difference today is that Gehry will make whatever building he's designing the most important on the street, no matter what the building is: an apartment house, an office building, a civic building or a McDonald's. He says this is more democratic — the old hierarchies are undemocratic he says. But he's wrong, and he devalues the public building and the common good. The result of Gehyr's logic is that whoever pays the most has the most spectacular building. It's like Donald Trump's rule that "the boys with the most toys win." And a lot more like Marie Antoinette and Let Them East Cake than Alexis de Tocqueville.
At least Gehry thinks about these things, however. Most Starchitects today want nothing more or less than more and bigger commissions. We think of them as Modernists, but for their social sins the early Modernists like Gropius and Le Corbusier would disown them.
Pictured above is an aerial view looking south from Schwabing along one of the main axes, the Ludwigstrasse, to the center of the city. To the south are the foothills of the Alps. Even today, as you can see, it remains a city with almost no towers.
There are many good things about living in Munich. For example, Münchners love Italy — on the other side of the Alps, Switzerland's in between — so they "bring" it home in bits and pieces. The Ludwigstrasse is terminated by a recreation of Florence's Loggia dei Lanzi, called the Feldherrnhalle. Continue to the left of the loggia, and you pass alongside the royal palace, the Residenz. When you turn the corner into the Residenzplatz, you find that that side of the palace is a reconstruction of the the Pitti Palace, also in Florence. On the other side of the square is the post office: its facades are from the Florence's Foundling Hospital. Surrounded by Medieval and NeoClassical German buildings, it all works.
The Felherrnhalle, partly visible in the photos above, sits on the southern side of the Odeonplatz. I worked in the Odeon building, between the Odeonplatz and a royal, Italian-style garden known as the Hofgarten. To get to the office, I went through an arch on the ground floor of the building, down a simple arcade along the garden, and up a little staircase to the left of a cafe that ran from the street to the court. As soon as the weather hinted it might be warm, the cafe would set up tables in the garden.
I was lucky enough to share an apartment near the center of the city, in a 19th century neighborhood. On a good day, I could take a long walk to work, or ride my bike. On other days, I used the excellent public transit system (see article below). After a few months, I realized that not only had I not been in a car for months, but that I hadn't even been in an elevator.
And all within easy range were one of the best opera houses in the world, with tickets a tenth the price of seats in New York, one of the best art museums in the world, good bookstores (two architecture bookstores each better than any in New York), good restaurants, and the excellent Englischer Garten park and the wonderful Isar River in the center of the city. And, of course, beer gardens under lofty Lindens (the Linden trees keep the bugs away).
I lived in an apartment building with a large central stairway. There was no elevator, but the stairs were broad and comfortable, and each landing had a large window lighting the stairs and looking out on a small garden. The apartment was comfortable too, with high ceilings and large windows, but the access is the focus of this post.
We were on the second floor, so it was easy to go up and down. Three blocks away was a market square with a beautiful school and a tram line. Two subway stops were just four blocks away in different directions.
One of the beauties of the subway was that it was built in shallow trenches. This made it fast to build, because most of the system is only slightly underneath main streets of the city. The streets were dug up, the subway put in, and the street put back.
The reason this is good now is that you don't feel disconnected from the street when you walk down the shallow stairs to the platforms. The whole experience — down a flight a stairs from my apartment to the street, a short walk to the U-Bahn, down a short flight of stairs to the subway platform and then up again to the street, with a 300' walk to my second-floor office — was remarkably "grounded." And not at all like the typical New York experience, which includes lots of elevators and deep subways far removed from any sense of the city above.
So much of the public realm I went through every day was made at a human scale for human pleasure. The risers on the stairs at my apartment building were scaled to make it easy and comfortable to climb to the apartment. The width of the stairs was generous. The window to the garden was there because we like daylight and like to see trees and plants.
The streets are scaled for pedestrians, with buildings tall enough to enclose the space of the street, but low enough to be open to the sky. The buildings themselves are usually built with natural, durable materials that get better with age, like stone, stucco and slate.
Bicycles have their own lanes, protected and secure, unlike the US bike lanes that only have stripes of paint separating them from the cars. The lanes even have their own traffic lights, placed at a height where riders can easily see them. Because it's pleasant to walk, pleasant to ride, and easy and convenient to take the trains, subways, trams and buses, traffic and traffic noise are usually light.
It's been a long time since the Manhattan skyline was dominated by church spires, as Munich still is, but we have plenty of low-rise neighborhoods. One reason for the resurgence of downtown is the old urban fabric. Not only in Greenwich Village, Tribeca and SoHo, but also on lower Fifth Avenue, which many prefer to Fifth in midtown. The lower buildings downtown mean that the streets have less crowding and more sunlight on the sidewalks. It's the type of urbanism that Mayor Giuliani's Planning Commissioner tried to institutionalize in the zoning reforms turned back by developers throwing their weight around with the Mayor.
The problem is that neither the "heavy-hitter" developers nor the Starchitects care about making a better city. They'll tell you they do, but they don't understand that the city is more important than the building. Or that the city, and not their buildings, are what make us want to live in the city. But as long as the developers can sell higher floors for more than lower floors, and Starchitects can gain commissions for their anti-urban, anti-social esoteric monuments, they will fight for their individual gain.
Guest Writer | Railways - Germany
Alan Little writes about his experiences of Bavaria's railways.
If you're going to live in a over-regulated, overtaxed country, you might as well live in one where you actually get something for your tax money in the form of things like policing, healthcare and public transport that actually work. I live in Germany. A few weeks ago I mentioned to Patrick Crozier that I had seen a headline about Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, being privatised. Patrick said he'd be interested to hear about my experiences as a German rail user, so ...
I had a car for my first couple of years here, but then it sold because I just wasn't driving enough for it to be worth the cost and hassle. I was only using it for the occasional weekend trip, and if that's all you use a car for it's cheaper to hire one now and again than to own one. So for the last three years I've been a cyclist and public transport user.
Munich, where I live, has two local rail networks: the U-Bahn, underground, owned and operated by the city (as are the buses and trams); and the S-Bahn, owned and operated by a Deutsche Bahn (German national railway) operating company. From the passenger's point of view they are effectively single network, with a single price structure and ticketing system. The U-Bahn, being built and operated by the city, only extends out as far as the city limits (with one exception in the direction of the under- construction new Bayern Munich football stadium); the S-Bahn goes out about twenty miles. Maps of the greater Munich area show strikingly obvious ribbon development along the S-Bahn lines: basically anywhere close to an S-Bahn station is in easy commuting range of Munich.
Berlin has a similar (but, according to my girlfriend who used to live there, better) system. I believe most other major German cities do too.
Both Munich networks were started in the 1970s for the Munich Olympics - I assume some of the suburban railway lines must have existed earlier, but it was in the 70s that a tunnel was dug under the city centre to link the Hauptbahnhof on the west of town, with the Ostbahnhof on the east that used to be the terminus for the line to Austria, thus making an integrated network possible. (The thirty year old signalling in this tunnel is now a big constraint on the quality of S-Bahn services and is being renovated, meaning several months of severely disrupted weekend services).
Further out than the S-Bahn, most of the services from Munich south to the Alps are run not by Deutsche Bahn but by the Bayerische Oberland Bahn, Bavarian Highland Railway, or "BOB".
BOB's website says BOB came into being as part of an earlier privatisation initiative in 1998 when parts of the regional network were hived off. It was originally owned by a consortium including the Zugspitze Railway Company, which runs a mountain railway built in the 1920s from Garmisch Partenkirchen to just below the summit of Germany's highest mountain. The Zugspitze Railway Company is still independent but BOB is now owned by Connex, Germany's largest private rail operator. The website doesn't say since when.
(The line from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen isn't included in the BOB franchise, presumably because it continues from Garmisch over the mountains to Innsbruck and is therefore an international rather than a regional service.)
BOB is great if you live in Munich, don't have a car and want to go to the Alps to go mountain biking, skiing or whatever at weekends. It operates an hourly service to three different areas of the Bavarian Alps, it's cheap, and it has comfortable modern trains with plenty of storage space for bikes, snowboards and similar toys. I suppose theoretically it could get boring always going to parts of the mountains that are close to BOB railway stations, but I have a decade or two to go before that even begins to be a problem for me personally. And coming back in the evening when you're exhausted from a hard day in the mountains is a lot safer and more pleasant if you fall asleep on a train, than if you fall asleep driving on the autobahn.
BOB is presumably also great if you want to live in a nice little town in the mountains and commute to a job in Munich.
BOB has weekend "family" tickets for 20 euros that are actually valid for any group of five people, making it phenomenally cheap for groups to go out to the mountains. Yearly season tickets for weekdays vary depending on the distance from Munich; the most expensive are 1700 euros. (how does this compare to the price of commuter season tickets in England? I suspect significantly cheaper, but I don't know)
I know nothing about the economics of all this. There are many possibilities. Maybe Connex's ultra-modern trains are so efficient that they can make money operating with phenomenally low fares. Maybe they're indulging in clever yield management by filling the seats up cheaply at weekends - this would make economic sense but somehow just doesn't feel like how German domestic businesses operate. More likely they are subsidised by some level of government: the Oberbayern region, the state of Bavaria or the Federal Government. If it's the region, I suspect they're probably more than getting their money's worth in terms of higher property values, more affluent residents, more tourism etc. And if it's Bavaria or the Bundesrepublik, well, then I pay for it so I might as well use it.
The picture shows a BOB train in the station at Lenggries. The mountain in the background is a ski resort in winter, and a mecca for paragliders and hard core mountain bikers (average gradient one in three) in summer. Buses also connect with the trains at this station and run across the border into the heart of Austria's Karwendel National Park - some very spectacular scenery indeed.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference UPDATED: Munich, New York & Starchitects:
» The Best Pretzel Croissant In The World from Veritas et Venustas
Yes, it's probably the only pretzel croissant in the world, but why? It's excellent: flour, butter, egg and salt. As made by Manhattan's City Bakery, it's delicious. In Munich, I used to have Brezeln for breakfast sometimes. These are pretzels, but mor... [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 21, 2005 11:41:13 AM
John Massengale writes about Munich: "And all within easy range were one of the best opera houses in the world, with tickets a tenth the price of seats in New York. . . ."
I lived in Prien-am-Chiemsee when I was in graduate school, and I took the D-Zug into Munich to go to the opera every week. Muenchners told me that the opera house had been destroyed in the war and then rebuilt after the war exactly as it was before.
I think the rebuilding of the old Munich opera house demonstrates one difference between traditional, city-making, architecture and individualistic starchitectural modernism. The old buildings and bridges of Bosnia are also being rebuilt. The impulse to rebuild such buildings goes beyond mere human obstinacy. Some readers of the New York Post want the World Trade Center rebuilt exactly as it was before, but they have no hope of prevailing. Is there any modernist city building in the world that is so beloved and so right for its place in the city that if it were bombed we would lovingly rebuild it? I don't think so.
Mary Campbell Gallagher
Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher at Sep 17, 2004 12:35:10 PM
Or "Lake Chiemsee," as the US Army calls it.
You can catch Shrimp Scampi there.
Posted by: john massengale at Sep 17, 2004 12:44:44 PM
Given that the World Trade Center has so little urbanistic value other than an iconic and platonic form viewed from afar (maybe that is enough?), I hope that they never rebuild it.
Posted by: Brian at Apr 23, 2008 10:55:28 AM
i did not know, you were so into munich.
you are right: the city is the most important.
but when the context is a dull, i am glad to find a nice real building, that has to be delt with... moritz
Posted by: moritz hauschild at Aug 26, 2010 4:32:17 PM