Wrath of Gnon: Traditional Urbanism and Modern Dis-Urbanism

I have had the pleasure to walk through the streets of old cities such as Rome, Florence, Jerusalem, and Paris, and there is something truly magical about the way these cities are built versus the American urban and suburban landscape in which I have lived my entire life. Architecture used to mean little to me beyond “cool buildings,” but I have come to have a much deeper appreciation for the role it plays in shaping our lives and how modernism has made it more difficult to express and live community and identity through architecture. My personal rule of thumb is if by looking at a building you can’t tell exactly where on Earth it is and what group of people built it, it should be bulldozed and replaced. Urban planning will be a major project for Bitcoin hodlers who are faced with the task of rebuilding a world devastated by fiat currency and its cultural consequences.

Today, the Twitter account @wrathofgnon posted a wonderful tweetstorm juxtaposing traditional urbanism with modern urban planning. Because of the ephemeral nature of Twitter, I have republished it here. Enjoy, and visit Twitter to favorite and retweet the originals.

It is time for a thread on traditional urbanism, or town planning 13th century style. I will dispel some myths of modern dis-urbanism. (link)

Traditional urbanism has short blocks. No building takes more than 3-4 seconds to walk past, providing interesting colors, shops, textures. (link)

Modern dis-urbanism means massive buildings, long block: takes minutes to walk past with nothing to distract or relieve the tedium. (Zürich) (link)

Traditional towns built with terrain: hills, valleys, stairs, steps, corners, odd squares. Landscaping unnecessary/uneconomical. (Stockholm) (link)

Modern dis-urbanism has buildings/houses separated, apart, at best standing-off across wide streets, making community impossible. (Hamburg) (link)

Traditional urbanism means buildings are tight, close, interlocking and over-looking, often built right into their neighbors. (Colmar) (link)

Traditional urbanism naturally limited the number of floors rather than the height: variation. More sun means possibility of denser cities. (link)

Warning: Introducing “social housing” into your town = injecting cancer in your body. Only to be attempted with strict rules (Fuggerei 1516) (link)

Traditional urbanism means a multitude of transport systems, not the monoculture of modern dis-urbanism. Canals open up and connect (Fyn). (link)

Traditional urbanism means building on street level, right out into the street. No wastage! Can’t get more bang for your rigsdaler. (Aarhus) (link)

Lower buildings and tight front streets means opportunity for small back gardens, inner yards: use for economic, gardening or recreation. (link)

Bonus: Traditional urbanism is a boon for local economy, instantly recognizable and a magnet for tourists. Can this be anywhere but Irkutsk? (link)

Street layout is important in how a town is experienced. In fairness I use only photos from Stockholm Old Town, pop. 3000. Sweden. Let’s go! (link)

Long streets that go on and on without any obvious end feel un-focused. These are only defensible as boulevards, towards a monumental bldg. (link)

Long streets are best when slightly turned or twisted, combined with interesting ground floors they become attractive rather than corridors. (link)

The best long streets are not straight, and always focused on something: in this case a parish church provides an interesting focal point. (link)

Combine turning streets with interesting ground floors and focal points, and you get that most sought after and magical thing: a real place. (link)

To continue: not all streets need to be run of the mill streets. Some streets can be tunnels… (link)

…others can be stairs. (link)

Traditional towns require almost little or no public transport. Stockholm Old town has one single subway station connecting it to the City. (link)

Like many old towns it is located on an island (others are built like islands). Two ferry lines service it, with boats from picturesque… (link)

…to downright gorgeous. (link)

With 3000 inhabitants, you can walk to any point in less than 12 minutes, making cars useless (there are less than 400 parking spaces). (link)

So far I have covered how we experience traditional urbanism (streets, layout etc.), let’s have a look at how it evolves, grows up: plots. (link)

Modern urbanism builds from the center of the plots and builds only fully realized structures, like with fossils, no evolution is possible. (link)

Traditional urbanism starts right at the edge of the street, eventually only the center will be “open” (see Visby: mature 13th c. plots). (link)

The buildings grow together, in shape, form, material, height, usage, organically over the centuries. No plot or bldg. is out of place. (link)

Individual bldgs can be started small, grow towards the back, up. This bldg. in Siena was added to, improved, enlarged, from 13th to 21st c. (link)

Modern Urbanism relies on bldgs like the “Shard”, there is nothing you could do to add or improve on this; it can only decay from here on. (link)

Traditional Urbanism means an unruly but captivating organic mix of eras, densities, purposes and material: ecological and sustainable. (link)

(It is really hard to illustrate plot evolution using photos of existing cities but this model of medieval Copenhagen does the job well.) (link)

Traditional architecture is timeless: regardless of size, material and era, it is always human scaled and made by hand. (link)

Traditional urbanism is always human scaled. It is the most energy efficient and human view of living together in civilization. (link)