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Last edited 26 Mar 2018
Monument and context
Contextualising urban architectural thinking and considering its alternatives.
“As for the term context, we find that it is mostly an impediment to research. To context is opposed the idea of Monument. Beyond its historically determined existence, the monument has a reality that can be subjected to analysis. Moreover, we can design a ‘monument’.” Rossi, Aldo, The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1982 pg 126
“The fundamental purpose of the architectural profession has evolved to mediate between its practitioners and the culture in which they practice. The architect, in history or in present, is defined to a large extent in relation to a larger social context.”
Kostof, Spiro, The architect: chapters in the history of the profession, University of California Press, 2000, pg vii
Context is defined as 'the circumstances relevant to an event or fact' (Collins, 2006:170) Monument is “something such as a statue or building, erected in commemoration of a person or event. (Collins, 2006:523) To work 'in context', on a given site, is one parameter of architects, to work within the context of the profession of architecture is another.
With the notion of context come connotations of the existing fabric; the locality, tradition and the vernacular condition. By embedding the intentions of a design within the essence of place, a connection linking new and old can be made, transcending the built environment and creating a metaphysical connection with a place. As Adam Caruso writes:
Although architects cannot make vernacular structures one can attempt to recreate the processes through which the vernacular emerges in each project. In the place of invention, rhetoric and signification one can embrace convention, awkwardness and repetition. In this way, buildings can achieve an auratic presence that comes through associative memory and direct experience. (Caruso1999:51)
Context can also be considered within the profession of architecture. Working as an elite body of thinkers, whose role it is to shape the built environment, their ethics of practice will have an equal influence, if not greater, than the existing condition. Brent C. Brolin comments rather pessimistically about this obligation:
“It is not the commercial greed that destroys the city-scape, but the architects refusal to use the power of his professional status to lead clients to the aesthetically sound solutions.” (Brolin 1980:13)4
From this it becomes apparent that both the existing contexts of an urban area, and the position of an architect within the context of the profession influence the outcomes of the design process equally.
Both Aldo Rossi and Spiro Kostof confront this duality of context in their writing. Rossi’s (1982:126), Architecture of the city presents the notion that to respond to or to create in context is different to the ideas of building a Monument. Set this thought beside that of Kostof (2000:vii), who writes that the profession of architecture has arisen over time to “mediate” between the architects and their context, the people and places they work within, and an interesting dialogue opens up.
Louis Hellman’s somewhat satirical illustrations depicting the image of the architect offer some insight into what both Kostof and Rossi are alluding to. Architecture is interwoven within our social context; it forms the background of our everyday lives, and is itself shaped by its surroundings, physically and professionally. Moreover the profession carries preconceived notions of what an “architect” should be. One of Hellman’s illustrations portrays the architect as someone who brings notions of utopia to those in despair, a cure to all ill, their work a monument within the urban fabric, but also a monument for themselves, a calling card for the “hero” of design.
The impact of monument, their imposition into an urban fabric is obvious for all to see. What is less obvious is the impact the work of monumental architects on the profession, and how it influences a culture of celebrity. This has its own impact on the built environment. Jeremy Till (2009:7-8) in Architecture Depends claims that the “autonomy of teaching and black box practice” of architects tends to cause an inversion in the concerns of an architect. Looking to peers and contemporaries instead of observing the places in which they work, the context of architectural practice quickly becomes detached from the places it intends to reflect, and the people it serves.
 Historical context
The Renaissance saw the beginnings of modern science and the liberation of man from fears of religion and the passing of the Black Death that had plagued Gothic and Medieval eras beforehand. With this came the need for a new approach to urbanism. On the basis of classical principles there were to be wide streets with vistas, the reinstatement of a grid to give order to urban space, and the use of squares to emphasise monument, but also for market places and domestic functions. (Schoenauer 1981:139)
The end of the eighteenth century too brought great medical advances, and the industrial revolution brought new processes, functions and requirements. However, the well-being of the people did not advance in quite the same way. Peter Hall (1997:17) discusses the quality of living conditions in London at this time in the city of eternal night, a chapter of his book on modernist urban thinking.
“... Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two...Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who has been dead thirteen days.” (Hall 1997 :17)
These problems of overpopulation, poor living conditions and social upheaval were not limited to London. Grand cities such as Paris and Washington had also succumbed to the eternal night. In crowded American cities inhabitants had taken to violent demonstrations as a result of the economic depressions at the turn of the 1900’s along with the gross overcrowding of their urban centres.
Thus, at the turn of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Centuries there was a requirement for grand vision to restore urban centres to their former glory. At this time it is possible to see how the notions of a body of thinkers are transferred onto the landscape irrespective of the social or physical contexts in which they are placed. The notion of, and creation of these urban spaces was the first sign of truly monumental planning. This was to create spaces that inspired order and control, monuments both of their city, and a testimony to those who designed them, restoring order through notions of art and civic pride.
“Where a ruler had near absolute power, it was possible to apply these principles of renaissance planning. Medieval streets, which had been narrow and crooked, were now subjected to geometric clarifications...wide avenues... were cut through the intricate and intimate maze of medieval urban fabric.” (Schoenauer
In nineteenth century America the notion of Grand, Monumental Civic planning was deemed to be the most appropriate means of urban design. At this time we see characters such as Daniel Burnham and Pierre L’Enfant impose grids and boulevards; controlled urban spaces instilled into a generation of urban thinkers at schools such as the Beaux Artes academy in Paris; whose teaching followed a doctrine of “Happy is the city governed by the laws of art” (Tunnard 1953:303). What followed was a systematic and rigorous sterilising of the contexts and landscapes of cities such as Paris and Washington, along with the grand planning of new cities such as Chicago.
The Chicago plan, a scheme to overhaul the city of Chicago is an effective example of the intentions of monument in the urban city context, and the top-down vision of its planners and architects; both in their social perceptions of the city and their process of thinking. Projecting their intentions of what an ideal city should be, full of notions that the physical creation of objects can inspire civic pride. James William Pattison summates this notion:
“It is the mission of people of cultivated taste, who have faith and fore-sight, to educate these doubting Thomases and change their ideas.” (Pattison 1913:643)
A similar view was executed by Haussmann in Paris. In building the Boulevard St. Michel he “tore through the ancient Latin Quarter... an almost autonomous entity...full of life and for which there was no justification for this drastic action.” (Mumford, 1961, pp
The notion underpinning these plans was that through the creation of an impressive, imposing arrangement of the cities parts, a sense of patriotism could be cultivated. Convinced that “all monuments make a powerful impression on the minds of men and women” (Mumford, 1961) the thinkers behind the City Beautiful movement and their plans for Chicago sought to create a core Civic Centre, an area around which imposing, monumental public buildings could be created, and in doing so creating a sense of pride in the city amongst its inhabitants, with this sense of pride overthrowing the civil unrest and poor quality of urban living at the time. (Mumford, 1961, pp. 386,388)
The illustrations by Jules Guerins summarise the intentions of the Chicago plan. With an emphasis on the landmarks of the city, the Plaza on Michigan and the Civic Centre, the central point of the radial routes scything in and out over the old city; they ignore people, represented as squiggles of ink, drawn to gauge the scale and grandeur of the scheme. There is a direct link between these illustrations and that of the Ideal City, first proposed by Piero della Francesca in 1470 with a similar lack of population and activity.
Urban thinking well into the 20th century, with ideas such as Corbusier’s plans for the Radiant city and its proposed development of Medieval Paris, continued this regime with proposals of monumental scale.
“The Human scale of medieval Cities gradually vanished and was too readily exchanged for a monumental and impressive scale” (Schoenauer 1981:141)
The language of these movements, supposed that monument would create a communal sense of pride in the city. Writing about part of the Chicago plan, Pattison comments on a vast roadway which will scythe through the city:
“...the double roadway will benefit no one but the owners of automobiles and aristocrats in fine vehicles. This is to forget the vast array of men and women who come in ...to do their days work. They themselves may never use the bridge, but the customers upon whom they depend, and cannot get along without, do bring business and money to these dependant wage earners.” (Pattison 1913:643)
Returning to Rossi’s (1982: 126) quotation:
To context is opposed the idea of Monument. Beyond its historically determined existence, the monument has a reality that can be subjected to analysis. Moreover, we can design a “monument” The connotations of this are profound. First Rossi asks questions of permanence to what extent can any urban context embody the sense of its inhabitants, their identity, if they are continuously in flux, yet their surroundings anchored to the ground, are unchanging?
Rem Koolhaas (1995:1248) proposes an alternative approach to urban growth. In his essay “The Generic City” he holds impermanence key to a meaningful urban context. Koolhaas claims that to work from one central plan restricts the ability for a city to meaningfully respond to the needs of its inhabitants. Instead, cities should become less static, their grain more fabric than concrete, allowing change, alteration and renewal on a continuous basis as the city’s people change. He speaks of Paris as a city imprisoned through the governance of Haussmanns’ plan, which in bringing order to the city also brought an identity in the boulevards and mansard-roofed buildings that has prevented Paris from evolving with its population. Moreover he claims London is a model of how cities should develop. As a conglomeration of towns its grain is haphazard, resistant to the grand plans and as a result more flexible.
“Paris can only become more Parisian- it is already on its way to becoming hyper-Paris, a polished caricature. There are exceptions: London… more open, less static” (Koolhaus and Mau 1995:1248)
It is ironic to then consider the perception of London and Londoners by those attempting to impose Wrens plan for the city, which was never realised due to “...tenacious mercantile habits and jealous property rights” (Mumford 1961: 386)
Rossi’s suggests that the reality of monument is its own shortcoming. If the notion of monument is that of an icon, a core to the city, around which the city revolves; then an obvious question is how that permanent object responds to a growing, shifting city. Is it perhaps time to consider space as monument? In this shifting of focus away from the physical buildings and towards the spaces between them a change in the way one perceives the city also occurs.
Monumental approaches to city design relied on visual homogeneity and rigor from the plan. Immaterial space however cannot be quantified in this sense; “the ear is equally as capable of describing a space as the eye”(Hill 2006:183), this makes us consider the city not for what it is, but how it is experienced; the interaction between the body and space, the body and the city.
“The city has long been dominated by the eye... we rarely associate our urban experiences with ... the noise of the harbour, or the sound of a language... the harder we work to create a visually varied and interesting urban environment, the more we imagine it as silent and devoid of smells.” (Schivelbusch 2005: 44)
Instead of perceiving the beauty of the city as an object Koolhaas (1995) again proposes that a “sensual sedation” should occur, in doing so bringing out the true beauty of a city, which comes through experiencing its “moments” its beauty in both space and time.
“Compared to the classical city, the Generic City is sedated, usually perceived from a sedentary position, Instead of concentration- simultaneous presence- in the Generic City individual moments are spaced far apart to create a trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences: the color variations in the fluorescent lighting of an office building just before sunset, the subtleties of the slightly different whites of an illuminated sign at night…” (Koolhaas and Mau 1995:1250)
Kostof also alludes to a need to respect the context of the urban realm. He thought of the city not as a hard object, nor as an object that requires visual “prettification.” He believed that the true values of urban contexts are in their “flows” their ability to provide connections between people and places.
Kostof goes on to consider the city as a living system whose processes and rhythms should be remembered, they never rest, nor can they be neatly arranged for visual effect. Once again it is through the awareness of a places context that one can begin to design in a meaningful manner, transcending the physical reality of a space and connecting to the true essence of place. Moreover it shows that our urban spaces do not exist in isolation, rather together, as a series of related spaces. An urban space cannot be considered as a monument in isolation as its true strength is in its connectivity.
The modernist principle of functional zoning however has had a wedging effect, creating buffer spaces in the city; commercial zones at night, Industrial areas during the weekend. In addition the separation of home life and work has lead to a lack of ownership of our public realm, we no longer work were we live, and as a result have fallen into a “lapse of citizenship and neighbourhoodliness” producing a city that is “nobody’s business.” (Mumford 1961: 383) A zoned city is not a walkable city, the need for the car and private transport not only dominates the urban landscape, but removes the chance for interaction with others in the city, or even the city itself.
Urban contexts and the architectural profession are dominated by monuments and the visual sense. Exploring other senses and broadening the scope of the profession may be a way to enrich our urban context.
This article was created by --Shmg 20:39, 12 December 2012 (UTC)
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Aesthetics and architecture.
- Architectural styles.
- Consultation process.
- Form follows function.
- Genius loci.
- Landscape urbanism.
- Localism act.
- Neighbourhood planning.
- The history of fabric structures.
- The history of the architect as a profession.
 External references
- Caruso ,Adam, 1999. “The Feeling of Things”, A+T ediciones (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain: 1999) Issue 13, pp.48–51
- Crozier, Justin, Grandison, Alice, McKeown, Cormac, Summers, Elspeth, Weber, Paige (eds) 2006. Collins English Dictionary: Essential Edition
- Glancey, Jonathan 2003. The Story of Architecture, London ; New York : Dorling Kindersley.
- Hall, Peter 1997. Cities of Tomorrow, Blackwell Publishers Inc.
- Hill, Jonathan 2006. Immaterial Architecture, Routledge.
- Koolhaas, Rem and Mau, Bruce 1995. S,M,L,XL, The Monacelli Press.
- Kostof, Spiro 2000. The Architect: chapters in the history of the profession, University of California Press.
- Mumford, Lewis 1961. The City in History: its origins, its transformations, and its prospects, London : Secker & Warburg.
- Pattison, J.W, 1913. “The Chicago Plan”: To Make Chicago Beautiful, Fine Arts Journal, 29(5), 643
- Rossi, Aldo 1982. The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
- Schivelbusch, W, 2005 Nocturnal City. In Zardini, M(ed), Sense of the City: An alternative approach to urbanism, Lars Muller Publishers, 34-63
- Schoenauer, Norbert 1981. 6000 Years of Housing Vol. III: The Occidental Urban House, Garland Pub.
- Till, Jeremy, 2000. Architecture Depends, MIT Press.
- Tunnard, Christopher 1953. The City of Man, Architectural Press.
- Zardini, Mirko (ed) 2005. Sense of the City: An alternative approach to urbanism, Lars Muller Publishers.
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