Saturday, 11 April 2015

Urbino & London; Italian lessons and British Context

“Make of a house a small city and of a city a large house”
Attributed to Alberti and Aldo Van Eyck

The city of Urbino in Marche, Italy is often taken to be perhaps  the perfect Renaissance city. The architectural highlights of this city include the Ducal Palace, with its courtyard by Bramante, the Duomo Cathedral and the Sanzio Theatre with its subterranean ramp.   This is a walled, multi-levelled city. You enter through one of the city gates ( three or four I recall) ascending a steeply inclined street/ramp. This leads you through the city fabric to the two main  piazzas of the city from where you can visit the main city monuments.

                                                Plan of Urbino

Urbino  establishes an almost perfect balance between architecture and nature. Everyone who lives inside it lives in an apartment with no access to a personally owned garden. However, residents  can easily walk into the surrounding countryside. When we look at a plan it is clear that the overall footprint of the walled historic city is about 400m by 1000m. A person walking at 3 miles an hour covers almost exactly 400m in five minutes. Hence the  journey time a pedestrian will take to reach the countryside will only be in a matter of five or ten minutes. Despite the fact that, in its overall footprint, it is approximately the size of an English village, it feels like a city, largely due to its buildings being four to six stories high.  For various reasons, probably largely economic, it never grew as a city. Its high density environment has remained largely unchanged exuding a strong feeling of being frozen in time. After the last war a decision was taken to greatly expand the university leading to the appointment of the architect Giancarlo de Carlo in 1956. Some of the city centre buildings have been converted to academic uses. A large cluster of academic buildings have been created on the other side of the next hill.

It is illuminating to compare the example of Urbino with  London. Going back to the example of Urbino, we can see that London once occupied a similarly scaled footprint, when it’s size did not much exceed its Roman/Medieval boundaries. When it began to expand, at first basically into Westminster, the pattern of growth began to change. The growth of London can  illustrated by showing precise maps at different stages in its development.

           London during the time of Queen Elizabeth I (Reign 1558-1603) 

Queen Elizabeth I tried to limit the growth of London by issuing a proclamation in 1580  forbidding  the construction of any new buildings within 3 miles of the city walls and also established the principle that no more than one family should live in each house.  In her time, London meant what is now basically perceived as the City of London, what is now the  financial district, plus a small part of Southwark. The demographics of London meant that this decree was eventually unenforceable. West London, what is today Westminster, was the home to many estates owned by aristocrats, convents and monasteries, hospitals and lawyers i.e. important  households set in mostly open land. Gradually, bit by bit, this land was developed into the built fabric of London we see today. The Monarch’s attempts to control development did bear  fruit in the sense that the Government established a system whereby developments could only go ahead if a licence was granted, prefiguring today’s  planning system. A license was often only granted if a development was seen as being of sufficiently high quality.  For example, in the case of Saint James, the estate was divided up;  the Tudor palace of St James was preserved along with a small amount of open land, what today is St James Park. An enterprising developer, the Earl of St Albans was allowed to develop the northern part of the estate  into a mixed-use neighbourhood comprising a square, housing and eventually the church of St James in Piccadilly designed by Sir Christopher Wren. This, in fact, was the pattern of development for the expansion of London: neighbourhoods  with a mixture of uses i.e. some housing plus other functions such as a church or market and  including some open land. This polycentric pattern of growth ultimately culminated, in the context of the 18th Century,  in  the Georgian city of the Hanoverians recorded in  John Rocque’s plan of London.

                                   John Rocque’s plan of London in 1746

The ancient City of London had virtually no green space within its boundaries. It did not need to, being so small. Seeing that its street pattern has never really changed, this absence of green space remains even today. As the great estates of west London were built on, it was always felt wise to reserve some of the green space as a park. This is the ultimate origin of west London’s great series of parks.

We are used to seeing sections through  buildings and even cities to illustrate how spaces relate to each other. We also need sections through peoples’  lives to see the dwellings and towns or cities they choose to live in at that  point in their lives. When I visited New York I remember talking to someone who described the life pattern of many young Americans. They live in an apartment when young but latter, when they are often married with children, they choose to move away to a house with a garden. It is also worth remarking how an area like the City of London has almost entirely changed over the centuries from a mixed-use neighbourhood, where people lived as well as worked, to an almost entirely mono-functional area consisting of offices. Perhaps this can be taken as a classic symptom of a city which has been allowed to become too big. There are, of course, developments such as The Barbican which might be taken as an attempt to re-introduce mixed-use back into the City of London. Perhaps the most obvious lesson is, to return to the quotation which began this piece, is that high density works best when a city is at quite a small scale.

The Georgian city recorded in John Rocque’s plan did not, of course, mark the end of the city’s growth. If a city’s growth patterns are formed by its transportation patterns then, of course, further plans could be presented:  the age of the railways, i.e. the Victorian age and the age of the early motor car, i.e. the 1930’s leading up Patrick Abercrombie’s plan of 1945; the decision to limit the growth of London by a green belt and direct new growth to eight satellite towns.

What lessons can be learnt  here on the subject of a city’s growth?  Firstly, it is clear that a city grows in a process similar to cellular sub-division. New neighbourhoods are added to existing neighbourhoods. What constitutes a neighbourhood might be understood as an area with a mixture of uses which can be easily traversed. In the age of Urbino it was determined by the walking distance of a pedestrian. The lesson here is that man as the measure of all things i.e. the pedestrian scale, is the correct scale by which to gauge the development of the polycentric city. It is also true that attempts to mitigate the effects of excessive urbanism by the use of the typology of the house with garden can be inadequate. The third lesson might be that it is possible to argue that an excessively urban design environment cannot be mitigated by  more neighbourhoods with this type of the housing and that to the lessons of mixed-use and pedestrian scale  must be added the notion that the entire size of a   city can actually be allowed to become too big.

Clearly the growth of a city can be seen as requiring a major strategic rethink once it has acquired a certain size. What is needed is a solution that goes beyond simply more houses with gardens. Offering suburbia as a solution to the problem of city growth can be rather simplistic.  In itself suburbia does not really constitute an urban design proposal since it only deals with one function of the city, housing. The early urban design proposals of Le Corbusier may have been ludicrously simplistic, no more than over-scaled diagrams. However, Le Corbusier did reduce a city to simply four functions and not just one. The Athens Charter included work, leisure and circulation along with housing as the four basic functions of the city.


In this description of the growth of London, I am indebted to Rasmussen’s book, “London: The Unique City,” possibly the finest book ever written on the growth of a city and certainly, in my view, perhaps the finest book on London. All I can say is read it in its entirety.

(Thanks to Rob Bourke for plan of Urbino.  All other images are either by author,have had copyright ownership traced as far as possible or believed to be in public domain )

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