“Classical” Thoughts on Solving Urban Planning
The growth of cities, and what to do to about housing both affordable and otherwise, is a never-ending debate. Clive Aslet argues that a least some thought-if not outright guidance-of this newest version of an old problem should have a place for “a constant—indeed inevitable—theme of classical architecture”; the classical revival.
Cities are one of the big issues facing the planet. Hundreds of new cities are expected to be created across Africa and Asia in the course of the next century. Researchers believe that, if current population trends continue, Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, could develop into a vast, sprawling metropolis of over eighty-five million people. Niger has the highest birth rate in Africa; Niamey, its capital, is expected to explode in size, from less than one million people to forty-six million by 2100. Unfortunately, the urban expansion that has already taken place across the developing world has been ramshackle. Much of it has taken the form of shanty towns, where groups of shacks are crowded together with little sanitation or governance. This is brewing an obvious problem. The example of the West is, alas, little more encouraging. Much new development takes the form of suburban sprawl, which is wasteful of precious land, and has little character of its own. Young people are frustrated because they cannot break out of parental nests; the elderly feel isolated. And yet the pressure to build more housing—for reasons of immigration, increased life expectancy, and the creation of more households due to divorce—will increase, not abate. The need for master-planning has never been greater.
Master-planning is not the exclusive preserve of the classical movement. But following the public disgust at the failure of the tower blocks of the mid-twentieth century (in Britain, Grenfell Tower, a tower in North Kensington which burned in 2017 in a catastrophe apparently caused by the attachment of cladding intended to remedy some original defects of the specification, has become a cause célèbre), the Corbusian vision is dead. So modernism has borrowed the language of classicism: there is now hardly a wafer to put between Foster + Partners and Prince Charles. Both advocate sustainable neighborhoods, which have strong senses of local identity, and where people can walk, bicycle, or use public transport; communal streets, where neighbors meet each other going in and out of local shops, are good, selfish motorcars bad. But the visual results will be different. Modernism is not naturally local—it’s international. Nor is it human in scale—it favors the big, the spectacular, the mass-produced. But classicism has for centuries been making the towns and cities that—in Britain at least—house prices suggest people most want to live in. Its principles are universal, being based on the human form. But the classical language has dialects that differ from place to place. It is comfortable with traditional building technologies; this makes it particularly suited to less prosperous parts of the globe. Here is demand, on an epic scale, and here, too, the solution. It is appropriate that classicism should occupy a niche—or as one might term it, an aedicule. But there could be a great destiny for practitioners who climb.