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Defining a new traditional urbanism

Sometime last year this website attracted the attention of several members of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, an organization sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation in order to support and renew traditions of construction. While this organization does great work to preserve the techniques of traditional building cultures, they have yet to define what the traditional urbanism of their name really implies. The importance of such a definition I believe to be primordial. If modern planning measures continue to be adopted from one country to the next, any traditional technique of construction will become irrelevant, as they have in western industrialized (and post-industrialized) countries.

This all became obvious when a miniature controversy erupted and swept through the various internet discussion groups and blogs of the community over a proposed redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks in London’s Chelsea borough. An old modernist military installation was to be torn down and replaced by its new owner, the Emir of Qatar, with a new modernist megahousing development designed by Lord Rogers. There was nothing particularly interesting about this Rogers design, but Lord Rogers having written the plan of London, a plan that specifically calls for better design, it made sense that a Rogers design would be swiftly approved by the planning authorities. Hiring Rogers was the most risk-free option available for a multi-million pound development project.

Getting wind of this, and noticing that the Rogers design was an unremarkable piece of rehashed modern housing, the Prince of Wales hired his preferred architect Quinlan Terry to sketch up a counter-proposal that was more in harmony with the architecture of the landmark Royal Chelsea Hospital across the street from the barracks, which he then proposed to the Emir of Qatar through his personal relationship with him. The Emir, alien to the local culture and uncertain of what London considers to be “good design”, then decided to dump Rogers and re-think the development.

The Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

The Prince of Wales and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

I am not going to analyze the controversy from all of its fascinating angles, such as the design quality of the architecture, Lord Rogers (of the House of Lords) teaming up with British Republicans to denounce the monarchy’s interference with civilian life, or the absence of affordable housing in Chelsea. I am interested in only one question: is this traditional urbanism?

At first sight, the Terry design is reminiscent of the 18th/19th century style of palatial construction in Europe. (In fact one of the “blocks” features echoes of Buckingham Palace.) In terms of authenticity, the proposal is flawless. The Rogers proposal is also a palace, although one with much fewer attractive qualities. But does Chelsea really need a palace?

Providing a response to that inquiry is precisely what a system of urbanism is supposed to achieve. The system in place for London unfortunately requires that one have enormous financial means in order to participate in any kind of development, and inevitably that implies that only large speculative development will be so much as imaginable. The Chelsea Barracks proposal is entirely a product of modern urbanism, and by intervening into that system, the Prince of Wales and other traditionalists are sanctioning the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

As luck would have it, I wrote about the different processes of urban development using London neighborhoods such as Chelsea last year. Combining this with our models of the processes of urban emergence, we can develop the idea even further and try to conceive of a proposal for a traditional urbanism that develops the Chelsea Barracks site.

When I last covered Chelsea, I used its housing typology as an example of a linear, non-complex model of housing development. While linear housing is characteristic of the neighborhood, it is not the entire tissue of it. If we analyze the morphology of the neighborhood we find many clusters of housing rows, but these clusters do not necessarily repeat from one block to the next, and they are intermingled with other, uniquely programmed buildings of varying scale, the most prominent of which being the Royal Hospital. This means that, despite the neighborhood’s texture being only semi-random and not completely emergent, it performs at a remarkable level of complexity.


This kind of fabric is very common of British-American subdivision development during the 19th century. Here it is in a pure grid form in one of Montreal’s inner core “Plateau” neighborhoods.


We can observe that the middle of blocks is populated very differently from the major streets, despite the fact that they are not very different from a design standpoint. We don’t need to propose anything more complicated than self-optimization to explain this pattern. During development, housing builders would work from the center of blocks outwards, where there was the least perceptible traffic, and shops, churches and other activities located where there was the most traffic. The outcome is a complex tissue with perceptible characteristics, not only random noise.

In comparison, here is the texture of a new neighborhood in Las Vegas (Henderson), Nevada.


It is the same housing model repeated a thousand times, some lots facing backwards from the main roads. This new neighborhood might as well define linear development processes. The only feature of this neighborhood is the house, and so it can only function at any level of complexity by ejecting its residents out into town for any activity.

Of course some might say this is not a fair comparison. Those old neighborhoods are old, and therefore have had a long time to achieve maturity. But a neighborhood maturing implies that the neighborhood is planned to have a life cycle taking place in time, of which the early stage of growth is critical to its final morphology. What did a young, new neighborhood look like in 19th century British-American urbanism? It consisted mostly of very large lots of gardens and other large events (such as, for example, a Royal Hospital). These new neighborhoods were advertised as a pastoral refuge from the city. Look at this engraving of Milwaukee’s outskirts in 1858.


Its overall density is much lesser than that of Las Vegas new neighborhoods, and it has a distinctively pastoral quality. Yet what happened to those traditional neighborhoods was often that, very rapidly (the span of 2-3 decades) they became very dense urban neighborhoods, at which point the rate of new growth plunged and the fabric remained stable.

See for example this comparison of the urban fabric (1897-1915) of the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, from the book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.


In less than two decades the neighborhood was populated from a pastoral grid dominated by the campus of Columbia University to the dense, New York-style neighborhood it remains today. In these examples, growing a mature neighborhood was intrinsic to the development process adopted, and once this process wound down there was very little left to change to it. The neighborhood was mature because it had reached its equilibrium with the socio-economic context. Correcting deficiencies is what is meant by a neighborhood maturing, and developing a mature city implies that one is avoiding mistakes during its development. If we are employing a development model that is set in advance, no mistake can be either corrected or avoided during production.

Notice then that in traditional neighborhoods, the construction of mass-produced housing came last, after the neighborhood had established itself as a socio-economic system at the fringe of an existing city. Because of this, the mass-produced housing is a complement to that tissue, and contributes to the established complexity of the neighborhood, even super-charging it with population density. This not only ensured that there was no environmental alienation for the new residents, but also that there was a limit to how much repetition there could be from housing builders.

In modern urbanism we require all new developments to be programmed for a certain type of use, whether we are building a housing subdivision, an office or industrial zone, or a “mixed-used” development. If this is not know and debated in public, no development project can be approved. Only when a proposal has gone through this ordeal can anything be built, and making changes involves going through the process again, so the developers just subsidize the mistakes, or leave certain parts of the plan unrealized and a gaping hole.

In traditional urbanism this is never necessary. In fact it is possible for entire blocks to be left as pasture or gardens, creating an ultra-low density urban tissue. Only as further development becomes truly needed are these blocks transformed into housing and other programs. A critical difference is that no planning permit or approval is necessary to further develop a neighborhood. Instead the residents have an envelope of building rights set in building codes, and everything within that space is considered to be automatically approved. Because of this the development of a neighborhood can be undertaken in a large number of successive decisions, where the next building to be added is not only determined by the citywide market but also by the current state of the neighborhood. This in turn allows a local community and economy to grow, which is absent from modern developments.

This is all very interesting for new neighborhoods, but how would that apply to a small urban redevelopment site in the middle of a centuries-old neighborhood? Clearly we aren’t going to be building up from pastures. This is where a “new” traditional urbanism becomes relevant, as we need to invent a new process that restores the features of traditional urbanism, but can also function in the context of mature cities and modern structural requirements.

Although the redevelopment of a large urban block is usually undertaken as a large real-estate project, it can also be considered as a nested process of urbanism (urbanism within urbanism). Much like the city-wide process of urbanism is characterized by regulations intended to achieve equilibrium, the redevelopment of a block of the city should also be designed as to achieve its equilibrium with the city as a whole but (and here is the defining characteristic of a traditional urbanism) also within itself. This is what does not happen in linear development processes such as housing subdivisions, or 19th century housing terraces. They provide equilibrium with the larger scale, but amongst themselves they provide no complement. For this reason, although you’re likely to see a lot of some housing model repeated in one place, you’ll rarely ever see it used again elsewhere. Mass-production does not work for buildings the way it does in automobiles.

Time and interaction are the critical factors. The reason large-scale development like the Rogers and Terry proposals get approved and built is that everything must be conceived and approved in one step. The architectural design is rushed in order to make proposals as soon as possible. The form can’t evolve over the course of development. This process is justified by the need to control the architectural character of the city, but it is not necessarily so. It only follows from controlling architectural character because we rely on static information systems and processes to conduct building. In fact, many of the traditional building techniques that preservationists are attempting to preserve do not translate into modern information systems (building plans). If instead of drawing the full plans, the proposals simply supplied the component patterns and a parameter space for them, then there could be an infinite variety of different instances of these patterns populating the new space, all fitting a particular need and applying a specific method of returning to equilibrium. If we wanted to release control even more, we could define some buildings from the neighborhood as models and whatever patterns they featured as automatically approved. And seeing as this is the 21st century, we could define these patterns inside software that could randomly generate any possible permutation, such as the City Engine.

With the architecture out of the way, there would only need to be a fixed design for the frame of spaces around which the urbanization will take place. Grids are flat and unspecific, and so a good project will have a place structure that creates inequalities of movement. (Even New York’s grid has subtle inequalities in the short-blocked avenues and long-blocked streets, creating vastly different spaces in character.) Crescents, squares and alleys on a completely open surface should be the extent of planning a new neighborhood, and it will be important that this design have value all of its own. It is quite possible, for whatever economic reasons, that only part of the surface will be built, or even that nothing will be built. A good urban design must work in all states, including with nothing on it. Remove the buildings from the Terry proposal and there is still a rather interesting landscape. The Rogers proposal, without its buildings, has nothing. Terry is therefore much closer to the goal.

Negative space in modern plots

Negative space in modern plots

In the final step, how does the developer make money? Sustainable development, after all, has to be profitable in order to be sustainable. In a traditional city, plots were subdivided over time as the need arose. In a modern city lots are defined as a standard shape, and then later sold off for some standard price. This approach has the unfortunate side effect of creating a lot of negative space. The developer of the Chelsea Barracks could instead sell or auction off space as an elastic product. The first buyer would choose the first spot on the open surface, in relation to the hierarchy of the urban grid. The second buyer would place himself in relation to the urban grid and the first buyer. These buyers at first would come from long-time residents of the neigborhood aware of some particular way of extending the neighborhood, but unable to find a lot a space at the right size before this project became open to the public. This process would continue until all the space had been consumed, and the end result would be that all buildings would be related to one another through the sales process. If the space was priced high enough, the later projects would only be initiated after the initial ones had been completed, and the impact of time would generate the demand for building programs complementing the initial projects.

In such a way the urbanism within urbanism would create its own socio-economic subsystem, would feature a randomly adapted but uniform architectural signature, and would complement and extend the external urban tissue.

While I’ve detailed a process for developing a small block within a city, this process is just as applicable for doing development of new cities, or new suburbs of cities. There are fewer constraints and difficulties involved in these other cases, which is why I wanted to use the example of the Chelsea Barracks site. Urbanisation is a universal phenomenon, and although the patterns change, the underlying principles are everywhere the same.