Daily Archives: November 13, 2015

Radburn, New Jersey

DSCF5178There are iconic buildings and places that everyone knows, but remarkably few people have actually visited.  In my lectures I try to stick to places where I have been, as the understanding one has of a place is greatly inferior if your whole knowledge of it comes only from books or media.  However, there are some places that are so important that you need to present them even if you’ve never seen them.  Radburn is such a place, one that I show to my students constantly, so actually seeing it was on the top of my list for this trip (even though I knew it would drive Greta crazy).  And I’m happy to say that it was an even better place than I expected it to be.

Planned communities, and planned suburbs, grew in importance and influence in the 19th and early 20th century.  A radical change came with the spread of the automobile to the middle class – how could the built environment cope with the spatial and organizational demands of cars?  Corbu’s various schemes pointed in one direction, but a more realistic and thoughtful approach was taken by progressive designers in the 20s.  Clarence Stein and Henry Wright collaborated on many important developments (such as Sunnyside in Queens), but Radburn laid out a new model for organizing suburban developments to emphasize community, safety and privacy.

The basic premise was that pedestrian and car circulation should be separated, with the dwelling units situated between the two.  Children should be able to walk or bike safely around the neighborhood, and all the way to school, without having to cross a street.  It sounds difficult and expensive, but the solution turned out to be affordable and at a remarkably high density.  And like all great solutions, it was also elegant and beautiful.

The through streets in Radburn that connect to the larger street system are for cars only.  Notice that they have no sidewalks – they don’t need them.  Some houses enfront these streets, and they have modestly-scaled yet formal front yards.  DSCF5187

They look like village roads, although in the site plan below, they look quite large in comparison to everything else. site

Branching off these streets are the dead end streets for accessing the houses – courts, cul-de-sacs, whatever.  They are even smaller, and allow for car access to driveways and a small amount of on-street parking.DSCF5189

Units have their front doors on these streets, with a small yard setback for privacy, and driveways long enough for one car.DSCF5165

Some of the house are detached, and some are semi-detached (duplexes or two-family houses, depending on which coast you live on).  DSCF5170

There are carports and garages between the units.  At the end of the cul-de-sac, a sort of court is created, with detached houses tucked into the corners.DSCF5166

it is a remarkably efficient solution to the parking demands, and one that still seems to function well, almost 100 years later.cluster

The next innovation is that on the other side of the houses, across pleasant backyards, there is a narrow pedestrian path that provides access from all houses to the common outdoor space.  These pedestrian paths are really quite agreeable – you can look into your neighbors’ backyards, but it’s not a large enough space where one would linger (although small children would probably find them to be a great environment for exploration).  This pedestrian path idea was later used by Duany and Plater-Zyberk in their design for Seaside, Florida.  DSCF5232

These paths connect out to a beautiful large field, where gatherings can be held, and games can be played.  DSCF5242

The paths connect to the field between houses.DSCF5230

There is actually another path system which doesn’t show up on the site plans – it runs parallel to the large common, one house in from it, and so connects the parking court and the pedestrian path systems.  I don’t know whether it was a later design revision, or whether it evolved organically, but it provides another layer of complexity and connection on the property.DSCF5240

The pathways on the common connect all the houses, and converge on tunnels beneath the through roads,DSCF5203

so that children may safely get to school.DSCF5195

The architectural style issue is intriguing.  The houses reflect the preferences of the 20s – there are many “early American” houses, some Craftsman-y, some Tudor-y, etc.  The houses vary from pretty small to pretty generous, DSCF5190DSCF5215illustrating that the concept of the site plan is independent of the architecture.  Like many good diagrams, it can assume a variety of scales and absolute dimensions, and accommodate a wide variety of needs and site conditions.

Greta did the normal zoning-out when confronted with yet another piece of architecture that her dad was running around excitedly photographing, but I tried to get her to imagine life in this  neighborhood.  Suppose that when you were a little kid, you didn’t have immediate access to just the one other kid who lived next door to you, having to rely on your parents to facilitate any other engagements?  Suppose your backyard connected to a world of kids, not just a private, fenced-off dead end?  Suppose you could safely wander out from your house at any time, and find your cohort, with your allowable range naturally increasing as you aged?  What if all the places where you could go were visible from your neightbors’ houses, and access to this shared world was pretty tightly overseen from those same houses?  She began to see that Radburn was designed to accommodate cars, intending to limit their damage, but at the same time fundamentally improving the quality of life in suburbia for all.

You’ve probably noticed that this fantastic model was not followed very often in the intervening century. What happened?  A Depression followed by a World War, and we really didn’t build much housing for 20 years.  Then during the postwar boom, all this knowledge was forgotten.  Market forces drove all development, and the emphasis was on quick, efficient construction and the amenities of the house.  These ideas were resurrected in the New Urbanism movement which started in the 80s, and there are a very few places where they are being implemented.  But if we ever get serious in the future about creating extremely attractive, higher-density residential neighborhoods, the Radburn model will always be there for us to copy.

History: Mill towns

DSCF4594Travelers are often obsessed with history.  Many major tourist attractions are historical sites, and we’ve noticed that people we’ve met on this trip often focus on historical minutiae.  But in planning out a truck-schooling curriculum for Greta this year, we ran into a problem:  history was Greta’s least-favorite subject.  I was taken aback – wasn’t it my responsibility, as a parent, to drag her on a tour of historical sites and monuments (everyone should see Gettysburg, dammit, even if I hadn’t)?  I asked her if there were any part of history she’d enjoyed, and she mentioned the history of the railroads.  Further discussion clarified that she was interested in seeing historical stuff, artifacts from the past that showed how things were made or economies and regions organized. She wasn’t at all interested in staring reverently at a field where a battle had taken place 150 years ago, and I realized, neither was I.  Being in a place where something happened long ago is kind of cool, but going out of your way to visit such a place didn’t make sense to either of us.  Our historical agenda derived from this insight;  we would visit historical places where there were substantial, tangible remnants of history (and preferably cool, Steampunk-looking ones with lots of gears and parts), and avoid places with people in period dress.

a carding machine in Lowell

a carding machine in Lowell

Mill towns jumped to the top  of this list.  Our friend Dan prepared an exhaustive map of every mill town in New England he could find, and we set out to find a few.  North Adams was interesting, especially as a large mill had been converted to the Mass MOCA museum.  But clearly the main goal was to be Lowell National Historical Park, which preserves the mill district  where the industrial revolution really took hold in America.  It was an early planned, industrial city – a group of Boston investors scoped out possible sites for development, and settled on Lowell because of the drop in elevation of the Merrimack River, and the opportunity to build canals and waterways off it. DSCF4611

Lowell also continued our trip theme of Cities Which Were Really Important 100 Years Ago, but Aren’t Anymore.  Except in this case it was 150 years.  At its peak Lowell had 55 major mills, and dozens of smaller ones.  Lowell took the cotton from the South and turned it  into cloth.  The original work force was New England farm girls, and a highly controlled, paternalistic system was put in place to ensure their respectability while living in the city.  Within a few decades the work force shifted to immigrants, and Lowell was the site of early labor organizing in this country.DSCF4619

The National Park Service has preserved much  of this infrastructure.  The historical area is an interesting mix of remnants of the waterways, a few preserved mill buildings, such as the Boott Mill complex, where you can walk through rooms with operating looms:DSCF4666DSCF4648

and other parts of the district, where privately owned sites sit vacant, or are available for redevelopment. DSCF4627DSCF4590

In this way, Lowell is similar to our experience at Ebey’s landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island, where 90% of the land is in private ownership, and the Park Service provides an overall organization and focus.

DSCF4582Once you get away from the renovated buildings, Lowell is pretty depressed and depressing.  Some mill buildings have been turned to other uses – such as a large medical clinic or loft housing for artists and yuppies – but let’s face it, the supply of old mill sites is much greater than any foreseeable demand for redevelopment.  It’s a story we’ve seen repeatedly on this trip, cities which peaked economically 100 years ago, and there hasn’t been much new investment.  I remember an Atlantic article a few years ago, where Bernard-Henri Levy visited Buffalo and said that this was inconceivable to a European, that one of the most important cities from 100 years ago could be allowed to decline so precipitously.  But the economy moves on, technologies and transportation systems change, and when a city has lost its primary economic raison d’être, what really can be done?  Architects tend to focus on the potential of the amazing building stock left behind, but this supply-side view ignores the lack of demand to fill those buildings up.

The next important mill town we visited was Paterson, New Jersey, located on the Falls of the Passaic River.  Although Paterson is a short trip from New York City, I had never been there before;  the average New Yorker just can’t conceive of voluntarily visiting New Jersey.  Paterson also didn’t have the best reputation – when I recently mentioned this visit to a friend, he was astonished that we drove through the center of Paterson without having our trailer stripped while waiting at a red light.  (This may be a slightly outdated view – we drove through the center of Paterson and it seemed like a depressed, but not necessarily dangerous place to me.)  DSCF5274

The Paterson mill district is even older than Lowell.  The initial group of developers included Alexander Hamilton and it was the first substantial manufacturing area in the country.  The mills centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a 77-foot drop into a narrow canyon.  A very cool spot, and one that you might have seen in the Sopranos, as people sometimes get thrown off the bridge pictured here:DSCF5266

A really knowledgable historian who grew up in Paterson and now works for the NPS gave us the rundown on Paterson, which was surprisingly important – most of the early steam locomotives in the country were manufactured here, it was the center of the silk industry, an it was the site of the first Colt factory.  There are a few remaining mill buildings in the district near the Falls, as well as a museum (which we didn’t have time to visit, as we got stuck in horrific traffic jams in Paterson, and then missed a turn to the parking lot and had to circle around narrow streets with a trailer, and then ended up in front of an elementary school just as it let out).  DSCF5289DSCF5312DSCF5299Despite its gritty reputation, Paterson didn’t see as depressing as Lowell.  Perhaps we just saw a lot more street life, with a clearly vibrant immigrant population.  Perhaps it was because dreams of urban redevelopment don’t seem so unlikely when you’re within an hour of Manhattan and you have some great building stock.  We wished we had more time to investigate the city further, as the downtown has many remaining civic and cultural buildings from its era of prosperity.