There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, illustrating 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.