By Theo Mackey Pollack
If April is the cruelest month, then January and February are the most democratic, meting out their long misery in an evenhanded gray across the Northeastern winter. For months, my usual deep pull toward nature has been held to the silence of moonlight walks through the Tudor blocks of this haunted Gatsby suburb, no other being to be seen but a deer, no other man but Orion.
Ah, but the Mediterranean! Even in dark winter, a thought of its natural gifts is enlivening. Sapphire waters stretching out from the sun-bleached pastel towns of the Côte d’Azur to vast and mysterious Africa. The not-quite-desert scrub, the landscape of wildflowers and herbs captured in a drop of Chartreuse. The palette that enchanted Monet does not retreat here in annual surrender, as its corresponding colors do in the North. With spring, it comes to life with greater lushness.
The spirit of the Mediterranean is more than climate, blue waters, or daring topography. The region’s settlement patterns express an ancient compromise between a milder mood of nature and deeply grounded traditions of land development. The long shadow cast by antiquity over our time offers a tangible counterpoint to today’s approaches.
At its best, urban planning is a fine art. The built environment has a unique power to transmit the life patterns and specific customs of a culture across time. A city, like a custom, is an artifact of generations. Studying urbanism from this perspective offers a sharp contrast to the technical, materialist approach that has prevailed since the rise of industry.
In the Mediterranean tradition, ancient and Renaissance treatises by Vitruvius and Alberti are important touchstones. Vitruvius, who lived at the time of Augustus, left us the only extensive write-up of Roman building practice that survives from antiquity. Alberti, who lived during the Quattrocento, brought Vitruvian concepts to light for Renaissance audiences.
Unlike law or literature, where texts are the primary links in the customary chain, urban planning is fundamentally a tradition composed of spatial, physical instances made real by the work of drafters and builders. One text stands out for its deference to that tradition. In 19th century Vienna, Camillo Sitte was one of the first authors to acknowledge urbanism as a set of living customs driven by unnamed and frequently unknowable contributors. He departed from the Renaissance tradition of treating urbanism as an adjunct to architecture.
His key work, The Art of Building Cities (1889), devoted more than half its pages to southern Europe. Sitte was captivated by the dynamic between buildings, monuments, and public squares. He saw that it had existed since antiquity, and that in southern Europe it had not changed much. In Roman times, the square—mainly the forum—was the focal point of a town. This remained the rule centuries later. Only the name had changed.
Those squares, now piazzas, places, or plazas, resembled parlors. Buildings formed their walls, monuments their art. Sitte saw that monuments had traditionally been placed at the edges, where passersby would encounter them closely, and therefore intimately. Michelangelo’s David, standing outside the
Via:: American Conservative
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