We have found that the mere machine, however efficient it may be, does not satisfy the soul. It is proving only too true that "Man cannot live by bread alone." In a flood of recent "Main Street" books we have been shown all too graphically what drab, barren, uneventful lives we live. Yes, most of our towns are colorless and anything but inspiring and so perhaps a wistful longing comes over us to recapture some of the beauty of life that seemed to promise in the fascinating years of childhood.
Even the hard-headed practical business man may make a cult of decrying whatever savors of beauty as something effeminate, the work of long-haired dreamers. Yet that same man often insists on good-looking furniture, a beautiful etching or painting in his office, or he spends much time picking out just the right cravat or a new spring suit. He gets away as soon as he can to go out to a beautiful golf course, cunningly landscaped, and for his vacation he goes to the mountains, or the shore, or the woods, where nature is at her most perfect.
2 Before Mr. Ford's death he served as director of the Regional Plan Association of New York City and vice-president of the Technical Advisory Corporation.
No, the demand for beauty is innate, and while a certain Puritanical hold-over and a childish expression of red-bloodedness may induce us to repress outwardly our need for beauty, nevertheless it is there waiting for release. All that was needed was that good looks should become "the thing." The turning point has come. To-day beauty is no longer looked at askance. To-day we can insist on attractiveness in our surroundings without being thought queer. No longer do we have to make our towns merely safe, healthy and convenient. Openly we can make them attractive as well. However, that which appeals to the eye, that which is really attractive, does not just happen of its own accord. It is rarely accidental. Beauty is not a cosmetic, just applied to a building or town. It is not superimposed by planting geraniums or putting filigreed ornaments on lamp-posts. No, beauty, is more than skin deep. It is fundamental and basic in the design of any object.
Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted once said, "Beauty is a closer approach to practical perfection in the adaptation of means to ends than is required to meet the merely economic standard." Good looks is doing the efficient thing more appropriately. It means making the bridge or the museum or the factory look the part, express its function, as well as serve its purpose. In any case design implies good taste. Without taste there can be no real beauty, but the great work of art, the building or the town that will live down through the ages, must have in its design that same inspired vision on the part of the creator that characterizes all the great works of art that have come down to us.
The interesting part of it is that this extra effort, this good taste, this appropriateness, this inspiration need add nothing to the cost. As a matter of fact, experience proves it may even save cost because good taste usually means simplification, and simplification means the elimination of non-essentials.....
Somehow our towns, so well planned for safety, health and efficiency, have failed to inspire our enthusiasm. True, we were boosters for our town because it was the thing to do; it was expected of us, but any other town would have done just as well if our family and our work happened to be there. No, the town lacks charm. It lacks appeal. To be sure, nature gave the town a good start, but from then on the few that loved nature had a constant losing fight to keep even that inheritance intact. The town may have buildings of great historical value or of unique Colonial architecture, but one after another they disappear - gone forever, for once gone they can never be replaced.
Our fathers planted street trees because they loved trees. They have become one of the great assets of the town, and yet without a protest the lineman ruthlessly slashes great gashes through them, with only the most feeble protest on our part. We have betrayed our trust. The misguided business man insists on felling the beautiful great elms in front of his store. A curious idea seems to have insinuated itself over the country that trees harm business, and yet the best business streets either in Washington or Paris are lined with trees. In any case, if trees must be removed on account of imperative roadway widening, by all means new ones should be planted to replace them. Fortunately to-day planning boards all over the country are insisting in their platting regulations that all subdividers shall plant trees along their streets. Perhaps there is no one thing - certainly nothing that costs so little - that can make "The City Beautiful" as street trees.
And then come the street poles and wires. Is there anything conceived by man that can make an otherwise decent street look more tawdry, more one-horse, more down-at-the-heels than a welter of poles and wires? If familiarity only would breed contempt, but instead it merely breeds indifference and the crime persists. Without fail the moment the wires are buried in conduits, or removed to rear alleys or rights-of-way everyone exclaims how much more attractive the street looks, and then they wonder why they had never done it before. Perhaps next to street trees the removal of poles and wires can do more to make "The City Beautiful" than any other one thing.
Then come the billboards, sky signs, signs that overhang the sidewalks and even the wayside stands, but here, most fortunately, we have a strong organized movement, thanks to Mrs. Lawton, Mrs. Rockefeller and others. [In 1929] over 800 cities and towns, containing over one-third of the population of the United States and nearly two-thirds of the urban population, had eliminated all billboards and wayside stands from all residence districts, and they are controlling the size and location of advertising signs in business districts. Massachusetts has gone further and has taken the lead in controlling billboards along the highways, while the leading provisioners of the country are setting a splendid example in suppressing the billboards and greatly improving the wayside stands. All of this is helping markedly in making not only the city but the country beautiful and will repay all effort given to it a hundred-fold.
The street-lighting fixtures, hydrants, letter boxes and fire-alarm boxes are all important. Not many years ago anything would do. To-day the fixture-supply houses have vastly improved their designs. The result is much more attractive street perspectives. If we could only eliminate the electric light that just protrudes on an iron pipe from the ugly wooden pole. Grass borders, flowers, shrubs, central parklike strips, parkways, attractive kiosks or news-stands, seats, fountains, monuments, statues - one and all make the "street picture." We may not be conscious of them, but subconsciously they give us a sense of well being and satisfaction and a certain unconscious pride in the street that makes the effort devoted to them well worth while. Such an asset do they prove in selling property that the wide-awake subdivider to-day features such things as these in his subdivision layout. He finds that they pay.
There is a lot that can be done with the "street picture" either by ordinance or by persuasion. The requirement of most zoning ordinances that the buildings, especially in residence districts, should set back from the street line is a case in point, although subdivision design shows that a lot of the monotony of our streets with their regular setbacks can be avoided by proper grouping of buildings and the grouping of setbacks so as to form a good composition of a block or street as a whole.
The new skyline of New York, with its stepback terraces, towers and gables, is not an accident. Far from it! When we were zoning New York and trying to see how we could get the greatest amount of light and air down into the street we tried at the same time to picture how terraced-back buildings were going to look. To keep them from being monotonous and standardized we made little models in harness soap of virtually all the new types of skyscrapers and many other types besides, and we drafted our stepback regulations so that they would permit all the variety and spontaneity of treatment that we are revelling in to-day.
In the fire limits of our building codes we are again assuring at least a certain substantialness and permanency in the construction of our more congested districts. In our control of plats and subdivisions, thanks to the board of vision of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, we are not only securing a much more orderly development of our suburbs but a marked improvement in the "street picture" of the new suburban highways.
However, all of this is in only a negative control of our street architecture. This municipal control can at best only keep the buildings from being too bad. It does not make the frame of the "street picture" positively good. As far as public buildings and public structures are concerned, there is no doubt but that we have made remarkable progress of late. We have only to look through the architectural magazines to be overcome by the astonishing number of most attractive public buildings that to-day are scattered from one end of the country to the other. This is something of which we may well be proud. In part this has been accomplished by the art commissions and art juries which control the designs of all public structures, but primarily this advance is due to a marked improvement in public taste and a noteworthy demand for public buildings in which the citizens may take a legitimate pride.
On the other hand it is the great preponderating mass of dull private buildings that recently led a well-known architect to remark that even Washington was only 25 per cent good architecturally. That is, only a quarter of the buildings would stand the test of time, whereas he considered that in most of our other large cities we would be lucky if 10 per cent survived public taste for more than a generation. For a country that is settling down to permanency these are dangerously low averages.
Or, from another point of view, our most lasting impression of a new city or town is our first impression. If that first impression, whether we approach by water, railroad, road or air, is good; if the "gateway" to the town is welcoming and interesting, we carry away a sense of delight that we will never forget. In our airports we can at least profit by the horrible example that the railroad affords, where we often have to go into the city through miles of unkempt factories or squalid tenements - the city seemingly to turn its back on the visitor - only to arrive in the vast, murky, confusing cavern which serves as a terminal. At least the airport can be bright and welcoming and the approach can be through open fields and attractive suburbs.
To-morrow our city plans, which yesterday were dead and meaningless things to most of us - just so many lines on paper - are now coming to life, for now we can actually visualize the city map as we approach from the air. It becomes a thing alive with color, form, shadow and movement. So important is this becoming that we are actually beginning already, fortunately, to prevent a repetition of our billboard pest by prohibiting roof advertising, but we must make this prohibition as nearly uniform as we can, and as soon as we can, for to-morrow it will be too late.
Yes, the air pattern of the town is now becoming the test of whether the community is well planned or not. If it "mosaics" well, the planning has been well done.
From the ground, too, we are beginning to study the mass or composition of the town. We study its silhouette to see that the buildings compose well. When you go between Philadelphia and New York on the Pennsylvania and look at Princeton three miles away, with its picturesque massing of roofs, towers and trees, you cannot help feeling the thrill that comes as you stand before a great work of art. In recent studies of Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa from the water a similar silhouette was being sought.
"The City Beautiful" is largely a matter of harmony and appropriateness; of fitness of form to function, all of which leads to individuality or personality. A town has personality according as it appears to be appropriate to its function and site. As a matter of fact, the "typical American city" is utterly lacking in personality. It is typical only in so far as it is rubber-stamped - just another standardized model struck from the same old die. By contrast, old Charleston, S.C., Vieux Carre in New Orleans, St. Augustine, Fla., or Beacon Hill in Boston, do have a most refreshing personality because they express with all spontaneity the feeling and purpose of their time and site. Every community has some individuality of its own, if we can only find it to express it. Santa Barbara, rising from its ruins, is doing this very thing and many recent subdivisions from Palos Verdes to Radburn are making a most laudable effort to express appropriateness, harmony and personality. Scale, too, is important, although it is the easiest thing in the world to miss by default as witness the plans to erect 15 and 20 story apartment houses directly on the top of the glorious Palisades opposite New York where the Palisades will be reduced to mere retaining walls for the incongruous cliff dwellings which will soon crush them.
In the last analysis the attractive city is a matter of design - design in form, in color, in texture, full of variety and contrast and yet harmonious; where buildings, public and private, group into interesting masses and silhouettes; where color and texture is placed so as actually to form good compositions such as you would expect in a good painting or in a good oriental rug; where the views which you get here, there and everywhere throughout the city or town are not a hodgepodge of form or a kaleidoscope of color but an ordered arrangement with all the beauty that any work of art should have.
It is not inconceivable that the congestion piled on congestion that the centers of some of our cities have now attained is actually precluding the possibility of good civic design. Perhaps we can only attain permanent civic beauty by ruthless decentralization of our cities, saying that if they will grow they must grow centrifugally by the creation of new isolated satellite communities far enough from the center so that they can always avoid the untoward congestion of the metropolitan hub.
However that may be, we will only attain "The City Beautiful" as well as the city practical by establishing and maintaining a policy so logical and so appropriate that continuity is inevitable. It is being found in America, as it already has been found in Europe, that the architect is preeminently a coordinator by training. He is particularly suited with his highly trained imagination and taste to take the ideas of the engineer, the lawyer, the economist and psychologist and transmute them into the living inspired plan. He should be given every encouragement to do this most vital thing: By the establishment of art juries or commissions to legally control the design of all public structures, by the creation of advisory architectural councils or commissions as they have in Washington and Santa Barbara, by the creation of street associations, such as the famous Fifth Avenue Association in New York, and by means of subdivision art juries, which through persuasion and gradual education, through the schools and numerous organizations, can gradually make attractive structures, interesting "street pictures," the "things to do." What we have already done in our automobiles and airplanes we can surely expect to do in the civic design of our cities, towns and countrysides.
California has pointed the way in its famous Planning Act of 1927 which is designed "to best promote the amenities of life, health, safety, etc." and "the improvement and control of architecture and general embellishment of the area under its jurisdiction." This means a first attempt at a public control of private architecture - a thing which has been accepted for generations in Europe as essential. Perhaps our courts are not ready yet to sustain such a control, but the time is coming in the near future, with popular taste growing as rapidly as it is, when the public will force the courts to extend their protection of property against those things which are offensive to the nose to include those things also which are offensive to the eye.
We are at the beginning of a new era in the planning of our American towns; the pioneer period gave way to a great period of material expansion where efficiency and service were the watchwords. To-day with our rapidly increasing wealth and leisure we are insisting more and more on the amenities of life. History says that that means beauty. The new period we are now entering is one where utility and beauty will share alike. Neither will satisfy without the other. Together they will make our American towns a delight and inspiration to all.