On ‘How to make an Attractive City’

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The London-based author Alain de Botton recently released an engaging 14-minute video on his thoughts on what makes a city attractive. The honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects proposes six key qualities that attractive cities possess, unhealthy namely

* A balance between consistency and variety

* People’s activities being on display

* Compactness of cities and of public spaces

* A balance of features that make it easy to orient oneself on the one hand, and mysterious enough to permit enjoyable exploration on the other

* A limit on all but buildings of exceptional civic value to five-storeys high

* The use of locally-sourced materials and architectural styles that reflect local ways of life.

De Botton says that these six qualities define a beautiful city, and that we know beauty when we see it — it’s reflected in the statistics for where people choose to go sight-seeing. However, we’ve succumbed to an intellectual confusion about what beauty is, and a sense that we are powerless to change things. As a result, greedy developers have free rein to build ugly but profitable buildings that make us feel alienated. De Botton concludes with a rousing call for the citizenry to work with government to produce developments that conform to his six principles and are therefore beautiful.

I recommend watching it, and I’ll assume that readers of this post have done so.

The purpose of this post is not to expose the contradictions in his post, although contradictions there perhaps are. To take the most problematic example, on the one hand he declares that we all have a good understanding of what beautiful cities look like (just examine the tourism statistics!); on the other he seems to assert that we are lumbered with a kind of ‘false consciousness’ about cities, particularly as regards privacy. (To de Botton, the ability of some people in Cartagena to peer into their neighbours’ homes at will represents some kind of ideal; surely even if it is an ideal it is one that is highly dependent on the character of the neighbour).

Instead, the point is to firstly critique a couple of his more specific recommendations; secondly to argue that his belief that no-one has built anything conforming to his six principles in decades could not be more wrong; and thirdly to argue that his recommendations may simply exacerbate the main problem he complains about. Continue reading

How Raphael Designed the Pivotal Painting of his Career

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'The Deposition of Christ', <a href=

infection by Raphael. Also known as ‘The Entombment’ or ‘the Baglioni Altarpiece'” src=”http://www.chrishaile.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/entombment-Raphael-995×1024.png” width=”584″ height=”601″ /> ‘The Deposition of Christ’, capsule by Raphael. Also known as ‘The Entombment’ or ‘the Baglioni Altarpiece’

The previous post looked at how the above painting, the ‘Deposition of Christ’ transformed Raphael’s career and constitutes his breakthrough painting. Striking features of this painting are the way the figures seem to be struggling with a greater weight than they can easily carry, and that the figures seem to be in a state of ‘suspended animation’, frozen in the middle of action. This article will argue that these traits are neither accidental nor the result of some mystical notion of genius but were carefully planned using mechanisms designed to produce these characteristics. Continue reading

Raphael and the Pivotal Painting of his Career

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Florence at sunset. Courtesy of Flickr user stevehdc

Florence at sunset. Courtesy of Flickr user stevehdc

Florence in 1507 was gripped by a cultural flourishing that few cities before or since have ever seen and dominated by two geniuses who detested each other: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Leonardo was at his peak, cialis 40mg urbane, advice handsome and gifted with phenomenal ability at seemingly anything he turned his hand to. However, his tendencies to procrastinate and over-experiment led to an output of just fifteen extant paintings from his sixty-seven years. Michelangelo was a generation younger, belligerent, unwashed, with a mono-maniacal focus on the human body and a personality so intense it struck terror into those he dealt with. Continue reading

The Uses of Perspective: Lessons from Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London

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Wren's plan for London. The red oval shows the area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

Wren’s plan for London. The red oval shows the approximate area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

This is part of a series of posts about Wren’s masterplan for rebuilding London after its Great Fire destroyed most of the City of London in 1666 and also the ideas that the masterplan sparked. They are published in the hope that they might prove thought-provoking and in the hope that flaws in observation and argument might be identified and corrected.

Lesson 1. Optical perspective influences how we perceive landmarks: use it to support the design’s intention, tooth not undermine it


On Wren’s masterplan for the reconstruction of London after its Great Fire in 1666, St. Paul’s Cathedral seems to be a dominating presence. Coming in from Ludgate the Cathedral would be immediately apparent as it not only sits atop Ludgate Hill but guards the space where two of the three great arterial streets diverge.

That Wren intended the new cathedral that he was destined to design to be a dominant and monumental feature of London is emphasised by his decision to flank the entrance to the cathedral with two comparatively tiny parish churches. These surely cannot plausibly be there to serve some catchment area as they are so close to each other and to the cathedral. I assume that they are there simply to emphasise the Brobdingnagian size of the cathedral through their relative tininess. If it is indeed Wren’s intention to make the Cathedral look vast, then his intention seems to be fundamentally undermined by one of the very mechanisms he presumably used in the hopes of imparting it great significance: its location in the street layout. Continue reading

A Myth of Urban Design: The ‘Sense of Enclosure’ Theory

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One of the most widespread conventions of urban design is the belief in the importance of ‘a sense of enclosure’. This term is defined by the City of Ottawa as

“when buildings physically define public spaces particularly through proportions between height and width in an area to create places that are comfortable to pedestrians.”

This article contends that the ‘sense of enclosure’ generated by following certain ratios of street height to street width is based on a valuable perception of what makes a satisfying place, help but that the ratio theory is the wrong interpretation of that valuable perception. Consequently, by following the ratio theory we risk making developments that focus on concerns that may be unimportant to street users, and thereby make mistakes. In its place I’ll try to offer an interpretation of why some places that are said to ‘offer a sense of enclosure’ are satisfying that is both simpler and fits the data better, and which is constructed from two principles grounded firmly in known principles of how we perceive a place.

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Why ‘I ♥ NY’ works, and how it can help save high streets

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One of the most well-known and most imitated works of civic branding is the ‘I ? NY’ logo created by Milton Glaser. Why, buy information pills according to Glaser, visit this site does this slogan work, price and how can applying the principle help to save high street shops from dual threats?

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Colour Design for Public Spaces: Learning from Van Gogh

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buy more about Arles, order at Night resize” src=”http://www.chrishaile.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Cafe-Terrace-on-the-Place-du-Forum-Arles-at-Night-resize.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”383″ />Above is one of the most inviting-looking streetscapes in European art. How did Van Gogh achieve this effect and how can we use it to make more inviting public spaces? Read on and I’ll let you in on a few of Vincent’s little secrets…  Continue reading

Colour Design for Public Spaces: Colour Opposites

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What makes different public spaces have different characters? There may be many answers to this, order from different activities taking place there to different histories to different kinds of users to different styles of architecture, and many more. This series of posts looks at the role that the colour design of a public space can play. First up is a look at how the use of colour opposites can give a public space a more active character.

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Making Picturesque Public Spaces: The Lorrain Technique

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‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, buy more about it is often said. Yet, whilst there might be something in this phrase, we shouldn’t ignore that many Old Masters ceaselessly experimented to find techniques that would reliably delight viewers. Some landscape artists, for example, took this experimentation so seriously that they explicitly considered themselves scientists: John Constable declared that “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy [the then current name for science], of which pictures are but the experiments?” His contemporary JMW Turner added the suffix ‘P.P.’, short for ‘Professor of Perspective’ to the signature on many of his paintings. That landscape artists today do not speak in similar terms is partly due to centuries of experimentation having led to the development of a series of reliable techniques for creating pleasing pictures. Their very ease and teachability led many artists to consider the possibilities of landscape painting exhausted, and consequently to move into more untamed, challenging fields of art. A reliable body of techniques therefore exist to create pleasing landscapes, and there is surely no reason why planners of today should not apply these tried-and-tested techniques to make, quite literally, ‘picturesque’ places. This post attempts to apply one such technique to landscaping a public space. Continue reading