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

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, 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. Continue reading

How Raphael Designed the Pivotal Painting of his Career

'The Deposition of Christ', by Raphael. Also known as 'The Entombment' or 'the Baglioni Altarpiece'
‘The Deposition of Christ’, 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

Florence at sunset. Photo by 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, urbane, 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

On ‘How to Make an Attractive City’

The London-based author Alain de Botton has 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, 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

What Michelangelo’s ‘David’ tells us about how to plan a city

Michelangelo’s David, which for centuries guarded the entrance to Florence’s town hall, is the world’s greatest work of public art. It is also a flawed work of art. The hands are distortedly large; the neck is as long as the face; the vast triangle between the legs is too empty. Most glaringly, the gigantic statue fails to communicate the essential fact of the biblical giant-killer’s diminutive size.

These flaws are not due to any failures in Michelangelo’s conception or execution, but simply due to David never being designed for such a role in such a position. The statue was designed to be placed on the cathedral’s roofline and thus to be seen from far below, from which distance and distorted perspective the ‘flaws’ would have been necessary compensations; it was also designed to be seen as merely one biblical hero among many.

Yet upon its completion the statue’s planned resting place was disregarded, and instead David was seized upon as the unique and perfect symbol of Florence’s independence and ability to defeat its enemies, and this explains its placing beside the city’s seat of government. It is said that following the statue’s installation Florentines spontaneously festooned the statue with pieces of paper praising it as embodying the spirit of Florence.

There lies a story in what drove the Florentines to do this, one which raises questions about the role of public art, and more broadly urban planning, in defining and representing a culture. Continue reading