Victor Gruen: true in 1964 and true today

Victor Gruen was an architect and urban planner who lived in post-war America. He dedicated his life to making cities, that had “been invaded by a metal hoard”, more liveable. In his speech below, he concludes that: “planning for the renewal of our languishing cities must emanate from the realisation that cities are for people and not vice versa, and that therefore, technology has to serve people and the city, and can never be allowed to tyrannise settlements. Settlements which enslave and degrade humanity are not cities.”

Below you will find the audio recording of a speech given by Victor Gruen, an architect and urban planner, at the American Institute of Architects, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, around 1964. It should be a little worrying that we are having the same discussion in Canberra now 58 years later!

We are not vouching here for American urban planning, but our problems in Canberra are not new. Canberra has grown as a city. We now recognise that space in our city is very valuable and that roads eat up that space. Victor Gruen goes further to argue that motor vehicles are incompatible with creating place. Without the exclusion of the automobile from city and town centres, we cannot create a place where people want to be.

Victor Gruen on architecture: Architect and planner Victor Gruen speech at the AIA, San Fernando Valley Chapter, undated. 1964. Full audio digitised by the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Centre (AHC), YouTube, accessed 6 January 2022.

Transcript of recording of Victor Gruen

Architecture as a creative expression will die, if it cannot create conditions within which it can be meaningful. There is little sense in exhibiting paintings in a room that is pitch dark. It would be rather foolish for a virtuoso to play a violin solo on the runway of a jet airport. There is little sense in placing brilliantly designed buildings into an atmosphere of danger, noise and fumes, which an unworkable hostile environment creates. We as architects, if we wish to create structures which can be enjoyed within and without, then we have to create, before all ends, conditions conducive to their contemplation. Today, our buildings are usually seen by only three men, who look at them attentively, the architect to design it, the architectural photographer through his viewfinder, and the architectural critic appraising its aesthetics. All others are kept too busy watching for traffic signals, for car swerving out and in, pushing from the rear, or watching for on rushing traffic from all sides when crossing streets as pedestrians. It follows that we have but one choice, to use our energies, knowledge and talents, our imagination and perseverance towards the aim of creating those environmental qualities in our cities, in our metropolitan regions and out in the countryside, which will allow structures and environmental elements to serve best.

Why have the environmental qualities of urban and suburban areas deteriorated? What is the cause of the urban crisis, the existence of which is no longer doubted by anybody? The cause of this crisis is the time lag between rapidly moving developments in technologies science, sociology and political systems, on the one hand and on the other, our lack of ability to adjust our thinking, our planning and implementation of such planning with respect to the physical forms of the public environment. We have been unsuccessful in adjusting ourselves emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, to the advances, changes and inventions of our time. The last 50 years have brought with them scientific and technological developments powerful enough to change our dictionary. New Words like automation, atomic energy, television, jet propulsion, astronauts, intercontinental missiles, supersonic speed and so on, have been added to our vocabulary signifying the impact of such changes on our daily lives. Sociologically, we experienced a population explosion, spreading of events from the few to the many, mass production, mass consumption, shrinkage of the rural population because of technological progress in agriculture, and as a result, of it and of the general population increase, explosive growth of population in metropolitan areas.

New words have also been added to the vocabulary with regard to the development of metropolitan areas outside the city concourse: suburban sprawl, freeways, cloverleaf are just a few of them. Significantly, the urban vocabulary itself has not been enriched. We are still working with the old terms of streets and squares of slumps and blight of street cars, buses, subways, and systems. Urban vocabulary indicates our importance with regard to city life and urban culture. In our fast moving times, the only two choices, progress or retrogression. There’s no such thing as standing still in the coming age. If we are not able to improve, the appearance of our city, we will have to face their disappearance. This appearance, not the physical structures, not of the political entities, but of (suburbia) as a dynamic force in our culture and civilisation, of its disappearance as an effective tool for implementing direct communications between people as a tool for the exchange of ideas and goods, its disappearance as the cradle of human progress in all fields of human endeavour. There are today’s those who because of the deterioration of the appearance of the city, are inclined to believe that its disappearance would be no great loss, who feel that In an era in which indirect human communications by telephone, radio and television has vastly improved, in a time when individual mobility by automobile has become possible, to see cities as no longer necessary, and predicts this centralisation of human settlement in sprawling form over the countryside is a pattern of the future. There lives in this country, a whole generation, who having never experienced the benefits of truly urban life, and having never seen a well functioning city, that means one of good appearance, wouldn’t care for it to evolve, our cities will disappear. This negative attitude about truly loving qualities is not just restricted to those who are downright hostile to the city, but has affected those who try to save it and to have working on plans for its reorganisation.

Urban sprawl

Their mindsets become confused and they are trying to help the city by imitating subcity or suburbia by injecting into the urban body foreign and destructive ideas like low density residential areas, mass transportation by private automobile and compartmentalisation of land uses. Suburban values and urban mixes as poorly as water and fire. This well-meaning but schizophrenic type of planning, may destroy because as a nation, we have become wealthier. Because our wealth has spread in the short 60 years, from the 1000s, to the millions, we have attained as a nation, many of the characteristics of the () and one of these characteristics is a concentration on egocentric, highly motivated raising of the private living standards, and its side effects and neglect of the public living standard. This neglect of the public environmental qualities, drives us even further into concentrating our efforts on our immediate personal surroundings. In escapist fashion, we are running away from the upsetting dangerous and the ugliness of the overall environment, into detached house, private swimming pools, a fenced in garden. All are expressions of the strength you (Americans) have taken over from the British, expressed enthusiastically in the slogan, my home is my castle. We have gone a step further, however, and made it a fortified castle, fortified with curtains to keep out the ugly vistas, with air filters to keep out the spoil air, with front yards to move us away from the street. And we are trying to cut down all connections with the outside world, relying on the phone, on radio and television, for communications. But here we come into conflict with the nature of men, as a gregarious beast, and with the economic necessity, at least for most of us, to earn one’s living, we are forced to make sorties and forays out of our fort. Whenever we do so we encounter the hostility and dangerous, the ugliness, the () of the overall environment. And it goes even further than that, we find out that in some respects, our fortifications, whatever we do, won’t hold, smoke robs us of the enjoyment of our gardens, the neglect of our public environment creates catastrophes, which our little fortress cannot withstand. Just think of recent fires, floods, landslides, which we experienced here. Our cities are not only dangerous, ugly and chaotic, they also fail in providing us with social and cultural inspiration. They have lost their meaning as urban centres. Maybe this was best expressed once by Gertrude Stein who visiting Oakland California was asked how she liked it there? “There?”, she said. “There’s no there there.”

Human needs

Environmental architects have dedicated ourselves to the task of reshaping existing and to creating new human environments better able to serve a purpose for which cities were founded and have existed since historic times. The purpose of promoting exchange of human ideas exchange of goods, promoting freedom of individual expression, and providing the greatest attainable amount of choice between solitude and privacy on the one hand, and socially ability and gregariousness on the other. From the concentration of this overall goals, develop a few conclusions. First, we should not desire to transform our anarchistic urban pattern into a dictatorial one. Though we believe set order is one of the basic prerequisites for any environmental organism, we do not believe set order alone represents a solution.

Think for example of a large theatre, it must provide order in order that people may be seated, so that aisles and exits doors are designed to avoid dangers in case of fire, it must have order on the stage is a well engineered and designed stage equipment, lighting and so on. But also this order would be useless if it is not activated by the creativity of the writers and performers, and if an appreciative audience is not assembled to echo the creativity.

To bring about some type of order in the human environment, which will not only make possible but encourage the creative performance of individuals, necessitates endowments of the man made environment, with a framework so designed that the greatest amount of variety and versatility can grow within it without exploding the framework. We believe it to be impossible to shape such a structured framework of the urban environment without full understanding and full appreciation of the three-dimensional expressions, which will have to grow within it and out of it, in order to give it content and life. Our insistence that there’s a unity of architecture, engineering and planning is a logical conclusion of this belief. We work in the fields of architecture, design, interior design, graphic design, economics and all types of engineering because we are convinced of the indivisibility of all these activities from each other, and from the activity of design and planning of the environment. We are deadly opposed to specialisation, because it brings about inbred skills directed towards segments of the environment only and knowing nothing about the overall problem. We are steadily striving through actual work to learn more about the workings of many of environmental elements, about office buildings, apartment houses, churches, museum shopping centres, small shops, interiors, industrial plants, because otherwise, our task as environmental architects would be removed from the knowledge of human needs of economic factors, and will become sterile without this working knowledge.

Northland, Southdale, Ostland, and Fort Worth

Looking back for a moment, we have grown into the activity of environmental architecture by processes which time wise and scope wise follows a logical pattern. Until 1948, we work nearly exclusively on the design of stores, shops and interiors. Between 1949 and 1950, the scope of these projects grew and department store assignments came our way. During the war years, however, when we had little to do, we dreamt of greater things. The architectural forum published in Issue called 1948, an article written by us, in which we describe a new post war building type to come – the integrated shopping centre.

In 1950, we got a chance to translate that dream into reality. Northland centre in Detroit is still regarded as one of the best and was our first. It was our first chance to express our notions on environmental architecture. The principles which we on this project evolved, still give direction to our work instead of many others. Foremost under the principles expressed in Northland is the separation of mechanical usage areas, roads, parking lots, trucking areas, service areas, from human activity areas represented in the pedestrian environment of the courts and malls. The creation of a strong architectural framework and our insistence, which was very much in contrast to others (opinions), to allow in these frameworks, individual expressions of storefronts, meeting the requirements and tastes, even if they were not so good, of the individual store owners, our insistence on filling a public environment of the pedestrian area with life and content.

We will always be against the slogan of grass on Main Street. We regard its environmental spaces between buildings as basically urban areas equipped for convenience, with coordinates, rest benches, and enriched by planting flowers, and, in Northland for the first time, you see works of creative artists. And though Northland was a rousing success, we never looked at the planning of suburban shopping centres as constituting the final aim of our efforts. Northland was hardly completed when the Harvard Business Review published an article of mine, in which it was stated that, in our opinion, the large suburban regional shopping centre was basically a symptom of the crisis and … This shocked city governments and downtown interests into action, and see us as providing the experience and methods by which the problems of the downtown core could be approached. As a direct effect of that article, probably the only time we could really find that there was a direct connection between an article and work, we were called upon to develop the plan for the revitalisation of downtown Fort Worth.

The Fort Worth project gave us an opportunity to translate the planning principles of suburban shopping centres into the urban vernacular. This effort, although it did not lead to the implementation of the Fort Worth plan, did lead us as a firm to dozens of large scale environmental projects, and it had acknowledged national and international impact, with regard to city planning generally. Everything we have worked on since then, whether shopping centre projects, building groups plans for new communities, redevelopment plans downtown, revitalisation plans, was a process of continuous seeking, learning and experimenting, influenced by our first projects in environmental design – Northland, Southdale, Ostland, and Fort Worth. After 12 years of working as environmental architects, I believe we are in a position to hammer our findings into a structure, a planning philosophy.

Sins of commission

But before I try to describe some tenets of what I see, this planning philosophy to be, I would like you to widen your views beyond the consideration of specific community, which you know the best Los Angeles. This is exactly the same request, which I always make when I speak to audiences in New York. I personally have the privilege and the problem of living and working in these two most extreme expressions of urban organisation. The contrast in urban character, the contrast in living, the contrast in working patterns are so great that it sometimes seems hard to apply as the identical term city to both of them. Working in dozens of other cities, we realise, of course, that between these two extremes, there lies the characteristics of the typical American city. In spite of being personally immediately exposed to these contrasting patterns, I have found nothing to discourage my belief that basic attitudes about environmental design are applicable to the extremes and to the variations.

The downward trend of our urban culture is due to two types of sins, sins of commission and sins of omission. Broadly speaking, the sin of commission consists of our actions to separate from each other all those urban elements which, for the cities to work, belong into intimate commingling with each other. The sins of omission consists of our neglecting to separate from each other, those activities which disturb and destroy another. The sins of commission and sins of omission are causally interrelated. We are separating activities which belong together from each other because our omission to separate those which are disturbing to them, makes it impossible to operate otherwise.

Let me attempt to explain this paradox in greater detail. I say that we are committing sin of separating urban elements from each other which belong together, because they depend on each other. We are separating retail areas from residential areas. So, obviously, it is these people who buy things. We are separating buildings serving cultural and artistic pursuits, from residential and from retail areas. So, obviously, people would visit these institutions more frequently, if they were not faraway from their residences, some success of retail establishments would be enhanced by the shoppers traffic generated by such institutions.

We are separating working places, that is office buildings, as they are governmental or private, high quality industrial enterprises, from all formerly mentioned categories, such as forcing long and tedious trips to and from work. We are doing so in spite of the fact that through technological progress, most industrial activities have lost those disturbing qualities, smoke and smell, which in the early days of industrialisation means the separation necessary. We are separating government workers from other workers, putting them into ghettos called Civic Centres, separating them from the life of a normal citizen, where they can meet only their own kind. We are doing so despite that office work for the government is in character identically with office work for a private corporation. Instead, by doing so, we are creating unnecessary trips for civic employees as well as for those who have to visit governmental offices.

We are further separating back here free compartmentalisation, the rich from the middle classes, the upper middle class from the lower middle class, and all of them from economically least successfully. By doing so, we not only create the highly prejudiced society, but we are making it extremely difficult for those with higher incomes, to obtain the services of those with lower incomes, and for those who render domestic services to reach their places of work.

You’re separating theatres and places serving cultural and recreational needs from all other categories, and by doing so, we are not only isolating them from urban life, but we are also impoverishing the general city by extracting those facilities, which would give it life and death.

Paris calling

To illustrate the degree and the effect of this craze for compartmentalisation, let us look in contrast to an older European city like for example, Paris. He has the opera sits in the middle of a district devoted to retail to residences into government buildings. Going to the opera leaving it, you enjoy window shopping, you have a choice of visiting hundreds of restaurants and cafés. A few steps from the opera, you find large department stores and hundreds of speciality stores, from luxury shops to two dollar shops. Above six stores and shops are residences of all types, luxury apartments, small apartments, hotel rooms. Dozens of other theatres, office buildings, governmental buildings are sprinkled all over the urban environment. The President’s Palace is on one of the busiest shopping streets. I have watched Mr. de Gaulle comings and goings from the entrance vestibular little millinery store. The Academy of Fine Arts is surrounded by buildings which contain living quarters on the upper floors and bistros, cafés and antique shops on the ground floor. Whenever I visited the office of friends or clients in Paris, I found right around the corner right, a wide selection of places to have a cup of coffee or a drink or a meal. Around the (), there’s a flower market apartment houses and on the ground floor against stores of every description, including the most mouth watering delicatessen stores. Some buildings contain elegant apartments, others cheaper ones. The effect of these intimate intermingling is vibrant urban life, admired by hundreds of 1000s of American tourists who cross the ocean at great cost and walk their feet off in order to participate in an urban experience, which has become a rarity in our country.

Now, Paris is an old organically and slowly evolved city, now, that is exposed to the benefits of 20th century technological development, like congestion by automobiles, frictions are occurring and newer developments on the periphery are beginning to reflect the same spirit of separation and compartmentalisation, which we find Western Europe generally, as an effect of its present prosperity starts to show the effects of the sins of commission, which I touched on before.

Sins of ommission

I say that the sins of omission consists of our neglect to separate those activities whichever destructive influence on you human activities. This second type of activities can be classified as utilitarian and mechanical in character. At a time when these utilitarian and mechanical features were less complex than they are today, we managed to remove some from the surface that buys as urban civilisation progress. It is an earmark of a civilised city to remove its sewage from the gutter and put it on the ground. Likewise, removing of telephone wires, water mains, gas mains is accepted as good urban policy. Even when the railroad was invented, it took us only a comparatively short time to realise the trains on main street where a nuisance and we removed car rails from sight hearing and smell. The event of the airplane found does relatively well prepared and so early airports were close to the city. Pretty soon we moved them to the outskirts. But one technological event has swamped us with such vehement that we have surrendered urban life and urban values to it without a struggle. That is the advent of the rubber wheel vehicle, the private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation and their threat to human life and health, as the yearly figures of killed and maimed demonstrate is just as great, as that of the exposed sewer.

The disruptive influence on the street pattern is greater than that of say railroad train on main street, which at least operated on schedule. The suddenness of the tech by an army of machines which growing faster than the birth rates in the human population, having now reached over 60 million, may explain in part our failure to act as we did with regard to other utilitarian functions, but it doesn’t excuse us from taking action. Now, if we want to rescue our cities, which, because we have neglected the problem, are threatening to go to pieces.

When I say pieces, I mean just that. When I described our sins of commission described our tendency towards a piecemeal pattern. The causal connection is obvious. Because we have not been able or willing to separate utilitarian mechanical functions, and most of our mass transportation by automobile from human activity areas, we have had to adjust our human activity areas in order to serve the automobile.

Nobody wants to live any more above stores and shops, because nobody can survive the disturbances, which automobile and truck traffic engender. Working places which have to offer parking space for the workers must move into areas where they can provide such at lower costs. So to an even higher degree, shopping centres and industrial plants. Families who choose to flee a malady of men and machines in the suburbs, and when they do so in sufficient numbers, create the identical conditions in outlying areas and then flee even further, recreating the problem.

People with enough money buy lots of land in the suburbs and, in order to protect their lives, their health, sense of privacy. Depending on the economic status of the citizen, we experienced suburban sprawl, neatly compartmentalised into subdivisions of varying block sizes determined by the sizes of the pay check. Retail organisations follow their customers, settling either in strips alongside urban suburban highways or shopping centres. Metropolitan areas spread further and further eating up landscape and countryside at an alarming rate, until they flow together into an amorphous, disorderly, urban conglomeration for which this new name megalopolis has been coined.

You see, with growing distance from the original urban core, it becomes increasingly difficult and inconvenient to reach. Surrounded by blight and slum formation, (the city centre) languishes economically. We risk that our metropolitan regions will soon resemble gigantic doughnuts, with all the dough on the outside and the empty in middle.

Our sense of commission and our sense of omission are inescapably interconnected. As long as we commit one of them, namely, we fail to separate mechanical and utilitarian functions from human ones, we will never be able to stop the sense of commission, namely separating those human functions, which have a logical affinity for each other. Any plan for the future of our cities which is not founded on the principle of attaining the highest degree of separation of all mechanical and utilitarian functions from human ones, is half hearted and half baked.

Cars are the problem

Let me prove this to you by discussing those qualities, which make a core area a workable, liveable dynamic and therefore economically successful one. In as much as (a cities) function is to bring about the greatest ease and direct human communication, the city has to be as compact as possible. In order to further the exchange of human ideas and of goods, it must have a quality of small grain variety and diversity. If its aim is to bring people close together it obviously must bring buildings close together, and it must therefore achieve greatest potential density.

It cannot fulfil any of these aims if a large portion of its surface land is to be devoted to the storage of, moving and arrested vehicles. Wherever we have made some attempt to provide sufficient space for the insatiable appetite of the automobile with in downtown areas, we have converted them into places which from the air resemble bombed out cities after World War Two. Our city here has given its heart and soul to the automobile and has now instead a downtown area in which two thirds is used the space for moving and storing tin and only 1/3 remaining for buildings.

Even Manhattan, which at least to a large degree served by public transportation, has, thanks to the great efforts of its planners who concentrated on constructing bridges and tunnels to bring more automobiles in, been invaded by a metal hoards to such a degree, that on Thursday, 28 December, the Herald Tribune carried the front page headline “The day New York almost stopped” and believe me, it stopped. The example of Manhattan makes it obvious that there is no possibility of compromise.

You cannot have an efficient city core, half separated and half not. Removal of transportation facilities from the surface areas with inactive urbanised centres must be just as complete, as the removal of sewer lines and gas mains and water lines and railroads. The answer to the mass transportation problem of urban centres can obviously be found only by applying technological means, which will guarantee swift, convenient and space saving movements. Compromise between two solutions is usually worse in either. A compromise between public and private transportation follows this axiom. Private transportation has ruinous effects on the values which people coming to a downtown area seek. It destroys stores to buildings and to same time it bankrupts through competition public transportation, which then in order to make ends meet, cut steadily on quality and service. The pattern which develops in the case of such unnatural competition is usually that public transportation serves the masses during rush hours in the morning and evening, and remains idle during other hours of the day, when private transportation by automobile still finds it possible to operate. This, as everybody who has tried it knows, is a hell of a way to run a railroad.

It has often been said it would be impossible to get Americans used to the idea of travelling by public transportation. I believe that this is simply not true. It may be difficult to do, when there is a choice, but consider the millions who use daily the public transportation facilities of high speed elevators in office and apartment buildings, the escalators in department stores and banks without raising an eyebrow. Now of course, should we introduce automobile ramps around these buildings and create the choice to drive up to the 50th floor, then we might run into trouble. We don’t do so because the costs would be staggering. The costs of taking care of millions of automobiles in downtown centres is just a staggering and just as unreasonable.

Without accepting the need for complete separation of utilitarian, mechanical and operational facilities from the truly human activities as an uncompromisable prerequisite of any planning philosophy for the second half of the 20th century, there can be, in my opinion, no successful projection of urban development for the future.

Places for people

Once, however, it is accepted, our prospects open up. The separation, from which I spoke, can be attained in many ways. The most compact areas will have to be vertical, in less active areas it can be horizontal. The Midtown Plaza in Rochester is vertical, in Ostland it is horizontal. However the separation may be accomplished, it offers us the opportunity to correct our sins of commission. All human activities, whether they are residing or working, learning or relaxing, can be moved closely together, utilising space wasted up to now for mechanical uses, freeing environment from danger and disturbance.

There’s one exception leftover, and those are those working activities which in spite of technological progress are still obnoxious because of smoke or fumes, however, can be predicted for sure that a number of such industrial activities will be the progress of technology steadily shrink.

Because of stability thus gained to move closer together, we will regain the chance to preserve landscape and countryside from being gobbled up by suburban sprawl. Variety is the spice of life. Our present urban pattern robs us of variety and of spice by covering the landscape and countryside, by an amorphous conglomeration which is neither fish nor fowl, neither city nor country. The separation of utilitarian activities from human ones will equip us with tools for greater concentration, and for the defining of the dynamic urban areas and of setting them strictly apart from nature.

Before we are able to apply the tenets of our planning philosophy successfully, we will have to rid ourselves from some deeply ingrown beliefs, concepts and prejudices. Let me enumerate a few of them.

You will have to throw overboard the prejudice that high density is in all cases a devil and low density therefore an all cases angelic. The low suburban densities arrived at by placing detached houses with useless side yards in length wasting manor on a subdivision can be diabolical. High density, on the other hand, is a prerequisite for concentrated activity areas. Our greatest efforts I believe, must go into the direction of inventing and developing methods of multiple length usage, by which the highest practical density of land can be obtained without infringing on the supply of air, life, mobility and privacy.

You must forget the idea that it is virtuous to separate human activities from each other… The encroachment, if properly planned is exactly what creates urban interest, variety and dynamism and ease of communication. Encroachment is the salt of the earth. The compartmentalised cities are unworkable and unliveable. The filing cabinet principle is not applicable to human life.

We must throw away the old wives’ tale that a free choice must be given everywhere to everybody between using length wasting private transportation and land savings public transit in highly developed urban areas. This is just like stating there should be a free choice between making an honest living or stealing from society. Wherever land is in short supply, it is an irreplaceable natural resource and misusing this resource is just like feeling… (we should not misuse this resource).

I want to repeat before closing what I mentioned in the beginning, I have not attempted to hand you an inflexible program for professional efforts. What I was after is to establish a basis from which discussion sought and development may grow. But on one thing, I believe we can agree, planning for the renewal of our languishing cities must emanate from the realisation that cities are for people and not vice versa, and that therefore, technology has to serve people and the city and can never be allowed to tyrannise. Settlements which enslave and degrade humanity are not cities. I could say, they are for birds but that would be unfair, as any self-respecting bird would rather become extinct then settle on the land spoiled by the human made mess.

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