Joining us to discuss the new urban aesthetic today is Dr. Samuel Hughes, a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, a Research Fellow in Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Oxford University, and a frequent commentator on issues ranging from architecture and urbanism to aesthetics. He was also Sir Roger Scruton’s researcher on the Building Beautiful Commission. His focus at Policy Exchange is on understanding why the quantity and quality of new homes and neighborhoods is so inadequate in the UK and developing policy instruments to improve them. In this episode, we discuss the consideration of aesthetics in the urban planning process, the concept of beauty as a benchmark that all new developments should meet, and how empowering residents to design their own streets can help solve the housing crisis that the UK is currently facing. We also touch on survivorship bias; data, technology, and aesthetics; and the cost of suburbia, as well as the positive and negative aspects of path dependency, and more! Make sure to join us today for a fascination conversation about the ‘new’ urban aesthetic with Dr. Samuel Hughes.
Key Points From This Episode:
• How Samuel’s philosophy studies have influenced his views on urbanism and architecture.
• His reflections on the role that aesthetics or ‘beauty’ plays in UK urban planning debates.
• How the win-win model for ‘street votes’ impacts the future of UK cities.
• Samuel describes what he calls a bobtailed version of street votes in Houston, Texas.
• Why he believes we find older buildings more attractive than contemporary architecture.
• Survivorship bias versus loss of skills necessary to replicate ‘more beautiful’ architecture.
• The appetite that fueled the dramatic shift in architectural style post WWI, and gave birth to Brutalism, for example.
• Samuel shares why he believes that architects tend to make bad urban planners.
• How modern simulation and design technology have changed the built environment.
• The role empirical data plays in influencing the aesthetics of the built environment.
• While he doesn’t share the contempt for suburbia that many of his peers have, Samuel acknowledges that it imposes enormous costs.
• What the west can learn about architecture and urban form from places like Japan.
• German architecture as an example of path dependency as a positive and negative force.
• Samuel’s advice for building a new city: design institutional structures in cities that will allow those cities to evolve over time.
• Learn more about Samuel’s book on philosophical approaches to artistic modernism.
Mark: Hello, and welcome to the Charter Cities podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the founder and executive director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to the Charter Cities podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them. You can subscribe and learn more about Charter Cities at chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, cci.city on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.
Jeffrey: I’m Jeffrey Mason, researcher at the Charter Cities Institute. And joining me on the podcast today is Dr. Samuel Hughes. He’s a research fellow in philosophy, theology and religion at Oxford University, and a frequent commentator on issues in architecture, urbanism, and aesthetics. We hope you enjoy today’s episode.
Jeffrey: Hi, Samuel. Thanks for coming on the show.
Samuel: Pleasure to be here.
Jeffrey: To get started, let’s set the scene a little bit for our audience where you’re coming from on issues of urbanism, and architecture, and aesthetics. So you have PhD in philosophy, and you’re currently on the research faculty in philosophy, theology and religion at Oxford. So how has your study of philosophy, including specifically the work of Kant and of Roger Scruton, influenced how and what you think about urbanism and architecture.
Samuel: Well, I mean, it’s a very strange career trajectory that I’ve had. So I was always very interested in architecture, interested in philosophical aesthetics. And then in 2019, the British government ran a commission, so the building better, building beautiful commission. So the back story of that is that the – So Britain, like many countries, has a housing shortage. One reason for the housing shortage is the vigorous opposition of most local communities to housing developments near them. And one reason for that opposition is that they expect new housing developments near them to be ugly ones. And so the British government thought, “Well, if we could work out how to make a new development in this country more beautiful, there will be less opposition to development, and then there might be more of it, and then we might have less for housing shortage.”
So I think somewhat uniquely internationally, architectural beauty has become a matter of public policy interest in Britain in the last few years. And they set up this commission and asked a philosopher, Roger Scruton, to chair it, who had taught me years earlier as an undergraduate on the history of German aesthetics. Roger asked me to work as his research assistant on that. And I had a fascinating time and became hooked by the more applied questions, as well as by the abstract or theoretical questions that I have been interested in already. And then, yes, since then I’ve worked with policy exchange, a think tank, and with Create Streets, which is another social enterprise in the think tank. On policy questions, in the wake of the building beautiful commission, I have also worked on this in the context of my work at Oxford. So it could only have happened under very special circumstances. But I’m very glad it did.
Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s a very cool sort of urbanist origin story.
Jeffrey: You mentioned that a lot of the focus in sort of these UK planning debates is that there is a specific focus on making things beautiful as part of the pro-urbanist pitch. This seems like it’s largely absent, at least from my own sort of interaction, with the same community in the United States. Is the UK, do you think, is unique in that? Is there a particular reason that you think the sort of beauty argument has such salience in the United Kingdom?
Samuel: That’s an interesting question. I mean, it may come down – I mean, I think a lot of it is that there were some key personalities, who, over the last 10 years, have started to try and shift the debate in this country away from the more adversarial pro-development versus nimby smashing the anti-development forces through sheer forces political will towards looking for more win-win solutions. So how can people’s concerns about development be laid? How can people be brought on side so that they are, at least, consent to development existing communities. Consent to development and even champion it.
And that may be – At least part of the story is that there were four or five key people placed in different think tanks and different government bodies who sort of got this idea and pushed it and have continued pushing it. I mean, in terms of the backdrop, I think it helps. I mean, certainly, when I worked with colleagues in Australia and New Zealand they’ve said one problem they have with pushing for higher density is that they have a relative lack of existing popular high density. Whereas in this country, we’ve got this huge inheritance of Georgian and Victorian urbanism. And everyone loves that. And it’s very easy to appeal to that as a kind of tangible example of a kind of beautiful dense urbanism that everyone likes and would welcome.
That’s probably an advantage that Britain has in this respect relative to some countries. But that wouldn’t explain why it’s happened here rather than in France or Germany, which also have those kinds of older building stocks. So yeah, I’m not sure I’ve got a complete explanation for that. I think it’s a very interesting question.
Jeffrey: Keeping on this thread, how does the proposal for street votes fit into this story? For listeners that don’t know the idea of street votes, is that you’d allow an individual block to vote on densifying or making other planning changes. How do you see street voting fitting into this sort of story and what the future of cities in the UK will look like?
Samuel: So the general idea – So street votes very much fits into the large narrative about trying to find win-win solutions. So the idea is you could have many streets. So you have many suburban areas where, if people were to get planning permission to intensify up to just to the kind of densities that the Georgians or the early Victorians built had. The moment they got that planning commission, they would become asset millionaires. So at the moment they’d have what we call the same detached houses back in the duplex in America, it could often have just sort of 15 or 20% plot coverage, and it would usually be two stories, sometimes one story. And if you intensify that up to the kind of densities that they built out in the 18th or early 19th centuries, you’ve got enormously more floor space. So in areas of the country where there’s quite high floor space demand, that would be a tremendously valuable permission to have.
Now, it’s very very difficult to get that kind of permission under the current system. And the obvious reason for that is that everyone else on the street, although it might be great news for the individual who gets the permission, everyone else on the street has construction work going on next to them for two years and then they have lots of sidelines and immunity and pressures on services and all the usual stuff.
Although it’s in their interest, the interest of the individual to get that permission, it’s in the interest of everyone else on the street to oppose it. And you could have a street where everyone would quite like that permission for themselves. But it’s also in everyone’s interest to oppose such permission for everyone else. It’s like a classic business dynamic kind of situation.
So the thought of street votes is can you shift the level of decision making to the street to create a sort of very local democratic mandate for that kind of change at the level at which those kinds of – At the kind of level at which disruption is concentrated? Streets have a very strong economic incentive to vote in favor. In some cases they might have an aesthetic motive for voting favor if they think they can get a more beautiful street from doing this. And by doing so, they could make a substantial contribution to addressing the housing shortage in this country. So that’s the sort of win-win model that we were thinking of with street votes.
Jeffrey: Is there any possibility you think of street votes actually being adopted in the near future? Are you optimistic about that?
Samuel: Oh, yes. I mean, the secretary of state says publicly that he’s very keen to – I quote, “I love the idea.” This is statement on the matter. They’re working on a bill at the moment. Yes, we’re very optimistic that it could find its way in. It’s exciting times to be working in this area.
Jeffrey: That is exciting. And it seems like it’s also a unique function, at least relative to the United States, that something that has such a local impact is being done at the national level. Whereas in the United States, you’d have to do 50 street vote proposals. That’s quite a nice advantage I think you have there.
Samuel: I think that’s right. Although, of course, the upside the Americans have is that you get experimentation and interesting stuff being done in 50 different places. So Houston is one of our president cases for street votes. Houston has this – I mean, this is maybe oldham for your listeners. But they have an opt-out version of street votes. So they abolish minimum plot sizes in the single family home areas. And you can opt out of the abolition of minimum plot sizes through a vote and restore minimum plot sizes. But by default, they’re gone. So that’s not quite the same as street votes, because street votes, you’re opting into intensification. Whereas, Houston, you’re opting out of it. But it’s the same principle, but you’re creating a local mandate for this kind of change.
There are various differences with street votes and there are various things, I think, are imperfect about the Houston model. This worked pretty well on the whole. It’s quite impressive what’s happened there. So we’re very grateful for the laboratory model, which gives us so many sources to work from.
Jeffrey: Let’s change gears a little bit and talk about your recent works in progress article, where you argue that it is in fact true that older buildings, as a general rule, are in fact more attractive than contemporary architecture. Why is this the case? And why is it not just a matter of survivorship bias?
Samuel: I don’t quite get as far as the conclusion. I mean, well, okay. So here’s the puzzle. So my impression is, and I confess this is anecdotal. But I’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidences. My impression is that most people struggle to identify an ugly building from before 1930. Really difficult from before 1830. You will sort of find borderline cases. But there’s a kind of strange quality to most of these examples. Whereas we all know there are lots of ugly buildings around today.
This isn’t really a style wars point or like something that only people who are committed to traditionalism about architecture believe. I think everyone agrees people who have very pro-contemporary design agree that there are lots of ugly places around, ugly buildings now, and they tend to like and admire old towns and old buildings. And that’s really weird. This is a really, really strange fact when you think how vastly wealthier we are than our ancestors and how, in so many respects, stuff that we create is a lot better than what they created. And in fact, in so many respects, the houses that we create are much better. I mean, we’ve got far more of them they’re better insulated. They stand up better. They’re much more convenient.
So the fact is, apparent fact, that they’re more likely to be ugly is really, really weird. And one explanation of this is that it’s a result of a so-called survivorship bias. So the survivorship bias says old buildings, they’re used to be the same distribution of ugly and attractive old buildings. But the ugly buildings tended to get demolished over time, because they were ugly all because ugly buildings also tend to be less well-made in other respects. So we end up with only the beautiful buildings surviving.
It’s a very clever theory. And it might be true to a small extent. But I think if you – Once one has a more detailed study of the empirical evidence, it just doesn’t hold up. And the things I look at in this article, we’ve got lots of photographic evidence, area of the 80,000 aerial photographs of early 20th century Britain, which give us a fairly complete picture of what British cities looked like at that time.
We’ve got kinds of building stock that have survived not totally, but the majority. So most of 19th century Paris is still there. Most of 19th century London is still there. And in these cases, you couldn’t have much of a survivorship bias, because nearly everything’s still there for us to look at. Then other times there are sort of whole towns that have survived from the middle ages by chance, because they fell into poverty or their population perished in plagues and so on. And there you have, again, a whole complete sample that wouldn’t be affected by our survivorship bias. And none of these things seem to support the survivorship bias theory.
I mean, survivorship bias, as an explanation, is a very clever theory. But the evidence, I think, is fairly decisively inconsistent with it. That supports the theory, the most obvious theory, which is that we really have started making more ugly buildings. My qualification is there are other ways of explaining away that data, which I haven’t looked at in print so far. So lots of people would point out we might be biased in favor of old buildings, because they’ve got romantic associations, or because people take time to get used to new styles or something like that. That’s an interesting theory, which might be another way of explaining away the apparently really weird fact that we’re building more ugly styles.
Jeffrey: Right. It is interesting. Because as you mentioned, we’re a lot wealthier now. There’s no seemingly obvious reason that even if sort of on the interior, the structure of the house, is better. It’s better insulated or whatever. You could still sort of replicate these old designs. But yeah, that doesn’t really seem to happen. Do you think there’s some kind of maybe almost Hayekian knowledge problem in a sense that sort of the ability to build these kind of things has somehow been lost? One example that sort of comes to mind, in DC, sort of a hallmark of the city, are it’s Victorian row houses. But to my knowledge, no even sort of remotely built recently row houses are in this style or try to sort of copy this style in some kind of way. Is there a way to sort of incentivize traditional designs that are still popular? I imagine, there’s maybe regulatory barriers in place, but it also seems like maybe there’s something sort of abstract almost that has been lost in our ability to sort of replicate these styles. Or is that not the case?
Samuel: I mean, okay let’s aside. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the cycles of taste theory isn’t true and that we really have started making more ugly buildings. But we should acknowledge, we’re bracketing a complex issue there. And let’s suppose, the really weird apparent fact really is a fact, and we really are doing it. Why might that be true? And I think you’re probably right that a lot of the skills that were needed for many popular kinds of architecture have atrophied. But that, of course, really pushes the question back, because you have to work out why they attribute in the first place. So stone carving for instance, there’s now the kind of huge quantities of stone carving that you’ve got on some kinds of old buildings now are very difficult. Even bricklaying is quite hard to get skills now. But these were skills I attribute in, of course, the early mid 20th century.
The plausible candidates, which one I think is – I think modern materials probably make it the case that the cheapest building to build is an ugly building, which is probably not true when you’re working with natural materials. I mean, natural some of these awful works. But with pre-20th century materials. So if you’re building from wood, thatch, handmade bricks, cut stone, this kind of thing, fairly difficult to make something ugly. And completely functional buildings like barns tended to be fairly attractive. Whereas if you’re building a barn out of breeze blocks and corrugated iron, then the cheapest possible barn that will do the job of being a barn is probably going to be quite a melting structure.
So I think that’s part of what is going on here. In the context of some kinds of buildings that might be the main factor. Another thing is cars probably create a lot of collective action problems that – So row houses, why do we not build row houses anymore? It’s very complicated. But one reason for it is that most people would prefer – I think most people would prefer to live in the one detached house in a city of row houses. That’s crude. But roughly speaking, most people want a big detached house with a large garden, loads of space for cars. But they would also like to be in a dense walkable neighborhood where they can easily get to all the shops and stuff and have a high speed rail link to the city center. And famously, they would like to be close to a motorway, but not so close that they can hear it. I mean, there’s quite good empirical evidence, all this stuff.
Once cars were around, you start to – And everyone’s seeking to have that satisfy their own individual preference for a detached house. You’ll get a lot of trouble. Anyone seeking to satisfy their individual preference of having the one detached house in the city of house is you end up getting the kind of Los Angeles pool, which tends to be less attractive. I think that’s another factor.
And then I think the third factor probably does have to do with the influence of the modern movement in 20th century design, which I think you probably did tend to create a so-called design disconnect between the taste of professionals and the taste of lay people and probably led to a lot of architecture pulling away from popular taste to some extent. Those are three factors I’m interested in and I think have some promise as explanations. But I’m not trying to totally solve this. I think this is a really, really puzzling and an interesting area.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. You just sort of mentioned how, in the mid 20th century, you start to see this shift in architecture. And so after we hit World War II, we get brutalism. We get lots of other types of ugly buildings. And there’s a lot of, I think, association of these styles with the architects and the people involved at high level in the stylistic movements. Was there any actual, to your knowledge, appetite for this kind of dramatic shift from the traditional sort of styles of architecture? It’s quite a significant break from – To me, it feels like quite a significant break from what was being built up to the decades prior.
Samuel: Yeah. Well, I mean, there really was some. It’s not the case that there’s total all lay people, just like all modern architecture and all professionals like. I mean, it’s much more complicated picture. And most people – I mean, a lot of people have some sense that they would like to see an architecture of their own time or that they’re uncomfortable with the old styles being reproduced or these kinds of. But nonetheless, in as much as we have systematic polling evidence on this, it looks as though there’s a tendency for these styles not to win the same level of popular acceptance as their predecessors did. I mean, there are exceptions. I mean, Sydney Opera House is a genuinely huge, I think. I suspect, a genuinely hugely popular building. But that’s probably less common than with architecture from the World War.
I think the other interesting data point here is if you look at the private residential market, so suburban houses that are just bought for individual buyers, or individual personal power has most direct impact on what gets built, those have always kind of remained not necessarily completely traditional. But there’s never been much of a – In the private residential market, in either Britain, or United States, or in France, or Germany, you’ve never seen much of a drive for brutalist housing in the States, or brutalist subdivisions in the United States.
So there does seem to have been some kind of disconnect opening up between popular taste and the stylistic orthodoxies. I think that’s probably closing, to some extent, now. Gradual reconciliation going on. But is still a factor. And that’s probably one of the things which drives the kind of problem that I started with in the survivorship, I’d say.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Everyone, I think, universally hates the FBI building in downtown DC. That’s our local go-to brutalism is bad example. Let’s sort of stick with architecture for the moment, but then go up from the building level to the planning level. I guess, one, do you think architects tend to make bad urban planners? And if so, why? And I’m kind of thinking about two of the most well-known cases you can think about are Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. So projects are ideas like Corbusier’s sort of radiant city tower blocks, which sort of ended up being the inspiration for our post-war housing projects. Or Oscar Niemeyer’s plan for Brasilia come to mind as sort of the urban planning implementation of renowned architects. But their ideas obviously did not either work out very well or proved immensely popular or problematic in some ways. So what’s going on here between architects and their urban planning ideas? Is it just a streak for high modernism that’s run amok within the profession? Or what’s the story here?
Samuel: So I don’t think it’s architects generically. I mean, it was a particular movement in architecture and planning. And with quite wide acceptance across institutions that became ascendant in the mid-20th century, which was quite explicitly opposed to the corridor street, as they called. The corridor street is traditionally understood where you had these relatively narrow streets enclosed by buildings on either side and the kind of continuous build lines and the sense that space – The buildings were shaped around voids rather than voids just being left over between buildings.
And the replacement of that with so these ideas of silent bow in German where buildings will be oriented not towards the street, but in order to catch the maximum amount of sunlight and to leave large open green spaces between them. They’re going to be much taller, again, to make sure everyone got as much air and light as possible and to free up space on the ground for greenery. And it was a well-intentioned stuff. And they wanted to – Obviously, they thought there was a perception that there was no way possibly to incorporate cars into traditional street patterns. And traditional street patterns just would always suffer from crippling congestion problems because they just couldn’t deal with the burden of modern traffic. So we’d have to just shred all these traditional streets and make our cities suitable for cars.
So that was a very powerful movement for some decades. I think that’s now kind of generally discredited. You would struggle to find anyone really who would defend that in its entirety. And like famous plans for Paris where he really did propose demolishing the bulk of the old city and replacing it with these enormous slab blocks. I think architects and planners today would agree with everyone else. This is a disastrous scheme.
So in that respect, I think we’ve got much better on a sort of on the plane of theory. Whether in practice we are managing to implement our new good intentions is a very different matter. And obviously, we often are still failing to do that for a range of reasons.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I do think we’re all very grateful though that, as a profession, we have moved on from demolishing most of Paris.
Samuel: Right. I mean it’s a low baseline, but we’ve definitely got past it.
Jeffrey: How do you think, if it has it all, modern simulation and design technology and tools have changed how the built environment looks today or our sense of aesthetics? Or have they not changed that at all?
Samuel: I’m not really qualified to answer that one, I think. I mean, you need to – I’m certainly not a trained architect or, a matter, a trained urbanist. People tell me – So a lot of people who do a lot of sketching say it’s a great education for the eye. And when I’ve tried to do sketching, and that is sort of true. Like when you try to draw a building, you notice a ton of stuff about it. That, in theory, you must have seen already, and yet you only actually have the experience of seeing it when you’re forced to notice it by the process of drawing it. So it is a thing people say that the displacement of drawing by computer modeling tends to make people less observant of those kinds of – To lose some of that visual sensitivity that drawing cultivated.
As I said, that is a doctrine people say talk of. And that there might, might be something in that. But I certainly would not presume to make that claim. I just don’t have enough knowledge of that.
Jeffrey: It does seem like there are at least some similarities to what you had to say earlier about building materials in the sense that when designing something or building something is sort of on a per unit basis more costly that, in the end, you end up with – Because of that high up front cost, you end up with a higher quality product. That’s hypothesizing. But maybe there’s kind of a shared story there.
Samuel: One of the sort of grand narratives in the background here is that we’ve got these wonderful gifts, these remarkable technologies that we’ve developed. And we’re kind of working out how to handle those and how to accommodate some of the collective action problems that they generate and some of the negative technologies that the use of those generates. And that takes a few generations to work through the system when you’ve – With such profound differences to the way that we build have come upon us and to sort out all the problems that come in the wake of that take some time. So that’s one of the more optimistic ways of looking at this. And you think, “Okay, give us a couple of generations after learning about reinforced concrete, and cars, and so on. And we’ll work out how to kind of humanize those and tame them and make them work for us, rather than dominating the way that we build places.”
Jeffrey: What’s the role for data in influencing the aesthetics of the built environment? Or is there a role? Or is good design more of an art than a science? What’s the balance here for you?
Samuel: Well, I mean, empirical evidence on the effect that different kinds of urban design have on well-being, health and sustainability. I mean this, is hugely important. As is of course empirical evidence on the popularity of different kinds of form given that these are questions obviously that shouldn’t be settled through the critical reflections of people like me. They should be settled on the basis of the values and aspirations of people who actually are living in any given place. I mean, I think we should be, yes, remorselessly focused on empirical data.
Unfortunately, there’s loads of empirical data on this. I mean, there’s a great body of psychological and social scientific research on urban design and its effects. And is it? I mean, it points out I think fairly clearly in certain directions. So roughly speaking, in the directions – Not in the Corbusian direction, but of 19th century Paris without obviously all the appalling hygiene and the overcrowding and so on. But keeping the basic urban fabric and making it better.
Jeffrey: You spent most of your time in the UK or in Europe, but you previously spent a little bit of your time in school at Notre Dame in Indiana. How did that time in the United States, a very sort of car-centric country in a very car-centric part of a very car-centric country, influence your work and how you think about these issues?
Samuel: Well, I’m afraid that part of my CV is slightly misleading. So I was at the university of Notre Dame, which is based in Indiana. But I was based at their Rome campus. So I didn’t experience that. I haven’t actually been to America, well, since I was a boy. But I lived in suburban Chicago as a child for a couple of years. I mean, actually, you can see how it makes it very easy to see why people want it so much. These big houses, these huge gardens, with these giant mature trees. And although it is a car-dominated environment, it doesn’t exactly feel that way because the plots are so huge that people can tuck their cars away into garages set back behind the build line. So actually, you go out into the street and you may not be able to see a car.
And you can see why that seems or why that is very attractive to people and why totally unregulated market will generate a lot of it. I don’t really hold the sort of contempt for suburbia that you get from some bits of the urbanist world. And suburbia is in many ways really is popular and really does – Is a response to aspirations that people have. But it has a gigantic environmental cost and gigantic infrastructural cost. And it ends up imposing enormous unviable commutes. And it’s extremely land-hungry. So certainly, in a country like Britain, end up with a no willingness to pronounce more rural space for it.
I think it does end up – If you’re totally reliant whenever one seeks that sort of very attractive lifestyle, you end up with something which isn’t sustainable and you have a kind of crisis that comes with it. But yes, I totally understand why people pursue it in the first place. And I think my experience of living in the states as a child probably reinforced that.
Jeffrey: But just curious. Do you happen to know if the area near Chicago where you lived was historically a streetcar suburb? Because it seems like there’s a pretty clear break between sort of more recently developed suburbs and these older suburbs in terms of walkability or the car-centric feel that you mentioned and these other things that urbanists tend to talk about and emphasize. It seems like they’re almost sort of very – Even they’re both types of suburbs, they’re radically different in their feel.
Samuel: I think that’s correct. I mean, the housing stock, much of it – Quite a lot of it have been replaced. But I think it went back to the late 19th century and certainly had been built up in the early 20th century. So it must have been a street car suburb at first. And I think it was still the case. I think my father commuted to work by train, which walked to the local train station and then took the train to his office. So it isn’t clearly not possible for many people living in post-war American suburbs. So yes, I’m sure, it may be a special case to some extent.
The densities were indeed very low, much lower than you’d get in English suburbs, even in post-war English suburbs, I think. But it was designed in quite a walkable way and with a very low visual presence of cars, a great deal of greenery. And as I said, very attractive both in their respect.
Jeffrey: So much of your work tends to focus on the United Kingdom and Europe. Where and what can – Let’s probably call it the west, learn about architecture, and design, and urban form other parts of the world?
Samuel: Well, I mean, it’s a big question, which I’m not that well-qualified to answer. I’m struck. So I did live for a while, just for a summer, in Japan, in Tokyo. And I was struck there by how they’ve actually got really quite good at urbanism and continued to build quite good urbanism right up to the present time. And that has to do, I mean, I think partly with they’re very good at intensifying existing neighborhoods. So one thing I’m struck by when it comes to – And one of the themes of my work is urban extensions have often always been ugly. You look at suburban school of medieval towns, or of towns of 19th century. It’s often ragged, unpleasant rhythm development. But we used to be quite good at gradually letting that ragged, unpleasant rhythm development intensify into this kind of density wave and urbanism that everyone celebrates now.
And I think we’ve become pretty much across the west. Maybe one or two exceptions. We’ve become much, much worse of that. We’ve got very used in the 20th century to cities growing outwards very rapidly and to meeting demand for more housing with that kind of outward growth. And we lost the mac both culturally and institutionally of allowing areas to intensify after they had been gone. So our urban extensions may not necessarily be worse extensions in the past. But they get frozen in place. And I am struck, in the case of Japan at least, by the fact that that seems to be less true there. They seem to have remained quite good at allowing areas to change and evolve and to become a kind of density-woven fabric, which actually bears quite striking resemblance to European urbanism in the early modern period in some respects. Yeah, that’s definitely a regulatory system and a kind of approach to the development of towns that deserves to be studied very, very carefully and that we should try to learn from.
Yeah, that’s just one particular example. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve got any interesting general sort of high-level statements about what the whole of the west can learn from the whole of Asia with respect to urbanism. But I think there’ll be lots and lots of example individual cases where we can learn from different regulatory systems or different urbanistic conditions.
Jeffrey: I think the Japan case is also interesting, in part because it shows what a model of urban design looks like, or urban form, where it is not inherently tied up to such an extent as it is in the US, and I imagine at least somewhat in the UK in wealth and to save long-term savings and retirement wealth. Because I think I recall, the number I hear is like the average building in Japan, it gets rebuilt like every 30 years or something like that. Like they build with the intent to continually rebuild.
I mean, there are issues with whether that can be emulated and how far that rests on quite different traditions. It’s an area of great complexity. I mean, one thing I’m struck by looking at this is how much path dependency there is in different countries with their approach to these questions. So the example I’ve come across recently is the tin man. In Germany, you’re tend to be allowed to add a – So what you call what an additional unit, an extra house in your back garden, provided that you follow certain regulations, the slight setback from the plot boundaries and so on.
And the result of this is – And it’s quite uniformly done. It’s not a controversial thing, it seems. And the result of this is of many German suburban areas, if you look at a block, appears to be made of four rows of buildings. You’ve got the original houses at the block perimeter. And then you’ve got an extra two rows that fill up most of the garden area. And this apparently dates back to 1945 when parts of Eastern Germany were annexed by Poland. Population was expelled. And so there was a refugee crisis in Germany. And the government allowed people to add houses for relatives and so on that they were sheltering in their back garden.
And once that has sort of got into the cultural – Was factored into people’s expectations. Oh yeah, one of the things you can do is build in your back garden. That became a kind of normal part of the German settlement and has gone on uncontroversially ever since, relatively uncontroversially ever since. Whereas in Britain, that would be incredibly controversial when there was really quite a small amount of building in back gardens in the 2000s. There was certain small planning changes that made it happen a little more often. And I think just a few thousand houses built this way nationally. There was a gigantic uproar, and the government backed down, and the thing was abolished.
That’s not because Britain and Germany are in some really deep way different in their attitude towards nature or towards suburbia, or the people have really fundamentally different aspirations about this, or at least I don’t think there’s clear evidence of that’s the explanation. I think it’s just that people get to an exceptional event, push Germany onto a different cultural equilibrium on these questions. And then that equilibrium is a stable one. And they can just continue for decades building in quite a different way to us. So that’s kind of a reason to be optimistic.
Often, if you can bring about a change, even a change that seems like there’ll be loads of resistance to it at first. Once it settles into the culture and settles into people’s expectations, it can often bed in and survive and become widely accepted.
Jeffrey: Path dependency can be a force for good or bad.
Samuel: That’s right. Exactly. Yeah. Yes. I mean, I think our whole setup at the moment, we’re in a kind of a path dependent situation where we’ve got used to – Once you’re in a neighborhood, you expect that neighborhood to stay the same, unless with certain limited exceptions. But you expect the observing system or the planning system will preserve that neighborhood in its current condition. And that’s historically deeply anomalous. People have never expected that before the 20th century. And intensification was just totally normal thing that happened in cities all over the world. But because we went through a period where we thought well we don’t – This is very slightly history, but roughly, because we went through a period where we thought, “Well we don’t need to accommodate rising populations this way. We’re going to be able to rely on outward growth of one kind or another.” We ended up with systems that make intensification very difficult. And now we’re stuck in quite an unfortunate path, which is quite hard to get out of. But yes, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s like a necessary feature of all modern societies that they’ll be like this forever. There are more optimistic readings in the situation.
Jeffrey: So CCI is in the business of building new cities. At sort of a high level, if you were to speak with a new city developer, our focus is sort of broadly in the global south. But I think the lessons are broadly applicable. What sort of high level advice would you give for building a new city when thinking about these issues of aesthetics and sort of the actual experience of being in an urban environment? What advice would you have for new city developers?
Samuel: Well, I answer this with a considerable caution given that I’m literally just making up the answer on the spot. I’ve never actually been in the business of designing new cities. So I haven’t thought deeply about it. But I guess, I mean, the message of what we’ve been talking about is think about designing cities, designing institutional structures in those cities, that will allow those cities to evolve and change over time. So I mean, a key fallacy is to think that the city should be built in its final finished form and that there is – I mean, people often talk, I get asked this question, “What’s the best kind of urbanism?” In your ideal world, what would be the right density?
There is no – And the answer of course is there is no one density, which is the right density in all situations. A given good city will have areas of different density levels, but it will also change its density over time and adapt to the needs of the population. So if I were to give you a considered answer to that question, what I would be thinking about would be how could you get an institutional setup from the start, which allowed for that kind of change over time and which the city that you start out with is not going to be and should not be the finished product city? And the urban form that is optimum for the first 10 years of the city probably isn’t going to be the urban form that’s optimum 50 years in, assuming that the city’s been a success and that people are attracted to it and that more and more people want to live near to it to take advantage of the evaluation effects.
Jeffrey: So that’s very similar to what we’ve said on some of these questions. So good answer.
Samuel: Well, good to hear that.
Jeffrey: To wrap up, you’re currently working on a book about artistic modernism. Tell us about that.
Samuel: So I think most of us still have this sense quite deeply that there’s kind of an architecture of our own time. It feels very weird, the idea of building, I don’t know, a new suburb today of a British or American city in the Rococo style, for instance. That’s a very odd thing to be doing. This is kind of a fancy dress or something like that. And that’s the kind of objection that gets launched against like Poundbury and against other kinds of traditional projects today.
I’m just interested in really drilling down on that feeling, that kind of sentiment that, as I said, most educated people today have. Try and work out what’s at the heart of that. And is that really justified? What sense can we make of this idea that there are, if any sense, if any can we make this idea that there are ways of building that are proper to a given time. What kind of critical pressure should we be putting those ideas under? That’s the broad program. And I keep getting distracted by wholesome work.
Jeffrey: Duty calls.
Samuel: But let’s come back and discuss that in a few months from now, and I’ll have more to tell you.
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Samuel, thank you for joining us.
Samuel: Thanks. Been a great pleasure to talk.
Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, cci.city on Twitter. And Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities podcast.