De Kort Van Schaik.

Regulations make the city or vice versa?

Book review: Grand Urban Rules
Published on Archined on 21.01.2010

text: Robert-Jan de Kort

Architecture bookshops are full of publications about fantastic architects, spectacular streets and extraordinary cities. Alex Lehnerer made a book about the regulations that shaped these cities, produced the streets, and guided the architects. Grand Urban Rules celebrates regulations as the ultimate instruments in shaping cities.

Grand Urban Rules, an adaptation of Alex Lehnerer’s doctoral thesis, consists of two parts. A graphical run-down of the 115 rules discussed in the book, and a text divided into ten historical thematic chapters. Isolating the regulations serves a purpose. Lehnerer, an architect and urban designer in Zurich, wants to demonstrate that the regulations are not inextricably tied to the context they stem from. The set of regulations are intended for the imaginary city of Averuni (a contraction of average and universal? RJdK). With this, Lehnerer explicitly argues that the rules are universally valid as urban design instruments. The list includes regulations governing density, regulations to manage programmes, regulations to curb high-rise, etc. Lehnerer himself made the illustrations and Joost Grootens, acclaimed for his work on the Metropolitan World Atlas, was the graphic designer of the book. Grootens provided all regulations with labels to highlight their conditions and scope of application.

The chapters that follow refer back to and explain the regulations. In that way the regulations gradually acquire the right context and it becomes clear that many regulations have evolved over the years. While regulations are the explicit subject, the book implicitly offers a detailed overview of the powerful force that has dominated cities in the United States since the nineteenth century: capitalism. It is this force in particular that curbs regulations.

Most American cities consist of a grid, roads, and urban and suburban zones. The grid infill is largely left to the market, so that almost every plot of land is private. Numerous regulations, differing per city, determine how the lots are developed. City authorities clearly understood that the speculative construction of huge (office) buildings should not produce an uninhabitable city full of big towering buildings. Regulations play a key role in both involving and controlling the market. This is apparent by the fact that the majority of the 115 regulations regulate the built object. But issuing regulations also directly influences the built surroundings and public space. The permissible building height in particular, which was regularly adjusted, ensures that different periods are visible in the height of buildings.
Clever handling of the regulations to produce exceptions was demonstrated by, among others, billionaire Donald Trump. Disregarding a gentlemen’s agreement not to build taller than the United Nations building, he built a residential tower 80 metres taller. However, the tower complies with all regulations. This example is exemplary of the unexpected combinations that can result from the creative interpretation and combination of rules.

The book also highlights what American cities lack: connecting scales. Owing to standard ingredients (grid, infrastructure, urban and suburban), every lot on the grid is a private realm whose development is determined by the owner. As a result, city authorities often fail to create consistent city plans or clear public space. Infrastructure and the issuing of regulations alone are the domain of the government. A characteristic example is the unsuccessful plan by Daniel Burnham for Chicago (1909). Burnham wanted to make Chicago an American version of Paris, with big diagonal axes and gigantic pedestrian squares. Opposition from private landowners made big breakthroughs impossible, however. The site of Chicago’s intended Civic Centre (city hall with huge forecourt) eventually became the city’s biggest motorway intersection.

The lack of connecting scale levels means that corresponding regulations do not exist either. The regulations just determine what the developer must comply with, but the effect of the development never transcends the scale of the lot. It is left to the developer to decide whether to add public space or not. Regulations can encourage him to do so. For example, a building may be taller if it contains public functions. In 1961 the regulations in New York changed to stimulate the construction of slender towers like the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe so that more forecourts would be created. But the new regulations resulted in a proliferation of plazas unrelated to one another and caused the spatial unity of the street to fall apart. This in turn resulted in new regulations that made it compulsory for buildings to follow the street alignment. The above examples illustrate that it is not the regulations first and then the built form, but that the city calls the regulations into existence.

Is Grand Urban Rules a reference work that the urban designer or city official can turn to in drawing up regulations governing urban development?
The book cites German jurist Ernst Freund, who in 1911 and 1913 announced at American urban design conferences that German zoning codes were unsuitable for American cities. The reason for his opinion was the growing interest in the United States for the zoning codes in Germany. Freund doubted whether the progressive American cities could be tamed by regulations from the conservative German context. No district or neighbourhood of a city like Frankfurt ever changed function, while New York changed constantly; residential areas became office districts and later factory sites. Freund did not believe that the development of real estate in the United States could be predicted and therefore could not be controlled by top-down zoning codes. The contrast outlined between the United States and Germany disappeared a long time ago; the situation in Europe has gradually shifted closer to the American model.

The final two chapters point out that the American regulations are useful in Europe. Lehnerer ends with a number of case studies in which researchers at the ETH and designers at KCAP plan urban developments using regulations. The most well-known Dutch example of this method is the Wijnhaven district in Rotterdam, where KCAP drew up an urban plan based on regulations only. The form of development was not determined in advance. The case studies prove that the book is an essential reference work for every urban designer. First, because, from an American perspective, it answers the question what makes a city? And second, because it draws on the richest history in the world when it comes to the urban instruments governing density, the built object and controlling the market — all issues that we in Europe have increasingly had to contend with in recent decades.

Grand Urban Rules, Alex Lehnerer, nai010 publishers, 2009, isbn 9789064506666