Civic Virtue By Design

The meaning behind Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for New York City

In his earth day address, Mayor Bloomberg laid out PlaNYC a series of highly practical steps to improve our city in a period of rapid population growth against a backdrop of global warming. He outlined 127 programs that would work together to support an urban policy that would result in a city not just coping, but improving, through challenging times. The programs are diverse and technical, ranging from tree canopy guidelines to mass transit financing. However, if we step back a moment, we will recognize something else profoundly important in this speech: a new definition of civic virtue for the 21st century.

Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits important for the success of the community. The ideas Mayor Bloomberg laid out are nothing short of a new compact with nature for the urban dweller, an acknowledgment that the success of our city will in large part be determined by our success in managing our environment.

What shape will these civic virtues take? In previous centuries, we learned to express civic virtue through architecture. Will we, like the Greeks before us, invent an architecture that encapsulates these virtues as we build our city to accommodate a million more New Yorkers?

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The Greeks may not have invented civic virtue, but they certainly branded the idea with architecture. Think Corinthian column, and you cannot help but think of grand civic buildings of the past. The Corinthian, the most complex of the classical orders, was invented by Callimachus the sculptor in the second half of the fifth century BC. The story goes that he was inspired by nature in his architectural invention. He saw a votive basket that had been placed on the grave of a young girl, where an acanthus plant had grown around it, cupping it with curly leaves and shoots. He took this as his inspiration to chisel a column capitol of unparalleled richness which became the standard for public buildings of the first rank, from the Pantheon in Rome, to our own Farley building in New York (which boasts the longest giant order Corinthian colonnade in the world.)

As much as we admire both buildings, we would not choose to recreate them today. The brand has been diluted. Putting a Corinthian column on your building is literally a joke (Saturday Night Live once did a sketch lampooning the pretensions of “maahble caahlums”). The Corinthian column no longer signifies virtue, civic or otherwise. There has been a paradigm shift away from architecture. What signifies virtue these days is a concern for nature.

Mayor Bloomberg’s speech says it all. To be a better city, we must build green, use mass transit, and restore purity to our water and air, with park access for all. This is a vision of a new type of city for the 21st century: at once more urbane and more natural. It is a marriage of building and landscape that is challenging every notion we have ever had about design.

The paradigm has shifted, and we must change our direction: just as two millennia ago, a sculptor transformed the biomass of the acanthus plant into a template for architecture, using its stalk, leaves and flower as a model for the shaft and volutes of the Corinthian column, we today must transform the rigidities of architecture into the adaptations of nature. The stone column crumbles and is replaced with the growing stalk. Networks of green signify community in ways that the architecture of the past no longer can. City-initiated rezonings center around new public spaces or streetscape improvements and each is crafted in consultation with the community it serves.

Nature is the new civic ideal. To invent the urban design language that will express this is a vital part of the mayor’s challenge. It may happen in surprisingly low-tech ways or it may take advantage of our most advanced science. It may build incrementally on tradition or it may seek entirely new forms. The only certainty is that change is in the air, from planting in our parking lots to rediscovering our waterfronts.

We seek form for the new paradigm. For the generation charged with shaping our city for the next million citizens, we have the advantage that New York is home to the world’s most creative designers. Callimachus, where are you? We will need every ounce of creative strength to bring our city into a new balance with nature and in so doing, define a new civic measure for architecture.

Alexandros Washburn is the Chief Urban Designer of New York City, Department of City Planning. He is a principal of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and president emeritus of the Moynihan Station Redevelopment Corporation.

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