Tag Archives: Donald Olsen

The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

THE CITY AS LUXURY
1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
THE CITY AS MONUMENT
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
THE CITY AS HOME
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
THE CITY AS DOCUMENT
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.