Month: April 2014

Nukes, crowns, housing, euros, birds and Scotts: european choices


The EU is often presented as an organisation that has helped Europe (or at least its member states) to have one of the longest periods without war in history. That is true. But it probably is coming to a point in which it will have to change, one way or the other (not peace, but the architecture on which it rests).

Of the five title items, the only two things that have created some sort of consensus in Europe are euros and birds. Two states have nuclear weapons, but this is something that is not subject to negotiation (and somehow displaces the military issue to NATO, an altogether different framework). And there are also nuclear weapons in some others, provided by NATO.  This is defined by each State.

Seven are monarchies, which indicates that in the past some people were deemed to have been chosen by God to manage their national flocks; so they are inherently different from an elected president, creating potential future frictions.  But the form of the State is defined by each of them

The European Parliament has recently passed a resolution on social housing (11 june 2013), but this is not a Directive, and it seems difficult to attain a compromise on that matter. To be sure, there are some Directives covering energy efficiency on buildings, but it is not exactly the same thing. As the right to housing and how it is provided for is a prerogative of each State.

Euros have come into physical existence and this is no doubt the sign of a consensus among all States, as they have yielded one of the traditional prerogatives of independence: currency. The extent to which the currency is seen as a good thing by citizens is perhaps not as widespread due to the economic crisis. Even if you keep your currency, the Union’s policies are strong as economy goes.

Europe has enacted a birds Directive, which is one of the rare instances in which the EU says something approximately concrete on land uses. We seem to love birds… (don’t take me wrong, I like birds too).

Scotts are holding a referendum this year on a potential independence from the UK. They want independence, but they also want to stay in the EU and NATO. But independence is not what it used to be in its days. The issue is not why do Scotts (or Catalans, for that matter) want to cut the tie while remaining in Europe and countries such as Serbia or Albania want to be also part of these families. It is rather which is the administrative level to be disposed off now that Europe is acquiring so much clout. And nationalism will play a role; for instance, UKIP wants the UK out of Europe, but not an independent Scotland. Which in its turn would be a state, but a much weaker one than what they have grown up used to think.

How this translates into architecture and regional and urban planning, the reasons for this blog? To be seen in next posts.

Biblio (89) Rental housing in Latin America

biblio 88-vivienda alquiler

The Interamerican Development Bank has just published a work by Andrés G. Blanco, Vicente Fretes Cibils and Andrés F. Muñoz on the relevance of rental housing for Latin America. The document includes a description of the problems of housing in the region and the potential benefits of rental units; the current state of rental housing in the area; and policy recommendations regarding offer, demand and juridical framework.

Maps 2014 (17) Hotspots of land use change in Europe, 1990-2006

ESPON is the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion, adopted by the European Commission as a programme in 2007. It has just published a map of the “hotspots” of land use change on a continental scale.

The map is built around the concept of use intensity. Regions with light of white colours have had smaller changes; blue ones have intensified land use (grasslands become urban areas, or more intensive agriculture zones), while the green ones have been subject to intensification (going from more to less intensive agricultural use). According to the map notes the data series are not homogeneous and some countries have no data, but you can see how intensification through tourist second homes has played a role in Mediterranean Spain, and how eastern Europe is intensifying, for instance in how Prague is “vacuum cleaning” peripheral Czech regions.

Shapes and outlines (3) Hills

Mont St Michel, France. Image from Wikipedia

mont st michel

Mont St Michel, France. OSM map

The shape of things can be the result of many factors. But usually the European middle ages cities were roughly circular in shape as this allowed a good protected area- wall length ratio. As there certainly existed good reasons to look for shelter, cities usually were placed on higher ground when compared to the surroundings, and often right on top of a hill. Mont St Michel is the clearest example (although by size it is not a city), but there are others, as Betanzos in Spain, where just 30 m (some 90 ft) of level difference already shows the issue. In these cases, the city plan shows relations between built volumes, but far from what the real urban space can provide. To begin with, side walls become visible as buildings along the street line are on different levels, but the ground level must also adapt.

Betanzos, as seen on the city website

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Shapes and outlines (2) Walls

Rue de Varenne, Paris, google street view

Rue de Varenne, Paris, google street view

Defining the volumes you see from the urban space can sometimes mean drawing elements that have no usable floor area, as walls. A part of the most interesting spaces in historic Paris, mainly in the areas with “hotels particuliers” is defined through walls hiding from the view courtyards or gardens much bigger than the public space. The same applies to Toledo or Segovia. Muslims cities have long used this principle, often with less elaborate walls. The transition from public to private space is enriched; drawing just the big built up volumes is somehow cheating.



Shapes and outlines (1) Levels

We can somehow agree on the fact that the figure-ground diagrams are a first approach to the description of the urban space. But this leads to the need to define at which level you cut the urban shapes. For instance, let’s take Madrid cadastral map: the firs image shows the private lots (or those whose use is not entirely open, as it includes some public properties). This, in the end, renders the public rights of way of all kinds.

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If you erase all the spaces that have no visible buildings (including those that only have underground constructions), things change a lot. Most of the courtyards, parking and similar things disappear. It is what you usually see in these maps.

But we can go further, taking just elements whose height is above a certain level. Here, just those over 8 storeys. And the city becomes a different thing, with some logics more apparent, but other situations being less clear.

Biblio (88) Space is the machine

biblio88-space is the machine

This electronic edition (published in2007) of Bill Hillier’s work “Space is the Machine” gives an insight on the philosophy applied by Space Syntax when analysing the urban space. How people move in space and how the links between them are influenced by architecture are themes subject to research and tentative answers in that work. Although it is not enunciated as such, I cannot prevent this book from raising in my mind a central issue for the modern movement, the possibility to organise the city in stacked levels (to which such a method would produce, I imagine, an answer such as… “it depends on…”). Interesting reading.




One of the usual ways to express the complexity of the urban shape is to analyze the figure-ground relations, mainly for the built-up volumes. A substantial part of the urbanism- architecture literature uses such analysis: is there a sense in coming back to such visions? This can be tried in next posts.



I’m not that good to remember Street names, but there are people that can only visualize a city that way (and not only taxi drivers…). Can I blame them? They somehow loose the broader picture (I’m more the kind of north- south-east-west guy), but have clearer details on some elements (the smell of a bakery, the smile of a person, you name it…).