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Starters of urban change (4) Air conditioning and façades: the problem of Haussmann’s umbrella


When the Baron Haussman wrote his memories, after having lost his large power over Paris, he told that what Napoleon III really wanted at the Halles was, simply, to create a “large umbrella”. I say “simply” as works began with a classical stone architecture that was criticized, and the image that now everyone remembers, of steel and glass pavilions, resulted from an order to reduce expenditure. With a large umbrella merchants could go without individual ones on rainy days. So were made many things during the last two centuries: doing “large umbrellas”, so you could live without one for yourself if you liked it that way, or it was out of reach for you. Public hospitals against private doctors, public schools against church schools,…

Buckminster Fuller proposed in 1960 the erection of a large dome over midtown Manhattan to control climate, a project that was never built and that could have faced relevant problems. In a given moment, direct satellite mobile phones were introduced to talk between anywhere and any place. The first idea was never implemented due to cost, and the second one was implemented but never gained wide traction. Sometimes simpler systems win.

Air conditioning is an example of the kind of urban catalyzers in the ascending sense. We could imagine a dome over the city, controlling climate, and in fact in some areas district heating exists; in northern Europe there are even interconnected district heating systems, which achieve high energy performances. But for the regions of extreme cold in which energy bills are high, or when large landowners can better manage the energy bill through large systems, in most areas in the world in which heat is intense, the “dowry” (not in the marriage sense…) of the middle class has grown. Once you get into a certain income class, you sure buy a car, but you also buy (before or after is a matter of choice) air conditioning.

In countries such as Anglo-Saxons, with a substantial share of individual homes, this is not that relevant in terms of urban landscape. But in places in which apartments are relevant, as in Spain or China, or in dense cities, architecture is impacted. Sure, some buildings have their mechanical elements over the roof, but this is still a reduced share, as housing buildings tend to last quite long.

Often local rules forbid locating condensation units for air conditioning in façades, but this is the most common solution as the installer can do a simpler work, ducts are more affordable, and the machine works better. As each owner calls an installer when he likes, and he uses his own ideas, brand and model, architecture suffers. Sure, some buildings have scarce previous qualities, but other get an appalling treatment. It is worth reminding that urban landscape quality is not just a matter of sublime elements, but also clutter control.

As dismantling these contraptions from façades is complex, I foresee that many will still be there after years without use. I can even imagine that in a hundred years, even if the system itself is no longer used, some areas will promote their “vintage early XXIst century architecture” bragging about their authentic air conditioning devices….

Starters of urban change (3) Horses, cars and rooms

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

At the dawn of the XXth century the car appears. Up until then people move around cities walking or by horse. Urban families with horses or other transportation animals, usually expensive, were a minority. The advent of mass car and its expansion through all the social layers implies a new dimensional problem; a horse is quite smaller than a car, and even a horse vehicle can be more flexible in dimension.

A horse box can be some 3×3 m, as the animal is seldom more than 2 m long. If you leave some horses temporarily tied to a post in the street, they occupy even smaller spaces; if you consider carts, things can be a little different. Alongside cars, bikes appear with an even more reduced footprint.

A current car can be some 4 to 5 meter long, with a total width of 2 m considering lateral mirrors. The biggest difference when compared to the horse in urban terms is that the animal usually belonged to a firm or a family with a firm, while automobiles are now in almost each family, and they feel the need to have them near their homes. So going from horses to cars is not so much a public space congestion due to moving elements, as you can see in historical photos from before the car that street where packed with all sort of contraptions; it is rather how to park a much higher number of vehicles in a distributed way through the city.

Around 1990 only the rich had a carriage; most homes had no space for vehicles. The first bylaws requiring a parking space associated with a home are usually from the 1960s-1970s, when cars became really massive in Europe and North America. And here comes architectural typology; in single home areas, with large lots, the garage finds easily its place as an ancillary building, or you park on streets that, due to the low density, have no great problem. The biggest problem comes with vertical homes. Using the block core is a solution, but one that comes at the cost of the demise of that core as a residual space. Burying the garage needs ramps of a certain length, and space is not always there. Adapting older buildings, mainly ones on small lots, is often impossible.

Today there are two visions, in a moment in which (at least in Europe or North America… and well, mostly nowhere…) horses are no longer an alternative. Some call to retain the current quotas defining a mandatory parking provision related to the number of homes, even if sometimes the same administration that enforces that rule later allows developers to sell to different buyers parking lots and apartments, so creating a pressure on on-street parking as some prefer to avoid the high cost of an in-building space. This option leads to a persistence in the creation of a car-centric infrastructure. Meanwhile, some demand the end of such mandatory quotas; this would not be a prohibition of in-building parking, but as it would no longer be a mandatory space, it would be added to the planning-allocated buildable floor area, so developers should choose between apartment space and parking lots, giving a different voluntary quota to different neighborhoods.

In short, a technological evolution that has changed many things in cities, including typologies.

Starters of urban change (2) Taxes and the « casas a la malicia » in renaissance Madrid

A part of the 1749 map of Madrid

A plate of the 1749 map of Madrid

Madrid becomes the Spanish capital in 1561, and this implies the institution of the the “regalia de aposento”, making mandatory for citizens to provide half their own homes to provide shelter for Royal officials. It seems that municipal authorities agreed with the King this provision in exchange for the benefits of becoming the permanent capital of the country. This fee was established in the middle ages, when the court was moving from city to city, and it was a transitory problem for citizens, but by making Madrid the permanent capital this became a nuisance that influenced architecture.

Every home was subject to the mandate, but some had dimensions or arrangements that complicated divisions. As a result, citizens decided often to build homes that could evade partition, and this led to the name of “malice houses”. Anyway, these homes were subject to a monetary fee, so there was first a need to institute a tax raising office, and later to create, in the 1749-1759 period, the first city cadaster.

regalia aposento

You can consult on the internet a full compendium of the legal texts on the issue… from 1738. As often in past texts, it is quite interesting to read the description of the kind of royal officials that had a right to shelter…

A translation of the specific text on the malice homes (page 28 on the electronic text) would be:

“in any home that can be easily divided in two parts, and that is in this city of Madrid, where the Royal court is, the half belongs to its Majesty as a result of the shelter rights… , and those that cannot be divided as they have just one room, an appraisal of their product must be made, and the owner will contribute with a third of it to the shelter rights, leaving to the owner the spaces from a third to a half, that he should give; and those homes are called of difficult partition, of third part, or malice”.

So evading a fee did led for a long time to an architectural production in Madrid that was defined by one level, one-room homes. Sometimes there were rooms on an upper level that was not visible from the street, and in some cases the homes were deemed indivisible due to their internal divisions. As a conclusion, neighbors preferred a bad architecture to a fee on their privacy.

What good do shops deliver (4) Chocolate

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

Here I use chocolate as well as a direct, factual reference as in a metaphorical way… opening a shop (as any other business) is a display of faith on an idea, in this case a quite public one. Whoever has a blog will easily understand: you have an idea that you prepare, polish and then make public. Then, for reasons you never quite understand, some ideas you thought were not as bright get most of the traffic (or at least that is what wordpress stats say…) while others, brighter at first sight, lag behind. In a blog, the effects of this are usually limited, but in a shop they can mean a difference between earning or loosing substantial money. Sure, mere footfall does not translate into money, but it is usually a precondition to make a product known, and, eventually, to sell something…

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

The external presence of a shop is essential. A clean, tidy, well-lit showcase is a minimum requirement, but you also need it to be located in a busy place, which implies a cost. To optimize this cost, you have to make attractive as well the premises as the product. Somehow, you have more chances to configure your shop than your product, especially if you are not the maker. Anyway, you have to be different from competitors.

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l'Olympia

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l’Olympia

Sure, shopkeepers want to get clients to see their business; what we get as a collateral effect is a care in the display of some things that configure public space, an aesthetic quality that is sometimes noteworthy. You can sure direct the debate towards consumerism, but it would be missing relevant elements in this situation.

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet...

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet…

What good do shops deliver (3) eyes on the street

Looking to the shop from the street...

Looking to the shop from the street…

Feeling safe in public space is somehow related to the perception of not being alone and to the fact that what happens is seen (or can be seen) by those living on or using the street. This has been enunciated by Jane Jacobs and re-used often as “eyes on the street”, with some consequences for retail:

  • Those (shop) eyes are there just during opening hours; they include those of shopkeepers as well as those of those browsing the showcases or the ones buying. The two latest categories will only flock if the space is perceived as safe, so here we have a vicious/virtuous circle…
  • When shops are closed, the only eyes on the street are those of homes (if they exist). If showcases are well lit at night, you can however get a better safety feeling, something that shopkeepers are fully aware of as this increases the perception of the street as secure day-long.
  • The design of showcases influences the number of eyes on the street; the open ones work better.
... or from the shop on the other side...

… or from the shop on the other side… (this is main street Segovia, Spain)

On awards (5) Salzburg central Station

A graphical description of the station by the architects

A graphical description of the station by the architects

Salzburg central station, which I visited this summer, is undergoing a refurbishment according to a project by Kadawittfeldarchitektur, a german architecture practice that won the 2009 competition. The project has been awarded in the 45th edition of Austria’s Staatpreis Design in the architectural and urban project cathegory (given by the Federal Ministry for Economy, Family and Youth to ÖBB, the national railways, as the project developer), and the 2012 European Steel Award.

The station was configured as a dead-end (outbound trains moved on reverse) until 2010, when continuous tracks were installed that, along with 4 new platforms, delivered a capacity improvement.

View from the end of the platform

View from the end of the platform

A detail: the historical glass and steel vault on the foreground, and the extension

A detail: the historical glass and steel vault on the foreground, and the extension

The use of steel with Y-shaped posts and large spans is not necessarily the most economical solution, but the results are interesting; it is always hard to find the right price for something that you will see every day, and can subsequently become boring. Under the platforms there is a long corridor connection both sides of the station; it is well lit, mainly due to the fact that the stair shafts are not limited to the stair itself, but run from one to another encompassing the whole corridor. It is not on my snaps, but I remember some kind of smart approach to the details to integrate in the corridor design the differences in level between both ends.

est-salzb-3 est-salzb-6

From Alps to Atlantic (2) Bologna, arcades, sidewalks and pedestrian areas

bologna- madera

In Bologna the arcades, a singular element in other cities, are a systematic feature. Not that they do not exist elsewhere, but here you have more than 40 km of them, and nearly any stroll in the historical core can be done through them. In many cities, they are an element complementing the sidewalk, but here they substitute it almost completely. This implies that sometimes a pedestrian does not see clearly the vehicles until he decides to do it (not necessarily a good thing), but also that anyone stopping a car must be more attentive. During winter, if ice appears, sunrays do not touch the pedestrian area, so there is a risk of slipping, but if there is just rain you are covered. Compared to other historical cities there are very few sidewalks, and even pedestrian streets, but when you walk you feel much more protected; even if they wished to do so, cars and trucks could not occupy the pedestrian space but through unusual means.

Bologna- pala

It seems the arcades appeared during the XIIth century, when streets were wider, as a solution to extend buildings to cope with a surge in the university population. In 1288 a municipal ordinance made brick or stone arcades mandatory for any building, even if today some wooden arcades remain. The key measure were 7 Bologna ft in height (2,66 m), enough to allow the passage of a man astride his horse. In law terms, it was a compulsory easement by which the public use of the arcade was guaranteed and it was to be kept in good use by the building owner, in exchange for the right to use the spaces in the floors above. As a compulsory architectural element in any building, it has taken varied shapes, in palaces and in humble homes, with a large diversity.

Central Bologna, using municipal open data. Red lines: sidewalks. Blue areas: pedestrian- only streets.

Central Bologna, using municipal open data. Red lines: sidewalks. Blue areas: pedestrian- only streets.

bologna- iglesia

The Bologna arcades (Portici Bolognesi) are candidates to enter the UNESCO world heritage list.

These arcades have also probably survived due to another factor: compared with other historical cities penalised by a position atop a hill, Bologna’s historical core and its surrounds are almost flat, so pedestrians have it easy.

Loos at Michaelerplatz

Here is a story that most architects have read during their training years, and surely a substantial herd of tourists visiting Vienna (the kind of story tourism guides usually like to tell). Once upon a time, in the late imperial Vienna, there was an innovative and daring architect, Adolf Loos, set to modernize architecture by going beyond a formalism that he thought was archaic. He found a client (Goldman & Salatsch taylors) which also wanted to display a commitment to modernity and owned a site on Michelerplatz, jus opposite from Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. The architect had to face social opposition and the municipal architects (the later probably as formidable as the first), who by all means tried to reorient the project towards more traditional aesthetics. According to the urban legend, the Kaiser was upset enough to have the windows to the square closed as not to endure seeing such  a hideous building…


Usually students see this building in history books in which Loos is presented as a hero and his book “Ornament and Crime” is mentioned, but it is much less often that you can see the square defining the context of that quarrel. If anything should be defined as baroque, the Hofburg would be. But the Loos building also plays with materials and composition, in a way that perhaps was not decorative in a classical sense, but is surely quite subjective. There is not here a lack of decorative elements, i.e., of a personal view on the problem of how to finish a space, but rather a whole new ballgame in terms of precision and tools stemming from a higher industrial evolution.

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After some time as a taylor business, the ground floor became a car dealership, to later receive a swastika, and after the war a furniture business. Since 1987 there is a branch of Raiffeisenbank, in which you can see an exhibition of plans and images from the time, as well as some reminders of the controversy.

París (17) Autolib


The image is that of yet one more car dealership. But it is something else. After having developed a bike location scheme (velib), the City of Paris has begun a pioneer project: electric car renting. The idea has some attractive elements: for many Paris residents car ownership is not so practical, but rather a chore, having to pay high parking prices and car maintenance for something you finally use just some days. A number of parking spots on the streets have been reserved for this system, in which you take your car at one station and can leave it at any other in the network. Besides, the high initial cost of acquiring an electric car is balanced, favouring a technological evolution that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

When you see these cars on the street, they see prematurely old and not that well-tended, but they seem rather useful for their public, that could be more important than you could think at first sight. It seems Indianapolis has been convinced…


Biblio (90) Pathfinders


UK’s National Audits Office published in 2007 a report on the Housing Market Renewal programme. This programme appeared in 2002 trying to cope with the problem of areas with a low housing demand combined with a sizeable vacant homes stock, in the previous industrial heartland of the North and Midlands. The Governement helped create nine sub-regional alliances, dubbed “pathfinders”, grouping all administrative levels implied and stakeholders. Each alliance was given a wide liberty to adapt to the specific problems of its constituency.

The rationale for the programme is in part an idea also used in Detroit: demolition as a regeneration vector. A housing stock unfit to demand makes urban regeneration more difficult; demolishing and building a smaller number of better units, in coordination with refurbishment of existing homes, was the intended engine for renewed cities.

Overall the grand total of the budget was to be 1,2 billion pounds for the 2002-2008 period, with an additional billion for 2008-2011. As of march 2007 the programme had used 870 million to refurbish 40.000 units, demolish 10.000 and build some 1.000 new units. The initial prevision was 90.000 demolitions between 2002 and 2018, a figure incrementally reduced over time.

According to the report, in 2007 there were positive signs of improvements in the real estate market and the urban quality of the concerned areas. However, impacts on social cohesion were also apparent, as well as doubts about the ability of such a kind of programme to tackle the real underlying causes for urban decay.

The programme was discontinued in 2011. According to a recent article on The Guardian, it seems it was far from a success.