urban landscape

Blocks (4) El Viso

El Viso as seen from the south, according to cadastral data

El Viso as seen from the south, according to cadastral data

El Viso is a residential area built in Madrid in 1933-1936 according to the 1925 Low Coast Housing Act. It never really was a worker’s neighborhood, as it soon became an area for middle classes and intellectuals.

El Viso. Lot area (in sq m). Red circles are proportional to the residential floor area for each lot

El Viso. Lot area (in sq m). Red circles are proportional to the residential floor area for each lot

Viso 2

Nowadays it is a kind of anomaly just by the denser area of Paseo de la Habana- Castellana. The original terraced homes have changed, gaining some levels here and ther, and some are now the location for other uses. However, the layout and the feeling of low density are still there. You can judge yourself thanks to google street view.

El Viso as seen from the east, according to cadastral data. On the background the AZCA towers show their presence.

El Viso as seen from the east, according to cadastral data. On the background the AZCA towers show their presence.

Maps 2015 (14) The city of Mexico in 1628

1628 image (from mexicomaxico.org)

For some reason I found this week that image of Mexico city in 1628, drawn by Juan Gómez de Trasmonte and conserved at the Archivo General de Indias. A century after the conquest the city is still surrounded by lakes, and the structure of city blocks is apparent.

I also found that image of a mural by Diego Rivera (XXth century), representing the pre-hispanic city. Sure that is not a historical city, but I like the image.

Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico (image  from wikipedia)

Blocks (2) Façades

A façade on the Calle de Alcalá, Madrid

A façade on the Calle de Alcalá, Madrid

When you think about façades you think about buildings (one by one, taken as separate items) ; if you think in terms about bocks, the building façade is in a context, be it planar or not…

The façade is in the context of its plan, but also in that of a corner, or related to others in the same street but on the next block. And it is also in the context of whatever happens on the street, be it cars, cranes, horses, ships, you name it…

The façade is just a face of the reality, as it is often rather mute when it comes to describe how deep the building is, or how it relates to the core of the block.

A plan of the same block in Calle de Alcalá (the façade is the one from the white part)

A plan of the same block in Calle de Alcalá (the façade is the one from the white part)

Façades around the corner of Menendez Pelayo and Menorca, Madrid

Façades around the corner of Menendez Pelayo and Menorca, Madrid

Façades around the corner of Ibiza and Menendez Pelayo, Madrid. A wider street, a diferent relation

Façades around the corner of Ibiza and Menendez Pelayo, Madrid. A wider street, a diferent relation

Biblio (125) Morphological analysis of traditional urban tissues according to UNESCO

Biblio 125-2-morfol unesco

UNESCO published this text, by Alain Borie and François Denieul, in 1984. The World Heritage Convention was enacted in 1972, and the first properties were inscribed in 1978, so this is a rather early text in the production of the “world heritage” concept in its urban derivations.

This is a classical manual, based on the decomposition of the urban tissues in systems: lots, streets, buildings, open spaces… a lot of images in the final part.

Blocks (1)


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a block is “an area of land surrounded by four streets in a city”. It is one of the less specific definitions among the languages I have consulted, but it gives a number of four streets, so there is a hint of a quadrangular shape somewhere. The Oxford dictionary, despite a more complex urban layout in Britain, says “a group of buildings bounded by four streets”, but it also recognizes that in America this applies to an area (no need for buildings)… bound by four streets.

What is relevant in terms of architecture and urban planning in a block?

  • Size, minimal in middle age cities or Genoa, and enormous in Berlin and other cities.
  • Treatment of courts or internal spaces, when they exist
  • Permeability between street and court
  • The way the street and the lateral façades relate: continuous or not, with varying setbacks by level…
  • The shape of angles
  • Differences in height between buildings

These are the subjects for the next weeks.

Starters of urban change (8) Inheriting

A part of the Texeira Map (1656) in Madrid, in what now is a much denser area.

A part of the Texeira Map (1656) in Madrid, in what now is a much denser area.

The transmission of property through heritage can contribute to the urban shape and/or to social structure. Some individual home areas can get densified over time as the need to divide the original lot arises through heritage by a group of brothers, for instance; this is quite more complex with current planning systems in which the subdivision of existing lots can be limited. When inheritance implies an apartment, its subdivision can depend on many elements and be more complex, as creating a new kitchen or bathroom requires a connection to the building’s services that is more difficult to solve in an independent way. This logic (division) makes sense in a growing demography, and also in peripheral areas (it is more difficult in central cities).

What happens when populations decrease, as they do in some European countries? Sure, we have shrinking cities, and then we have Detroit in America. Even if the city loses population, there are chances that the demand for built space will still exist, as it could be driven by other non- residential demands. Many things can happen:

  • You can inherit your parent’s property and live there; this has been a common fact in history, and it is worth reminding that demographic growth has been slow over long periods of time, which explains the stability of the urban fabric in many cities up to the industrial age.
  • Heritage can become an idle property; as you get no clients, you just have a home that no one uses. This has always existed, but now it could become more common.
  • Even in a shrinking city, brothers or other relatives happen, so you could get in a trap as no agreement could be reached between those benefited by the inheritance; in the end, property could again end up idle.

Overall, inheriting in a shrinking city reinforces the use value of a property against its financial value; and you can only sleep in one bed per night (at least under normal circumstances), so if the inherited property is not adjacent to your home you would probably find complex to use both everyday. Conversely, inheriting in a shrinking city can increase the financial value of a property, but you will be able to use it only if you have other properties (you would probably prefer to have at least one sheltered bed every night…) or if you can subdivide the inherited property.

This catalyzer of urban change is real, but incremental. But for a disaster, inheritances are random, both in space and in time, even if you can suppose that a new neighborhood will have replaced its original population in 30-40 years due to old age.

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….

Maps 2015 (5) Up & down in Granada


The results of a little escapade on the side of the cadastral data for volumes. If it is built, it must be drawn to ask for taxes… and those bases can be used. Here, around the Granada cathedral, that despite its imposing physical volume is considered by the Cadastre as one level building (albeit one with high ceilings…). On the first image, what can be seen at street level. On the second one, the volumes that are completely hidden (deep red is for buildings that according to data have no underground levels). These images don’t portray what happens in the intermediary situation, i.e., when the floor of a room is under the street level but its ceiling is above it, but for not more than a meter (to be seen soon, as it is interesting in a hilly city as Granada…).


Maps 2015 (3) Bogota

I’m clearly used to read maps and deduce such things as differences in building heights from a planar view. But sometimes it is clearly better to see what this means in a 3D view. According to cadastral data, this is how central Bogota (Colombia) looks like in terms of built bulk. The background map is from SOM, and altimetry data is SRTM.
Bogota-1d Bogota-1a Bogota-1b

Starters of urban change (1)

What drives change in the urban tissues? What matters in that question is how diverse the answer can be; there are changes from the bottom up (individual answers to problems that seem personal, but whose sum can produce some kind of “emergent intelligence”), as well as defined from the top of the pyramid (actions defined from the public administration which can lead to direct actions or to mandates to individuals to act in a given manner). Here is a quite concise catalogue of the possible situations, a kind of “table of contents” of what will follow:

  • Bottom-up
    • Changes in the dimension of the use unit (households, firms, public facilities…) that mean a change in the physical dimensions of the associated spaces, either through reduction or through extension. For instance, if the number and median size of households rises and urban growth is not possible, what you get are either overcrowded homes or extensions of current homes, either in width or in height.
    • Technological changes that imply a larger choice of locations, be it for homes or for other uses. For instance, cars have allowed urban sprawl.
    • An evolution of social demand that triggers an evolution in the way the functions of spaces in a typology are arranged. If the demand for balconies increases, home façades will change accordingly, transforming the urban landscape.
    • Changes in ownership conditions: a neighborhood in which the residents are mainly owners of their homes can look different from one in which rental is the main condition.
  • Top- down
    • Political or technological factors determine how the land can be used: if city walls become obsolete, either as a result of the evolution of military technology or of the disappearance of the risk of war, cities can demolish them and extend.
    • Fiscal conditions: when some architectural types are subject to higher taxes, this can change the real estate market and the building production.
    • Urban planning: plan define mandatory conditions. Paris, Manhattan or Kyoto have particular urban landscapes as in a given moment the decision was taken to organize streets in a certain way and to define how buildings should look.

What is often said to be “the charm of the city” is the combination of all those elements, with varying degrees of poetry and bureaucratic zeal.