What good do shops deliver (2) aesthetics


This is an image of a city square in a rural area of Spain, and it represents the “zero degree” of the urban retail: a street market. I’ve chosen this image, quite far from idyllic. Here we have the same urban role played by those breath-taking image of Italian markets  conveyed through cuisine tv shows, but there is no substantial contribution to the formal landscape; sure this is more than decent, but it is not elegant, as so many other things in life.


This image corresponds to a street in London, on Mayfair, close to Oxford Street. It is a street without retail; everything is housing (or retail), even if the setback from the sidewalk changes the way in which the buildings relate to the street quite elegantly. The difference with a social housing estate is in the architecture and its dwellers, not in the way in which the building uses are organised; and in the fact that here Bond Street is just a stroll away, albeit it is not necessarily a place in which to get value on groceries…

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.

comercio mérida

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.


This fourth image is a set of shops behind Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. Elegant shops in a central setting in which the architecture of the building is far from bad…

You can have beautiful streets with or without retail, or they can be uninteresting on their own; you can have attractive or boring shops. But what commerce brings to citizens using the streets on a daily basis is a material expression of the evolution of the city. And to those coming from out of town retail means a clue on what sort of aesthetics mobilizes local buyers; the extent to which retail implies visual clutter is also noticed by visitors (it can be positive, but not that often). The lack of retail (including bars and restaurants) in a street has its landscape depend just on  building architecture, much more static.

Maps 2014 (34) Vienna Digital Map

Maps34- Viena

The Vienna digital map is one among the herd of web platforms displaying cartography with a degree of detail adapting to the visualization scale. It stands out as there is an elegant selection of colors, a large scale detail based on cadastral data, and some layers that are interesting for a tourist, as the one on the city walks.



Two images from two quite different cities: Salzburg in Austria, and La Coruña, in Spain (up to you to sort which image corresponds to each city…) . Two strong landscapes and the difference is in the ability of each city to do an interesting thing on these landscapes. More on this in next posts.


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.

The Aspern Airport (2)

Diagrams from the presentation report

Diagrams from the presentation report

Chances are some have taken as negative my comments on the Aspern project ; as a matter of fact, comparing it to other suburban model scan seem far from positive, but as I have already said the project seems quite reasonable. All my comments are conditioned by the fact that the area will take to time to be built (first residents should move in around the end of 2014).

The project prioritizes these issues:

  • Whatis presented as a sustainable density. The total scope of the project is 240 hectares, with a built area of 2,2 million sq m, so FAR would be 0,91, quite higher than an usual suburban scheme.
  • Functional diversity, with room for 20.000 residents and 20.000 jobs; the goal of a housing- employment balance, easy to aim at but not that easy to get in a metropolitan area. The project includes ideas about the use of the ground floor, and despite a clear concentration of jobs on the south-eastern part, some degrees of flexibility are included.
  • Spatial diversity, with a proposal marked by a circular avenue with organises a neighbourhood turned towards a lake. The typologies and heights are similar, but the organization of volumes at the architectural scale seems a bit more diverse.

The project could have been based in a regular grid layout, as everything around, to begin with the neighbouring suburbs, called for that. The urban planners (Tovatt, from Sweden) have rather chosen a geometry which, at first glance, seems to stem form an organic genesis, almost a pre-existing plan; this look comes from a transition between the rectangular edges of the site and the circular avenue using not to sharp angles and sometimes curved streets.

The anular avenue may seem at first sight the Vienna Ringstrasse; but in fact it seems quite a departure (more in next posts)

The anular avenue may seem at first sight the Vienna Ringstrasse; but in fact it seems quite a departure (more in next posts)

Biblio (96) The Aspern Airfield


In 1912 the Vienna Airport opens at Aspern; in 1975 car races start, and in 1982 a General Motors Factory opens. As of the end of the 1980s, there are already talks to take the airplanes out, and in 2008 an architectural competition is launched, and won by Tovatt and Associates.

The project is interesting in several senses: it seems quite good in technical terms, but it is, even in a caricature sense, a material translation of the analysis made by David Mangin in “La Ville Franchisée”: a project of a certain density, with limited connections to its surrounding, creating its own ringstrase… A somehow closed world, linked to the motorway and the subway.

A good website with abundant English documents.

Things I saw while on break

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

For those that have followed this blog during the last years, here is the proof it has not disappeared. Just a small fraction of that time was a break (most of it was quite the opposite…), but it was worth it.

During that time I have seen and thought about some interesting things, either on travel or through other means. Here are some, which can be viewed as a thematic layout of future posts:

  • Vienna: I had never visited Austria. After a recent trip to Germany I was curious to see the other big Germanic country, not so much (or rather no only) for its past as an old empire that imploded almost overnight in 1918, but more as a country in which I thought an interesting version of modernity was happening. The trip has indeed been interesting. My knowledge of German is schematic, and if I told you I have grasped the soul of the country after just a few days you would (for a good reason) think I’m just bragging; but some things have seemed interesting.
  • The evolution of the idea of sustainable development (or its weakening under some points of view). The quarrels surrounding the ministerial reorganization in France during this summer have made me remember news read during the recent municipal and European elections there. Among the promises made by local candidates of the National Front in many cities were the ones about letting again access the city core by car without restrictions, reversing policies adopted years ago to try to reduce pollution and conserve the old cities qualities. The National Front is a particularity in the French political system, but its rise is fuelled by their ability to grasp subjects that galvanize citizens. They raised that idea in many cities, but not in Paris and Lyon, where things cannot be so simplified. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President, who instituted a Ministry for Durable Development, said in 2011 during a visit to the Agricultural Convention of Paris “the environment, it is becoming a bit too much”. On the other side, the relations between socialists and ecologists in France are far from easy (hence the initial mention to the French politics of this summer). The evolution over time of the UK policies on that matter has also been controversial there. Many in Europe will think that this is just peanuts compared to the American scene, forgetting the fact that there the scene is also mixed, as you just have to compare Republicans in the Congress (denial of climate change) to Schwarzeneger or Bloomberg (climate change policies) to see what I talk about. Are we witnessing the end of sustainable development as a somehow blind faith (believing in something presented as good, even if not understood by many that feel it just brings costs or even nuisance to their way of life) that can be used by politicians and marketers alike, to see a more critical conscience emerge, or else? Therein lies the rump….
  • A new rise in the social demand for rules, not as a defence of some economic interests, but of other matters lied to the idea of common good. These days there have been demonstrations in Barcelona against the growing presence of tourists renting apartments in an informal way in the Barceloneta area; they use what to some is a reduced booze price and a perceived image of Spain as a permissive country to behave in ways that perhaps could be subject to prosecution in their own countries. Sure, hotel owners have used that to talk about unlawful competition (a bit like taxi drivers revolts against Uber), but the neighbours asked here for quite simple things: the right to sleep without noise, or to move around their city without seeing gross scenes. I have read on today’s Washington Post a quite similar news concerning Ocean City, Maryland. The fear of squadrons of youth looking for booze and party, ruining the calm of a neighbourhood by renting homes piecemeal has also surfaced, and is also criticized by those saying that as the city lives from tourism, this must be endured. So Barceloneta (a popular neighbourhood with high density) is on the same wavelength as Ocean City (apparently a richer, lower density area). Some will present this as a case of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a resistance to accept externalities related to the inherent complexity of cities. But this seems something more, a symptom of a general evolution of the idea of what can be or not accepted in a society.
  • I have also seen interesting physical landscapes