Category: Grandeur

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Although Oklahoma City’s odd-looking city plan does not immediately lend itself to grandeur, it is a city more related to grandeur in its ideology, the “boom” ideology which founded the city itself. After the city was first started in the late 1800’s, it started to grow rapidly, its population skyrocketing over the following years. As a result, the city officials started to buy as much land surrounding the area as possible, regardless of how well it fit with the rest of the city plan. Unfortunately, the city did not grow as much in the future as they thought it would have, resulting in there being no reason for them to continue to buy land.
In addition to the city’s odd shape, the city also failed at grandeur with the Pei Plan in the 1970’s. OKC officials asked I.M. Pei to design their city’s new downtown, and he came to them with a futuristic design plan for Oklahoma City. Before they even started to put new buildings up, OKC demolished 40% of their downtown, which left them with a number of empty lots and a weak downtown, which took years to recover. In the wake of this demolition, OKC had to resign itself to less grandeur than it would’ve wanted, although with the Oklahoma City Thunder coming ever closer to a championship, the city gets closer and closer to its originally desired grandeur.

Bucharest Civic Center

Built in the 1980s under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Bucharest’s Civic Center is a typical example of urban grandeur. Centered around the Union Boulevard, a street similar in style to the Champs-Elysee (1 meter wider, in fact) that runs east-west, this corridor of massive socialist-realist apartment blocks and tree-lined sidewalks was meant to convey the awesome power of which the Socialist government of Romania was capable. Ceausescu was mainly inspired by his 1971 trip to North Korea, where he was impressed with the development under Kim-il Sung and his Juche ideology. The Civic Center is flanked on its east side by the Palace of Parliament, a super-massive structure that stands as the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. On the west side of the Center lies the Victory of Socialism Plaza, a large three-way roundabout. The scale of construction was so massive, that significant portions of the historic neighborhoods of Uranus, Antim and Rahova neighborhoods were completely wiped off the map. This process displaced more than 40,000 residents, forcing them to move to more outlying portions of the city. There still lay significant portions of the Center that were never completed, as the regime had not the time nor the funds to complete this mega-project. The communist government of Romania fell in 1989, and no further progress was made.

Sources: Cantacuzino, Serban, and Tabacu, Gabriela. Bucurestiul Meu. Humanitas, 2016.

Empire State Plaza (Albany, NY)

Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY is a 20th century example of grandeur. Completed between 1965-1976, the complex represents a time in New York State politics when the state felt emboldened to use its powers to create large-scale projects at the expense of local communities. Using imminent domain, the state successfully uprooted 7,000 residents and created a large-scale campus, featuring brutalist concrete towers that in compliance with the organizational philosophy of the time, centralized the state’s bureaucracy. The result was a campus that was in direct conflict with the surrounding grid of mostly residential houses. From the design, it’s clear that this campus was not intended to be integrated with the surrounding community, and that it instead represents the aggressive strong-handed attitudes of NYS politics at the time, which directly parallels the strong-handedness in which city/state capital projects were conducted downstate in New York City. In particular the erasure of existing neighborhoods and the construction of bold “modernistic” buildings directly parallels the demolition of Radio Row and the construction of the World Trade Center that was occurring simultaneously.

Pfau, Ann, and David Hochfelder. “Who Lived in the Neighborhood Knocked down for the Empire State Plaza?” All Over Albany, June 29, 2015.

Louisville, KY

One of several cities in the US designed according to the ideals of the City Beautiful movement, Louisville is home to features of beautification and grandeur throughout the city. After the Southern Exposition (a sort of “World’s Fair” for the South that took place from 1883-1887) was held in the city, Louisville grew quickly throughout the Industrial Revolution. The Old Louisville neighborhood, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, is the largest Victorian neighborhood in the US, and the St. James-Belgravia Historic District adjacent to Louisville’s Central Park, both are neighborhoods that exemplify these City Beautiful ideals.

Pyongyang, North Korea — Socialism and Grandeur

Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea: the most protectionist and enclosed socialist country in the world. The country has been ruled by the Kim family for 3 generations now, and Pyongyang’s city plan is representative of the Kim family’s reign, authority, and order. The original master plan of the city was polycentric with different symbolic spaces evenly allocated throughout the city. Each district had a core area with symbolic monuments and landscapes. These centers acted as a reminder of central power and authoritarian rule in the daily lives of North Koreans. However, the reconstruction of Pyongyang in the 1960s converged many of its symbolic spaces into one central area, which still remains today. This center is used as the designated area for administrations and institutions. Socialist architecture and symbolic monuments saturate the landscape here, the most notable being the Kim Il Sung Square where ceremonial, military marches happen) and Juche Tower that represents North Korea’s ideology of self-reliance.

“It’s the kind of city that feels as if it’s designed as stage sets,” he reflected. “Your gaze is very much directed towards its monuments.” (Oliver Wainwright)
“Architecture is not a decoration, it is much more important than that. Architecture is a representation of the identity of the place. It’s the identity that is in the air.” (Oliver Wainwright)


A brief urban history of Pyongyang, North Korea—and how it might develop under capitalism

Detroit: Grand Planning for a Territorial Capital

June 11th, 1805: Detroit burns to the ground. What was once a settlement of over a thousand is reduced to a courthouse and a handful of stone chimneys. Three weeks later, on June 30th, Congress proclaims the creation of Michigan Territory, carving a state-sized chunk from the Northwest Territory, and designates Detroit its capital. While urban history provides innumerable examples of the profound durability of cities, the events of June 1805 in Detroit demonstrate that the right confluence of circumstances can induce radical change in urban spatial patterns.

Detroit was founded in 1701 by the french explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, another link in the great chain of interior, riverine outposts tying together Quebec and Haiti, the twin capitals of French North America. Detroit’s 18th century plan was typical of other French “closed grid” settlements; oriented towards the river and surrounded by fortifications. If the great fire and the designation of the city as territorial capital had not occurred simultaneously it is likely that Detroit would be upheld today as either example of french-colonial “ordered” planning––as with New Orleans––or as an example of “City Beautiful” retroactive grandeur imposed on an older grid––as with Chicago. Instead, Detroit serves as one of America’s best examples of purpose planned pseudo-baroque grandeur west of the Apalachains.

In the aftermath of the fire, Michigan Territorial Governor William Hull tapped Judge Augustus B. Woodward to draft a new plan for Detroit, elevating the city in accordance with (he hoped) its soon to be status as the capital of a state. Judge Woodward drew inspiration from the other purpose built capital cities of his era––including the L’Enfant plan for Washington, and several discarded proposals for the reconstruction of London after its own fire. However, Woodward’s product proved to be far more radical than the sources he drew upon. Rather than a gridiron pierced by the occasion angled boulevard (as in Washington), the Judge set a series of predefined hexagonal units within a broader macro-grid, intended to be expanded modularly like the “cells” of Savannah. Each hex measured 3/4ths of a mile across, and was centered on a grand circus, from which a dozen boulevards radiated. Side streets and alleys subdivided the spaces between the avenues into more intimate blocks, while the corners where three hexagons met were themselves reserved as additional public spaces.

Woodward’s proved to be too radical for its own good: Detroit abandoned his plan after it proved too difficult to expand, allowing two partially complete hexes to be swallowed up by a sea of gridiron. Unfortunately, the 20th century would prove to be even less kind to Judge Woodward’s vision than the 19th, as urban renewal, white flight and downtown freeways did further harm to his carefully balanced mix of grandeur and intimacy. However, the recent rival of Detroit’s downtown in the wake of the 2013 city’s bankruptcy has raised hopes that elements of Woodward’s thinking could be restored.

1. Roger Biles, Expressways before the Interstates: The Case of Detroit, 1945–1956, Journal of Urban History, May 2014
2. Wes Aelbrecht, Decline and Renaissance: Photographing Detroit in the 1940s and 1980s, Journal of Urban History, January 2015
3. Michael Jackman, How the Woodward Plan for greater Detroit died 200 years ago today, Detroit Metro Times, June 2018

Grammichele: The Beautiful City of Sicily

Grammichele is an Italian city of about 15,000 inhabitants in the province of Catania, in Sicily. It was built by the refugees of neighboring Occhiolá, survivors of the earthquake of 1693. The peculiarity of this city is its hexagonal construction. Concentric hexagonal perimeter, begun to be built on April 18, 1693, is one of the few examples of rationalist architecture in Italy. The central square, hexagonal, has 8164.8 square meters, where the Town Hall and the Church are located, from where six streets depart from the center of each of the hexagon faces. The city is thus defined in six equal sections, one of which was left for the founder, Prince Carlo María Carafa – passionate about Astronomy and Mathematics – to build his palaces. A Sundial was built in the square – which they later removed – and which is now a statue. There are other monuments like a clock of a man kneeling and trapped by time. Truly a city built for decadence.

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