When masterplanning new urban districts, a lot of architects I know speak of drawing broad brushstrokes representing slab blocks striping their sites. They work with known widths for slab blocks—e.g. 22m if they’ll be double-loading their corridors for maximum site yield, and 12m if single-loading for more light and air—and have a stock of standard apartment plans at the ready, that they can virtually cut and paste into working drawings and send off to builders by the end of the week. While some slight concession is made toward the idea of the perimeter block and the courtyard, fundamentally, architects are still using the cookie-cutter planning method favoured in rapidly urbanising places like China. It is an approach that makes well defined blocks of apartments and, but ill-defined spaces between them, sometimes called SLOAP (space left over after planning).
For decades, leading thinkers in urban design have been imploring architects to not be so lazy. They have wanted architects to replicate the traditional European city by conceptualising large empty sites as already containing solid blocks of development waiting to have streets and piazzas carved from that mass. The designers’ brushstrokes in this case would stand for negative spaces, not positive forms. It is a reductive approach, not an additive one, illustrated quite nicely by this mini city I made over breakfast from four slices cheese. My son’s attempt to copy mine using lego suffers dismally by comparison.
Haussmann took a subtractive approach, literally and brutally, when he carved boulevards out of Paris. Sure, he left Parisian builders with some big headaches figuring out how to plan liveable apartments on awkward shaped sites, but Haussmann rightfully figured that odd shaped apartments are a private concern, and not as important as public space.
Irrespective of whether we are making slices through existing urban fabrics like Haussmann, or figuratively slicing through future development space like an urban designer, our slices are made with the aim of providing clear passage for some thing, or someone. In the case of Paris, clear passage was being carved to make way for Napoleon’s cannons. Haussmann’s avenues are metaphorically “cannon-shot”, meaning they were made so Napoleon III could control civil uprisings by firing upon the Parisian rabble.
If Paris were seven giant slices of cheese (it is 7 stories high for the most part), then the knives that ran through those cheese slices were cannons. The cheese slices of Amsterdam and Venice had strips carved out using boats. Horse drawn carriages sliced the urban cheese stacks of New York and London, and in fact most cities that predate the car. Those cities were later carved into again to make way for cars, in ways that make Haussmann look mild. The cheese stack of Fez in Morocco, meanwhile, was carved into by donkeys.
You have guessed where I am leading with this. I want to know how the cheese block would be carved to grant passage to cyclists. This is not the only way to conceptualise a bike focused city or urban district. I have a hunch though, that it’s the best one.