Once, a long, long time ago before any of our grandparents were born there was flavor. Apples had apple flavor. Bananas had banana flavor. Grapes had grape flavor. Things just tasted like what they were. But then there was imitation flavor. The little blue lumps in blueberry muffin mix aren’t blueberries. They’re some other substance that was given a chemical treatment to look, smell, and taste like blueberries, but cheaper and with a longer shelf life.
Then came products that didn’t exactly have a flavor that resembled anything in nature. Kool-Aid, Popsicles, and Jell-O come in green, yellow, red, orange, and blue. Purple flavor doesn’t really taste like any specific fruit. It just tastes… purple. Maybe for legal purposes there’s some actual fruit in the list of ingredients, but it doesn’t really matter. The stuff is affordable, convenient, won’t spoil, and it’s plenty good enough for most people.
So, why am I telling you this story about food flavors on a blog about architecture and urbanism? Well… I often find myself trying to wrap my mind around the built environment I encountered. There’s a lot of urban imitation purple flavor out there. I think it’s important to acknowledge what the genuine article looks like and then trace how we got from there to where we are now.
First, here’s what plain old “Original Flavor” urbanism looks like. These scenes from Italy have existed for two thousand years. Times are good, times are bad, war, peace, plenty, scarcity… they carry on. When they’re totally destroyed they’re rebuilt with the same characteristics generation after generation.
Here’s an example of “Oriental Flavor” urbanism in Japan. Notice how similar these scenes are from the ones in Italy. The language, culture, history, religion, and geography are all very different, but these radically separate societies have come to the same basic set of arrangements over the centuries. It’s just what works after endless trial and error.
And here’s a Colonial American version of “Classic Flavor” urbanism from Philadelphia. Notice the common themes: narrow roads, compact vertical architecture, durable construction, high quality materials, and fine-grained community fabric.
Finally, we come to our contemporary landscape. This is “Imitation Purple Flavor” urbanism. It’s the Jell-O of town building. Just add water, stir, and refrigerate until it congeals. It’s fast, cheap, and easy. So, how many of you out there are willing to bet that any of this survives for two thousand years? How about two hundred? Given that it’s only sixty years old and much of it is already starting to fall apart and is functionally insolvent… I’m not holding my breath.