Dream Cities: Castles

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This past week I have been reading Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World by Wade Graham. In each chapter the book covers a different way of understanding a city, how it should look, how it should function, and what kind of lives it should facilitate. The chapters are mostly structured around biography of various thinkers―Le Corbusier, for example―and how, their ideas took root and shaped urban landscapes. While this approach occasionally leaves out broader structural factors in favor of Big Man history, the book does a fantastic job showing how the built environment is often a product of ideology. I want to go through each chapter and see how each concept applies to Baltimore.

The first concept Graham looks at is castles, and he does this through the lives of architects Bertram Goodhue and Frederick Law Olmsted. Both Goodhue and Olmsted were highly celebrated architects in the decades around the turn on the 19th century (And they were wildly prolific. Even if you haven’t been to Olmsted’s most famous work, NYC’s central park, you’ve probably been on one of the hundreds of college campuses he designed). They worked at a time when industrialization was taking hold in the West and cities were absorbing large numbers of the rural poor to work their booming factories. The resulting soot and squalor was a major cause for concern and cities increasingly became associated with danger, vice, and a general fallen moral state (think Dickens’ portrayal of London). Those who could afford to leave, did.

This is where Goodhue and Olmsted come in. Fueled by a general anti-urban ethos and a romantic vision of pre-industrial life, these architects helped created the first railroad suburbs. These were bedroom communities built on the outskirts of cities, far enough away to be removed the bustle of the city but still connected by rail. These suburbs employed ornamental architecture to conjure the past and create an illusion of unspoiled rural life. Stand alone houses were built to resemble English manors, Mediterranean villas, or Gothic castles. Resplendent with winding roads, large yards, and well-kept gardens, these communities offered the upper classes the fantasy of living in a country estate without sacrificing the ability to still operate a factory downtown.

One of the earliest examples of this set up is Roland Park here in Baltimore, which was partially designed by Olmsted. The folks over at Ghosts of Baltimore go into lots of detail about the history of this suburb, though I think it’s also interesting to look at how the ideas behind its construction are still legible today. For instance, the streetscape and layout.

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Looking at a map, you can see that the layout of Roland Park departs from the fairly consistent street grid that makes up the majority of central Baltimore. Grids, of course, were too urban and unfashionable. They were an artifact the the vice-filled city which should be forgotten as soon as you step off your train home. Same goes with connected row houses. While just a bit south row houses dominate the city, here you’ll only find large, unattached homes in English Tudor, Georgian, and British Arts and Crafts styles evocative of simpler times (Arts and Crafts itself being a movement against industrialization). Here every man got his own castle and the reality of the city was kept at bay. This goal was implicit in the design, but it was also explicit in how the community was sold. In fact, early advertisements for the development asked prospective buyers, “”Are you satisfied to always breathe the city atmosphere of smells, dust and decaying filth?”

Of course, keeping the city at a distance wasn’t purely an aesthetic pursuit. It’s hard to overstate the role racism played in driving these communities. Roland Park didn’t just pioneer faux-bucolic design, it also was one of the first communities to have a restrictive covenant that explicitly banned African Americans from living within its borders. These exclusionary clauses went on to be de rigeur for many wealthy garden suburbs in Baltimore and across the country.

While these racist laws are no longer formally written into the governance of Roland Park, the exclusionary intent of these communities are still coded into the physical structures.  The podcast 99% Invisible looks how this manifests in an adjacent neighborhood  in the episode “The Arsenal of Exclusion.” Essentially, you can make a strong argument that the design of Roland Park still subtly works to keep out people who “don’t belong.”

As for Goodhue, he also left his mark on Baltimore in the form of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, located just off Johns Hopkins’ campus. It’s one of his earlier works―he had yet to start designing in the Spanish Colonial Revival style that would be his largest legacy―but its ornate Gothic features and attention to ornamental detail still carry his message: cities should look toward the past.

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