Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski

Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski

Author:Witold Rybczynski
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Scribner

Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco introduced a new urban-renewal formula: rehabilitated waterfront buildings + commerce + tourism = downtown activity.

Fisherman’s Wharf is an example of successful revitalization based not on urban renewal, public housing, or grand civic projects, but on tourism. Tourism was largely ignored by the first generation of urban-renewal planners—even Jane Jacobs had nothing to say about it—but it proved to be a powerful economic force for urban change. Cities that couldn’t recover lost manufacturing and industrial jobs discovered something that older European cities such as Venice and Vienna had known for a long time: instead of offering financial services or manufacturing shoes, a city could sell pleasure.

Unlike the failed urban-renewal projects of the 1960s, Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery were a hit with the public. This was in no small part due to their designs; Wurster’s and Esherick’s architecture, refreshingly unpolemical in a relaxed Northern Californian manner, is an eclectic mixture of old and new. Rather than remaking the city in a Utopian image, or adapting a model from the suburbs, these architects took advantage of precisely those attractive attributes that were unique to cities: interesting-looking, old industrial buildings, vibrant density, and, above all, the unique character of a waterfront.

Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery were private development projects, but an earlier Texas waterfront-improvement project followed a different model: public funding in the first phase and private initiative in the second. The city of San Antonio, founded in 1718, sits athwart the winding San Antonio River, and like most North American cities, it has historically treated the river merely as a commercial convenience. By the early 1900s, no longer used for barge traffic, the river—which is a dozen feet below street level—had become an unsightly garbage dump. In 1926, after a disastrous downtown flood, city engineers proposed redirecting the watercourse into an underground conduit. Construction was stopped after a number of public meetings, and influenced by a proposal by local architect Robert Hugman, the city decided to undertake a civic beautification project instead. In 1938–41, with the support of the federal Works Progress Administration, floodgates and a bypass channel were built, and the horseshoe-shaped river, flanked by ancient bald cypress trees, was transformed into a linear park with walkways along the riverbanks.11 Thirty-one new stairways led down from the street, and twenty-one new pedestrian bridges crossed the watercourse. Hugman had called his original proposal “The Shops of Aragon and Romula.” That name didn’t stick—the linear park was christened Paseo del Rio—but his vision of shops and restaurants along a picturesque waterside promenade came to fruition, and the Paseo, or River Walk, became a popular and commercial success. Like Ghirardelli Square, the Paseo was also a tourist attraction capitalizing on nostalgia, in this case for the city’s Spanish heritage, which was alluded to in Hugman’s design for the staircases and bridges. During the 1960s, the Paseo was twice enlarged; in 1968 a waterway was extended to the new convention center, and a major hotel, the Hilton Palacio del Rio, was added to the commercial mix.


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