On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Collective Amnesia, continued: John Portman and the “Coordinate Unit”


Cleveland planner Bruce Donnelly recently posted some of John Portman’s comments form his 1976 book with Jonathan Barnett, The Architect as Developer.  Bruce also made some excellent comments.  The full text of his post is below.    Thanks to him for permission to add them (in slightly edited form for public consumption).               

I urge everyone to take a moment to read through it.  Several things stand out:    
1.  Portman didn’t seem to be aware that Le Corbusier and others had proposed the very same kind of pedestrian bridging scheme, really at the heart of their conception (though never successful) —  which was to create a car-free zone above the street.    (Towards a New Architecture, 1923, p. 59 – “The ground level of the town is raised form 12 to 16 feet…The actual ‘ground’ of the town is a sort of floor, the streets and pavements as it were bridges.”)  These schemes have largely failed, because they lost the synergy between the car and other modes, and they killed the real street.  So Portman is suffering from a characteristic bout of collective amnesia, and repeating the mistakes of the past all over… just as many architects are doing all over again today. 
This is the colossal failure that came from turning our backs on the street, and surrendering it to machines.  That was an understandable mistake, but a mistake all the same.  I think we have to question it at every scale, in every system.  (Including freeways – see 405 as it goes through Northwest in Portland, and does not disturb the mixed-mode street grid – it goes below it.)
2.  The Coordinate Unit is of course our pedestrian shed, but more than that, it is the Perry Diagram.  It’s “cellular” – and therein lies the problem.  A rigidly cellular system is in danger of preventing  interactions at and across the edge – especially if they’re surrendered to the car and to uncrossable streets.  This is the same mistake in two dimensions that was just made in the third (with the bridging scheme).  It segregates the car-based system, and allows it to sever  the urbanism.
3.  As I think Atlanta showed us, it’s not just about functional and spectacular architecture linked up with connections.  It’s about grain, scale, adaptivity – a framework that supports growth and evolution.  (And provides the “seeds,” and “fertilizer.”)  This means the architecture matters – not so much in “style,” as in “resilience.”  And in correspondence with that, the economics matters…
This is the ultimate penny that has to drop – the economic transition from purely large-scale, “too big to fail” systems (oops), to greater resilience – economic, social and ecological.  (Which certainly includes large-scale and global, but also balances it with small-scale and resilient, as it already the case in many places.)  This is not pie-in-the-sky.  In fact, it’s life or death…
Exactly the same issue exists with architecture.  We still have a big, dumb, non-adaptive, unable-to-learn kind of architecture.  (Even to some degree, in its traditional variants.)   And it continues to be propelled, not so much by “Stalinist techniques” (though those are part of the power game) as by the inexorable logic of the operating system.  And that has a critical economic dimension. 
To coin a phrase, “it’s the economics, stupid!”  (Or it’s all tied to the economics… Same issues of scale, grain, human adaptivity:  modernist economics is failing, just as modernist architecture is failing, because they are both cut from the same large-scale paradigm.)
Cheers, m
p.s. On that note, I highly recommend Jacobs’ “The Nature of Economies” (not to be confused with “the economy of cities,” also excellent and relevant).  Also the work of the New Economics Foundation in London… also the work of Bernard Lietaer on “complementary currency” and related topics.  We need to catalyze a clearer architectural identity around these themes, and a clearer critique of the old failing model…
p.p.s. The Architect as Developer can be found at these outlets:

Date: Sun, 30 May 2010 12:35:28 -0400
Subject: The tragedy of John Portman: The Coordinate Unit

The following text, which I annotate, is from The Architect as Developer, by John Portman and Jonathan Barnett. When we were in Atlanta for the CNU, I wound up staying at a hotel I’d stayed in as a child—the Peachtree Center Westin. (My bank changed from National City to PNC, and the reservation didn’t keep pace.) I knew the place had been renovated a couple of times, and so I wasn’t shocked to see the interior changed. What I was shocked by, though, was the loss of . . . let’s call it “sweetness” . . . that had been there over 30 years previously, when I bought the book at the Peachtree Center. This is the chapter on Portman’s Coordinate Unit, in Portman’s own voice.


We cannot afford to abandon the cities; it is a course of action that makes no sense either economically, politically, or socially. And if we do not intend to abandon our cities, we must stop acting as if that is what we are going to do. We must learn to restructure cities, to make them economically healthy and desirable places for people to live and work in. (p. 130)

Bruce: Surprised? I was, on re-reading it. This was written in or before 1976, but it should remind us of the Charter for the New Urbanism. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we forget that a lot of architects, planners, and developers from the 1930s on wanted to do the right thing, but prevented themselves from doing so by rejecting the traditional city.

A city is not a fixed object like an individual building. A city is a living entity that is changing all the time. You do not de(p. 130)sign a city in the way that you design a building; but you can make a city a humane environment, not just in isolated places but continuously, throughout its whole fabric.  (p. 130)

Bruce: Fabric? A big part of Portman’s tragedy is that he understood about things like streets and the urban fabric, but he wanted to remake them—make them into something historically unique.

My ideas about cities began to expand and change in the mid-1960s, when I made my first journey to Scandinavia. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen were a revelation to me. It is, perhaps, the most appealing place that I have seen, the one which people seem to enjoy most. I am sure that this quality is in part a reflection of the Danish people, whom I have found to be unfailingly warm and friendly and who have a great zest for life. When you walk through Tivoli, you see that almost everyone is smiling. I have given much thought to just which ingredients create the magic of the place. It has taught me much about the effect that environment can have on one’s feelings. (p .130)

Bruce: Note that Portman learned from Tivoli Gardens, not neighborhood life.

From Copenhagen I went to Stockholm, where I saw two of the new satellite cities, Vallingby and Farsta. I was struck by something I saw on my way into Vallingby. There is a highway running along the edge of the city center and a pedestrian bridge that goes across it. I saw a woman pushing a baby carriage over this bridge and realized that she was going from her apartment to the town center to do her shopping. Then I noticed that most of the apartment buildings were placed so that you could come right down into the central city through the green areas. I began to see that this is really what it is all about: people walking over from their houses to do their shopping, and their kids coming over, and the freedom of that kind of environment separated from the wheels of the motor car. The highway was there, and rapid transit was available, but you didn’t need to use a car every time you had to do a simple errand. (p. 130)

Bruce: “ . . . but you didn’t need to use a car every time you had to do a simple errand.” Sound familiar?

I was not impressed with the buildings, and I did not feel that the city center was executed well from a design point of view; but there was a germ of an idea there, something quite different from the sterile modernism of a place like Brasilia. (p. 130)

This trip also included a visit to Helsinki, where I was greatly impressed by the excellence of the architecture for the satellite community of Tapiola, although I felt that it was too dependent on the automobile. The Tapiola plan is still the old campus plan related to wheels.

The overall experience gained from Tivoli, Vallingby, and Tapiola led me to realize that the way you should go about designing and evolving an environment is by thinking about what people want and need on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this may not seem a very surprising idea, but it has never been done on a large scale. You can walk up and down Park Avenue in New York and see buildings that hold huge numbers of people, but what thought has been given to these people or to the kind of life that the buildings create? Not very much. Every city is the result of a great many individual decisions, most of them made by government and businesses for their own institutional or corporate reasons. It is incredible how little is done for the good of ordinary people. Every city has to go back and say: “OK, this whole thing is for that little guy who is walking around down there. How can we have this huge mass of density, and profit, and all the rest of it and still create a livable environment?” (p. 131)

Bruce: “ . . . day-to-day basis . . . “ Excellent! “ . . . but it has never been done on a large scale. . . ” Oh dear. Portman apparently didn’t realize that a typical neighborhood, augmented by transit, was what he was after. That inability to see the neighborhood forced him to reinvent the wheel.

I have come to the conclusion that cities ought to be designed in a cellular pattern whose scale is the distance that an individual will walk before he thinks of wheels. What information and observations we have available on this question indicate that the average American is willing to walk from seven to ten minutes without looking for some form of transportation. Using this time-distance factor as a radius gives a surprisingly large area. (p. 131)

Bruce: The Coordinate Unit, then, is a topsy-turvy version of a neighborhood, and he built it around a pedestrian shed.

If this area is developed into a total environment in which practically all of a person’s needs are met, you have what I call a coordinate unit, a village where everything is within reach of the pedestrian. You could walk to work, school, church, recreation, shopping, entertainment, and so on without having to get into a car or any other kind of transit unless you were going outside the cellular unit. What great savings in energy and time, what great convenience such a city design could produce! (p. 131)

Bruce: “ . . . total environment . . . “ That echoes Andres Duany’s formulation of the “immersive environment.” He’s talking about villages, neighborhoods—.verything but the street. 

Peachtree Center is the beginning of such an urban coordinate unit. We are now building the commercial core and plan to add housing and the other ingredients as time goes on. (p. 131)

Bruce: As Andres Duany noted, all the elements are there, including the street grid. What’s missing, of course, is the street and the respect for it that allows it to function.

For a coordinate unit to succeed, it must lift the human spirit; at the same time it must be economically feasible and follow a sensible, efficient plan. In addition to providing places for work, residence, shopping, and recreation, it must draw on all the elements that I have been discussing: a strong sense of order, complemented by a variety of incident and unexpected change; light and color, nature and water to soften the constructed environment and make it more humane; shared space; and opportunities for people to watch people and all that movement entails. There must be a total life involvement. (p. 131)

The Embarcadero Center in San Francisco is part of something that comes close to the coordinate ideal that I describe, as the adjacent Golden Gateway housing is directly related to the center’s offices,, shopping, hotel, and entertainment development. The credit for originating this project mw go to the late Justin Herman, who as head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority made a lasting and significant contribution to his city. He was a great public servant and a great man. It takes strong dedication and unyielding perseverance to create meaningful improvements at the scale of a city. (p. 132)

Bruce: Jonathan Barnett notes elsewhere (p. 47) that Portman disagreed with the original concept for the Embarcadero Center, which placed the buildings atop parking garages and severed the connection to the street. So Portman probably understood the street—at least on the level of a bringer-of-pedestrians.

The Embarcadero Center became a reality in large part because of the interest and commitment of David Rockefeller, who wished to create a development of lasting value in a location that was important to the future of San Francisco and who was willing to accept the higher risk and somewhat longer payback period that a project of this kind demands. (p. 132)

The Renaissance Center in Detroit represents an even more important opportunity to build a coordinate unit on a comprehensive scale, but there are serious problems that did not exist in Atlanta or San Francisco. In those two cities, we were building on existing economic strengths and were able to develop one step at a time. If anything were to be done in Detroit, however, it needed to be done in a hurry. The city does not have fifteen years to build up a coordinate unit step by step. We are counteracting weakness, not building on strength. The first stage had to be large enough to justify its own independent existence. (p. 132)

In the same way that David Rockefeller made the future of San Francisco factor in his investment decision, Henry Ford and the other businessmen who are supporting the Renaissance Center are making this commitment because they feel that it is the best alternative for their city. Renaissance Center is a private enterprise contribution to the future of Detroit and its people. The great companies that are participating and investing in the project are not doing it out of the profit motive but for a deep concern for their city. This represents American business and our private enterprise system in one of their most noble and responsive efforts, one that I hope will become a prototype for businesses to follow in other cities. (p. 132)

Our cities are testimony to the fact that private solutions to private problems cannot produce a viable environment of benefit to our society. Private interests must help government maintain the health and vitality of our communities if our way of life with all its freedoms is going to survive.  (p. 134)

The corporate business structure of this country must recognize that there is an urgent need for it to take a new position of public responsibility. Some companies have abandoned the cities to get away from all the urban problems. Others have sought the suburbs for trivial reasons, such as greater convenience to executive homes and golf courses. They take their tax base with them, leaving behind the seeds of unemployment, social unrest, and revolution.

In Detroit, under the enlightened leadership of Henry Ford, business has recognized that its public responsibility calls for staying in the city and working for solutions, not for turning its back and running. Business leaders have subordinated company ego, and forgone individual identifying signboards, to build a new kind of urban center for people, a center that could not exist if these businesses were not willing to pool their strengths and go beyond the property lines and corporate objectives. They are seeking a stabilized community, knowing that no business can operate without social stability. (p. 134)

The Renaissance Center also represents a new kind of opportunity for the architect; and if an emerging social consensus creates more design situation at this scale, it is imperative that the architectural profession be prepared to deal with them.  (p. 134)

Bruce: A lot of verbiage, there, but this was before the Reagan Revolution, of course. There’s a lot that a writer from The Nation, say, could unpack. For my part, though, let me just suggest that the private interests were in many ways acting as public entities—in the scale of their intervention, in the amount of public coordination required, and so on.

Architects are already trained to take all kinds of different needs and requirements and design structures that will accommodate them all. They are also trained to synthesize the contributions of various specialists—mechanical and structural engineers, landscape designers, lighting consultants, painters, sculptors—and bring all their work together into some kind of harmonious result. They become skilled coordinators of all these interests.  (p. 134)

Because architects are accustomed to taking diverse elements and bringing them together into a single solution, I am confident that they have the qualifications to become master coordinators for the physical development of entire cities. Perhaps this sounds like a presumptuous statement. But what is a city? A city is structures that house people. Now what makes the city, the people or the structures? Well, both. But the architect, or physical designer, is the one who creates the environment: the things that we see, and the things that we use, as the city. Isn’t it natural that the architect would be the one to prepare to orchestrate the city to the highest possible level, so that it contributes as much as possible to the elevation of human life and the ability of human beings to function within their environment? (p. 136)

Bruce: Portman described the role of the town planner, but from a megastructurist’s perspective. He wanted to incorporate everything into one giant complex. He does not recognize the wisdom of delegating design to individual buildings and shopfronts.

Of course, architects have not been asked to do this very often, nor are they at present trained to do so. If architects are to become master coordinator of cities, they must prove that they are able to do the job. First, of course, they must master their trade as architects. Then they must broaden their base to include all the factors that bring a building into being—what I call the building birth cycle. (p. 136)

If architects can anticipate the future by understanding growth patterns, if they understand real estate values, if they understand market conditions an market feasibilities, and if they understand the financial climate that makes it right to do something or not to do something, then they will be able to design the city and not just the individual buildings. (p. 137)

It is not that complicated. Architects must be conversant with the building process, from the germ of an idea being born in somebody’s mind until the building is sitting there and operating; but this does not mean that they must be absolute experts in every step along the way. After all, architects are seldom expert in the more complex aspects of mechanical systems or in the calculations for sophisticated structures, but they know enough about them to coordinate the work of consultants and incorporate their results in the final product. In the same way architects can use real estate consultants and the people who study market feasibility. They can also use financial advisers and legal advisers. To coordinate their work, architects must have enough understanding of all these things to put them together, just as they are accustomed to putting a building together.  (p. 137)

Bruce: This is now a familiar model for New Urbanists, but it was not terribly common in the 1970s. Clarence Stein would have agreed.

There are many different ways for architects to play this coordinative role. They can work within government, like my colleague Jonathan Barnett and his fellow urban designers in New York. They could be advisers to insurance companies or other lenders. They could work for a consortium of business interests, as I am doing in Detroit, or from within the real estate development process, as I have done in Atlanta and other cities.

The opportunities are there if architects can learn how to use them. My own experience has led me to believe that it is not all that difficult for architects to expand their base and work to coordinate the physical environment. (p. 138)

Bruce: In that, Portman was exactly right. The next question, is, though, how well Portman succeeded. According to Mahbub Rashid (http://scr.bi/16C0sU) Not very well—at least not on a spatial level. The “Coordinate Unit” never developed as a spatially integrated whole there, and I can testify that Detroit’s isn’t much better, although the Renaissance Center itself more or less hangs together.



Yours truly,


Bruce F. Donnelly


216 223 8467



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