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Saturday, January 7, 2012

New York City, or Rome? A Response to Michael Kimmelman

A portion of New York City's "grid"
We thoroughly enjoyed Michael Kimmelman's celebration of New York City's "grid" design in the January 3, 2012 New York Times.  He's one of our favorites.  Mr. (following NYT practice) Kimmelman, in reviewing a current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, describes the grid as "in many ways the defining feature of the city," a "boon to private development" and, "almost despite itself, a creative template."  For Mr. Kimmelman, the city's grid suggests the sort of "aggressive and socially responsible leadership" that we so badly need in today's difficult times.  (Be patient, dear reader, we'll get to Rome).

While acknowledging that the grid was in a way "heartless" and even "monotonous," he remains convinced that it was a positive development: it proved responsive to the city's changing compass orientation; profitable for property owners; ecologically beneficial; conducive to sociability and building variety; "oddly beautiful"; and--a virtue that Mr. Kimmelman gives special weight and attention--made the city instantly comfortable and knowable, even for strangers. 

A model of the Roman Forum
Inevitably, perhaps, the world's other great cities, notably Paris and Rome, must enter the argument.  Rome does so twice.  Mr. Kimmelman argues that "grid plans went back to ancient Greece and Rome."  We can't speak for Greece, but the little we've seen on ancient Rome suggests that the early city, built in part on hills that flaunted the sort of strict, unrelenting grid on which New York City was based, could have served as the basis for Gotham's design.  Although the Roman Forum is constructed within a rectangle, the buildings on the Palatine Hill are set at an angle to it.

A portion of a c. 1910 Rome map.  At lower left,
on the right side of the river, a grid-based
Testaccio, waiting to be developed, and above it,
the Aventine, in a similar state
Beyond the Centro Storico, outlying sections of Rome, including Prati, Testaccio, and a part of the Aventine, used the grid, but these were not laid out until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Mr. Kimmelman's reference to "Rome" is likely to the grid system widely used to build towns outside the capital but within the burgeoning Roman empire. 

Rome appears in a second context, in an interesting and revealing comparison to New York.  "In the same way," Mr. Kimmelman writes, "that tourists who come to New York can easily grasp the layout and, as such, feel they immediately possess the city, outsiders who move here become New Yorkers simply by saying so.  By contrast, an American can live for half a century in Rome or Hamburg or Copenhagen or Tokyo but never become Italian or German or Danish or Japanese.  Anybody can become a New Yorker.  The city, like its grid, exists to be adopted and made one's own." 

There's some hyperbole here--"half a century"?--and the argument that a feeling of belonging can be traced to the grid, rather than to the city's (and the nation's) function as a cultural melting pot seems forced, to say the least.  We could make the case, too, that New York City's most creative folks have preferred the old city, below the grid, and especially Greenwich Village: Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jackson Pollock  Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Eugene O'Neill, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jane Jacobs, and [fill in the blank].

In one sense, though, we couldn't agree more.  Rome is a much more complex city than New York and much more difficult to learn.  It's full of curves and unusual angles, of piazzas, square and round and oval, that surge with energy, of parts that fit oddly and subtly into a whole that remains an intricate puzzle, replete with mystery.  It has hills (more than 7, actually) and a river, one that runs through the center of the city and whose twists and turns and bridges contribute to a sense of organic complexity.  Rome's cityscape--its imprint, its pattern--could never be described as "heartless" or "monotonous" or damned by the faint praise of "oddly beautiful."  That's why we can visit year after year and each time feel a kind of rebirth, as if we were seeing, and knowing, the city anew.  That's why being on a scooter is Rome is a pleasure and a thrill, no matter how often we do it.  And that's why  we wrote--why we felt compelled to write--Rome the Second Time.  You're interesting enough, New York City, but you're no Rome.
from Dianne: for another of Bill's "exchanges" with Kimmelman, see his post on MAXXI, Italy's 21st century art gallery - designed by Zaha Hadid -  in Rome.


Marilyn Hochfield said...

Ah, where on New York's grid might one come upon a Piazza di Sant'Ignazio! Let's hear it for curves!

m a r i a n a m o s c o s o said...

You're right, New York is no Rome. She welcomed me with open arms and despite never being a resident, I feel more Roman than I have ever felt anything else. Ti amo Roma bella!

Renzo said...

Please, things aren't always black and white.
The beauty of Rome is just in its historical center, the rest of the city is overall UGLY.
And when it comes to contemporary architecture and city-planning NYC is one billion times more interesting and beautiful than Rome.
NYC has the Upper West Side and the Rockfeller Center, Roma has Parioli and the Eni building at the EUR... enough said :D

Anonymous said...

You are exaggerating! Eastern Rome can be hideous, granted, but there are many modern neighbours which are nice and charming (Ardeatino, ROMA 70, the whole Northern Rome, Garbatella, Monteverde to name a few are really charming...EUR and Parioli ugly? Are you kidding?) LOL
Ive lived in Rome for many years

Super Hero said...

Dear Renzo,

I understand your feelings about Rome's outskirts but have you been to certain parts of the Bronx? Or of Queens? Remember, New York City is not only one borough but it's made of five: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. The last one would leave you speechless as the largest of all five as well as the most desolate, for it was used as the site for the city's gigantic public dumpster.

As for Rome, outside the historic center there are beautiful neighborhoods one wishes to see more often: Trieste-Salario, Coppedé, EUR, Monte Sacro (Città Giardino), Garbatella, Parioli, Monteverde Vecchio, Flaminio, Ponte Milvio-Farnesina, della Vittoria, Fonte Meravigliosa, Olgiata, Tor di Quinto, Gianicolense...I could go on and on.

To me, what makes New York and Rome similar is the amazing architectural contrasts that are found in each of these two cities. If in Rome there might be a XVI century palace next to a medieval tower surmounted by a piece of an ancient Roman aqueduct across from a 1960's office building, in New York you might have an 80 floor glass-cladded skyscraper next to a narrow three-story walk up building attached to e Neo-gothic church that's next to an empty lot turned into a parking facility.
As far as I know, these are the only two places where this phenomenon is present, and it's somehow reflected in the colorful chaos of the two metropolises.