A Land without Suburbs



Here the city ends abruptly, even without walls (long gone). Outside the city lies farmland or wilderness, protected by zoning which has no provision for intermediate suburbs:

When you’re not in the city, you’re in the country. If you’re in a village, you’re still in the country. A village is a tiny eruption of urban fabric surrounded by landscape, such as pasture land. It is not a shopping center. It may contain a church, but rarely is it big enough to support even a single shop:

When you’re not in the city, you’re in the country. The foothills beyond contain bears:

A cluster of families provides a tiny eruption of rural urbanity. The village families work the surrounding fields, somewhat outside the money economy. Their tax returns don’t reflect their true wealth:

In this smaller city you can see out to the country; it’s just…over there:

Without suburbs, the country is never far away, even in a medium-sized city:

Organically adapted to the land form, this town oozes down a valley. Urban architecture is variable, reflecting local climate, culture, history and building materials. It does not spring from numerical formulas. One town is different from another:

Central square of a small town, with City Hall. It’s difficult to distinguish new from old buildings. This is not because the creators of the new buildings are shameless copyists and pasticheurs; it is because the local vernacular architectural tradition is alive and unbroken. This is not revivalism; this is simply the way people build in this place. No one here is interested in learned arguments about stylistic appropriateness in modern times. This issue is settled (in fact, it never came up):

Plaza in a smaller city. A pleasant variety of buildings that agree about scale, and are not unnecessarily short. They have similar (but not identical!!) footprints, and their level of detail and their allocations of solid and void are compatible. Together they conspire to make the walls of an outdoor room:

Newer buildings seamlessly integrate with older fabric, without apologies for their relative modernity:

Bicycles supplement walking in a smaller city. If the city is sufficiently compact, public transport is hardly required.

Note glass curtain wall at left.

Leon Krier says a city should be of a size that allows all points to be reached on foot (He obviously doesn’t believe in big cities). Many streets are pedestrianized during certain hours. Shopkeepers on this street don’t seem to feel the need for cars:

Medieval space…

…loves the skew and the vertical:

Capital city medievally snakes between river and mountain. Corbusier’s socialist ghost haunts the outskirts (right and left background):

Medieval in two flavors of revival-- 19th and 20th Centuries-- coexist in harmony (shades of Rudolf Steiner in the later example?):

Buildings of different styles suggest layers of history:

Inner city skyscrapers were long resisted until it was discovered that if their footprints were kept small they introduced no harmful disruptions of scale:

Prevalent architecture in most cities is some flavor of classical:

It suggests permanence and cultural continuity:

It does this by generally favoring the static over the dynamic:

Time stopped by stillness:

Michelangelo rules:

And Giulio Romano:

Even the pizzeria:

Tending toward Art Nouveau:

And ending in Deco:

Street walls:

Church on the hill:

Tranquil courtyard:

Street busy with shoppers:

And less busy. Better than cowering on the sidewalk is having so little auto traffic that you can walk in the middle of the street:

The most delightful spots in the city occur where public meets private in confusion:

Who needs trees when the architecture looks this good?

The Baroque branch of Classicism likes things a little more dynamic:

Writhing forms against blank planes:


Prosperous bourgeois houses:


In the arches of a bridge approach:

Preferred transport:

A uniform cornice line.

Uniform Cornice Line II.

Articulated means highly maneuverable:

End of the line:

New cities built in the Renaissance featured an orthogonal order, a modified grid. Do you suppose people complained that they looked too new? Or did they complain perhaps that they looked not new enough? These cities too end abruptly in field or forest:

The same general idea in a different color…

…and again near the sea, where the climate turns subtropical:

Long shadow of the Rouse Company falls on seasides everywhere. The discreet charm of the festival marketplace:

Some seaside resorts feature more or less modern architecture, reflecting their recent provenance:

New vacation village for plutocrats echoes older forms:

Its inspiration was planted just up the corniche quite a few centuries back:

Medieval settlements perch on ridges overlooking the sea. They are held in by topography and protective zoning:

From atop a rampart, a hotel terrace offers ocean view in one direction and mountains in the other:

Did you notice that in the Land without Suburbs there are no parking lots?

* * *

Why do we tolerate the junk heaps we live in?

Even more: why do we assure their perpetuation with laws?

* * *

Why do we build such junk?

One reason is that we start with numbers and end with form.

Numbers like dollars, square footages, building heights, setbacks.

We don’t really do urban design; we apply formulas.

Garbage in, garbage out.

We could start with the form and work back to the numbers.

If we did, the early stages of conceiving a city or a part of a city might look like this, instead of a bunch of numbers:

Not perfect, by any means.

But a reasonable approximation of the Land without Suburbs.

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Maybe I don't know enough to have an opinion, but this is a great set of photos. The city scapes are very cozy and friendly while the countryside is still countryside. I have no training in archetecture but I know what apeals to me. I just wish the area where I'm at would or could do something like this. But even then it would only be "like" , not as good.
From which areas did these pictures come? Or would that ruin the suburb-less mystique? I thought I saw lots of Bavaria and at least a little Salzburg in there.

It's good to be reminded of one of the reasons to continue my German language studies.


jordanb said:
So is zoning our friend now, Ablarc?
I'm not against zoning. I'm against stupid zoning. What we have these days is stupid zoning (unless you like sprawl). Zoning has the potential for great benefit, but not in its present moronic form.

I thought I’d made that clear.

The One

Death of the Compact City in the USA

A few observations:
Its too bad that we have abandoned the compact city (for the most part) here in the USA.

The pop. growth rates of some places in Europe:
Austria: 0.22%
France: 1.00% unemployment= 9.1%
Switzerland: 0.21%
Italy: 0.11% unemployment= 9.1% inflation 2.4%
So, when grandpa dies, grandson moves in.......only there are precious few babies being made or people being allowed in the country.....
USA: 0.93% Not a big difference, but our mobility and need to live in huge homes with land is.....

GDP Growth:

Austria: 0.6%
France: 1.00%
Switzerland: 0.00%
Italy: 0.4%
USA: 2.45% +-
My point is, depending on where your photo's were taken, there isn't much of a need to build new homes.

Great PHOTO's and thanks for posting them..... :)
One reason is that we start with numbers and end with form.

Numbers like dollars, square footages, building heights, setbacks.

We don’t really do urban design; we apply formulas.

Garbage in, garbage out.

We could start with the form and work back to the numbers.

If we did, the early stages of conceiving a city or a part of a city might look like this, instead of a bunch of numbers:

I've been reading, or rather, trying to read "Land Development Calculations" by Walter Martin Hosack lately. It comes with a CD-R with his formulas for calculating a land use for a given property. I had an "aha!" moment when I came to virtually the same conclusion. It is this numerical quantification that is the problem. You don't start with the objective of creating a beautiful place. You start with x units, x acreage, accessed by a road built to uniform standards. What can you do in a society that only sees real estate in terms of discrete economic units? Developers want to see numbers first, not forms, not pretty pictures. We like to say we live in a visually literate culture that values design, but # of rooms and s.f. are still looked at before design. We are more investment oriented than design oriented. Also, how can you have harmonious design in a multicultural society? There are so many competing values here. It would be great if towns like these were built for the portion of society who would like to live that way, but then is it a truly diverse place? It would be interesting to learn what kind of social diversity these places have.

Regardless, I'd still like to live in that land.



The cast of characters in order of appearance:

1. Slovakia
2. Switzerland
3. Vermont
4. Italy
5. Czech Republic (Carlsbad)
6. Switzerland
7. Pennsylvania (Jim Thorpe)
8. Poland
9. France
10. Germany (Freiburg)
11. Germany (Freiburg)
12. Switzerland
13. Spain
14. Switzerland
15. Slovenia (Ljubljana)
16. Germany (Freiburg)
17. England (Richmond, London)
18. Italy (Turin)
19. Italy (building by Leon Krier)
20. Australia (Melbourne)
21. England (Richmond, London)
22. England (Richmond, London)
23. Sweden (Stockholm)
24. England (Richmond, London)
25. Czech Republic (Prague)
26. Czech Republic (Prague)
27. Czech Republic (Prague)
28. Czech Republic (Prague)
29. China (Shanghai)
30. Czech Republic (Prague)
31. Sweden (Stockholm)
32. England (Richmond, London)
33. Italy (Turin)
34. Sweden (Stockholm)
35. Switzerland
36. Czech Republic (Prague)
37. Czech Republic (Prague)
38. Czech Republic (Prague)
39. Sweden (Stockholm)
40. Sweden (Stockholm)
41. Spain (Madrid)
42. Czech Republic (Prague)
43. France (Toulouse)
44. Australia (Melbourne)
45. Illinois (Chicago)
46. Texas (San Antonio)
47. England (Richmond, London)
48. Switzerland
49. Switzerland
50. Czech Republic (Prague)
51. Czech Republic (Prague)
52. Switzerland
53. Switzerland
54. Poland
55. England (Salisbury)
56. France
57. Sweden (Stockholm)
58. Florida (Boca Raton)
59. California (Manhattan Beach)
60. California (Manhattan Beach)
61. California (Manhattan Beach)
62. France (Port Grimaud)
63. France
64. France (St. Paul-de-Vence)
65. France

All the urban design studies are for Arnhem, Holland by Robert A.M. Stern, and are computer and hand-rendered by Ernest Burden III. The buildings in Richmond are by Quinlan Terry and were built about ten years ago, though they may not look it.

If I had been less lazy I could have done the entire post—from snow-capped Alps to palm-shaded seaside-- with images from a single country: tiny Slovenia, a part of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia would have done equally well. Both countries are pretty much suburb-free, feature a dazzling array and variety of great architecture. Slovenia is the most prosperous of all former communist countries.

Many of the images came from SkyscraperPage, and I would like to thank these excellent photographers and invite them to identify themselves.


maudit anglais
ablarc said:
Did you notice that in the Land without Suburbs there are no parking lots?
Oh, they're there alright - you've just chosen not to show them. Many of the pedestrianized city centres in Europe are achieved by having large carparks on the fringe of the downtown, with ring road schemes diverting traffic around the core. Still, by and large the European treatment of automobiles in urban areas is one I wish we would emulate more.


I've noticed that a lot of your photos are from Prague. I'm not surprised. I was there about 3 years ago. That was before I really became interested in urban design. In fact, I think it was that trip that really got me started on this path. It is truly a magical place. I wish I could afford a trip back now that I have a better understanding of what makes it so special...
The One said:
My point is, depending on where your photo's were taken, there isn't much of a need to build new homes.
There isn't much of a need here, either. After all, it's not as though we're exploding out of already densely-packed cities into the (former) countryside. Rather, people are choosing to undertake new construction even when there is plenty of viable housing stock available for rehab. Bank finance and zoning even favor new projects over rehab in many places. Our policies do not encourage strong, healthy redevelopment of housing within city boundaries.

Sure, our population growth does necessitate some new construction. But there are a lot of ways to create new houses, not just by carving off 2-acre lots and building 4-bedroom, 4-bath Palladianesque McMansions on them. That's not necessity; that's just conspicuous consumption.

A land-friendly way to create new housing would be to redevelop defunct manufacturing and retail sites. I bet you can think of a failing strip mall and a still-empty mill along the outskirts of a city near you. Those are the zones where new (and beautiful, and livable) housing stock and accompanying greenspace could be created, in an ideal America. We have plenty of square footage right in our cities and towns to absorb our growth...If we choose to use it.

Or, we could just keep filling wetlands, buying off farmers, and razing woodlots to satisfy the latest fashion in Suburban home style.
I agree with everything that Miko says, both intellectually and ethically. However, the barriers to achieving this vision are insurmountable. America's growing population is a red herring (as others have pointed out), but its population shifting is a real issue. The gap between rich and poor in this country continues to grow, not just in terms of individuals but also regions (the old economy/new economy dichotomy)...Growing areas will need more housing, but that isn't the point either. They could, after all, if they so chose, build good new housing in real neighborhoods instead of the forgettable stuff that is routinely built. Bill Lewis argues, in his recent The Power of Productivity (sorry, Arlingtonians, I still have it checked out!), that the economic "rationality" of sprawl (huge chain stores, expansive homes, and the contruction and car industries that sprawl fuels) is largely responsible for America's higher growth rate. Implicit in his argument is that America's willingness to abandon the old -- the economically inefficient, one might say -- for the new is a powerful engine of economic growth. In other words, we build with the intention one day to abandon -- planned obsolescence, in other words. His argument isn't nearly as novel as he seems to think, and isn't developed as far as it could be. But a drive around, say, the Atlanta suburbs provides pretty good evidence that the economy is simply a product of sprawl. It's this realization that his driven James Kunstler to despair, it seems. So long as private amenities alongside public squalor are the rule, then I see no alternative to the Bill Lewis vision. American won't tolerate European level growth rates.