September 2, 2003

Parallel Cities

Today, I read this fascinating article by Eugene Miller about technology, it's limits and our relation to it philosophically.

It reminded me of an urban planning idea I had ventured long ago when I was a puppy. I called it "Parallel Cities". So, I emailed the author:

Dear Mr. Miller:

I enjoyed reading your article, very interesting and informative. I have a related perspective that may be of interest to you.

By way of background, I am an artist.. a painter I went to art school at the Claremont Graduate School in the late 80's and early 90's. Then, the artworld was oriented to what they (maybe I should write "we", but this is the degree of my alienation) considered high theory, with an emphasis on the right side of your quadrant-diagram. I am also an architect by my first degree and a license in California. Coming out of undergrad school in the mid 80's, my main concern was looking for an orientation, a vision perhaps, a direction for a practice in architecture. If you are curious to see the work, I maintain a studio blog (a narrowcast) at:

It's not my purpose here to advertise my paintings, but to dust off an old and favorite thought process and offer it to you as another way to conceptualize the simultaneous problem and glory of our Promethean gifts that you so well describe in your article.

Having moved to Los Angeles, I was preoccupied with making sense of the city and cities in general. I felt that architecture shouldn't be thought as a free body diagram is, in isolation of the urban context. Architectural thinkers who critiqued modernism and emphasized human scale were compelling and the ideal they defended seemed worthwhile. Leon Krier wrote a compelling and accessible critique in his slim and well illustrated book: "Houses, Palaces, Cities." Here's the Amazon link:

The problem was: how do you make cities with architectural units that embody human scale? It is apparent that the only way to organize cities today is the modern metastasizing zoned suburbanization that is employed all over the world. There is no other alternative. Human scale has the Disney problem, contrivance. You can't build the cities of old that have inspired us: Manhattan, Paris, London, San Francisco.. because those cities have benefited from the incomparable advantage of the uncontrived limitations of geography and history: being built when technology's scale were not so blown out.

Scale is the signal aspect here. Technology gives us freedom by extending human capacities. It is a prosthetic and as such, transformed the inhabitants of cities from our primate configuration to a robocop kind of creature: automobiles being the most influential scale index. Our cities are made not for humans, but for super humans.

I hope that by now, you can see the parallels this has with your article. The questions I put to my fellow architects: can we choose to build cities within human scale without contrivance? Or are we fighting unwisely against a rip tide of technological transformation that will condemn us to a futile neo-Luddite oppositional position? Can we create within human scale, or are we destined to surpass it to other now unimaginable modes of human existence? Or will this direction simply take us to an inhuman future?

My suggestion was to choose both. I named them the "Human City" and"the "Car City" and i formulated a way for some kind of symbiosis. I liked the apparent simplicity of Duane Plater-Zyberk's town planning ideas ( but I wanted to circumvent their problem of contrivance with a single proscription: the restriction of automobile access. Human scaled cities can be islands within a larger auto scaled urban fabric by transducing the scale of the inhabitants with a ring of garage nodes that are interlinked within a web of trolley infrastructure. (Louis Kahn proposed something similar without the transportation aspect in his ideas for Philadelphia.)

Outside the island: no or few restrictions, within... one single proscription. I was looking for the way to cleave the issue simply and avoid the tendency for our intellectuals to create a command and control culture as they are wont to do. They tend to suggest worlds where they are the boss. i was also looking for a way to protect simple unadorned human scale. The problem isn't which scale we should choose. What we lack is a way to shift scales and navigate between all these worlds we are creating/discovering.

It is far beyond my capacity to bridge the distance between these thoughts and the intellectual arena of your article. I hope only to set one against the other and see if there is any resonance between them. Thanks so much for your article, and the opportunity to convey these thoughts to you.


Dennis Hollingsworth

Posted by Dennis at September 2, 2003 8:43 AM

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