(james benedict brown) on the road

Rumours of my departure are greatly exagerated

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 14 April, 2006

A pleasant surprise was experienced at the ‘guichet’ today, when the pay off from several weeks of penny pinching was felt with a significantly healthier looking bank balance. This will give me a budget for my forth coming trip of about C$30 a day. Not much at all, but considering that I’ve already paid for all the travel, and that with only one exception, my accomodation is now sorted from coast to coast, that’s not too bad at all. This time next week I will be on board the first train of fifteen, heading south towards Schenectady, NY, where the second will pick me up a few hours later.

So, for those of you were surprised to see me or hear me answer the telephone this week, and who are still confused, I’m not leaving until next Friday.

During my commute this week, I’ve been reading a dog-eared paperback book I found in a second hand bookstore in Plattsburg a few weeks ago. It’s an old edition of Sticks & Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, first published in 1924. This edition was revised by the author in the fifties. From time to time, certain extracts jump from the page and hit me between the eyes, for what was written more than eighty years ago by a naïve young architecture critic about North American architecture remains true and valid today.

One of the fundamental problems I have with the modern vernacular in North American planning and architecture is the fatal grid system. It’s left it’s mark on three quarters of this continent, from downtown Chicago to prairie Alberta: 90 degree angles as far as the eye can see, and a system designed to apportion land before it had been developed or farmed. Nothing quite sums up the difference between the European and American city than the simple difference you’ll see on two maps… North American cities were planned with engineers and developers, each holding a straight edge and with a keen eye for a fast, direct, impressive straight line. The rush to settle and develop the land from east coast to west coast was not held up by architecture: this fundamental approach to designing field boundaries, villages and towns could be laid down as fast as the horses could get you there.

Mumford explains:

If the older cities of the sea-board were limited in their attempts to become metropolises by the fact that their downtown sections were originally laid out for villages, the villages of the middle west labored under just the opposite handicap; they had frequently acquired the framework of a metropolis before they had passed out of the physical state of a village. The gridiron plan was a sort of hand-me-down which the juvenile city was supposed to grow into and fill. That a city had any other purpose than to attract trade, to increase land values, and to grow is something that, if it uneasily entered the mind of an occasional Whitman, never exercised any hold upon the minds of the majority of the countrymen. For them, the place where the great city stands is the place of stretched wharves, and markets, and ships bringing goods from the ends of the earth; that, and nothing else.


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