University of California, Berkeley
John Kriken (Chair)
In September of 2003 I embarked on a six-month journey around the Mediterranean Sea. Although I had known of my departure date for several months and was preparing to travel on the SOM Foundation fellowship that I had been awarded the previous summer, I found the final weeks of preparation to be, nonetheless, a whirlwind of packing, organizing, and last-minute research that was mixed somewhat uncomfortably with the goodbyes and farewells that must inevitably accompany six months away from home. Reaching the airport for my departure nearly a year ago, I remember distinctly a combined feeling of fatigue, excitement, and inner peacefulness as I prepared for a journey of uninterrupted reflection.
Needless to say, not more than a week into my trip did I perhaps realize just how unprepared I really was, despite (or perhaps because of) the roller-coaster ride of groundwork over the course of the previous weeks. My perceptions of the places I visited were often in great contrast to what I had expected, as reality, more often than not, tended to deviate from the crisp renderings of maps and the bucolic descriptions of travel guides. In retrospect, of course, I realize that the detailed travel itinerary and proposal that I had prepared, even in the most perfect of worlds, would have only remotely resembled the final outcome of my journey. In other words, the design I had prepared for my trip had proven only roughly similar to the final product.
Perhaps this is too obvious of an analogy—but I would like to suggest that travel surveys are thus in many ways similar to the art of building cities. Plans are often produced, with careful insight and meticulous thought into the inner workings of the city and how its most imminent and pressing problems may be solved. Beautiful maps and drawings are often created, which quickly become a universal standard against which all future work will be upheld. In the end, however, compromises are made, and things are implemented differently. Roads may initially begin as planned, only to be inevitably redirected after some constrainedly disappointing, or revelatorily exciting, discovery. Buildings designed to accommodate or possess a certain size, number, or quality are built bigger, denser, and cheaper. Budgets are all-too-often exceeded, recalculated, and carefully rethought, only to be exceeded beyond all possible considerations later. There is a marked difference between what one believes ought to be, and what, in the end, is.
It is not my intent to delve too deeply into a detailed explanation of the psychological or philosophical origins of my travel proposal, but I will say that early in my academic and professional career I was trained to be somewhat of a formalist when it came to urban design. I believed, sometimes terribly, wholeheartedly, and without remorse, in the power of the strong diagram, whether it was the seductive figure-grounds of Colin Rowe or an aerial photograph of Hausmann’s Paris. In the evasion of a complicated world, there was solace to be found in the clarity and consistency of the formalist tradition. This belief was reinforced through my early years of professional practice in urban design, as the success of many a public project rested on the laurels of the widespread acceptance of a beautiful rendering or a plan of utmost clarity.
During my graduate studies at Berkeley, this formalism came under fire from an extensive exposure to the complexity and messiness of modern urbanism. My preconceptions were consistently challenged as myriad viewpoints came into focus. In one historical survey class, I was even required to engage in a debate posing as USC’s sprawl-apologist Peter Gordon! After graduate school, my initial years of professional practice have continued to offer contradictions to the general optimism of my world view. For one, I have struggled with the complexities of the planning process in California while frustratingly witnessing the continued destruction of the rural landscape at the edges of the Bay Area.
The past three years of my professional and academic career, to say the least, have resulted in a great broadening of my understanding of urban issues. They have not, however, reduced by any means my passion for urban design. I remain, and believe that I will remain, a great believer in cities, both as the utmost expression and reflection of human genius and as the greatest hope for the healthy survival of humanity. I have managed to hold on to my belief in the power of the diagram as a purveyor of what ought to be.
It was in this context of both persistence (or one could say denial) and acceptance that I perhaps drafted my travel proposal in the spring of 2002, in a conscious attempt to unearth what has remained of perfection from the dark messiness of the city; and to contemplate upon those parts of cities, however small or unapparent, that have somehow remained unscathed or untouched by the forces of globalization or undamaged by remorseless sprawl. In searching to explore cities that had undergone periods of great change, I was looking for precedent and testament to my belief that good design had, in the past, played a major role in the salvation, transformation, and preservation of cities, and that these past examples should serve as beneficial inspiration and precedent for the cities—challenged as they are—of today.
After six months of travel almost exclusively in urban areas, and nearly six months of contemplation on those travels since, I can say with, confidence, two things: First, my trip deviated considerably from my initial expectations. This was not only about getting lost, missing the bus, or forgetting my umbrella, or failing to gain entrance or permission while other nearby doors would mysteriously open. In many ways, I had considered the travels to provide an end to my inquiries; what I often discovered, instead, was typically more questions. In coming to terms with this, I do believe that, in the end, it was an experience that, had it only lasted a fraction of those six months, would still be considered infinitely rewarding.
Secondly, among the several examples of great morphological change that I visited, the tension between what was planned and what was ultimately implemented was clearly and readily apparent. More often than not, however, and especially reflecting upon the drawings and photographs that have accompanied my memories, I do believe that, in what has been built in the past (i.e., what has been implemented), I have found that beneficial inspiration and precedent for my professional practice today. I have remained steadfastly positive about the great potential that good urban design may possess in the future of cities. In summarizing my experience in eight of these cities, it is my hope that I may pass on this beneficial inspiration to those who are inclined to read on.
The arcaded facades of the Praça del Commerciò, Lisbon. © Stefan Pellegrini.
The tight fabric of the medieval Barrio El Centro, as seen from the Giralda tower, Seville. © Stefan Pellegrini.
Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona. © Stefan Pellegrini.
University of California, Berkeley
is an architect, urban designer, planner, and educator who advocates for equitable design and social and environmental justice in our cities. Pellegrini has worked with Opticos Design, Inc., since 2001, where he serves as principal. During his career, Pellegrini has contributed to a wide variety of urban design, planning, and architecture projects, including the design of new towns, master planning and revitalization endeavors for central cities, and the design of mixed-use and civic structures. Much of his recent work has focused on community-based planning, coding, and revitalization strategies for small towns and underserved communities, as well as the development of contemporary urban design guidelines and Form-Based Codes.