Traditional vs. Modern Urbanism Part 2

In this part of the series, I will be analyzing how traditional and modern urban centers grow and develop, along with the construction materials and architectural standards used. Through the passage of time, the materials used to construct towns and cities has changed, and as a result, the architectural techniques and standards have subsequently been impacted and developed as well. These distinctions have direct and indirect implications for the urban dwellers who take up residence in these places.

Generally speaking, construction materials for traditional urbanism were locally sourced and centered around wood and stone. This limited the height that buildings could reach since stone and wood are heavy materials that cannot support excessive amounts of weight. Within these confines, traditional urban centers developed stone and wooden buildings that employed surprisingly distinct and characteristic elements regarding each region and culture. Furthermore, due to the material limits on the height of buildings, traditional urban centers had ample access to fresh air and direct sunlight across most, if not all, of the urban area.

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Modern urban planners have replaced wood and stone materials with steel, glass, and concrete, allowing for taller buildings and skyscrapers. These buildings, due to their size and high resource requirements, are not designed to adapt to changing needs and grow organically. If their usefulness expires, and new uses for the land are desired, instead of being able to adapt what is currently present, these modern buildings have to be torn down and replaced from scratch.

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Traditional urbanism, on the other hand, permits for organic and dynamic developments on what is currently present. Plot development traditionally would commence on the side of a city street, and as the population would grow and density increased, these building would grow inwards towards the block center. Once all the block’s open land was used up, new floors would be added to the buildings, leading to taller traditional buildings. Keep in mind, however, that this is a long process, and these changes are accommodated throughout many decades and sometimes even centuries. Traditional urbanism is able to adapt to the changing needs of the urban environment without the need of destroying what is currently present.

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As has previously been pointed out on numerous occasions, traditional architecture was a unique expression of a particular culture/region’s art and experiences. There are cities that have become so unique, that a mere mentioning of their name conjures up vivid imagery of the city’s particular characteristics, such as Paris, Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, etc. Urban planners have known for ages the power that architecture has on affecting the behaviors, motivations, and the general mood of the people exposed to it.

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Traditional architecture has for the most part taken into account the peculiarities and specifics of local people and allowed for more relevant artistic expressions that embody these people’s values more accurately. Modern architecture, on the other hand, has focused on globalizing and standardizing architectural styles, leaving little to no room for the creative expression of a particular region and/or society. It can be difficult in many cases to differentiate modern cities from one region to another. In the process, there has been a huge loss of urban quality in my opinion. Despite the influence that modern urban design may have on urban planners, I implore the reader to take into consideration what has been discussed in this series.

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