Sunday, September 25, 2011

Envisioning Richmond's Golden Age - Introduction

What would the urban fabric of Richmond look like if, over time, it grew in a way that people began to characterize it as a "great" city, in the context of not only the United States, but the world? What might it's "Golden Age" look like?

In his seminal book "Cities in Civilization"', Sir Peter Hall examined 21 great western cities that could be said to have experienced a "Golden Age" at some point in their history. These cities, beginning with the Athens of 2500 years ago, somehow marshaled creative, social, and technological forces to such a degree as to have unleashed a spirit of innovation or discovery so fantastic it left an indelible mark on western society and culture, or even changed its course. According to Sir Hall, the cities that have undergone a golden age were, like Athens, generally considered "great" in the context of the world at the time of their transformative era: Florence in the 15th century, Shakespearean London in the 16th century, Paris in the 19th, Berlin in the early 20th. Interestingly, he notes that the confluence of creativity and discovery necessary to foster these belles époques is a uniquely " urban phenomenon". He goes on to pose these questions, among others:

"How do these golden ages come about? Why should the creative flame burn so especially, so uniquely, in the cities and not in the countryside? What makes a particular city at a particular time suddenly become immensely creative, exceptionally innovative?"

Sir Hall offers some clues to the answers of at least some of his questions in the form of an excerpt of an autobiography written by Stefan Zweig, who, in the late nineteenth century, lived in one of the profiled cities, Vienna, during one of these brief golden ages:

"Growing slowly through the centuries, organically growing outward from inner circles, it was sufficiently populous, with its two million, to yield all the luxury and all the diversity of a metropolis, and yet it was not so oversized as to be cut off from nature, like London or New York... Within, the old palaces of the court and the nobility spoke history in stone... In the midst of all this, the new architecture reared itself proudly and grandly with glittering avenues and sparkling shops."

"Growing slowly, ...organically", having the "diversity of a metropolis", not "cut off from nature", "new architecture" that is "proud" and "grand". Keen observations of a lay person on some of the physical characteristics that may be important harbingers of a great city. While there are obviously myriad paths to making a great city, we will, over the course of subsequent posts, take some of these ideas as a starting point, as we envision what Richmond might look like were it poised to experience its own belle epoque. 

Of course, there is no hurry. Though there were many great cities in the world at the time of Athens, Sir Hall does not record another one undergoing a golden age era until the Renaissance took root in Florence a thousand years later. Richmond is a very young city and has a lot of growing up to do just to get to be "great", not to mention being in a position to experience a golden age.

But as we believe Richmond has some excellent foundations on which to build, we will consider opportunities to grow, evolve, or transform the urban fabric in a way that would not only enhance current residents' enjoyment of the city, but attract new residents with a desire to feed off and add to the creative energy of our city. Perhaps one day, decades or centuries in the future, people will dream of visiting the magical city of Richmond on the James, hoping to see first hand its mesmerizing architecture and to partake in its impossibly rich culture, breathe in the sweet smells of its blossoming restaurants and cafes, and lose themselves in its endless oases of garden-like urban spaces...

What could you envision?

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what other cities of the United States might qualify as having Golden Ages in the past or present? New York? Chicago? Los Angeles?

    Nice intro to the series - I am looking forward to more.