The Styles of the City

There are a couple ways to ensure that a town or village looks nice. In the past, your village looked thematic and pretty because all the stone was quarried from nearby. All the homes, every church and public building, has to be white or pinkish. Or all the bricks are fired out of the local gray clay, and the roofs made out of the local slate.

The advent of modern transport throws this homogeneity over the side. Sure, rich guy, import your terra cotta tiles from New Mexico and slam them onto your roof in Vermont. The neighbors will gawp and the builder will tear his hair, but you can get what you want. And if he’s building his pseudo adobe mansion out in the countryside probably nobody will stop him. (We can all sit back and wait for Mother Nature to do the job for us, as a winter of frost and snow makes the clay tiles spall and shatter.)

If you’re getting creative in a town or city, however, the local authorities have a ton of ways to keep you in line. Ordinances about height, size, building material, and so forth are standard. And not necessarily to enforce a sameness, either. In Reston, VA (a tightly controlled community from the design POV) you can build a ten story condo all right. But if you’re going for solid cheap concrete, they’ll insist that you vary the facade with panels of this or that. They don’t want the town to look like a suburb of Moscow.

So this works us around to the first image in this post. It’s a historical apartment building in downtown Portland, OR, erected in the early 1900s. The brick and the bay windows are charming, typical of the period. People are happily living in it today, which tells us that the landlord put in things like plumbing, heat, and possibly even WiFi. But it doesn’t have air conditioning, and there’s nowhere to park your car except on the street. And notice the fire escape. Required by the building code when it was built, but they don’t do those any more.

But look what’s next door! Another apartment block, built perhaps one century later. Building ordinances are probably responsible for the way this building is the same height as its neighbor, and made of a complementary brick. But the balconies that modern renters like are here, and there is a residents’ garage accessible to the right. As with all recent buildings, this one has full HVAC and all the modern amenities we know and love. No, of course there’s no fire escape. The place surely was built to modern fire codes, with firewalls and emergency staircases.

Finally, next door to that, is a building with a historical designation. This is only a block or so north of the campus of Portland State University. The builder in 1931 visibly had hoped to appeal to persons of intellectual pretension. Masonic emblems above a portal that would grace a Pharaoh’s palace, very nice. There may be fire escapes at the back of this building, but I can’t see them from the front.

Look at the top of the building, however! These decorative motifs are purely cosmetic, adding nothing to the comfort or safety of the tenants. They’ve been applied all around the roofline of the building, and must have cost a pretty penny.

All three of these apartment buildings are about the same height and width, and they occupy one city block. Built at different time periods, they look entirely reasonable side by side. And this didn’t happen by chance or fortuitous necessity, the way European villages used to. It was a deliberate design choice by the authorities.



About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


The Styles of the City — 3 Comments

  1. I like the art deco door on number three.

    The worst atrocities imo are seventies architecture. Ugly from the start, and age makes them worse.

    • Faner Hall at Southern Illinois University Carbondale — which I saw far too much of because the History Department was there. Hideous concrete pile that looked like a prison. Someone joked that it was built that way to warn the student protesters of the late 60’s and early 70’s what would be waiting them if they didn’t mend their ways.