Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The DNA of a city

Every livable city has its own unique character that is expressed in its architecture and arrangement of streets and open places. It is not inappropriate to propose the metaphor that the livable city, like every living thing, has a genetic code, or a DNA structure.
The DNA of a city is expressed in those architectural and spatial characteristics best loved by the city’s inhabitants that contribute most to its sense of identity. These may consist of certain building materials and colours, a typical arrangement of scale and architectural forms, building lot size, roof lines, scale of public and semi-public spaces.
In order to fit into the urban context, new buildings must respect this “genetic” code, reflecting at least some of the existing patterns, or interpreting them in a contemporary idiom.
As there used to be a consensus about a community’s values, so was there also a consensus about what materials, architectural and spatial forms represented the unique character of one’s city.
Each person in the community recognized and understood this unique character, and worked within its constraints, although there was still considerable variation possible, in choice of colours and materials, detailing, degree of elegance, as well as in the architectural expression of the city’s varied functions.
This consensus has been lost in many places, but there are still many citizens who are intuitively able to recognize their city’s unique character, and can identify appropriate and inappropriate development. There are architects who design context-specific buildings exemplifying the best of the city’s heritage. And mechanisms exist to reinforce a city’s special qualities.
One of these, for example, is the historic heritage survey, which chronicles a city’s architectural legacy and the cultural significance associated with some of its buildings. 
Some developers and architects argue that the individual city’s identity, and the community’s recognition of the unique character of their city no longer exist, and that, therefore, they are not obliged to consider the city’s past identity in their projects. The results of this view can be seen in almost every city in the world.
In many North American and some European cities, architects and developers have been allowed to build structures that bear no relationship either to surrounding buildings, or the city’s character and tradition. Buildings compete for attention but do not pay attention to each other. The dialogue among building is too often characterized by fragmentation and discontinuity, and the collage of buildings and public spaces creates a profound sense of anomic dissociation.
We internalize the built environment. But we are gradually eroding our urban sense of identity. A true sense of identity can only be maintained through a dialogue between community and architects, through community participation programs, and the development of design guidelines sensitive to each city’s specific historic heritage.
Through public discourse we need to develop again this “communal eye”, this vision of the characteristics of the buildings and places that are valued, that give a sense of place, identity and meaning to the city. And to facilitate this, of course, we need to create public spaces, streets and squares that are hospitable to social contact, connection and civic dialogue.
The architecture of the city embodies the city’s memory. When a building is destroyed, then the memories that each individual had in connection with that building can no longer be passed on to others. And when too much of the original texture of the city is replaced by inappropriate structures, our own memories fade. 
If too much of the architectural heritage is destroyed, the city’s communal memory of its unique identity is violated, making it susceptible to social problems.
But even a city badly damaged architecturally can recover if the citizens understand its genetic code, and define developmental goals based on this code.

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