Classic Jane Jacobs Article

Via Carlo Cattaneo Brescia Italy - 16
Via Carlo Cattaneo, Brescia Italy, from my flickr photos.

Just finished reading an article from Fortune Magazine’s archives: Downtown is for People (Fortune Classic, 1958) by Jane Jacobs. It’s from before she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (HT: Project for Public Spaces (PPS) Placemaking News)

Downtown is for People is simply a wonderful article. It’s shocking to read how clearly Jacobs describes what’s good and bad about cities and planning. I was particularly impressed by the end of the article where she says citizens can and should play an active role in planning – how’s that for contemporary thinking? Imagine how we could use today’s information technology to help improve this process (for example, my project)?

She also describes how planners often think in terms of blocks (because it’s easier) when they should be thinking about streets … what a simple, but powerful idea for making better places. Her description of Rockefeller Center and its streets is eye-opening.

Jacobs tells her readers to walk, walk, walk … observing the city as they go. This is how you learn what works and doesn’t work in a city. It’s very much the philosophy of Allan Jacobs, one of my teachers at UC Berkeley – he told us look and measure, that’s the way to understanding.

I’ll close by quoting the last line in the article:

Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.

Brescia Italy

Brescia Piazza del Loggia

Brescia Piazza del Loggia

I recently visited Brescia Italy on a business trip. I had some extra time since I travelled by night train and so took the opportunity to explore the city. Brescia is a relatively small city in the northern part of Italy about an hour from Milan on the main railway route between Milan and Venice.

I stayed in the Hotel Vittoria, a classic hotel in the centre of Brescia. It was my favorite type of hotel: old but very clean and well maintained. The breakfast was excellent with great coffee and a German style buffet (with Italian foods!).

Fresco in Santa Maria in Solario Chapel, Santa Giulia Museum Brescia

Fresco in Santa Maria in Solario Chapel, Santa Giulia Museum Brescia

I decided to visit the Santa Giulia museum (home page in Italian only, odd for a tourist destination, but all the information in the museum is provided in English and Italian). This museum is built on the site of a former abby that was founded in the 700s. Brescia was an important Roman town and getting to the museum you pass the old forum and ruins of the Forum Temple and Roman theater. The Santa Giulia museum covers the city’s history from pre-historic times until the present. The city brought items found throughout the city to the museum for viewing.

The museum is quite cool because it uses the old abby buildings to show the history. You walk through several eras of history in the different chapels that are on the site. Artwork from the appropriate age is displayed in the chapels and connecting structures. In between you can look out on the classic abby courtyard. The museum has some real treasures including a precious stone embedded cross (Cross of Desiderius, late 8th Century) and unbelievable medieval frescoes in the Santa Maria in Solario chapel.

Roman mosaic floor featuring Dionysus and panther, Santa Giulia Museum Brescia

Roman mosaic floor featuring Dionysus and panther, Santa Giulia Museum Brescia

Then, because the abby was built over part of the old Roman city they have a large indoor space where you an look down on several remarkably well preserved Roman houses. The frescos and mosaic floors are incredible to see. I took lots of photos, the better ones are on my Flickr photos of Santa Giulia Museum. There are also lots of examples of everyday objects from the Roman era. The transport planner in me liked the milestone markers and the sections of Roman roadways that they left intact for us to see.

I would highly recommend the museum for those interested in seeing Roman city planning history and medieval art, two things I really enjoy. My photos of the Santa Giulia Museum Brescia on flickr.

Torre D’ercole, Via Carlo Cattaneo, Bresci

Torre D’ercole, Via Carlo Cattaneo, Bresci

After several hours in the museum I went walking through the city and found myself on Via Carlo Cattaneo. One of the buildings struck me and when I read the historic plaque I learned that it was the Torre D’ercole, one of those tower structures that noble families used to build during the late middle ages as a fortress in the city. At a certain point whoever was ruler of the city required all these towers to be cut-off at a certain level to reduce the power of these other families. But the lower part of the structure still shows the tower architecture. (Also interesting, like many buildings in Brescia it was built partly out of stone from older Roman buildings, they recycled the building materials.)

Outside alcove table, Torre D'ercole

Outside alcove table, Torre D’ercole

In the ground floor of this old tower is a charming cafe serving simple food and great drinks. Like most all Italian cafes they offer free snacks during happy hour. They have great beer including Belgo from Belgium and I even saw a bottle of Sierra Nevada (one of my favorite US beers) on a shelf. I visited twice, the first time I had a Campari soda (very Italian of me) and the second time a very tasty draft Brat beer. They have a few tables in a little square across the street, and even have an ingenious solution for smokers, a little table and chairs placed in an alcove in the street with windows into the cafe (see photo). They had music the second night I visited, this is the kind of cafe everyone needs nearby!

Tape measure display at architect’s office, Via Carlo Cattaneo, Brescia

Tape measure display at architect’s office, Via Carlo Cattaneo, Brescia

There were several very interesting shops nearby. A wonderful design and antiques store across the street, a “hat laboratory” a little way down the street, a wonderful pasta store, a garage with a marble floor, an architectural office with a neat tape measure art piece in the window. A really fun street with lots of creative people around. See all my photos of Via Carlo Cattaneo on flickr.

There are also lots of interesting buildings in the historic center including the Loggia (my photos of the Loggia on flickr), the official city hall, which was designed by several famous architects including Pladdio, and the Cathederal. Also lots of nice squares, many of which have been turned into pedestrian areas.

Brescia is part of the EU funded CIVITAS project and they are doing lots of interesting work on sustainable transport. Brescia has a very nice bicycle rental system, good public transport (they are building a tram line through the center of the city, partly underground) and a unified smart card for public transport, car sharing and bicycle rental. Very impressive for a relatively small city (about 250,000 in the city and a million in the region). All my photos of Brescia on flickr.

In summary, Brescia is a nice city to visit, especially so because it’s off the main tourist path.

Prague Arcades

Lucerna Arcade Prague

I’ve always been fascinated by arcades, those ‘shopping mall precursors’ in cities where a set of shops runs in a corridor through the middle of a building. Paris and Brussels have a couple of great old ones, I even like the modern Funf Hofe in Munich, but for some reason I never noticed Prague’s arcades on previous trips. This week, while walking around aimlessly looking for a good place to eat (one of my favorite activities), I found myself in a really cool one, the Lucerna, which made me notice many more.

Adria Arcade Prague

Like most of Prague all the arcades I visited are showing their age. Most of the shops, restaurants and cafes located in them are not flashy or the latest trends (in contrast to Munich!) but seem to cater to the normal needs of locals.

The Lucerna, like many of the arcades, was actually a series of arcades connected together so they differed stylistically and in terms of tenants and state of repair. Only one of the arcades is actually the Lucerna, the others were called Rokoko and Dum u Novaku (sorry for not using the Czech spelling, no keyboard). These were particularly interesting since the connected arcades were in very different styles.

Kino Cafe in Lucerna Arcade, Prague

The Lucerna arcade is built around a movie theater with several places to eat and a music/beer club. The architecture features lots of marble and a huge hanging sculpture of a knight riding a horse, but the horse is upside down (feet up) and the knight is riding on the horse’s stomach (see top photo). I had a coffee in the coffeehouse with windows over looking the sculpture. The coffeehouse was great, it was clear that it was used for performances (there was a grand piano), there were some children playing in a corner with the parents having a coffee and chat. The cafe probably gets lots of visitors after shows.

The Adria arcade was located on Jungmannova Street near my hotel. There I was most impressed with the old art deco architecture and decorations. The mosaic caught my eye with two railway scenes. There was a very nice old sign for a record producer around the doorway of a former tenant. As I left I noticed that the building seemed to have originally been built for one of those old transport insurance agencies (there was a sculpture with a powerful figure seeming to protect a ship in heavy seas).

Not really an arcade, but opening on to one, was the Franciscan Cloister garden. This is a truly beautiful urban open space. Located in the middle of a block, it’s a quiet oasis (except for the sound of children playing) in the center of the city. It’s well maintained with beautiful flowers and lots of benches (many of which are full). There’s a great fountain sculpture of a naked child playing with water … the children around all loved it.


Finally, I discovered the Trznice arcade on Rytirska Street. I was drawn in by a beautiful painting of a market scene over the interior doorway (photo). As I walked though I found that the arcade had been remodeled with a grocery store, drug store and a couple other 1980s style shops. The space itself had been given one of those dropped ceilings (it was still quite high) but there was a skylight through which you could see the original metal and glass roof (photo). It’s too bad there is not enough money to rehabilitate all these beautiful structures.

All my Prague arcade photos are here.

Rivets are not just for frogs!

One of my civil engineering professors at RPI used to always talk about the ‘built up’ columns in the New York City subway stations. The “I” beam shape is very strong and efficient, but it was impossible to make “I” beams directly before the 1908 when a man named Henry Grey invented a mill machine that could roll the shape. So steel workers needed to build their own “I” beams in the field by joining steel plates with rivets. I was reminded of my civil engineering studies when I visited Melk last week and used the pedestrian bridge to cross the tracks.

By the way, Grey worked for Bethlehem Steel, my first employer after graduating from RPI. I actually worked in one of the original “Grey” mill facilities in Bethlehem.

Melk Monastery Austria

The Benedictine Monastery in Melk is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 90-km from Vienna so I wonder what has taken me so long to get there. All photos are from my flickr set Melk Monastery (lots more photos there!).

I took the train and got there at 9 am. It was an easy walk from the train station through a pedestrian district where a farmers market was just being set-up. There is a stairway from the pedestrian street which leads up the hill to the Monastery gate. You buy your tickets at the second courtyard; my ticket was for an English tour at 10:55, so I had some time. (The ticket cost 9.50 Euros.)

I went into the museum where the guard marked my ticket so that I could go in again with my scheduled tour. Even at this early hour there were many groups of visitors from Danube river tour cruise ships (Melk is located on the Danube and is a popular stopping point for river cruises). By staying in between the tour groups I had the museum rooms to myself for a few minutes. It’s a very interesting exhibit of the Monastery history combined with the history of the Dominican order of monks.

At the end of the museum is the marble hall which has a beautiful trompe de oeil painting of main characters from Greek mythology on the ceiling (most of the marble is painted stucco, by the way). Leaving the marble hall you walk out on a curved walkway overlooking the church on the one side and the Danube river valley on the other.

The walkway leads to the Monastery library, a treasure house of old books and ideas. Only two of the rooms are open to the tourist public, but the other rooms are accessible to scholars. A flight of circular stairs takes you down to the ground level and the entry to the church.

The Melk Monastery is famous because the whole complex was built at the beginning of the 1700s, and is all in the Baroque style. The church is where the Baroque really lets loose. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the space with a photograph. My early visit was quite nice because I was almost alone in the church (at 11:45 the church was almost full with tourists).

After leaving the church I visited the Monastery garden with its very nice garden lodge – cool frescoes – and took a walk down the garden path overlooking the Danube. Then it was time for my tour. The tour guide was excellent, he spoke very good English and knew his stuff.

After the tour I was hungry and had a nice lunch of Schweinebraten and beer at the Monastery restaurant located just outside the main monastery buildings on the way to the parking area. The food was quite good and the service was very good (fast, friendly and efficient). My lunch cost 14 Euros.

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