Urban Development is Successful Only When it Blends New Construction With Existing Structures
By Kevin Sloan via Dallas News
As I locked the storefront door of my design firm, I noticed that an eager crowd was gathering down the sidewalk at The Kessler for the Friday night show. Those of us in my urban-planning and landscape practice have a lot of fun pointing out we office in a building that’s named after a world-famous urban planner and landscape architect — George Kessler. We also appreciate the cultural events and musical acts the theater offers.
On this particular evening, when I saw the playbill of the Bacon Brothers and Farewell Angelina, the warm-up act, it didn’t register with me. But after weaving through the crowd to meet up with my wife and business partner, Diane, at a restaurant down the street, she got me jazzed.
“Did you know that Kevin Bacon is at The Kessler tonight?” she asked.
The prospect of seeing an A-list celebrity and his older brother, Michael, an award-winning movie and TV score composer, was indeed exciting. But what Diane also knew was that I revere the Bacons’ father.
If a mayor, city councilperson, lawyer, doctor, developer, student or an amateur enthusiast of architecture were to ask me, “What’s the most important thing to understand about architecture, city planning and the culture it creates?” I would direct them to Edmund N. Bacon’s seminal book, The Design of Cities, and tell them to read a two-page chapter, “The Principle of the Second Man.”
Ed Bacon was not only the father of two exceptionally gifted sons, but he was also an architect and a noted urban planner in Philadelphia who was instrumental in the shaping of design concepts in the 20th century. He coined “The Principle of the Second Man” to characterize a process he believed was universal to the great cities of the world, how they formed and continue to perpetuate themselves.
The basis of the principle is that a city builds one project at time and that any new construction alters its surroundings. By being cognizant of the buildings in the immediate context and the good work by others they represent, the new construction will improve and the existing structures will become better.
Since quoting Bacon directly might be confusing, Animas Design offers a simpler definition to the “Second Man” theory:
1. Having the sense to understand and appreciate what a project can inherit from the surrounding context.
2. Having the humility to accept, preserve and build upon what had been done right by someone else.
In Dallas, virtually every building’s success and failure can be mapped to whether “The Principle of the Second Man” was observed.
One excellent example I typically highlight involves the First United Methodist Church on Ross Avenue and the Dallas Museum of Art at the corner of Ross and Harwood. If you stand on the DMA lawn and align yourself with the centerline of the church façade, which preceded the DMA, when you turn around you’ll notice that the second-story garden is perfectly aligned with the church. Then notice how the museum entrance, which is off to the side, is centered with the three doors of the church loggia, which is also off to the side. After weaving the two façades together, the final move by DMA architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was to set the museum back from the street. That gives the city a public green for memorable exhibitions and events. Each building became better for the effort. Everybody won.
The reflected sunlight that beams onto the Nasher Sculpture Center, the parking garage that has appeared in the water-garden masterpiece at Fountain Place and the so-called “spite wall” at Belo Garden Park are all examples that woefully missed the principle.
The Design of Cities and understanding “The Principle of the Second Man” should be required reading for any mayor, city council member, city hall department head and journalist who writes about urban spaces. One can only imagine the benefits of incorporating this wisdom into the political and economic rationale that typically dominates how Dallas builds. The principle isn’t a zoning ordinance. It needs to become a cultural effect that touches the attitude of every city improvement.
I wanted to share my thoughts for two reasons. First, while cities are daunting machinations, anyone can understand Ed Bacon’s elegant and erudite principle.
The second reason is through the generous assistance of our landlord at The Kessler, Diane and I were invited to the Green Room so that Kevin and Michael could add their autographs to my copy of their father’s book. Michael wrote, “To Kevin: The Power of the Idea.” That’s something I imagine their dad probably said a lot. Kevin added, “Hey man, great name!”
Before that Friday night, I was, technically speaking, four degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Now I’m a “zero” and by virtue of reading this op-ed piece, all of you are one.
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