13 Concourses and Skyways

From: City

colophon
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13 CONCOURSES AND SKYWAYS The war against the street gains force. Not only have planners and architects been lining it with blank walls and garages; they have been leveling blocks of old buildings for parking lots, de-mapping streets for megastructures. Now they are going the next step. They are taking the principal functions of the street and putting them almost anywhere but on street level. They are putting them in underground concourses and shopping malls, in skyways and upper-level galleries. Ultimately, they may get the pedestrian off the street altogether. The walkways and concourses we are going to discuss are the latest manifestation of one of the most venerable concepts of urban planning: the separation of vehicular from pedestrian traffic. From the Victorian era on, almost every Utopian projection of the future has featured such separation, often in romantic terms—great bridges and tunnels in the sky, subsurface pleasure grounds and promenades, dirigibles and monorails, and, lately, computer-directed people movers . All this is for the benefit of the pedestrian, it is said. The separation provides safety from cars, fumes, noise, and the like. In actual fact, the separation is for the benefit of vehicles. Who gets the prime space? Not the pedestrian. He had it once: ground level. The point of separation is to get him off it. So he is sent to the cellar, or upstairs. Vehicles get the prime space. [194] CITY In principle, transportation departments plan for pedestrians as well as vehicles. But look at how they operate: federal, state, local— they are almost wholly concerned with maximizing vehicular traffic. The pedestrian is considered, to be sure, but as a problem, and not so much to be planned for as to be planned against. One thinks of that ultimate declaration, the freeway cloverleaf, admitting of no trespass by pedestrians whatsoever. Where there are pedestrian facilities, they are apt to be both separate and unequal: the gigantic overpasses of Tokyo, for example—these are really for cars so they won't have to slow down for pedestrians. The latter sensibly avoid the climb if they possibly can. The surrogate streets the most rooted in function have been the underground concourses. Originally, they came about as adjuncts to the underground rail systems. They were geared to the movement of great numbers of people in very short periods of time. They still are, and save for the introduction of escalators—pioneered by the London Underground—their physical characteristics have not changed very much. As a matter of fact new stations have not matched the design level reached by Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations. All that grandeur, we belatedly recognized, was rather functional: you knew where you were going; you knew where you were. The structure told you. The new Penn Station underground moves people adequately, but utterly without grace—and that is a form of inefficiency. It was natural that there be an extension of underground rail concourses to nearby buildings. The concourse of Rockefeller Center was an early prototype. While it was primarily a transportation corridor , it featured shops along its spine and was connected with a sunken plaza at one end. The next step was to see concourses as ends in themselves—connected with rail and subway stations, perhaps, but providing complete environments, with a range of shops and service facilities, restaurants and meeting places. Montreal's Place Ville Marie and the networks it spawned were influential precedents. Of the benefits underground concourses provide, the most important is protection from bad weather. As one who has used the Rockefeller Center concourse for many years, I certainly would not scant that benefit. Nor the convenience shopping, the post office, the bootblack , the Greengrocers' take-out deli. The center is a true 100percent location, with massive pedestrian flows concentrated along a clear axis from a major transportation facility. Context is all important. What is troubling about the genesis of many off-street systems is how easily this factor is overlooked. Consider Minneapolis and Montreal. These cold-winter cities are the most Concourses and Skyways [195] View from Minneapolis skyway to dullified street level. copied models for off-street systems. The cities that do the copying are not necessarily cold-winter cities themselves. Some have splendidly mild winters. What impels them to copying is a feeling that their downtowns are too dowdy, too old-fashioned. A quantum leap is needed, and maybe some architectural razzle-dazzle might bring it about. So the cities send civic delegations on pilgrimages...


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