Whether a city was rebuilt after an earthquake such as Ragusa, Noto, Modica (Sicily, 1693), Lisbon (1755), San Francisco (1906) – or designed from scratch -- because a new capital was needed -- such as St. Petersburg, Washington DC (1798), Canberra (Australia, 1927), New Delhi (1931) and Chandigarh (India, 1947) or Brasilia (1960) and Belo Horizonte (Brazil, 1898) – cities planned from the ground up (literally) offer great design, living and traveling advantages.
What makes a planned city special? Most planned cities are easier for tourists to navigate – you know (and see) where you’re going – and can enjoy your walk and sightsee getting there. For example Paris -- from the Louvre you can see in a straight line up the Champs Elysees, past the Arc de Triomphe miles away to the newest monument on the horizon – the Arc de la Defence (1989). “Light” – in the “City of Light” was alien to dark and dingy Paris before Baron Haussmann totally redesigned Paris in mid-19th century for Emperor Napoleon III?
Was Emperor Napoleon III’s motive beautification or fortification – linking the railroad stations by long avenues – to quickly quell a potential revolution? It’s a long debate? Just appreciate Paris’ beautify whatever the reason.
Linking long avenues with vertical points was already at work three centuries earlier in Rome. In the 16thcentury Pope Sixtus V repositioned Egyptian obelisks (brought over by the Ancient Romans) in plazas and started linking those plazas with straight, long avenues. Rome has the best of both types of city-planning – long straight avenues and kasbah-like unplanned alleys. In Rome’s charming back alleys –- I’m guided by sounds. As the sound of a splashing fountain becomes louder and louder – I know I’m nearing a fountain with its spread-out piazza --such as the world-famous Fountain of Trevi.
The great piazza in front of St. Peter’s used to be approached through narrow dark streets -- a “borgo.” You leave the dark borgo suddenly being thrust into the bright humongous Piazza San Pietro with the arms of Bernini’s colonnade embracing you – which is known as a surprising “Baroque” experience. That is until Mussolini poked through the borgo with his long disrupting avenue, Via della Concilliazione. (Although Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali linking Palazzo Venezia, his former office, with the Coliseum does add grandeur – while dividing the Ancient Roman forums in two.)
Italy was the birthplace of the grid-planned city – something that even older cities – founded with meandering “cow paths” -- adopted in the 19thcentury – such New York, Boston, Sydney. Pompeii and Herculaneum are good examples of the ancient grid. And yet the grid -- a basic and very logical city plan -- seems to have developed simultaneously all over the world. While Europe was in the dark ages, Kyoto’s grid was the basis for a very civilized temple-and-palace planned city around 800 AD
Italy gave birth to the Renaissance Planned City. The great Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote treatises on the ideal planned city, which centered around a square with a church, a government building and a palace as exemplified in Bernardo Rossellino’s Pienza (in Tuscany near Sienna). This concept traveled of cities planned around central plazas took a strong foothold in South America. However, to see the most dramatic planned plaza let’s return to Rome to its most famous 16th-century piazza, the Compidoglio designed by Michelangelo.
The best totally planned city is 18th-century St. Petersburg. Its main street Nevsky Prospect has many recessed elegant squares – building ensembles -- which takes the visitor by surprise -- just as walking on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and suddenly coming across the Rockefeller Center’s ensemble of buildings. St. Petersburg’s three main avenues radiating from the Admiralty yet again brings to mind Italy – the three radiating avenues originating from Rome’s much older Piazza del Popolo.
Italy-inspired Renaissance cities spread around the world such as the spectacular Zamosc in Eastern Poland with its prolonged rectangular grid contained in pentagon-shaped walls. All its 16th-century buildings were built within just a few years – giving the city a uniform character. Zamosc is more than merely “Italy inspired” – it’s Italian designed by the Venetian architect Bernardo Morando. It’s even a UNESCO site -- not to be missed.
Contemporary to Zamosc is Palmonova – another Italian Renaissance fortified city with a circular pattern radiating outward (like spokes on a wheel) from its circular main piazza in the center. It’s almost as if Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of “Vitruvian Man” (a man set within a circle) became a city plan – man at the center of his universe. Sadly the last time I visited this amazing city – not far from Venice – there wasn’t even a single man (or woman) tourist. (An easy way of recognizing a “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” special site is when its official website is only in one language -- the native language – as is Palmonova’s – in Italian only.)
Karlsruhe, Germany (1715) is another 18th-century circular planned city planned with man in the center of the universe – the center of its inhabitants’ universe – King Charles William. Half of the city is a park – making Karlsruhe one of the greenest cities of its day.
Great circular-planned cities are almost as ubiquitous as grid-planned. One of my favorites is Bath – England’s great 18th-century Georgian resort. Instead of circles (“circuses” as the “Bathers” call them) with a building in the center – the circumference of the actual circle is composed of buildings! Whenever I visit India’s grand new capital, New DeIhi, I feel as if “I’m going around in circles” since New Delhi is composed of interconnecting radiating rotaries. New Delhi was built by the British and completed in1931 almost just in time for the country’s independence sixteen years later.
Two other great Asian planned cities also in India and are grid-oriented – 18th-century Jaipur and mid 20th-century Chandigarh -- Le Corbusier’s only realized planned city -- created after the partition of Pakistan from India Finally in the 21stcentury the great architecture of Chandigarh is getting the infrastructure it deserves with new 5-star hotels such as the JW Marriott.
Another benefit of planned cities is the inclusion of lots of green spaces. Once again, the best example is Paris in which large parks transformed land that previously served as everything from stone quarries to a city dump. Pudong, the new city across the river from Shanghai, exemplifies the greening of China’s 21st-century planned cities.
While grid-planned cities -- with the main square smack in the middle – dominates city planning there are some exceptions. My two favorite smaller French rectangular planned cities – with squares at opposite corners of the longer ends – are 17th-century Richelieu and 18th-century re-planned Nancy.
The unknown and seldom-visited Richelieu has an elegant tree-lined avenue linking its two separated main squares at opposite ends. It’s a charming “17th-century French Colonial Williamsburg” in France’s famous Loire Valley – not far from Chinon -- and definitely worth a visit.
As long as we’re in the Loire Valley – stop off at another chateau – the Chateau Cande (just a few miles from the famous Azay-le-Rideau). With all the hoopla over the recent wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle, why not visit the chateau where another royal, King Edward VIII married an earlier American divorcee – Wallis Simpson.
In the mid 18th century – the elegant re-planned city of Nancy has a similar -- but grander -- layout. Rococo Stanislaw Square (names after Louis XV’s father-in-law – the Polish King Stanislaw) is united by an avenue of clipped trees starting at a triumphal arch and ending in the oval – and equally elegant -- Place de la Carriere with its palaces conforming to the oval. (Nancy is also one of France’s great Art Nouveau cities.)
For another 18th-century elegant planned city -- with two widely-separated main squares at opposite ends -- cross the English Channel and then cross Edinburgh’s main street, Princes Street and visit Edinburgh’s New Town. New Town is contemporary to Nancy in date – but not in style. While Nancy’s new town is in more elaborate Rococo – Edinburgh’s planned New Town is Palladian – with buildings in the Neoclassical style – many designed by the Adams Brothers.
Planned cities with ceremonial buildings linked by a broad long avenue aren’t unique to Europe and the 17th and 18th centuries. The Aztec town of Teotihuacan – just outside Mexico City – dates from around 250 AD – and it links temples and palaces. The scale of its monumental pyramids truly overwhelms.
Versailles influenced many planned cities around the world. Not the 18th-century planned town of Versailles (with three avenues radiating from the palace’s city façade)– but the gardens of Versailles with its intersecting diagonals creating interesting, unique and even disconcerting spaces such as triangular plots. Versailles’ gardens were the inspiration for the city plan of our own capital, Washington, DC. (1791).
The 20thcentury saw planned cities that neither conformed to a grid or to a circular plan – almost defining all previous planning rationales – Australia’s capital, Canberra (1927) and Brazil’s capital, Brasilia (1960).
I’m lucky to have visited both. I call Canberra’s “America’s Planned Capital” -- since it was designed by two Americans, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife. (America’s planned capital, Washington, DC, was designed by Frenchman, Pierre l’Enfant.) Canberra -- probably the most bucolic planned capital city -- has a very strange plan where long esplanades are suddenly interrupted by lakes. Canberra’s sod-roofed new parliament building looks as if it belongs on “Little House on the Prairie. ” Whereas Brasilia’s plan looks like an airplane with wings spread – ready to take off as does much of its space-age sculptured great Oscar Niemeyer architecture – Bauhaus with curves. I think it’s about time that American tourists know the difference between Oscar Niemeyer and Oscar Meyer.
The re-planned Paris of the late 20th and early 21st century is Berlin. Berlin reminds me of a married couple who get divorced, remarried to other people, divorce their second spouses – and then remarry their first spouses. However that renewed reunion can never be the same. The problem applies to Berlin – the reunification of a city separated by decades. When first united in 1991, Eastern Berlin was trying to keep up with Western Berlin. When the new government buildings, united museum collections and new hotels came to Eastern Berlin – it’s now Western Berlin trying its best to keep up with the East. Hopefully soon Berlin will have marriage equality.