The Largest Art
A Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism
- 2018 PROSE Award Honorable Mention, Architecture and Urban Planning
Why urban design is larger than architecture: the foundational qualities of urban design, examples and practitioners
Urban design in practice is incremental, but architects imagine it as scaled-up architecture—large, ready-to-build pop-up cities. This paradox of urban design is rarely addressed; indeed, urban design as a discipline lacks a theoretical foundation. In The Largest Art, Brent Ryan argues that urban design encompasses more than architecture, and he provides a foundational theory of urban design beyond the architectural scale. In a “declaration of independence” for urban design, Ryan describes urban design as the largest of the building arts, with qualities of its own.
Ryan distinguishes urban design from its sister arts by its pluralism: plural scale, ranging from an alleyway to a region; plural time, because it is deeply enmeshed in both history and the present; plural property, with many owners; plural agents, with many makers; and plural form, with a distributed quality that allows it to coexist with diverse elements of the city. Ryan looks at three well-known urban design projects through the lens of pluralism: a Brancusi sculptural ensemble in Romania, a Bronx housing project, and a formally and spatially diverse grouping of projects in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He revisits the thought of three plural urbanists working between 1960 and 1980: David Crane, Edmund Bacon, and Kevin Lynch. And he tells three design stories for the future, imaginary scenarios of plural urbanism in locations around the world.
Ryan concludes his manifesto with three signal considerations urban designers must acknowledge: eternal change, inevitable incompletion, and flexible fidelity. Cities are ceaselessly active, perpetually changing. It is the urban designer's task to make art with aesthetic qualities that can survive perpetual change.
Brent Ryan brilliantly summarizes the most important moments in the history of urbanism and consequently draws up a very convincing manifesto for a pluralist approach to urban design in which open-endedness, diversity, incrementality, and inclusiveness go hand in hand. A must for students, scholars, and practitioners who seriously want to engage in the praxis of urban design.
Kees Christiaanse, urban planner, founder and partner of KCAP
Refuting the conventional idea of urban design—that of an enlarged architecture produced for a unitary site—Brent Ryan methodologically advocates a vision of a plural urbanism that incorporates the change, incompleteness, and multiplicity inherent to urban development. Addressing issues that 'neotraditionalism' and 'bigness' have missed, the author revisits essential principles emerging from the late modern work and writings of three American pioneers: David Crane, Edmund Bacon, and Kevin Lynch. He recognizes that plural urbanism, which formerly materialized in projects by Brancusi, Barnett, and Plečnik, is not new, but timely and useful for identifying the plural qualities urban design should embrace.
Marcel Smets, Professor of Urban Design, University of Leuven
A strong, timely book that puts forth a clearly articulated argument.