Ideal Cities

Salem is a boom town/construction zone right now with big projects ongoing, or about to begin, all over town: a large housing project on the site of the demolished St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street and two more on the outskirts of town, a new “Gateway” center on one of the major entrance corridors, a new parking garage for the train station, more expansion for the Peabody Essex Museum and my own university, a huge (and great) power plant demolition/reconstruction project, and, of course, infrastructure work, a constant activity in a city as old as Salem. There is so much going on that the city has put up a separate website just to handle information about these projects.

Boom Town

I am glad that Salem is doing so well in terms of development, and I believe that most of these projects will benefit the city tremendously. But not all. Certainly the Mayor’s office and city government facilitated these proposals, and are doing a good job overseeing the process of their implementation. However, I can’t help thinking that much of this development is compartmentalized and not part of a plan, that our city is reacting to proposals rather than seeking them out, vision in hand and mind.  Too often a proposal skates by the various boards, simply because it’s better than what is there now. As is my general inclination, I can’t help but compare past and present, and as I’m teaching a summer-long graduate class on the Renaissance, a time when urban planning became an art (like everything else) that is my past. Ideals were very important to Renaissance society, for both human development and urban development. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture in 1414, the desire to build structures on a human scale. and the influence of mathematics combined to create an ideal vision for Renaissance cities, exemplified by three panels produced in the 1480s, all called The Ideal City.

Boom Town Ideal City Walters



Ideal Cities in Baltimore, Urbino & Berlin museums: Fra Carnevale, Walters Art Museum; Piero della Francesca or Leon Battista Alberti ?, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino; Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

It’s really not fair to hold up these panels as standards because they were, in fact, idealized rather built cities:  “windows into a better world”. Yet the ideal, the plan, the desire to live in a better world, still has merit. I know we lost the sense of human scale and aesthetic detail in the twentieth century, but we can still seek better and more beautiful buildings, that assimilate easily into their material landscape. Perhaps it’s not the lack of planning but the actual architecture that is troubling me. This is certainly the case with one project: a proposed $45 million complex that would include a possible hotel, residences and retail stores to be built on a downtown block that definitely needs some help–this would be an easy case of it’s better than what’s there now so the expectations, and the standards, will be low. The renderings for the project reveal a (cheap) brick and glass multistory building which is a mirror image of the “Tavern on the Square” structure affixed to the old Salem News building across the way:  both are more suited for the suburban corporate office parks found along Route 128, Boston’s inner beltway, than a historic port city like Salem.  Both buildings, like several structures built in Salem in the past few years, are not only grace-less but also place-less: they have no relation to our city’s built environment and are also, quite frankly, boring. Can’t we do better?

Boom Town Dodge St

Boom Town Waltham Corporate Center

“Mill Hill” proposal conceptual rendering for Salem & the Waltham Corporate Center along Route 128.

12 responses to “Ideal Cities

  • Helen

    Well said Donna. Fortunately this Mill Hill project will scrutinized by the DRB. It is a very important location. Too bad the DRB doesn’t oversee all new large scale construction.

    • daseger

      That is fortunate, Hobby, but didn’t they scrutinize the Tavern on the Green building as well? (For those outside of Salem, the DRB is the Design Review Board, which has design approval power in the downtown redevelopment district. It is generally comprised of design professionals).

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    It seems like often the real work goes into coming up with a cutesy name like “Mill Hill,” which will make it easier to capture the approval of city officials, and then it’s off to the drawer of cookie-cutter plans to pull out something unimaginative.

    The above structure, or something very much like it, can be found in most any US or Canadian city of any size. It says nothing about Salem and does nothing to highlight the architecture, history or anything else that makes the city unique.

    • daseger

      Totally agree–but actually the historic name of site of this proposed building is Mill Hill, so they didn’t have to come up with the cutesy name. I know what you mean, though: there are so many “Commons” along Route 128 I get rather hysterical when people refer to our Common as “Commons”!

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        Well, it is nice that Mill Hill is an actual name.

        As for the commonness of the term “Common,” I wonder how many people today even know how these areas came about when they were established in Colonial times?

  • meg

    Very well said – totally agree

  • markd60

    The pictures all look like screenshots from modern video games to me.

  • John Matthew Barlow

    Funny, I was looking at that same proposal, wondering just what the point was? That parking lot is an eyesore, sure. But it seems to me the idea of building there was simply, um, well, yeah, let’s build there. The proposed building is exactly as you describe, and, in fact, would fit perfectly into this manufactured suburban village outside Vancouver where my mother lives. In other words, no thanks.

    But you also touch on the problem of urban redevelopment in any city, whether big or small. Most cities *have* an urban plan that they then proceed to ignore. And we’re also in recovery mode from the period of brutalism, like the City Center in Boston, or any university campus but ours in North America. Unfortunately, the art was lost in architecture, and most buildings today are just designed cheaply and to be functional. And Salem will very soon lose what makes it special, which is all this colonial and early Federalist period architecture in favour of this cookie-cutter “architecture” that strips any specificity of place away from cities; they become generic. I’m always struck when I’m in Toronto just how anonymous much of that city’s architecture is, blocks and blocks of generic architecture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but nothing that makes it distinctly “Toronto”, as apart from, say, Madison, WI or Winnipeg, MB.

    I hope Salem doesn’t end up like that.

    • daseger

      Me too, Matthew. I also hope that architectural DESIGN, like architectural specifications (and PARKING) could be more of a public discussion.

      • John Matthew Barlow

        I guess this is the rub, in order to have these architectural discussions, you need an engaged populace. I don’t really see a lot of that in Salem, unfortunately. I see a town that is more concerned with its economy, which is a fair response to deindustrialisation and the recovery therefrom.

  • Suzie Weldon

    You bring up a very valid point, Donna. I am also concerned about the explosion of building going on in Salem. It seems that it’s believed that if it’s built with bricks, it’s going to fit. That’s a good first step, but far from the solution in a quest to keep Salem looking historic.

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