AVIATION AND CIVIC IMPROVEMENTS
Harold Donaldson Eberlein
American Homes and Gardens 9 (September 1912):301-307, 336.Eberlein (1875-1942) was a prolific author who wrote dozens of books and scores of articles, largely on American architecture, gardening, interior design and decoration, and architectural history. Born in Pennsylvania and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he lived and wrote in Philadelphia. His first work, Colonial Homes of Philadelphia, appeared in 1912. Two years later he produced the first of a series of volumes whose titles began with Practical Book of... Among them were those that dealt with period furniture (1914), early American arts and crafts (1916), interior decoration (1919), and chinaware (1925). His Architecture of Colonial America, published in 1915, went through many editions as did his Practical Book of American Antiques of 1927. As one might suspect, Eberlein was a member of many organizations related to his writing interests. These included The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Maryland Historical Society, the Philadelphia Society for Preservation of Landmarks, the Society of Architectural Historians, the Fairmount Park Art Association, and many others.There is, truly, nothing new under the sun. Nothing new, at least in conception, even if the actual achievement be a thing of but yesterday or to-day. Lord Bacon unwittingly foretold the invention of air-craft and the navigation of the air by man when, in his "New Atlantis," he made the father of "Solomon's House" describe the "College of the Six Days' Work" and put into his mouth these words: "We have also engine-houses where . . . . we imitate also flights of birds; we have some designs of flying in the air." Then there was Icarus, who had a shocking bad tumble and lost his life because he rashly allowed his Dædalus propellers to get overheated and they came to pieces in midair.
The essay that follows (minus several illustrations of American and European towns from the air) was an attempt--not very successful--to foresee one aspect of the impact of air travel on American cities. Although modern readers will certainly find this more amusing than instructive, at least it suggests the difficulty of predicting the impact of technological innovations. Doubtless some--perhaps most--of similar contemporary efforts will appear equally ludicrous nearly a century into the future.
It was left, however, to the men of our own day, fired with inspiration descending from Darius Green, to unite theory and practice and to accomplish successful flights, and that against strong odds of wind and weather. What with the progress made thus far in aeronautics and the enthusiasm impelling to ever fresh experimentation and improvement, we may rest assured that mechanical flying as a mode of human locomotion has come to stay, whether the future favorite type of air-craft be monoplane, biplane, dirigible balloon, or some other species of aerial vehicle not yet emerged from the inventor's brain. Since flying, then, is to be regarded hereafter as an orthodox method of traveling for those that fancy it, it is not unreasonable to infer that its advent is fraught with consequences of diverse import to us.
One of the ways in which we shall doubtless feel the new influence will be in the direction of architecture and city planning. With this inevitable modification in view, a few thoughts and suggestions will supply food for reflection. Of course, whatever one may say anent this subject must be considered not in the light of definite prophecy, but rather as a forecast of imminent probability. At any time, new features in the construction of air-craft may evolve that will alter appreciably the course of developments so far as we can now foresee them, but without venturing to predict too confidently it is reasonably safe to assume that further growth will be in the direction already marked out. It is quite certain that the science of aviation is still in its infancy. All that has so far been proved is, that man can fly and is going to fly, whether he fly for mere sport or to serve some utilitarian purpose. This, too, notwithstanding the fact that only a few years since a very great mathematician proved entirely to his own satisfaction and the satisfaction of many others, besides that it would never be possible to leave the ground in a heavier-than-air machine.
Air vehicles are being used extensively in military tactics, also somewhat for the transportation of passengers in certain places abroad, and already, following improvements in design and structure, experiments have been made in putting them to various commercial uses, such as carrying light express matter, making short cuts over country unsuitable for railroads, and the conveyance of mails. Even if flying never advances to the position looked for it by enthusiastic and even by conservative persons interested in aeronautics, it can nevertheless reveal the blemishes, the inconsistencies, the objectionable spots in our cities and towns as nothing else will.
The passage annually of so many people through the air has supplied us with a new point of view whence we may look down and study the aspect of our surroundings. Hitherto we have felt that all was well if our buildings and cities satisfied inspection as seen from the ground. We have, up to the present day, lived only on the surface of the earth. Therefore it has been but natural that we should design all our structures to be seen from the surface. Now, through the agency of aviation, our range of vision is vastly broadened and our point of view few enlarged so suddenly that we can scarcely realize all at once the full measure of possibilities thereby opened up to us. It is almost as though a new dimension had been unexpectedly brought within our ken. Some years ago appeared a work of fiction with the scene laid in a suppositious land inhabited by creatures capable of comprehending only two dimensions--length and breadth. Their world had only surface. Their outlook was latitudinal and longitudinal, but never upward or downward; in consequence they appeared incapable of either elation or depression. Doubtless, under such circumstances, existence must have been decidedly flat. At any rate, the inhabitants themselves were pictured by the author as flat as pancakes and as thin as shadows. A line drawn on the plane on which they lived and moved, and had their being, opposed to them a barrier more insurmountable than the highest peak of the Himalayas would be to a baby of the three-dimensional order. Anything rising above the surface of their plane world disappeared utterly as far as they were concerned and baffled their understandings as completely as some things do ours when they perversely roll off into the fourth dimension and become invisible. With our "surface outlook" at buildings and cities and the world in general we have been in the past not altogether unlike the plane dwellers. Now aviation has entered a wedge to change all this. Our point of view has gained "downlook" as well as the length and breadth and "uplook" it had aforetime. Hereafter we must reckon upon making our cities at least presentable, if not attractive, as seen from above. This new phase of requirements is going to affect individual buildings or groups of buildings in the first place, and, in the second, towns and cities in the entirety of their plan. It is but a logical and fair demand that a structure should be consistently comely from whatever point we view it; that is to say, it should be honest throughout in form and material and not speciously contrived to deceive the observer who can see it from only one side. We all know, however, to our regret that many a building that presents a noble front is commonplace and brummagem in the parts hidden from public gaze. It is right enough, generally speaking to put the best foot foremost, but when it goes to the extent of having a "Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back," nothing could be architecturally more reprehensible.
The vantage point of the aviator unmasks the sham and dishonesty of all such buildings. He sees all too plainly their deceptions and pinchbeck economies and loses all respect for them when so deformed, because there is no sterling worth in them. He sees, moreover, the shocking backyards enclosed within blocks of houses whose street fronts are past reproach. Before his eye these household gehennas, that slovenly dwellers vainly flatter themselves are shielded from all beholders, are laid bare. At a glance he notes the boxes, the ash barrels, the garbage cans, and all the other unsightly, and quite unnecessary, rubbish that the carelessness of the negligent permit to disfigure space that ought, of right, to be given over to becoming adornment. All these things and many more the aviator sees, and as we are all future aviators potentially, we must now look to it that these blotches and eyesores no longer give offence. Shame at the thought of having our shortcomings mercilessly exposed, if not solicitude for beauty, should prompt our efforts toward remedy.
Aviation will grievously disappoint our expectations if it fails to work a drastic change for the better in the appearance of city roofs. As they are now, or most of them, at any rate, nothing could be more depressing, more distressingly, than the view from a tower or high office building--or of course an aeroplane--over the weary expanse of roofs spread out below. It is a dreary desert for "tarry pebbles and tin," broken only by an occasional skylight with its gleam of glass, or here and there an air shaft whose purple depths suggest bad ventilation and worse light. Now and again the round bulk of a water tank obtrudes itself, squatting in the midst of its own rectangular patch of slag or tin, or else painfully perched across the angle of the side walls carried up above the roof at one corner of the building.
Could any prospect be more disheartening and sordid looking? If the altitude of your position brings a sense of exhilaration, one glance downward at the doleful waste at your feet serves to dash your spirits to the depths. The only relief comes either from scattered old buildings whose pitch roofs, covered with weather-green copper or decent slate or tiles, rejoice the eye, or else from structures of recent date where some regard for appearance from above has prompted a decorous treatment. One notable feature of these newer roofs is that the water tanks are not only not placed where they will be visible from the street, but they are enclosed in little house-like structures of suitable design so that they offer no offence to the sight.
Domes, towers and spires are all pleasant to look down upon, but on comparatively few buildings would this kind of embellishment be in keeping. We turn, then, to one other device that can be of almost universal application, the roof-garden. On the large hotels, roof-gardens by the score have flourished, and city houses and even country dwellings too are following the lead. In Summer the occupants of hostelry and dwelling alike find comfort and enjoyment amid growing things, high above the heated streets, while, for the aviator, the down-look upon these oases in a glare of heated roofs cannot be other than agreeable. It would be an ideal condition if every roof, or nearly every roof, could be equipped with a garden over at least a part of its extent. Think of looking over a city clad in verdure! What a pleasant place over which to aviate must Babylon have been with its hanging gardens!
It is not at all a Utopian scheme to suggest domestic roof-gardens, but, on the contrary, perfectly practicable. We simply need the eye of the aviator to help us realize the waiting opportunities on our housetops and the possibility of making them attractive whether by the practice of aerial horticulture or by making them of such material and shape that they may be agreeable to behold. Provision will doubtless be made on some of the tallest buildings for landing stages and in time, too, we shall see hangars of many stories in height, treated architecturally as towers. By far the most important respect, however, in which aviation seems destined to influence civic improvement, is the planning and remodeling of cities throughout their length and breadth upon lines that will give consistency and coherence along with a convenient economy of space that will conduce to inter-accessibility among all sections. It is bound to give a wholesome impetus to the wave of municipal improvement that seems to have swept over the country since the appearance of the report of the Park Commission appointed by the United States Senate, to prepare plans for the development and beautification of the city of Washington. The elevated position of the aviator gives him a map-like view of a city and enables him to take in at a glance the sundry possibilities for betterment. Anyone who has stood on the top of Mount Royal, with Montreal spread out below him, may form a faint idea of the aviator's vision.
The advantage for getting comprehensive views enjoyed by the occupant of an aerial machine can easily be imagined when we remember that at the height of one mile he can see ninety-six miles in every direction and that the range of vision is limited only by height and the amount of haze in the atmosphere. By virtue of his altitude he gains a perspective denied the man whose goings are always horizontal. As a painter working on a large canvas, or a sculptor modeling his clay, now and again stands at a distance to measure effects, so may the city planner rise above his work and grasp in a twinkling the requirements of his problem.
It has already been pointed out that aviation reveals the iniquities of design, the squalor, the unsightliness in a city and all the other things that are generally unseen, though they may be within a stone's throw of us. These defects being brought to light, thanks to aeronautics, can be remedied. But more important still, it cannot be denied, are the impetus and inspiration thereby given, not alone for remedial schemes and remodeling, but for constructive planning of lines along which a city may make its future growth. There is no inherent reason why a city should be left to chance and individual caprice and not rather pursue its growth according to a well-ordered and rational design. A town of haphazard growth may indeed be picturesque, and often is, but its lack of arrangement usually means a prodigal waste of space as well as a daily waste of human time and energy. Such a town is apt to be incoherent, like a man beginning a speech in the middle of an involved thought. He struggles and strives to express himself, hut cannot find the happy turn of words he needs. City planning by one man or by a group of associated men may be formal and academic, but in the end results will justify the practice. Three cities, Washington, St. Petersburg and Alexandria, were built according to the design of one prescient intellect, and they speak for themselves.
Only by deliberate, premeditated design shall we ever secure due provision for parks and gardens. Now to all phases of physical civic betterment, to remodeling and cleansing squalid districts, to the opening of avenues for the relief of traffic pressure, to the better designing of our roofs, to proper and efficient municipal lighting, to the intelligent establishment and treatment of parks, public gardens and waterways, aviation will supply a strong and ever-increasing stimulus by the very clarity and force of its revelations.
Aviation gives us a chance to look at ourselves from a new angle, and the sight is not always flattering to our pride; it is a bit like the power to "see oursels as ithers see us." However, the experience is wholesome if humbling, and if aviation is only a means to open our eyes and make us think and become dissatisfied with our shortcomings, it will have done a world of good. If we, ourselves, prefer to walk the earth like the old woman who said with true Malapropian felicity of phrase that "terra-cotta" was good enough for her, we must remember that many others are going to fly, and it is clearly our duty to adapt ourselves to their broader horizon and provide things agreeable for them to look down upon as they flit overhead.
It is not unlikely that the roof will become an object of utilitarious solicitude. The ubiquitous advertiser of breakfast foods may find it to his advantage to proclaim the merits of his products on tar paper and tin. Just as the railway tourist is forever reminded by fleeting signboards mounted in meadows that no man can call himself clean who does not use Fulton's Soap, so the
eye in the air will not be spared the announcement that the Isabel Monoplane is the fastest in the world or that the aerial garage of Hutchins lies six miles to the north, or that Pinkman makes the only trustworthy aeroplane motor. Roof signs may indeed be absolutely indispensable to order to guide the aviator. Hovering over a sea of red tin roofs how can he tell which is his? Some system of identification is obviously required. Even streets must be indicated. At night time electric lights of contrasting colors must be installed to guide the man in the air to his garage. It may be doubted whether the glare of our present towering electric signs will be tolerated. A locomotive engineer could hardly guide his train in safety if he were confused by thousands of electric bulbs, flashing rhythmically as they proclaim the virtues of a new mineral water. In the interests of safety, then, it is not impossible that the electric roof signs at least must be dispensed with.
Since the roof is destined to become as important as the ground floor we may expect to find in the hotel of the future, clerks and bellboys posted on the top floor ready to attend to the immediate wants of tourists who have just arrived by aeroplane. On the roof itself will be found the usual retinue of liveried servants. Porters in the uniforms of rear-admirals will assist aeroplane arrivals in alighting. Aerial taxicabs will circle like vultures over the hotel, waiting for a doorman to signal one of them to alight and pick up a departing guest.
The aerial garages of the future will not be unlike present automobile garages. They will be taller, perhaps, and even more generously proportioned; for a spread of wing of forty feet is by no means unusual in a flying machine. Elevators of corresponding size will convey the machines to and from the roof. The platforms of the elevators will have to be painted some distinctive color, so that those in the air may know what part of the roof is stable and what part is more like the trap-door of a stage.
The giant dirigible of the future, comparable in size with a Lusitania, will make great demands upon the ingenuity of the architect. In the first place it will probably be necessary to construct huge towers to the tops of which the airships will be tethered and from which they will drift like weathervanes. It is not inconceivable that these towers will dwarf the tallest of existing skyscrapers. How the passengers are to alight from the floating vessel, how they are to reach it from the street must be left to the imagination. Difficult as the problem seems of solution, it is one that can be safely entrusted to the engineer. It will be the architects' business to design these towers so that they will harmonize with the character of the city and so that they will be sufficiently decorative as well as useful.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org To Top of Page To Homepage