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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

No Squares Down There

I was so excited as I eagerly awaited my copy of City Planning According to Artistic Principles, by Camillo Sitte, to come up at the main branch of the New York Public Library. I must admit, however, that I really had no intention of reading the whole thing - it was not available for circulation. I just needed to see that it really existed, touch it, and peruse it.

Sitte was an Austrian architect, painter, art historian, and city planning theoretician. He studied what made a place charming. In his book, he extols the virtues of the irregularity of the medieval city. I have had numerous thoughts and conversations about what makes a city or town interesting. One element for me was the lack of order in the street layout. Nooks and crannies to be discovered, like an old bookshop where, upon entering, you cannot determine its layout, and wandering through it becomes an adventure.

I relish neighborhoods or towns with the lack of a grid. I love meandering the streets of Florence, Montmartre in Paris, medieval villages of France, or the streets of West Village. Sitte's book was the validation for everything I loved in a town or city and gave the reasoning behind why I find Greenwich Village one of the most charming areas in the United States.

The West Village is part of New York City predating the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 (see here). The maze of streets defy any real order - there are angles, triangles, bends, streets once parallel that now intersect, and even a street that splits and retains the same name (Waverly Place). Perhaps somewhat vexing to the driver or visitor navigating, its character is one of the things which drew me to this neighborhood long ago.
On top of all this, in 1917, the city cut a swath, 7th Avenue, through the existing neighborhood, shearing sections of over 200 buildings, leaving many triangular shaped structures (see Northern Dispensary and Zena for two examples of triangular buildings).

We have become the benefactors of yesterday's victims. In the case of the Village Vanguard, its superb acoustics have been attributed to the triangular space. Some recording engineers and musicians say it is the finest acoustic space they know of.

The Village Vanguard is legendary and, on February 23, 2010, celebrates its 75th anniversary. The club was opened in 1935 by Max Gordon. Originally it featured many other forms of music and entertainment, such as folk music, comedy, and beat poetry. In 1957, it became an all jazz venue. All the jazz greats have performed there - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Keith Garrett, et al. The club is also noted for its Live at the Village Vanguard sessions. The Vanguard still enjoys a reputation as a place to hear the finest jazz in the world. Through the red door and fifteen steps down to the triangular basement space. No squares down there :)


Michael said...

I visited this club in 2001 and again in 2006.

Leslie said...

Finally an explanations why there are so many angled buildings...7th Av cut through them-aha!!
If you do go to the Vanguard make sure whoever is playing is someone you really want to hear. Years ago I sat through a session of Pharoah Sanders' screeching, and thought I was going to die!

Anonymous said...

OMG! Camillo Sitte! Looked through a translated copy of his treatise in a Dover re-publication a few years ago.
Have no clue how it holds up to the original.
Also had no idea that the triangularly superb acousitcs at the Vanguard were a result of the 7th Avenue slice-through. Very interesting.


Art said...

Great blog you have here, beautiful shots, like the way you see the city. Keep the good work