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The Urban Housing Handbook, The Urban Towers Handbook, The Urban Masterplanning Handbook
Timothy Love

Eric Firley, Caroline Stahl, Julie Gimbal, Katharina Grön

Eric Firley and Caroline Stahl
Wiley, 2009

The Urban Towers Handbook
Eric Firley and Julie Gimbal
Wiley, 2011

The Urban Masterplanning Handbook
Eric Firley and Katharina Grön
Wiley, 2014

Starting with The Urban Housing Handbook in 2009 and followed by The Urban Towers Handbook in 2011 and The Urban Masterplanning Handbook in 2014, Wiley has published three well-researched and informative urban “handbooks” over the past six years. Eric Firley, a European-trained architect and urban designer and currently an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture, was a coauthor of the series and teamed with a different collaborator for each book. Each publication begins with a half-dozen pages of introductory text that outline the editorial decisions of Firley and his partner as well as place their choices within a larger intellectual discourse, both academic and professional. Most of the content in the books is focused on specific case studies organized into a classification system created by the authors. In all cases, the physical qualities of the larger urban context, rather than purely architectural considerations, shape the taxonomies. The focus on contextual relationships provides an opportunity for the authors to link the specific physical characteristics of the case studies to the structure of the development process. This focus, first established in The Urban Housing Handbook and further developed in the two subsequent books, sets this series apart from books that focus on types exclusively as organizational schema. As the most recent book in the series, The Urban Masterplanning Handbook advances this theme by including urban plans shaped by the underlying ownership structure and regulations as much as the authorship of individual architects.

In The Urban Housing Handbook, the first installment of the series, Eric Firley and Caroline Stahl organize the thirty case studies into four categories: courtyard housing, row houses, compounds, and apartment buildings. They assert that the street, the courtyard, and the dwelling constitute the structure of the city. Their bias for traditional housing types is mitigated by pairing each historical case study with a contemporary example. Despite these choices, Firley and Stahl are surprisingly skittish about their approach in the context of contemporary theory and practice: “Can contemporary schemes included be considered types, or is the current aim to produce a prototype that will keep its individualistic and singular qualities?” (p. 13). After claiming that they are not making any specific thesis or argument, thus “allowing readers to draw their own conclusions” (p. 10), they question relevance of type itself as part of the contemporary discourse.

The historical types included in the book are richly diverse, well documented, and relevant to current housing production. “Compounds” is a new typological category invented for the book. These buildings, organized around a mid-block open space that provides the primary light and air for the units, are a potential new model for high-density low-rise housing that points in the direction of modernist mat housing, but within an infill development context. Both the definition of the compound type and the presentation of several examples make a significant contribution to the urban housing discourse. Likewise, examples like the Würfelhaus type in Dresden, an eight-unit apartment building with two units per floor, have relevance in a North American context. The dense arrangement of these buildings is suggestive of the urbanism of Boston’s triple-decker neighborhoods, but at a slightly higher density.

Despite the thorough documentation of each of the historic types, the graphic choices are less than ideal. The plans do not clarify the relationship of the private domain of the individual house to other private houses and the publicly accessible tissue that connects them. A more consistent graphic language should have been deployed across all scales of plans that used the same color tones for the house, its private outdoor space, the surrounding fabric, and the public realm across the full spectrum of the plans. In addition, a subtle tone should have been used to distinguish between different units in multiunit compounds and apartment buildings. The plans as rendered make the relationship between the individual unit and the entire compound or building difficult to decipher.

Juxtaposed with the historical examples that were selected, and reinforced by the excellent documentation of each type, the choices of contemporary examples come across as arbitrary. The authors’ justification for including contemporary projects is meant to suggest that typological thinking is still relevant for design production today, without needing to outline the why and how directly. As they suggest, “the sheer existence of the contemporary examples helps to raise questions concerning the traditional types that we would not dare to raise directly due to the complexity of the topic” (p. 15).  Their tentativeness is reinforced by the decision not to redraw the plans and sections of the contemporary examples but instead use the graphic information provided by the designers.

The Urban Towers Handbook, written and edited by Eric Firley and Julie Gimbal, is the second of the three books in the series. It presents high-rises through a similar urban morphological lens. Like The Urban Housing Handbook, the case studies are well chosen and informative, and they relate the characteristics of the built form to the specific mechanics of the development process.  In the introduction, ten stories are established as the minimum threshold, and towers and not modernistic slabs are the focus. According to Firley and Gimbal, point towers have “a greater ability to integrate in an environment of smaller cadastral sub-divisions. Unlike the slab with its massive footprint, the point-tower is not necessarily linked to the urbanism of the tabula rasa and the erasure of a historically grown plot structure” (p. 15). This means that the tower flourishes in a wider range of urban conditions, allowing the authors to use the urban setting of towers as the structure of their organizational framework.

The towers are organized into several overlapping categories. The number of towers—ranging from “solitaires” to “clusters” to “vertical cities”—is the overarching framework that organizes the case studies. The exceptional status of the individual branded tower is contrasted with the role of towers in emerging and planned cities in Asia. Firley and Gimbal claim that towers have evolved to a point that “the tower by definition will lose its exceptional status” (p. 15) in city districts where high-rises are the norm. In these cases, they can be considered as fabric and used as the constituent elements of a comprehensive district plan, like low- and mid-rise buildings.

In addition to the relative isolation of a tower, its relationship to the surrounding neighborhood provides another framework for categorization. Examples of a “monument in block” such as Foster and Partners’ Gherkin in London are differentiated from examples of a “tower as block” like the same firm’s Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt. The problem with these categories is that they are seemingly open-ended and include both contextual and compositional qualifiers. For example, the Quartier du Palais outside of Paris is categorized as “Clusters—towers as urban pattern,” while the Hansviertel (Interbau) in Berlin is categorized as “Clusters—towers in nature.” Both are highly composed “towers in the park” projects. The organization of the material would have benefited from a tighter and more consistent taxonomy clarified with a single matrix that included three-dimensional diagrams of all of the types.

The Urban Masterplanning Handbook, the most recent of the three books, includes the comprehensive analysis of several seminal urban master plans proposed around the world in the past several years. More than in the earlier volumes, the authors (in this case, Eric Firley and Katharina Grön) successfully relate the physical characteristics of the plans to the development process, including the existing property ownership, the structure and financing strategy of the development entity, and the role of design professionals in both the development guidelines and the implementation of individual works of architecture. Firley and Grön not only espouse a specific theoretical point of view but also make a critique of typical large-scale development processes. As they point out, there is a tendency to “separate text-oriented from graphically-oriented participants in the development process. This might not be a problem, but the authors’ own professional experience as designing architects and planners suggests that many complications and inefficiencies could often have been avoided if the relation between the development process and intended result of built form had been analyzed as part of a fundamental consultancy role” (p. 20).

Firley and Grön’s understanding of the actors involved with district-scale planning and design includes a nuanced historical perspective. “Neither Paris’s Haussmann nor Berlin’s James Hobrecht nor Barcelona’s Ildefons Cerda was a trained architect, but they all had a clear view of what they wanted to achieve in the context of a specific set of socioeconomic and political circumstances, and this view obviously transcended investment targets” (p. 20). Likewise, they trace the meaning and connotations of “masterplanning” in relation to the role of public and private participants in complex development projects. The term applied to regional-scale plans in the early twentieth century, while today it is used only at the neighborhood scale or for grouped architectural interventions. This change occurred as a result of critiques of top-down planning in Western democracies beginning in the 1960s.

Firley and Grön point out that the word “masterplan” is anathema to planning processes led by public and quasi-public authorities.  For example, the “Legacy Masterplan Framework,” the planning initiative that was established to focus on the post-Game transformation of facilities and open space built for the 2012 London Olympics was rebranded as the “Legacy Communities Scheme” to avoid these negative connotations. However, masterplanning is a term increasingly used for private developments since control is a marketable quality rather than a challenge for democratic decision making. They explain that the term conveys confidence in professional implementation and suggests a utopian claim for a better environment. As a result, the master plan “tends to be used in the realm of urban design rather than planning, and therefore define[s] the relation between built form and public realm more than that between infrastructural networks and land uses” (p. 20).

Firley and Grön organize their case studies by land area (number of hectares/acres), instead of imposing an ordering system like that in The Urban Towers Handbook. This simpler and more manageable structure works well when the case studies are read chronologically. The underlying parcel and regulatory framework needs to take over from more prescriptive design guidelines as the development project gets larger. This story is reinforced by a concise description of the development process and site diagrams that elucidate the relationship between public and private buildings and parcels. Examples cover a wide range of planning controls, including land ownership, land subdivision, and design management. The relationship between controls and design prescription highlights the role of authorship in the development process and the boundary between coherence and monotony.

The three Urban Handbooks raise important questions about the role of cross-comparative surveys within the larger contemporary theoretical discourse.  The authors bridge the divide between academia and the professional concerns, both in their own careers and as a deliberate focus of the series. It is their hope that the case studies and format are accessible to the full spectrum of participants in the development process.  At the same time, they assert that someone “needs to take responsibility for connecting financial goals with the goals for the intended physical outcome” (p. 20). The three books make clear that the person best equipped to play this role is the architect-trained urban designer with a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms of urban development.

This professional manifesto barely buried within the seemingly dispassionate accounts of urban projects gives the books a specific kind of agency that is at odds with classic typological compendiums, professional guidebooks and anthologies, and contemporary theory. Typology books geared to a professional audience are either reference books, like the American Planning Association’s Planning and Urban Design Standards (Wiley), or photographic essays of a specific building type without the contextual information and editorial point of view of the Urban Handbooks series. Important typological compendiums with a theoretical agenda include Modern Housing Prototypes by Roger Sherwood (Harvard University Press, 1978) and Grundrissatlas Floor Plan Atlas: Housing, edited by Friederike Schneider (Birkhäuser, 1994). Both publications avoid overt appeals to professional agency but instead are the self-conscious offspring of the theory of type as qualified by Aldo Ross and Alan Coquhoun in the 1960s. Sherwood situates his book within the theoretical discourse of the time, to both legitimize his approach and nudge the theory into a more actionable terrain. Still, his arguments and examples extend an academic trajectory.

The last category of publications are polemical typological studies done by various architects as part of the Pamphlet Architecture series and components of Rem Koolhaas’s publications, including S,M,L,XL and the Harvard Project on the City series. These publications address the issue of type within a larger polemic that drives personal design agendas that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary knowledge and innovation. Despite the differences in visual and written rhetoric, the Wiley Urban Handbooks series is in some ways more similar to these texts than publications geared to a professional audience. Despite the high production values and textbook-like presentation, Firley and his coauthors make a persuasive polemical argument that the path to leadership for architects and designers is not by leading the conceptualization of infrastructure systems, as the Landscape Urbanists claim, but rather by understanding and managing the relationship between the financial structure of large-scale urban development projects and the final built form.

How to Cite this Article: Love, Timothy. Review of three volumes: The Urban Housing Handbook, by Eric Firley and Caroline Stahl, The Urban Towers Handbook, by Eric Firley and Julie Gimbal, and The Urban Masterplanning Handbook, by Eric Firley and Katharina Grön. JAE Online. November 4, 2015. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/urban-housing-handbook-urban-towers-handbook-urban-masterplanning-handbook/.