The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.
You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.
For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.
Art & culture
Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.
The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.
For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.
In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.
Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.
But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.
But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.
Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.
1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.
“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”
The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.
Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.
Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.
“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”
Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.
What it all means
Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.
Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.
Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.
For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.
Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr