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The Municipal Art Movement

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there formed an interest in municipal aesthetics that is generally referred to as municipal or civic art. A fusion of art, architecture, and planning, it attempted to transcend the mere utilitarianism of the late nineteenth-century city and to make it a place of beauty as well. Although later criticized for attending to the cosmetic aspects of urban life rather than the most pressing problems, the movement had a strong component of idealism.

The darkness rolls away, and the buildings that have been shadows stand forth distinctly in the grey air. The tall facades glow as the sun rises; their windows shine as topaz; their pennants of steam, tugging flutteringly from high chimneys, are changed to silvery plumes. Whatever was dingy, coarse, and ugly, is either transformed or hidden in shadow. The streets, bathed in the fresh morning light, fairly sparkle, their pavements from upper windows appearing smooth and clean. There seems to be a new city for the work of a new day. . . . There are born a new dream and a new hope. And of such is the impulse to civic art.

Distinguishing between "civic art" and "art" in its usual meaning, the same writer stated,

It is municipal first of all. If men seek it they seek it not for art's sake, but for the city's; they are first citizens and then, in their own way, artists jealous of the city's looks because they are citizens . . . they so band themselves together and so commission sculptors, painters, artists, and landscape designers for the glorifying of civic art—not just because it is art, but because it is civic.9

The results of the movement are still visible all over America in the form of arches, fountains, statues, and other works of urban design and decoration. Much of the inspiration came from Europe—St. Paul's and the Thames embankment in London, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and other public areas in European cities. The motivation to catch up with the Europeans stemmed in part from the economic growth of nineteenth-century America, since it was wealth and leisure that gave us the feeling that we could afford that which was not purely functional.

 
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