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Urban Alchemy

Urban Revitalization: A Form of Modern Alchemy

March 9th, 2015 by

Years ago, as part of my undergraduate thesis, I explored the analogical relationship between alchemy, architecture, and brewing. Alchemy, the medieval branch of “science” that involved turning base metals into gold, always fascinated me. And brewing — well, like any good undergraduate student, I welcomed the chance to spend time learning about the centuries-old art (and science) of brewing beer. All three topics dealt with the transmutation of substance, turning base materials into higher order structures (lead into gold, yeast malt and hops into beer, bricks and sticks into architecture).

Fast forward to far more recent times, and I had an opportunity to revisit my interest in alchemy, though in a more modern way. If you read this blog regularly, you might recall that I served as president of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects last year. In that role, I was able to meet a number of interesting people who are doing incredibly innovative work in architecture, urban development, and related fields. One such person, who served as the first speaker in last year’s spring lecture series, was Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a professor of public health at Columbia University. As chance would have it, a good friend and mentor of mine who sits on the AIA National Board of Directors sent me Mindy’s most recent book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted Out Cities, at the beginning of last year. The book is a fascinating ramble through cities, placemaking, and Dr. Fullilove’s personal history growing up in New Jersey, and later working as a psychiatrist and researcher in some of the country’s most downtrodden, yet historically rich and densely populated neighborhoods.


Out of all of the pictures, diagrams, and illustrations contained in the book, the one that resonated most with me is the following diagram credited to the French urban planner and architect, Michel Cantal-Dupart:

The City We Want

(Image Source: Fullilove, Mindy Thompson, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities,
New York, New Villiage Press, 2013)

This diagram succinctly summarizes the urban condition (certainly in historic cities, such as Baltimore), and as Dr. Fullilove points out, it “both organizes data and leads to a solution.” How?

NBBJ/Chase Brexton

We need reason, memory, and imagination to analyze Baltimore’s current state of affairs and to develop effective design solutions to make a better Baltimore. Without imagination, we would be consigned to accepting the status quo and looking to the past for ‘better days.’ Without memory, we would have no sense of the past, how we arrived at our current situation, and the natural, political, and economic forces that shaped our city. Likewise, without reason, we would not have the technical skills and clarity of vision required to successfully develop a workable plan to create a better future for Baltimore.

Artifact 0014

Alchemy, in the middle ages, involved mixing just the right elements to create gold, or even an elixir of life. The concept of “urban alchemy” isn’t all that different. With the right concoction of reason, memory, and imagination, we can transmute our urban environments into places that bring people together and foster health, happiness, and well-being.

To learn more about remaking our cities, read a blog post by my colleague, Keith Sullivan, “Urban Revitalization: A Vision for Strip Retail Centers.”