Skip to main content

Welcome! The aim of this series of blog posts – the ‘Foundation series’ – is to explain the underlying rationale and key ideas behind The Aesthetic City. This is first part attempts to describe the development of my ‘gut feeling’ from my early youth to the moment I discovered the world of traditional and classical urban design and architecture – a gut feeling that something was missing, that something was overlooked.

Where it started

Our cities are not what they used to be. Anyone who critically compares the pre-WW2, historical urban fabric with the later, ‘modern’ plans will discover a shocking contrast. Where the historical areas (when properly cared for) tend to look harmonious, considerate of its environment and beautiful, that what was built later often fails on all these points. Contemporary architecture and modern planning often create cold, inhumane, boring and even ugly places. Most modern environments are characterised by ‘SLOAP’ (Space Left Over After Planning), the awful little ‘nowhere spaces’, neighbourhoods are divided by huge, windy, unsightly infrastructural arteries. The architecture of today is normally bland, repetitive and ugly.

We have created too many places that suck all joy out of life

I find it appalling that so many sad, depressing places have been created in and around our cities. Whenever I see such a place I am filled with a sense of sadness, but also of defiance. I want to do something about that; my philosophy is that even the saddest places can be transformed into places that are so attractive that people not only enjoy staying there, but will consciously seek them out because of their beauty. It took me a long time  to achieve the change in thinking I have experienced. To explain how I came to this point, I need to tell you my story.

The beginning: Skyscrapers & SimCity

Since my early youth I have been interested in cities and buildings. One of my first talks in school was on the subject of skyscrapers. In the library, I found a little booklet that caught my attention: ‘Wolkenkrabbers’. My interest for buildings had been older, but this first little project solidified my passion and pointed me to online sources about architecture and high-rise construction. This was around the year 2000, when we just started to use the internet more regularly.

The booklet from 1997 with which it all might have begun. I actually found the exact edition online and ordered it as a memory to this, perhaps, pivotal moment.

My interest for cities developed in a more playful manner too. My brother owned a SNES game console and one of the games we used to play was, of course, SimCity 2000. At 12 years, I was already on the Skyscrapercity forum to see what happened in the world – at the time, I was particularly intrigued by cities like Dubai, and closer to home Rotterdam. At some point, I got convinced that I wanted to become an architect, although I later abandoned that idea. During my teenage years I visited numerous cities and learned about many urban contexts through the Skyscrapercity forum. I most frequently visited Rotterdam, as that’s where I could find most high-rise construction relatively nearby home. Of course, I still enjoyed city simulator games (SimCity 3000, SimCity 4 and similar strategy games). I did have a feeling something was off with a lot of construction projects in Rotterdam however. Although I was impressed by the towers, I did not like Rotterdams’ windy, boring, grey streets. What I disliked about Rotterdam I seemed to find in Rome and Florence, although I still couldn’t place my gut feeling into words.

The Pantheon during a high school trip to Rome

When I was about to finish high school I had to pick my next education. I knew I wanted to learn more about cities. If possible, a degree that offered an outlet for my creativity. Architecture was out of the picture at that time, as I did not like maths (which I would later strongly regret). Furthermore, I felt strongly attracted to Amsterdam. I had to move there. When I saw the opportunity to study urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, I knew that was to be the next step.

Urban Planning

My experience at the University of Amsterdam was positive at first. The first courses taught us about the fundamentals of planning; the City Beautiful movement for example, the history of Dutch cities and the later development of Ebenezer Howards’ Garden City scheme. Funnily enough, my interest waned a bit as the topics became more theoretical in nature and if they dealt with postwar planning. Although I think both the curriculum and the teachers were excellent, my creativity was not engaged enough to fully keep my attention. The lack of interest often resulted in me doodling city plans in my lecture notebooks. (If only I had known the works of Sitte, Burnham, Brinckmann, Léon Krier and others at that age…)

 

Some of the doodles I made during the lectures; endless experimentation on paper, but little substance. I missed the theoretical underpinnings of what I attempted to draw. I would have found the theories that many urbanists tried to formulate in the early 20th century (mostly German urbanists) very interesting.

My bachelor thesis was focused on Nieuwegein, a ‘new town’ nearby Utrecht. This town of about 60.000 inhabitants is, unfortunately, an example of how not to create a beautiful city. In fact, it was the unattractiveness of the city that sparked my interest. Could such towns be redeveloped to become more attractive I thought, and if so, how? My thesis, ‘The Renewal of Nieuwegein’, was mostly focused on socio-economic factors of this town, as the impact of architecture and aesthetics on socioeconomic patterns were only briefly taught at the start of that degree. I was led to believe that the aesthetics of the architecture and the urban form did not matter academically, so I completely ignored those factors. Today, I believe it is not only foolish, but even bordering on the dangerously naive not to include these themes.

Looking back, I think Urban Planning was exactly the right study for me at the time. It would take years for me to finally understand why some subjects intrigued me and why others didn’t, and why I felt something was ‘off’, like a certain important aspect was overlooked.

Nieuwegein; a ‘new town’ development nearby Utrecht, the Netherlands. It was mainly focused on creating attractive residential areas with a lot of greenery. Its housing, infrastructure and public amenities are ageing however, and the town isn’t nearly as attractive as its neighbour Utrecht. Seeing this town through a different lens, one could identify the lack of beauty and a completely wrong approach of urban design as the culprits for its current problems.

 

The Switch

After finishing my bachelor thesis, I decided I did not want to do an Urban Planning master in Amsterdam. The alternative wasn’t clear yet. To completely finish my bachelors degree, I still needed to complete a minor worth 30 ECTS. Delft University of Technology offered exactly the thing I was looking for: a minor in urban design (the minor ‘Green Blue City: Future Proof Neighbourhoods’). Pursuing this minor proved to be the right choice. Not only was it a great experience (socially and intellectually), it introduced me to the existence of the Masters programme in Urbanism at Delft. From that point on, it was crystal clear what I wanted to do.

Switching to my masters of choice at Delft University of Technology wasn’t easy. First I had to succeed in a maths test and complete two semesters of the Architecture bachelors programme. In one year, I went from doing a more laid back theoretical study in Amsterdam to working towards deadlines overnight in the very hands-on Architecture courses in Delft. There were new distractions in Delft, too. For instance, I joined a rowing team, extending my study course with half a year. It turned out that combining the brutal training scheme and working nights to meet deadlines were not compatible.

Urbanism and VRBANISM

At last, I could finally begin my studies at Urbanism without distraction. I got to redesign neighbourhoods, learned a lot about implementing measures against climate change and shaping the city ‘at eye level’.

As with Urban Planning, I felt something was missing. I had silently hoped to finally start drawing majestic boulevards, learning how to create a visually pleasing streets and creating beautiful building blocks and parks. How different reality was! Only with the knowledge of today I understand how limited our toolbox was, how we missed direction and purpose during our attempts at designing. If the notion of beauty is completely ignored, then what remains? Only the successful integration and combination of functions and the achievement of vague social goals remained.

Since the Delft design approach did not seem to care about creating beautiful places, my passion for the design profession diminished. I still feel sad that I did not discover the ideas behind traditional and classical architecture earlier – especially since I bought ‘The Architecture of Community’ by Léon Krier in the university bookshop during my masters. But even if I had, at the time I would not have found the spirit to swim against the stream and fight for ‘unconventional’ ideas.

The realisation of my disinterest for the design profession led to a pivot to a different, innovative topic that did inspire me at the time: the use of Virtual Reality.

Visualisation I made for one of the projects for the Delft Urbanism programme. The objective was to revive the public space in an ageing neighbourhood in the ‘old north’ of Rotterdam. The idea was to create a more water-permeable streets and redefining the street as a shared space. Today, I’m not sure what I was thinking or doing at the time – and I’m not impressed by my visualisation skills at the time. I do see these projects as an important part of my journey, though.

 

Virtual Reality

As I enjoyed keeping up to touch with the latest technologies, I was fascinated by Virtual Reality at an early stage. The Oculus Rift development sets had just been launched and right when I needed to choose by graduation topic, the HTC Vive was released – an ideal platform for experimentation.

VRBANISM, my graduation project, revolved around the question if VR could be used as an urban design tool. It turned out it could, even though there were some hurdles and a number of obvious limitations. By pursuing VRBANISM, I learned how to 3D model and how to work with programs like Unreal Engine.

In 2017 I graduated. Together with two other students, I started a company that used VR as a stakeholder participation tool. Although we landed some clients, I felt my vision for the future of the company didn’t align with those of my cofounders. I left the company, after which I landed a job at a Dutch engineering company, Witteveen+Bos. Our team created animations, visualisations and VR experiences to explain the often technical work to the public. Interestingly, one of the founders of Witteveen+Bos, W.G. Witteveen, was a famous Dutch urban designer still belonging to the ‘old school’ urban designers who considered the aesthetic qualities of their designs and favoured monumental streetscapes. His plan for the reconstruction of post-war Rotterdam was replaced, however. Cornelis van Traa came forward with an alternative plan – which, predictably, was less conservative and embraced a more novel, radical view for Rotterdam.

My time at the engineering firm taught me a lot and introduced me to the world of consultancy and grew my awareness of the many civil engineering projects all over the Netherlands. When the pandemic hit, it became harder for me to focus on the visualisation work. There were many exciting projects and products to develop, but again – something was missing. It was only until late 2021 when a shift occurred.

Portfolio - Ruben Hanssen
The cover for my graduation thesis: VRBANISM, using VR as an Urban Design method. If I had focused more on Léon Kriers work or if I would have known more people at INTBAU, I might have chosen another graduation topic – but alas…

The birth of The Aesthetic City

I don’t exactly remember how it began, but at some point I started to realise that I preferred only certain types of urban fabric and buildings. It took a lot of online reading and the following of more and more accounts on Twitter in the traditional architecture space to fully come to the realisation: something was indeed terribly off with the way we plan and build cities. Suddenly, people like Léon Krier, the anonymous Wrath of Gnon and some other traditional architecture proponents started to make a terrible amount of sense. Although these accounts are frowned upon by some, as their views are unfairly and incorrectly seen as ‘wrong’ or even dangerous, they take beauty in urban design and architecture serious. They introduced me to the substance behind all the things that seemed like common sense. I opened the book of Léon Krier again and I read it in a new light: there really was an alternative to our contemporary way of building. The more I read, the more enthusiastic I became – apparently, the urban design theories and methods that created the beautiful cities as we know them today have not been completely forgotten. No, they are alive, thriving even, with a relatively small (but growing) number of architects, planners and thinkers. Most of the intellectual groundwork had already been laid, most of the knowledge was already there, it only wasn’t broadly applied or even recognised.

It was only during the pandemic that I found the courage to act. I helped a friend out with setting up a podcast, which inspired me to do the same for myself. Why wasn’t there a podcast about traditional architecture and urbanism, anyway?

I quickly decided to go for it. I thought of a name, registered a domain, ordered a logo at 99designs and started a Twitter account. That was only the beginning; I planned to visit many towns, read many books, to leverage my photography skills to create beautiful content. I started networking in order to land guests for the podcast, but also to hopefully find allies in this fight for a more beautiful world.

And so The Aesthetic City was born.

The Foundation

4500 followers on Twitter, many meetings, new projects and a lot of city trips later, I finally have some idea of what The Aesthetic City could & should become.

Goal

The goal of The Aesthetic City is to achieve a real & lasting positive impact on the world by promoting more beautiful and human focused urbanism and architecture.

Products

To achieve positive impact, The Aesthetic City produces and distributes a number of products (content):

  • The podcast. This podcast is a multi edged sword. The value it adds to the world is to bring as many interesting thinkers of the ‘other way’ of architecture together as possible, while at the same time creating a knowledge base and a source of inspiration for people all over the world. The value it adds for myself is great as well, of course. I see it as a method of learning by doing, and of an opportunity to create a fantastic network.
  • Blog posts. One should write to organise one’s thoughts. This includes me, of course. I tend to make the act of writing more challenging for myself as I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure whatever I write is good. However, I should still write – there is so much to structure, so much to learn, so much to share!
  • Videos. Not everyone takes the time to read. As I love working with film and animation, the solution to this problem is simple: I can create video content for those who rather consume video content.

Future possibilities

Apart from these initial products, I have some dreams for the future. One of those would be to write a book, create a documentary or potentially both. Starting a consultancy firm would be another dream – to develop areas from dreary places to places you would want to live.

Philosophy

All these products build on a number of views on architecture and urban design that have been invented and promoted by greater minds than my own. My task is to read as much as I can in order to develop my views and perhaps to synthesise my own. But the beauty of most traditional architecture is that it makes common sense: it is closest to our human nature, it builds on use of local sustainable materials, adaptation to local circumstances, respecting human beings, embracing small scale construction and craftsmanship. Because of these properties, it basically sells itself. People just need to rediscover these virtues and understand how they can be a valid alternative to our modern world.

Conclusion & what’s next

So that’s it; a general overview of my life’s story in relation to the topic of urban design and architecture. In the next parts, I will how some of my thoughts have developed since I graduated. I’ll then describe my urban planning philosophy (which is subject to change, of course).

Ruben

Urbanist, photographer

Leave a Reply

two × two =