European Concepts and American Realities

European Concepts and American Realities

by Carola Hein

Migration has shaped cities for many centuries and in multiple ways: Newcomers transform local infrastructure and the built environment in general through their need for housing, trading and storage spaces, and worship and leisure locations. Emigrés leave traces of their former presence there too, and their departures occasionally make room for new migrants to fill. Beyond these direct effects of migrants on the city, there is a whole range of indirect influences. Perhaps most notably, professional architects and planners carry knowledge with them on their permanent or temporary migrations, and they are eager to implement these theories and methods of planning, whether in new settings or in their home cities. Analyzing these professional migrations provides further insights into the multiple facets and forms of migration and their impact on the creation of local urban forms and practices.

While the numbers of such professionals are small, their impact can be huge, as they translate their ideas into master plans or buildings that affect entire cities. Such transfers of architectural and planning concepts have occurred through colonization, industrialization, globalization, and rising mobility. What ideas planners take with them, however, depends on planners’ cultural preferences and their search for what could be useful for development at home. As German modernists, such as Walter Gropius, examined American industrial architecture, they translated their finding into icons of the modern movement such as the Bauhaus of 1926; at the same time, young American architects studied in Paris, using neo-classicist architecture such as the Opera by Charles Garnier to design American buildings such as the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House (Arthur Brown, 1932).

The destruction of cities also induces international exchanges. Disasters may call for international experts to travel. More importantly, however, wars, particularly the two world wars saw extensive voluntary and involuntary migration, including that of leading architects and planning professionals before, during and after the conflict. These individuals influenced both power structures in countries that participated in the conflict as well as neutral ones. The dissolution of the German Bauhaus under the Nazis in the early 1930s and the consequent global emigration of planning professionals to countries around the world spread modernist ideas that came to be used in the urban transformation during the postwar period. Extensive post-war travel of planning professionals as consultants, on study tours or for conferences on post-war rebuilding after World War II went hand in hand with the migration of large groups of population. Transformed global power structures in the postwar period shaped post war rebuilding in war-destroyed countries and urban renewal in others.
Maurice Rotival and his Global Network: French Training, South American Work and Urban Renewal in the US

Many European migrant planners settled for the long term in new locations and started to rethink their new homes, adapting their skills and convictions to local conditions. How they pursued their careers depended on political, economic, social, cultural and other conditions in their new home. For example, architects (including Walter Gropius, who came permanently to the US in 1937) found it easier to integrate themselves into their US profession than their colleagues in urban planning (such as Martin Wagner who came in 1938 with the help of Walter Gropius). While architects had multiple opportunities to practice, urban planners felt the absence of comprehensive frameworks and planning controls that existed in Europe and that provided an important basis for the planning profession.

Among the planners whose ideas most strongly shaped postwar American cities were many Europeans, including well-known architects with a strong interest in urban planning: Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Jose Luis Sert and Constantin Doxiadis. They had all left Europe for different reasons and were following different trajectories, but they all influenced American post-war discussions, and shaped buildings and cities in North and South America and beyond, while continued to influence European debates. Coming from different European schools of thoughts, they continued their discussions in the US, pitching, for example, German preferences against French doctrines.

The French-born planner and Paris-educated urbanist Maurice Rotival (1892-1980) came to the US via Algiers and Caracas (on Rotival s.a. (Hein, 2002b, Hein, 2002a). He did his first work in urban design when the destruction of the First World War provoked strong calls for urban planning. Like many of his colleagues, Rotival had been trained as a pilot in World War I and made sketches of enemy positions. This activity trained him to survey regions and cities from the air, which he continued to do throughout his career. War more generally afforded planners new travel opportunities and new technologies, altering their visions of cities and their attitude towards large-scale demolition and rebuilding.

The new distance between planners and their object of research, and the appearance of the expert planner, concurred with the advent of new means of visual representation. Social cartography and anonymous mapping techniques brought about the development of zoning and large-scale urban renewal. (Söderström, 1996) The war period set the stage for European rebuilding after World War II and postwar American urban renewal. Rotival himself likened the role of the planner to that of a military person, stating "the planner makes war against chaos and unhealthy conditions with time being a major factor for a valid intervention.” (1) 

Rotival considered planning an apolitical science, a means to stabilize society, promote democracy, and protect against communism—a concept that would resonate with post-war American ideas. Urban transformation and the transmission of planning ideas accompany economic growth in many cases and are often major functions of economic development. In the 1930s, at about the same time that the CIAM (the International Congress of Modern Architects) debated new urban development principles, Rotival received an invitation to plan the transformation of Caracas. Rotival conceived that city as a future central point of inter-American exchange. Typical of his planning approach was the integration of public and private activity: The public sector would build the main infrastructure, and, following the ideas of laissez-faire politics, private investors were to enlarge minor streets. Such an approach might have appealed particularly to American clients who poured into the newly oil-rich country.

Caracas served as a hub for an exchange between expatriates. Here Rotival became acquainted with the Rockefeller family, whose members were pursuing Standard Oil interests, and their architect Wallace Harrison. They helped him secure a professorship at Yale, which he started in 1939. In the surrounding city of New Haven, Rotival had the chance to apply and refine his regional and urban planning principles.

The US, with a new awareness of central planning needs and possibilities in the 1940s, was ready for a planner like Rotival. Meanwhile Rotival was ready to reframe his doctrine to fit the ideas and needs of US postwar urban renewal. The municipality of New Haven approached Rotival in 1940 to develop a comprehensive plan for the city. This desire to revitalize the center corresponded with Rotival’s doctrine of bringing high-speed infrastructure to the heart of the city. He presented his first proposal for New Haven in 1941. Local officials criticized its gratuitous monumentality.

In 1942, the City Planning Commission adopted his second plan as the official master plan for New Haven. The functional elements of the first plan – ensuring high-speed traffic access to the center of New Haven, and establishing commercial and administrative functions in the core -- were maintained in the second plan. In contrast to the earlier version, however, Rotival preserved the traditional urban layout, while adapting it to new needs. By 1943, New Haven had fixed the main urban and architectural elements for the transformation of New Haven, as well as future infrastructure and zoning. As in Caracas, civic leaders and business organizations were supposed to cooperate in carrying out the plan. (With his suggestion that the inner city have highway access, he introduced a new concept - contrary to the beliefs of the CIAM followers, such as the emigrant Germans in the Harvard circle - which Eisenhower applied at the national level in the 1950s and 60s.)

But the funding necessary to implement this plan came only with the federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954. These acts invented “urban renewal” to replace what planners considered to be inner-city slum areas, and allowed local leaders to transform city centers for civic, cultural and commercial purposes using extensive, war-like, destruction. Because it already had the 1942 master plan drawn up, New Haven was able to tackle its urban renewal very early and the city became a model for urban renewal in North America in the post-war period.

While interested in the improvement of the living conditions of all citizens, the leading elites who carried out the New Haven plan understood citizen participation as collaboration between the local elites in the public and the private sector. In Rotival’s eyes, planning was a tool for the elite, aimed at creating a stable system; he did not, however, take general popular intervention into account. It is thus not surprising that his era came to an end with the onset of citizen movements in the 1960s and 70s. Now anti-capitalist activists, such as Maurice Culot, advocated that planning involve all citizens, a conceptual difference shown by a comparison of their two articles on participation published in 1976 in the French magazine Urbanisme. (2)

By the 1940s, Rotival had worked in two very different cities and planning contexts and his work had shifted from the monumentality of the Caracas plan and the first New Haven design to the functionalism of the second New Haven plan. While the projects for the two cities differ in their design attitude, Rotival’s status as a major advisor to the elite was the same, and his conceptual attitude shows continuity. And all of his plans were based on ideas that had originated in Europe. Even though the USA was not directly touched by the war, the urban renewal methods used after the 1949 Housing Act resemble large-scale demolition and zoning approach of planning and reconstruction in Europe.

By the late 1950s, Rotival had established himself as a major player in American planning and was receiving invitations to work in France. The radical transformation that he and other planners proposed for cities in the US and Europe included elements of urban design, minimal historic preservation, and limited citizen participation that have roots in both continents and therewith stand as examples of transatlantic crossings.

Short-term migration and European inspired plans: Edmund Bacon and James Marshall Miller

American planners had long looked to Europe for ideas that could be useful in regard to their goals for American urban form. Post-war American planners continued that practice. For their goal, the transformation of American cities, they looked to post-war rebuilding in Europe as well as to particular European planning practices, such as the central role given to planners. Their American counterparts pursued similar goals within cities dominated by 19th century built form, promoting a radical destruction that had to precede renewal, as a necessary byproduct of their effort to adapt. They did not only look towards postwar European reconstruction, but also to historical planners and planning processes that are more embedded in the European culture and history.

The Philadelphia-born and raised planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) referenced European designs and the great names of European urban planning in his plans for Society Hill, Penn Center, and Market East in Philadelphia between 1947 and 1970. Bacon admired Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) for his reshaping of Rome and William Penn and Thomas Holme for their plan of Philadelphia (1682) and seemingly wished to have a similar position of power to apply his own ideas to Philadelphia. He did head the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, and described these projects as preface to the presentation of his own planning principles in his book “Design of Cities.” He particularly emphasized the need for a top-down “organizing concept,” or a “design idea” that can inspire consensus and provide a focal point for development (instead of waiting for and responding to private piece-meal initiatives). Bacon not only drew on European ideas, but worked with his friend, the German emigrant Oscar Stonorov, exemplifying the close ties of American planning to European practice.

In 1951, the groundbreaking for Penn Center, one of his major projects, started with a five-year old girl, a descendent of William Penn, waving a Geiger counter over a box and provoking a small explosion with a mushroom cloud and “atomic fallout”—a reference to Hiroshima and a macabre image of migration of ideas. This inaugurated urban renewal in Philadelphia with a clear reference to war-destroyed Europe and Japan with a focus not on destruction but on the opportunities presented for rebuilding. (3)  Meanwhile Time Magazine highlighted the “bombed-out look” of Manhattan featuring it opposite of Philadelphia’s Society Hill project. (4) Federal policies mandating postwar rebuilding and urban renewal gave extensive powers to politicians and the business sector, who would not otherwise have had the necessary funding for these interventions.

While many of these projects appear dull today, the work of these planners inspired astounding synergy and set in motion a renewal that anticipated the future and breathed new life into decaying American downtowns. They preserved some old structures as part of a process of “creative destruction” that adapted the old to modern requirements.  Their designs formed the framework of our contemporary cities with their urban highways, office districts, and pedestrian precincts.

Another key figure in the American-European exchange of the 1950s was James Marshall Miller, whose planning principles integrated European ideas and American concepts. (on Miller s.a. (Hein, 2004) Miller had worked in the office of Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright, who designed the plan for Radburn, New Jersey (1928), the “city for the motor age,” and Greenbelt, Maryland, one of three planned “green” cities of the 1930s, where Stein served as consultant, and apparently Miller had been inspired by both of these designs. These plans were aimed at a very homogenous population and did not consider differences in needs of mobility and space (for example, according to age or gender). In 1958, Miller organized the First International Seminar for Urban Renewal, held in The Hague, which brought together experts from the United States and various European countries to discuss aspects of the urban renewal process. Each participant submitted a detailed report about the legal and administrative framework for planning and renewal in their native country. These reports were later published under the title New Life for Cities Around the World: International Handbook on Urban Renewal. (5) Central to the conference debates was the need to adapt traditional urban centers to modern activities. Participants felt that the preservation of existing buildings was a waste of money and that only a few buildings should be retained as historical documentation.(6) 

Such postwar conversations between Americans and Europeans highlight the ways in which American planners approached urban renewal: In the absence of war-destroyed cities, American decision makers used a war-like approach—including the assumption of broad decision-making powers, financing, a rapidity of realization—that continued American war-time efforts and resembled the rebuilding of war-destroyed cities in Europe and Japan.

As politicians and planners sought new ways to handle the physical, economic, and social challenges of big cities, to adapt cities to the automobile-age and the economic needs of modern society, and to provide healthy and functional living spaces for most people, including the migrants that came to the US after World War II. They looked at war destruction in Europe and Japan as an opportunity and accepted the radical and war-like demolition of large areas of American cities that preceded renewal, as a necessary aspect of planning. To achieve this extensive rebuilding they referred to and relied upon pre-war discussions, some of which had been brought to the US by European planners who had had come emigrated to the United States to stay.


Short-term and long-term migration of planners, study trips, conferences, and changes in the location of architect’s practices and their teaching, have shaped architectural and urban form since the emergence of the planning profession in the late 19th century. Political affinities and economic networks as well as cultural preferences have played a role in the shifting prominence of specific migrations. As relationships changed between nations—in the 20th century for example through world wars, the cold war, and the creation of the European Communities, as well as the emergence of the United States as the most important economic player—professional networks and migratory flows transformed and shifted.

We can see that the personal interests of a particular professional influence what they try to implement while migrating. Particular personal histories, preferences, and the imagined form of the “Other” furthermore inform the exchange of ideas. Work by Europeans in the US, collaborations between immigrants and native-born Americans, American visions based on European discussions—these different types of transatlantic learning reflect as much of what is happening on the other side, as what is happening on the planner’s home front. Architects readily use foreign examples to inspire and underscore their viewpoints in their own cultures or in their new homes.

(1) Rotival, M.E.H. & Ass., Aménagement de la région du Nord, Reconnaissance 1 région du nord, région économique n• 1, Paris 1962, p. 3
(2) Culot, Maurice, "Bruxelles: Le terrain d’un combat anti-capitaliste", in: Urbanisme 153/154, 1976, p. 122-3
(3) Rotival, Maurice, "Etats-Unis: La participation -- Acte de planification", in: Urbanisme 153/154, 1976, p. 124-5
(4) Doug Hassebroek (1999). Philadelphia's postwar moment Perspecta, 30, 84-91. (1964). The City: Under the Knife, or All For Their Own Good. Time, 84, 60-75.  p.60.
(5) J. Marshall Miller, ed., New Life for Cities Around the World: International Handbook on Urban Renewal (New York: Books International, 1959).
(6) See: Miller, J. Marshall, Cities-eternal or disposable, n.d. (1958), Hein Archives.


  • (1964). The City: Under the Knife, or All For Their Own Good. Time, 84, 60-75.
  • Doug Hassebroek (1999). Philadelphia's postwar moment Perspecta, 30, 84-91.
  • Carola Hein (2002a). Maurice Rotival: French Planning on a World-Scale (Part I). Planning Perspectives, 17, 247-265.
  • Carola Hein (2002b). Maurice Rotival: French Planning on a World-Scale (Part II). Planning Perspectives, 17, 325-344.
  • Carola Hein (2004). The Capital of Europe. Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union, Westport (CT), Greenwood/Praeger.
  • Ola Söderström (1996). Paper Cities: Visual Thinking in Urban Planning. Ecumene, 3, 249-281.

November 2012


Carola Hein is Professor at Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania) in the Growth and Structure of Cities Department. Her current research interests include transmission of architectural and urban ideas along international networks, focusing specifically on port cities and the global architecture of oil. With an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship she investigated large-scale urban transformation in Hamburg in international context between 1842 and 2008. Her books include: The Capital of Europe (2004), European Brussels. Whose capital? Whose city? (2006), Brussels: Perspectives on a European Capital (2007), Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945 (2003), and Cities, Autonomy and Decentralisation in Japan. (2006).


Carola Hein is Professor at Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania) in the Growth and Structure of Cities Department. Her current research interests include transmission of architectural and urban ideas along international networks.