"The new capital city for Alaska should be a great city . . . a good city . . . a bold city . . . which will make all Alaskans proud and hold up a compelling vision for the State . . .
"It should be fun . . . a handy and happy place . . . rationally planned, but without making its citizens feel that their unique individually is regimented into confirmity . . ."
This and more - a sizable stack of exhortations, gudielines and statistics - is what Alaska's Capital Site Planning Commission told five urban design teams from different parts of the country. They were given less than four weeks to come up with a sketch plan for that great, good, bold, unregimented fun place.
Today, in Anchorage, the five sketch plans will be presented to the commission, and the teams invited to evaluate each other's work in public session. Thus enlightened, the commission will take a week culling what it considers the best ideas from the five proposals. It will also pick the team that will put it all together in a master plan designed to convince skeptical Alaskans that they need and can afford a new capital.
"It is not really a competition," says Morton Hoppenfeld, the commission's executive director. "It is a method to elicit the most creative thinking we can bring to bear on a difficult urban design problem."
Hoppenfeld and his consultants - among them Rivkin Associates, a Washington, D.C., planning and research firm - has done a good deal of thinking himself before he contracted the five teams of architects, landscape architects and urban designers, most of them nationally prominent.
Hoppenfeld started his career as chief urban designer of Washington's National Capitol Planning Commission. He is much acclaimed for his part in the physical as well as social design of Columbia, Md., one of America's first and most successful new towns since World War II, Hoppenfeld was also instrumental in the futile effort to turn Hartford, Conn., into a model of livability.
He serves the Alaska capital planning commission on leave of absence from the University of New Mexico, where he is dean of architecture and planning.
Hoppenfeld's and his commission's thinking so far already assures that the proposed Alaskan capital will be radically different from other recently built seats of government, such as Albany, Chandigarh, or Brasila. It promises, in fact, to become the very antitheses of these modern monuments.
Albany, of course, has been New York's state capital since 1797. But what was left of its historic atmosphere is crushed under the pompous weight of Nelson Rockefeller's new, skyscraper-lined mall - a forbidding, despotic abstraction that relates to the old town, to nature and to people as would a parade of Egyptian pyramids.
Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian province of Punjab, was designed by Le Corbusier some two decades ago. It is less forbidding, but just as abstract as the Albany mall, although far more exciting to look at Le Corbusier designed not only a city. He also designed the way people ought to live. They are doing their best, but still don't seem able to make themselves into the creatures, Le Corbusier wanted them to be.
Brasila, inspired by Le Corbusier's dreams of an ideal city is not a human settlement so much as a supersized abstract sculpture which people are allowed to inhabit much as ants inhabit Mayan temple cities.
Hoppenfeld's goals and "design determinants" say nothing about the grandeur and majesty of government, which is what Albany, Chadigarh, and Brasilia are trying to impress us with. Instead it says: "There is no need to transplant the traditional, authoritative sense of government structures which few today find easy to respect."
The commission wants it to be a well working capital (where the governor can walk to the capitol), a place that "would be as comfortable with the pomp and ceremony of grand occasions as with the normal comforts of informality which are the tradition of Alaskans."
Specifically, the new city is to be designed with nature, including human nature, as opposed to a defiant "grip on nature" which is what Le Corbusier said a city ought to be.
Nature, to be sure, is excessively domineering in Alaska. And in their constant struggle with nature, Alaskans pay little heed to the niceties of architecture.
Many of them live in mobile homes. Some yards are cluttered with as many as eight motor vehicles - not only cars, but snowmbiles. Land rovers and small airplanes. Obsolete machinery is seldom discarded because it may yield spare parts.
The Alaskan attitude, says the writer John McPhee, seems to be 'build now, civilize later.' Anchorage, the state's largest city has a glassbox downtown for the oil companies and visiting businessmen, and then, as McPhee put it, lurches zonelessly outward in a carnival of cinderblock, rubbled roads, roadside businesses and neon signs.
Anchorage, with its 200,000 residents, has half of the Alaskan vote and sees no need for a new capital. The present one, Juneau, a hamlet with no access other than by airplane weather permitting, seems perfectly sufficient.
It seems that the dram of a few for a new capitl city in a wild, unspoiled, but more accessible setting, prevailed a only (afer a good deal of politics and a popular referendum) since Alaska stands to earn as much as $3.5 million a day from royalties on its oil concessions.
That might buy a city of Taj Mahals. But Hoppenfeld's "design determinants" call for a simplicity that borders on the humble. What is to be imposing and majestic about the new city is only its site. The chosen one is where two wide glacier valleys cross at the foot of Mt. McKinley, 30 miles north as the crow flies from Anchorage near a tiny town called Willow.
The site slopes steeply and includes some cliffs along Deception Creek, a river that runs through the designated town boundaries. The views are breathtaking. It can get as hot as 90 degrees Fahrenehit and as cold as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. To begin with, 30,000 people are supposed to live in the town.
They are to live in an arctic hilltown.
The "design determinants" are refreshingly specific as to how to build and not to build for these conditions - stressing the need for views as well as protection from icy winds. They call for trees and play areas and easy walks (not drives) to school; semien-closed walkways for trees to grow and people to walk outdoors during the long winters; easy access to skiing and bicycling; good lighting during the endless hours of arctic darkness; strong but warm colors; and post offices, libraries and other public buildings with large lobbies to encourage informal "neighborhood interactions."
Hoppenfeld and his commission are equally concerned with the new city's "interaction" with nature. There are to be places where Indians and Eskimos feel comfortable. There are to be green corridors so moose can continue their migration down from the mountains without colliding with combustion engines or too much humanity. Bears are to be virtually invited to partake of garbage without human interference.
Salmon spawnin Deception Creek, so the urban designers are told not to obstruct the riverbed and to provide crossings for bicyclists, hikers and animals.
The very concise and illustrated "design criteria" include hundreds of further details - including the need to reduce alcoholism by providing suitable diversions, Government buildings are to be closely clustered to keep government officials in touch with each office and the public and to keep government personal and human.
The well-thought-out plan does not, of course, guarantee that the designers will meet all these criteria - and meet them at a cost the people of Alaska are willing pay. And yet, this approach to the design of a new town is in itself encouraging and innovative.
Hoppenfeld's design method, to be sure, is designed for the unique conditions and needs of Willow, Alaska.
But the failure of modern urban design is largely due to the fact that it did not similarly consider the unique conditions and need of Albany, Chandigarh or Brasilia. They remain abstractions.
Hoppenfeld tries to design for people.