The Architectural Debate Over New Urbanism
What’s all the Fuss over New Urbanism?
Posted by Robert Orr, Master of Coworking New Haven @ The Bourse Coworking Loft
Frequent posts on The Bourse Coworking Loft blog address issues of urbanism since urbanism is considered a key component of Coworking. Coworking is based on the fact that enterprise and imagination find far greater productivity in the company of like-minded people, just like the success of enterprise and imagination of people living in the thickly settled environment of cities.
New Urbanism, as a movement, has been a 30-year unearthing of those qualities which contribute to successful urbanism. Successful urbanism is simply those places that make it really worth it to be human.
Although architects initiated the New Urbanist movement thirty years ago, and architects succeeded in attracting a host of other professions to the principles of New Urbanism over the decades, today the profession with the largest suspicion of New Urbanism is architects.
Architects’ suspicion of New Urbanism comes from the observation that a majority of buildings constructed in New Urbanist coded projects evoke traditional styles rather than modern. Even though the traditional styles are not required by New Urbanist codes, and even though architectural style is consistently cited by New Urbanists as having low priority when compared to their main agendas, the style issue alone has been enough for most architects to dismiss the entire New Urbanist effort to resuscitate human-centric urban places.
Below is a post by New Urbanism founder Andrés Duany with colleague Sandy Sorlien, which addresses the architectural debate over New Urbanism.
THE ARCHITECTURAL DEBATE
By Andrés Duany with Sandy Sorlien
The most intractable criticism of the New Urbanism is that its associated architecture is traditional in syntax. To the actual urban propositions as presented by the Charter, there is usually little objection. But the modernist establishment is not inclined to compromise on anything as important as style, and so anathema has descended from the academies on everything New Urbanist.
It need not be so. It is easy to explain what New Urbanist architecture is meant to be by quoting the applicable principles of the Charter:
19. A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.
20. Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.
25. Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city.
26. All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather and time. Natural methods of heating and cooling can be more resource-efficient than mechanical systems.
Admittedly, these principles do establish standards that curtail absolute freedom of expression, though none precludes modernist architecture, as Principle 20 makes explicit.
Why then, does traditional architecture predominate? There are several reasons: it offers a more cost-effective environmental performance (the “original green” argument); its conventional construction is more durable, mutable, forgiving, inexpensive, and easily obtained; it is culturally associated with most places that support pedestrian activity. But none of those are the main reason: traditional architecture pervades New Urbanism because regular folk prefer it—and those folk constitute the middle class, of which there are currently 430 million worldwide and set to double each coming decade. It is they who drive around for everything, live large on the land, and entertain themselves with consumption in a public realm entirely dedicated to shopping. This lifestyle is the principal cause of climate change, so it is not a trivial issue.
The preference for traditional architecture was apparent from the inception, when Seaside’s modernist buildings (yes, they exist) ended up as a small minority, a proportion that has recurred in most subsequent New Urbanist settlements. The preference manifests itself wherever choice is available, and, in the United States at least, the middle class has choice. Unlike the constrained markets of Europe, where the regular folk (and even the special folk) are pleased to secure any dwelling near their preferred location, in North America when someone does not like a particular design, there is another one readily available. This may be disheartening to modernist architects, but it cannot be for New Urbanists. However appealing it is to cultivate savvy upper-class patrons, or help out unquestioning underclass victims, those of us concerned with urbanism must deal with pesky customers. An urbanist does not have the opportunity to meet these customers—and to bring them along, like architects do clients by personal charm, intimidation, and other wiles, to an adequate level of sophistication. With customers, a building which does not “connect” will have them looking elsewhere soon enough. To operate, the New Urbanists cannot hold these middle class folk “outside the discourse” as the academy does.
The New Urbanism is an urban reform movement—and that is quite ambitious enough. It has not taken on an agenda for architectural reform, and so modernists have not forgiven this failure to care desperately about what is most important to them. But it wasn’t always that way. It is now usually forgotten that the first generation of New Urbanists were educated as modernists, and some of us were pretty good at it. Only when the urban agenda took over did modernism have to give way. Even after architecture became a secondary concern, the New Urbanists were accepted by the academy in the early years as interesting and insurgent outsiders (the record of teaching, awards and publication is evidence). Only later, when the movement began to prevail, becoming the source of many architectural commissions, were the New Urbanists said to lack sophistication and perhaps solidarity by not directing the available work to modernists.
But we did so direct as much as was tolerated by the market. At Seaside alone there are modernist buildings by Walter Chatham, Deborah Berke, and Alex Gorlin (about ten by these three), as well as buildings by Sam Mockbee, Victoria Casasco, Scott Merrill, Machado and Silvetti, Aldo Rossi, and even Steve Holl’s first large building. Many of these are first-rate (albeit “of their time,” and so slightly musty today), and all were permitted within the Seaside code—that satanic instrument of Southern fascism.
The reason there are not more modernist buildings is simple: the customers did not want any more of them. Well before the confrontation at the sales office, the preference of the people becomes very clear in the charrette process when some firms present excellent renderings of modernist buildings. Unless they are mid-rise, they don’t survive scrutiny. The house, it seems, must be traditional—and the house constitutes the great majority of North American urban fabric, even in those “urban” stalwarts Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, Washington, New York, and Toronto. Manhattan, as usual, is the blinding exception.
Is it too painful for architects already reeling from the concept of “customer” to propose that the New Urbanism might have conscripted traditional architecture in support of its urban reform agenda? But before I discuss that cynical possibility, I should make my own perhaps naïve reasoning explicit. I practice New Urbanism as a means to increase the sum of human happiness (the best blended metric) and I believe happiness is self-defined. It seems cruel to impose my architectural preference on the lives of others. If people prefer a certain style for their dear homes, I will argue their right to have it. This position is not unusual in the United States as it flows directly from the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which happens to be the greatest marketing slogan ever devised. Other New Urbanists, I should make clear, practice with a preference for other agendas, among them the reduction of atmospheric pollution, responsible land use, social equity, better allocation of public funds, and so on.
Now, back to the reality of implementing urbanism: traditional architecture is sometimes deployed by New Urbanists as camouflage. Its familiarity (aka “revolting nostalgia”) serves to ease the passage of such scary urban techniques as connected street networks, declensions of density, public transit, interspersed socioeconomic diversity, and commerce adjacent to dwellings. New Urbanists cannot deny themselves this powerful political tool for the sake of imposing an architecture that has for 80 years failed to become popular. We will not carry that old water bucket for the modernists.
But what of the well-intentioned ecological architects who are also modernists? Does that ethic not trump style? Again, to take climate change seriously, modernists cannot avoid the middle class. The critical problem is not, as the Landscape Urbanists pretend, the hydrology of the land, to be salved by the application of an ornamental biophilia—the problem of climate change emanates from the hydrocarbon of the cars, and that is the concern of the New Urbanists. The academy’s preferred client, the patron, may have a large carbon footprint individually, but there are too few, even in the aggregate, to matter. The academy’s other clients, the hapless poor, already have minimal carbon footprints. There is no avoiding that it is the middle class in its overwhelming numbers that is causing the world’s environmental crises. Any supposedly “green” architect who is unable to engage them will achieve next to nothing.
To overcome this division, we have in the past offered strategies for a rapprochement. One, by John Massengale, proposes a critical assessment that takes account of good, better, and best potential outcomes, explicitly acknowledging that the architectural playing field is not level, that buildings are to be judged within the limits of their circumstances. But if even the official AIA periodical, presumably representing all architects, is too snobbish to accept that distinction, imagine how it goes down with the elitists of the academy!
In the end it is not rational; it is a problem of simple prejudice. Modernist architecture no longer exists as a common set of positivistic propositions (that notion finally expired after the Case Study Houses). Rather, it is defined as the residue after the application of an arbitrary set of proscriptions: arches, columns with tops, moldings, symmetrically pitched roofs, brick, clapboard, latex paint, muntins, sash windows, and a few other perfectly harmless architectural elements are categorically banned! All else is allowed (think about this). This amounts to a suicide pact with society because it is precisely these banned elements which most easily connect with the middle class. And, really, what is the harm?
But never mind that! There is perhaps another strategy available: to develop a tendenza. A tendenza emerges when architects convene to resolve and agree on issues, resulting in shared syntax—enough so that the middle class can evolve a connoisseurship. It is not that the regular folk are terminally against modernism; it is just that they cannot be expected to understand the personal proposition of one architect and then be robust enough to withstand the whiplash of another’s radically different conception. Where tendenzas have emerged, evidence shows that modernist architecture becomes locally popular. They have developed in Miami Beach in the 1930s, Southern California in the 1950s, Ticino in the 1960s, the Sea Ranch Coast in the 1970s, and in Austin during the 1990s. If such regional tendenzas were to again be consciously fostered, modernist architects might develop a middle class patronage and thereby engage the campaign against suburban sprawl.
One more thing: Why does it behoove the New Urbanists to support modernists, when they are already so well served by traditional architects?[i] Why bother carrying this bucket now? Because it is now clear that the anathema of the academies is undermining the dissemination of our work. It cannot be that class after class of young, talented, and idealistic architects are deflected from their heroic destiny in ecology and taught instead to perform for the fickle opinion of a very few, possibly corrupt, critics.
The proposal made here, therefore, is that the rupture between the academy and the New Urbanism, based on a matter so trivial as the look of a building, can surely be overcome by method and by forbearance. A tendenza is one such method. One way to induce a tendenza is the local discussion of these propositions:
GENERAL AGREEMENT ON ARCHITECTURE
In response to a global environment that can be seriously affected by the pattern of human settlement, we agree that:
Good, plain, practical buildings must again become commonplace.
While architecture can express conditions, drawing critical attention to them, it can also improve them directly. To improve conditions directly is by far the more effective design strategy.
Contemporary buildings should be denied all implied dispensations. They should be held to as high a standard as were their predecessors. The means available today, after all, are not less.
It is irresponsible to impose untested or experimental housing designs on the poor. The likelihood of failure in such cases has proven to be very great, and the poor are powerless to escape its consequences. Architects should experiment, if at all, on conscious patrons of the art.
Observation of the current situation should not result in the conclusion that the regular folk will accept only mediocrity.
Architects should participate in the political arena, guiding the built environment at the largest scale. It is risking failure to determine urban policy in the absence of those with knowledge of design.
Architects should participate in urbanism, which would otherwise be abandoned to the abstractions of zoning codes, traffic, and finance.
Architects, like attorneys, should dedicate a portion of their time without compensation to those who do not otherwise have access to design services.
Architects should harness those systems that make the best design available to the greatest number. Only what is produced in quantity is consequential.
Architects should engage the producers of manufactured housing, open-source products, and plan books, as these are the most efficient methods for achieving affordable housing. Their low quality is the result of being shunned by architects.
Architectural expression should assimilate cultural and climatic context no less than the will to form of the architect.
Buildings should respond to their context. If an existing context is not suitable, then it is proper to inaugurate one that is. While buildings should engage the character of their place, influence can travel along cultural and climatic belts to positive effect.
Private buildings should be visually recessive and collectively harmonious, lending themselves to the definition of the urban space. Civic buildings, however, should be individually expressive of the aspiration of the institutions they embody, and the inspiration of their architects.
Architecture should be responsive to the imperatives of economics and marketing while not being dominated by them. It is the role of architecture to civilize commerce.
Architects should also be gardeners and urbanists.
Architecture should engage engineering and sociology, though only as supporting disciplines.
Architecture is independent of politics. Buildings should be able to transcend their inaugural condition to become useful and beloved in subsequent circumstances. It is a falsification of history to consider a style intrinsic to this or that hegemony or liberation.
Graphic techniques should not determine the design of buildings. Computers should remain as labor-saving devices and not become determinants of form. Because something can be depicted does not mean that it should be constructed.
Buildings should incorporate authentic technical progress, but not for the sake of innovation. Mass production should affect the process of building, but it is not necessary that it determine the form.
Each building should be coherently composed. A building’s visual complexity cannot be the surrogate of an absent urbanism. Authentic urban diversity results only from multiple buildings by many designers working in sequence.
Design controlled by known rules is preferable to the subjective opinions of review boards. Contrary to myth, without rules, the default setting in North America is not innovation and excellence; it is kitsch.
The language of architecture should be in continual evolution, but not under the thrall of short fashion cycles. Architecture is not a consumer item.
Participation in a perennial avant-garde is an untenable pursuit that consumes those who attempt it and results in architects at the peak of their abilities being marginalized merely because their time of fame has passed.
Architecture should be practiced as a collective endeavor and not always as a means of brand differentiation in pursuit of the attention of critics.
Architects should not perform for the opinion of a very small number of critics—critics who are empowered only because they are recognized as such by architects. Those who do not possess the experience of building should not be granted undue influence on the reputation of those who do.
Architects should develop a direct voice in the periodicals, explaining their work themselves. (Architects should effect this demand by canceling their subscriptions to those publications that do not agree.)
Architects should endeavor to disseminate their work in the most popular media. How else will the people learn?
Architects should convene regionally to attemptto clarify and converge their thinking. One reason many regular folks remain so ignorant is that the withering individualism of buildings prevents them from developing connoisseurship.
The architectural vernaculars of the world should be the subject of systematic study as a basis for ecological design.
The longevity of a building is crucial to its ecological performance. Construction technology should result in buildings that are both durable and mutable as required. This is usually achieved with conventional materials and time-tested detailing.
The assumption that only the high-tech offers green solutions is a fraud, as it results in unnecessary expense. The “original green” was exceptionally cost-effective, as in the past there was nothing to waste.
Old and new buildings should be assigned equal standing, as they provide parallel, persistent realities. Their evaluation should be pragmatic and not a function of chronology.
Additions and amendments to historic buildings must be allowed to be either harmonious or contrasting, as best determined by the architect.
The design schools should accept the responsibility of teaching a body of knowledge, and not attempt to incite individualism. Students should be exposed to more than the few geniuses of each generation. Emulation of the exceptional does not provide an adequate model for professional training.
The wall between history and design must be torn down. The achievements of predecessors are the basis of all human progress.
Architectural history and theory should also include the masters of administration and development. Students who are not seduced by form-making might be inspired by such role models. Industry, government and finance are sorely in need of their design abilities.
Apprenticeship should again be an available alternative to academic instruction. There has been no more effective method of learning architecture. Most of the finest buildings of all time were the result of apprenticeship, while most of the worst have been the result of architecture curricula. There is a lesson in that.
[i] The quality of hundreds of houses in only the Florida resorts of Seaside, Rosemary, Alys, and Windsor is so high that ideological opponents of New Urbanism should avoid first-hand experience, as it is difficult, having actually visited them, to maintain the misconceptions so necessary for their polemic.