A 2,000-word piece by Andres Duany recently published in Metropolis speaks directly to the “avant garde establishment” and attempts to set the record straight on New Urbanism.
The Metropolis article was skillfully edited and reads well. New Urban Network posted a link to that article on April 15. Duany’s much longer original piece, which includes a fairly comprehensive list of new urbanists, is worth a read also. Here it is, preserved for posterity:
The Avant Garde Establishment (AGE) has developed the habit of defining the New Urbanism through misinformation, intentional and otherwise. Debate has been reduced to tiresome corrections of fact by the New Urbanists. Now Metropolis provides an opportunity to establish the actual record. Because this record was achieved by many people, I will take care to list them. The first mistake is to view the New Urbanism as a rustic version of starchitecture.
The New Urbanism is an informal movement of ideas, techniques, projects and people. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is an institution chartered 18 years ago with budget, board and staff. During the decade of the 1980s the New Urbanism coalesced around certain independent initiatives: the Pedestrian Pocket studies of Doug Kelbaugh and Peter Calthorpe; the rationalism of Maurice Culot and the Krier brothers, the anti-modernist polemics of Colin Rowe and the Texas Rangers, the empirical observations of Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman and William Whyte; the humane systematics of Chris Alexander, the typological studies of Stefanos Polyzoides; the socially astute public housing of Ray Gindroz and Dan Solomon; the uniquely American viewpoints of Vincent Scully; and the gradual emergence of Seaside as a presence resistant to being ignored. The unifying impetus was CIAM’s degeneration into zoned suburban sprawl.
The CNU was organized in 1993 by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule, Peter Calthorpe, Daniel Solomon and Peter Katz. Among the original swarm were Dhiru Thadani, Robert Davis, Judy Corbett, Mark Weiss, Matt Bell, Bob Stern, Jaque Robertson, Jonathan Barnett, Mike Watkins, John Torti, Vince Graham, Robert Davis, Paul Murrain, Alex Krieger, Shelley Poticha, John Massengale, Robert Orr, Pat Pinnell, Jaime Correa, Victor Dover, Joe Kohl, and Neal Payton. The Prince of Wales, with Hank Dittmar, Robert Adam and Ben Bolgar, mounted the comprehensive British campaign; Maurice Culot and Joanna Alimanestianu with Harald Kegler and Audun Engh, nurtured a loose continental network; Peter Richards, Chip Kaufman and Wendy Morris staked out the robust Australian CNU. There are Canadian, Cuban, Scottish, Emirati, Israeli, Italian and Guatemalan outposts as well. Michael Mehaffy fell into the influential roving ambassadorship from ChrisAlexanderland. Most of these original New Urbanists belong to the rather serious generation of 1950–the one following the (Postmodernist) generation of 1935.
The CNU is built on the chassis of CIAM, which was identified as the last design movement to have successfully changed the course of urbanism. This emulation of success, even of an opponent, was an early instance of the non-ideological pragmatism that underlies New Urbanist strategy. From CIAM came the concept of a movement rather than the individual position-taking of the generation of 1935. Also from CIAM came the congresses that develop principles for an open membership coalesced only by agreement with the resulting Charter. There are currently about 2,300 dues-paying members, with some 1,500 attending the annual congresses (CNU 19 will be held in Madison this June).
The New Urbanism is projected by expert publications. These are not vetted; they are integrated only by the logic of the Charter. The skill of our authors has been a boon. In addition to the organizers’, there are important books by Jeff Speck, Jean Francois LeJeune, Philip Bess, Henry Cisneros, James Kunstler, David Brain, Doug Kelbaugh, Javier Cenicacelaya, Robert Alminana, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Witold Rybzcysnki, Eric jacobsen, John Dutton, Philip Langdon and Emily Talen. Diane Dorney, Gabriele Tagliaventi, and Robert Steuteville are the editors of the indispensible periodicals. Some books are very popular–for example, Suburban Nation (Y2000) has SOLD about 100,000 copies, more than all but A Pattern Language and The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. As a result of these publications, the ceaseless lectures, the codes and the charrettes, the New Urbanism dominates the professional planning discourse–albeit “only in flyover country” as Professor Charles Waldheim has taken care to explain.
As the Charter shows, the New Urbanism projects at all scales; but its primary mission has been the reform of suburban sprawl, which has long been the most debilitating and the most neglected of America’s crises. This is not to say that New Urbanists have avoided the inner city. DPZ, for example, has prepared effective urban plans for eight major urban cores, and Moule-Polyzoides has done at least as many, including downtown Los Angeles. After all, the best way to discourage sprawl is to foster cities that people are loath to leave. Indeed, the head of the CNU is John Norquist, ex-mayor of Milwaukee and author of the most seasoned of the municipal primers, The Wealth of Cities. According to New Urban News, about half of the projects have been infill, not counting the scores of codes adopted to guide municipalities.
And yet few among the Establishment care to know that. The otherwise omniscient Ken Frampton was recently heard to say, “The New Urbanists … are they still around?” This professor’s disinterest is as expected at Colombia.” They make porches for white people in the South” is Rodolfo Machado’s joshing version–which the highly programmed GSD students believe more easily than the fact that New Urbanists wrote HUD’s HOPE VI standards and are thereby associated with 110,000 units of affordable housing–virtually the entire supply of the last 15 years, and with a good portion directly designed by CNU members. Then a mere scratch beyond those little porches would reveal that firms like Peter Calthorpe’s and John Fregonese’s are responsible for most of the regional planning west of the Alleghenies–which is to say most of the regional planning in this country … and it may take as much effort to avoid knowing who prepared the reconstruction plan for Port-au-Prince.
While the New Urbanism’s mission is focused, its array of techniques is open-ended. Some superb know-how has been rescued from the dustier shelves of libraries, but the real achievement has been the creativity applied to encountered situations. Innovation is not what comes first to mind from the visuals, and some New Urbanists will agree when the “nostalgic” architectural manifestation is criticized. But to dismiss all of New Urbanism because of the look of the buildings is a stupid mistake that has left the field of urban design uncontested. There is no Avant Garde alternative to the ultra-precise market research of Todd Zimmerman and Laurie Volk; or to the surrogate governing protocols developed by attorneys Doris Goldstein and Dan Slone; there are no cunning retail hybrids like those devised by Bob Gibbs and Seth Harry. (Consider Professor Margaret Crawford’s shock–SHOCK!–when discovering that mall designers manipulate their customers. How did Berkeley ever find such a shopping virgin in California?) The Establishment has nothing like the new manual of the Institute of Traffic Engineers, rammed into existence by Rick Chellman, Rick Hall, Paul Crabtree, Norm Garrick and Peter Swift; nor have they developers like Robert Davis, Vince Graham Greg Whittaker, Bob Graham, Robert Chapman, Steve Maun, Buff Chace, Joe Alfandre, Peter Rummell and Bill Gietema, who blew off the scary proscriptions of the United Lemmings Institute (aka the ULI). Where are the code wizards like Daniel Parolek, Carol Wyant, Jeff Bounds, Geoff Ferrell, Jennifer Hurley, Laura Hall, Susan Henderson, Ann Daigle, Chad Emerson, Nathan Norris, and especially Sandy Sorlien? One version, the SmartCode, is modular freeware, designed to infiltrate the 31,000 American municipalities. But then, the avant-garde considers codes a bothersome impediment, not the most powerful tool of urban design. That only the Establishment’s court jester (Michael Sorkin—who else?) has shown any interest in codes reveals the fundamental lack of seriousness.
How did the New Urbanists manage to nail down so much? Perhaps because we tend to deploy CIAM-vintage effective protocols rather than the expressive protocols of “critical theory.” But also because we are not relativists–suburban sprawl is bad news. Professor Robert Beauregard ruefully credits this certainty for our power. Granted, the notion of suburbia is occasionally noted by the Avant Garde (perhaps from the window of the train to New Haven), but it is seldom engaged beyond a sketch and a jot. Other than the historic excursions by Robert Venturi and Scott Brown to the exotica of Las Vegas and Levittown, and the brave berm theories of the Landscape Urbanists–the field is now controlled by New Urbanists.
Reforming suburbia is not a matter of styling “unprecedented typologies.” Suburban sprawl is nothing less than the principal cause of climate change. The car-dependent lifestyle of the American middle class (and now its export version) is the major cause of atmospheric and hydrological degradation–and of social and economic problems that are even more immediately debilitating. As the car keys are taken from the clutches of the aging boomers, as the national pauperization relinquishes the care of the centenary infrastructure, before the disappearance of cheap energy–the drifting wreck of suburbia will require salvage work. That is the great design challenge of the 21st Century. It is more important than massaging Asian and Muslim self-esteem, more ethical than the bestowal of surplus design on shantytowns, and more cost effective than glass-skinned greenwashing. The important work is close to home, humble and urgent. The books on suburban repair by Galina Tachieva, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are fixing to become the Towards A New Architecture of the new century–minus the charming testosterone.
But now–impossible to avoid—we must engage what matters most to the Establishment: STYLE! As the Charter states on this matter: “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” That agnostic statement should be the end of it, except that the Establishment just cannot forgive our reluctance to carry the burden of modernist architecture to the middle class, which is finally listening to someone. Why are we uncommitted to imposing style preferences? Because a familiar architecture is the camouflage that eases the passage of what are actually some very progressive agendas of ours (read the Charter). As eventually happened with CIAM, architecture becomes a tool toward an urban end, not the end in itself. Besides, over time New Urbanist building has become quite good. If critical eyes had not been so coarsened by the gesticulations of avant-garde architecture they might discern the subtle achievement represented by those buildings with pitched roofs. From the thousands of New Urbanist architectural commissions have arisen superb practices. Some are as good as architects have ever been–and the exposure to such comparison requires courage, not like the chickenshit stance of Eisenman-buildings-are-always-best-in-class-because-Eisenman-writes-his-rules (insert the name of your favorite vanguardista). Quantity is important, too, and these architects are now organized around traditional pattern books and guilds (Ray Gindroz, Marianne Cusato, Steve Mouzon and Geoffrey Mouen are catalysts) that deliver quality with the economy and efficiency commensurate with modernity’s true challenge, Guideon’s “problem of large numbers.” Plain Old Good Architecture (the basis of the University of Miami curriculum, incidentally) has taken territory from talents so tuned to the exceptional that they are flummoxed by background cultural signals. Between connecting to a normative Middle America or connecting to an avant-garde that is defined by its distance from the normal–what strategic choice could New Urbanism have made?
In fact the American middle class is just one of the “power grids” that propels the New Urbanism. Christopher Alexander at the outset advised “We all know what the appliance is … what we must now do is design the plugs that connect it to the existing power grids.” Note the plural. New Urbanism has identified power grids as the middle class and the developers who provide for them, the planning professionals with their manuals and codes, the elected officials with their policies and procedures, and the popular media with its maw for controversy and colorful images.
In four phases, the New Urbanists have connected to power grids that are now simultaneously available to propel implementation. The first came out of the market-driven success of Seaside. It turned out that many people wanted walkable lifestyles and that it was possible to market such communities profitably. This brought the developers on board. The second plug emerged as NIMBYism arose from the failed promise of suburbia. Instead of lives surrounded by nature and enjoying freedom of movement, the opposite was delivered. The New Urbanist charrettes evolved as protocol to convince the frustrated and the infuriated that our plans were part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The result was a hybrid of bottom-up and top-down planning, as the Charter and the charrette conjoin principle and process. Emily Talen has argued that this consummation may finally stabilize the historic pendulum of American planning. The ability to gain support for transit, as well as to mitigate spatially induced economic, environmental, and social problems, has plugged the charrette into the highest policy levels. Federal infrastructure grants will likely be filtered through the metastatic public processes being developed by Peter Calthorpe for California, with other states no doubt to follow. Bill Lennertz effectively played the St. Paul role in spreading the charrette as a gospel of local democracy.
The third phase was the research on sedentary lifestyles: obesity and the attendant pathologies. This compelling plug was expertly connected to the urban pattern by Joanna Lombard and the University of Miami Medical School. The health connection intensified the ethical imperative of New Urbanism, but not more so than the fourth plug. This one, to the environmental movement, is based on Professor William Cronon’s insight that conceiving of humans as “within nature” enables environmentalists to project the urban as well as protect the rural. The recent LEED-ND initiative has hardwired the New Urbanism to this environmental agenda. Led by Kaid Benfield, among those who concocted this rigorous standard were Susan Mudd, Victor Dover, Bruce Donnelly, and Doug Farr. Marred only by certain primeval superstitions about stormwater management that will require ongoing reference to Tom Low’s Light Imprint Manual, LEED-ND is already infiltrating municipalities as a shadow planning code.
What plugs have failed? Despite the technical success of LEED-ND, New Urbanism has not connected properly to environmental populism–which is not yet assimilated by “our” middle class. This is probably due to a failure to deploy visual biophilia. It is not enough that the urban pattern mitigate climate change by being compact, connected, complex, and convivial; apparently it is necessary that it look green explicitly. This stylistic void has been exploited–predictably–by the Avant Garde’s NEW darling, Landscape Urbanism. This is a very interesting movement led by the generation of 1965. Evidently they have studied closely the New Urbanism. In a classic reprise of the CNU swerve around CIAM, and closely following Professor Harold Bloom’s thesis, LU is now explicitly challenging our dominance with a swerve based on Team Ten. Landscape Urbanism is currently being analyzed by our NextGen (of 1980) and a new New Urbanism is to be expected.
The other failure has been connecting with the academic power grid. Of the 154 American architecture programs, all but four inculcate negative vibes toward the New Urbanism; it is probably the only agenda they share. The architecture schools–ornery, confused, distracted and relatively powerless–were easy enough to leave unplugged. And the disinterest was reciprocated. Academia’s penchant for speculation is not fulfilled by our stolidly verifiable world; the New Urbanists could never mimic the hand wringing and dithering that Professor Sert bequeathed to Urban Design. Now, this has finally become a serious distraction, as the culling away of class after class of energetic and idealistic youngsters hobbles our ability to deal with the “problem of large numbers.”
But there is now perhaps a way to plug in. The Academy’s recent absorption of Landscape Urbanism has created a completely new ethos of clarity and positivism–one that can be engaged by New Urbanism. We can assume that whatever is effective will be embraced (a mortal embrace for Landscape Urbanism, perhaps). We have no ideological prerequisites; only the test of American pragmatism: “Whatever works well in the long run.” This characteristic of New Urbanism seems to exasperate our best-informed critic, Professor Alex Krieger–who accuses us of being “impossible to debate as they instantly assimilate all good ideas.”
And, why not?