Thursday, May 06, 2010
We've Had A Century Of Urban Experimentation, and It's Made Our Cities Worse
YOU MIGHT THINK we all realize that. But in Village Vices: The Contradiction of New Urbanism and Sustainability at DesignObserver.com an Australian planner argues that what we need is more experimentation.
There are so many assertions in this article - and in Lerup's comment on the article - that I disagree with that it's difficult to know where to begin. But let's start with an easy one: New Urbanism is not based on "the village." Related to this village-based characterization of New Urbanism (and despite Lerup's comment), New Urbanists are working in Port-au-Prince, and other places like Kingston, Jamaica, Karachi, Pakistan, Mumbai, India and Havana, Cuba. Here in America, Miami, Florida joined a growing list of towns and cities that have adopted a form based code.
To turn Durack's argument around, she is essentially saying "let's experiment on our cities," even though her profession has been doing that for more than half a century, with disastrous results (Ville Radieuse, urban removal, towers in the parking lot, massive urban freeways, Broadacre City, auto-based planning, etc.) Conversely, New Urbanism adopts *any* method or technique that works, valuing the successful making of cities over theory or ideology.
Durack's proposal is consistent with what architects, landscape architects and planners have been doing since the days of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and CIAM. Those ego-based experiments have ruined cities around the world but have failed to produce a single successful city.
It's also consistent with what Lerup taught me many years ago, when I was a freshman in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. Lerup was one of the teachers in the core program for first year students, a program which I left because I found the principles they taught so limited and constricting that I thought they made it impossible to make good places larger than the single building. In retrospect, I think I made the right decision in transferring to another school.
PS: Under the direction of Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one ofthe founding Board members of the Congress for New Urbanism, the University of Miami School of Architecture has worked with the Haitian government and Partners in Health to train Haitian urban designers in emergency recovery techniques and long term planning. Her husband and partner Andres Duany, another founding Board member of the CNU, has donated large amounts of pro bono time at their office for the creation of emergency housing for Haiti, with 1,000 units donated to the country. I don't know of any similar efforts by the Landscape Urbanism that Durack describes.
PPS - only for the hard core: Durack makes a number of comments I question. Here are a few:
As she says, she offers no supporting evidence and "wants" to be a "renegade" voice - in other words, it seems, Landscape Urbanism's argument is flexibility and Landscape Urbanism opposes New Urbanism, so New Urbanism must be inflexible.
I suspect, however, that the village and sustainability are inherently contradictory concepts. This suspicion is offered as a polemic, based on neither empirical data nor a comprehensive review of the literature. My purpose is to voice a renegade opinion on the merits of New Urbanism and its dubious claims to sustainability, and to draw attention to an altogether more sustainable alternative that has been explored in recent projects.
The problem is that it's another straw man.
It could be that the New Urbanist village is just another seductive, formal prototype that is successfully diverting our attention from the overwhelming challenges of exploding urbanization in a world whose limits we have only recently realized are tangible. Perhaps all this proselytizing about a “new urbanism” and its captivating fantasies of village life is just a way to avoid confronting planning and design issues we are not even sure how to think about, let alone resolve.
"It could be..." "Perhaps..." Sort of, "I don't like this, so I'm going to say whatever negative things pop into my mind..."?
On the other hand, since many of the principles of New Urbanism come from what has worked, we can evaluate the models. Landscape urbanism proposes experimentation, so it is harder to evaluate.
Admittedly, we cannot accurately evaluate the impacts of New Urbanism until more communities have been built and occupied for a sufficient amount of time.
Climate change is an issue we have to deal with now. If we leave it to the next generation, they will be in dire straits.
My point is only that if we define sustainability as keeping options open and inviting our children to satisfy their own ambitions, within the same limits of consideration for the next generation, then the village as a model is antithetical to these objectives. And if we want to pay more than lip service to ideas of cultural diversity, environmental justice, freedom of expression, opportunity and democracy, then we have to embrace an open and indeterminate urbanity that allows these qualities to flower.
Re democracy, the polis is the place where democracy was born and has always flourished. In places where we experimented with different forms - as in the Parisian banlieus, exurbia and the Modernist housing project - democracy suffered.
The whole relationship of arts and architecture to novelty is deranged in the West. Only a starchitect can make something so strikingly new that you have that moment of "artistic satori" when you see it (Gasp! OMG! That's so ugly that it's fascinating!...like a train wreck!).
I recently spent some time at Rhode Island School of Design, and was struck by how disinterested were the budding young artists in such things as incremental improvement, practicality, and workability.
Anything but inauthentic, "academic" art...was their motto. Only now, the academy requires the bizarre and "fauve"-like, rather than realism.
This compulsive innovation is as true for neighborhoods as it is for single buildings, IMHO. Heck, Americans couldn't even leave Rugby and Cricket alone...Americans had to have "football" and baseball.
There's something to be said for innovation in architecture, but even the revered innovator Frank Lloyd Wright notoriously made uncomfortable, even downright unlivable buildings.
The Phillips 66 office in Bartlesville Oklahoma has a pentagonal elevator that is a constant headache, and non-standard parts make it both unreliable *and* expensive. Fallingwater is a moldy, unlivable mess, but open to the public as something sensational to gawk at...an architectural freak show, so to speak. Etc.
One wonders that the kind of artistic sadism we currently revere is the product of some wider societal illness. After all, we do have predatory lenders, and current agricultural policy makes a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup (practically poison) cheaper than a calorie of carrot...
Who would treat their kids or family that way, besides the Marquis de Sade?
Anyway, to build something that is livable, we'd have to be more like Easterners. Confucian reverence for precedence really permits innovation, but in the service of that tradition's intent.
Unless we have infected them with our thinking, there's no shame in re-telling a story, or in building the same thing repeatedly. A Western art department (never mind architecture) would condescend to call such repetition "mere craft."
Yet the Japanese had to show us how to make a car, not because they put six wheels on it, and drove it upside-down, but because they came up with cup holders, and other amenities that made cars more reliable, comfortable -- that made them really *work*.
To appreciate the cultural difference, listen to "This American Life" and their show about NUMMI...extraordinary. (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/nummi?bypass=true)
As long as we can't build the same building repeatedly, and perfect it, or the same, traditional neighborhood, we're shooting ourselves in the foot.
Sustainability requires a new relationship to innovation.
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