Dilworth Crescent by Jim Gross
Where New Urbanism Goes Wrong
(Continued from Urban Design: What New Urbanists Get Right)
From its very Seaside roots, New Urbanism expressed a tincture of Ludite ideology. The vast majority of Seaside’s homes, in response to a ukase issued by designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are architecturally associative, anachronistic period pieces in a modern age. New urbanists deliver limited rationale for their preference for neo-traditional architecture, so one must assume that the thinking is that if traditional planning is better, than traditional architecture must be as well. The rejection of one technology, the automobile, seems to then be the basis for rejecting all new technologies.
Yet while the automobile arguably dismantled a planning normative that was in, in many ways, well refined and highly effective, and replaced effective standards with often random, arbitrary and ineffective dictates, it is a non sequitur to opine that the same is true concerning the impact of architectural technologies on the modern home. While it may be true that it is difficult for modern architecture to provide the charm and warmth of authentic traditional forms, materials and spaces, it is also clear that many improvements to modern buildings, from expanses of glass to open footprints, from energy efficiency to a plethora of environmentally friendly products, from efficient kitchens and baths to security to smart house efficiencies and a myriad of machines to make life simpler, improve lives and provide a more efficient and pleasant lifestyle.
Further, while in the past the charm of traditional buildings was rarely achieved by modern structures, it is also true that we, as a design architects, are getting much better at creating captivating architecture with scale, warmth and even occasionally a measure of charm. At the same time one can argue that associative, neo-traditional architecture rarely rises to the standard of warmth and charm associated with genuine traditional architecture, but instead often creates a poor facsimile of traditional structures, often seemingly mocking that which it intends to celebrate.
WRT I Solomon E.T.C.
The anachronistic planning geometries typically adopted by New Urbanists are subject to a similar critique. As noted above, New Urbanists have studied, absorbed and applied to great advantage the principles of traditional town planning. Yet here again in their rejection of one technology, the automobile, they seem to have rejected all – including the technological tools to survey, plan and build cities, streets, plazas and structures that are non-Cartesian in nature.
“New” Town of Kentlands by Duany and Plater-Zyberk
New Urbanism: Why Does It Look So Old?
The early New Urbanist defining work, “The New Urbanism, Toward an Architecture of Community” by Peter Katz, with an afterward by no less than Vincent Scully and essays by New Urbanist evangelists Todd W. Bressi, Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, annunciated the intellectual foundation for the movement that started in the early 90’s, and increasingly influences urban and suburban planning today. The New Urbanist pattern, ironically established in green farmland or wetlands in early communities such as Seaside, Kentlands, Windsor, Wellington and Playa Vista, has taken a firm hold on the development community, and is the established paradigm for many a development today.
“New” Town of Kentlands by Duany and Plater-Zyberk
Rejection of Technology
At its intellectual core, New Urbanism is the rejection of a technology, the automobile, and the enormous affect that technology has had not just on planning, but on the way we live. There is no disputing that the automobile has radically changed our lifestyles. The automobile affords us a great deal of mobility, freedom, autonomy, while it has made the world smaller and allows us freedom to travel, flexibility in where we live, work and play. Yet it also isolates us, places substantial demands on our time and finances, and, without thoughtful planning, renders our communities ultimately unfriendly to both pedestrian and driver alike.
The song says “Nobody walks in LA.” Los Angeles, and the vast majority of other towns and cities built since the automobile became the primary mode of transportation, are fundamentally different than those cities built before the auto. While newer cities allow more lifestyle and home choices, and certainly provide more opportunities in pursuit of a single family home, the “American Dream,” much is also lost. Postauto cities, to create a neology, provide few places to walk, to informally gather and congregate. Parks are often empty, and the mall, or its recent replacement, the lifestyle retail center, become the destinations. Though destination “lifestyle” centers fill with people, they fill largely with strangers, scores of people who share an experience yet rarely interact. A traditional town square, however, is quite the opposite – not so much a destination as a point of connection on the WAY to a destination. One who has spent time in an Italian piazza quickly observes that few people go to the piazza. Instead, one passes through the piazza on one’s way, on foot, to another destination. Walking into the piazza one is frequently distracted by a friend, market or activity, a casual social collision far more meaningful than any on Facebook or Twitter.