The Shops at Playa Vista
Why Has Playa Vista Failed?
Saturday afternoon, June 6. It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon, not too warm, not too cool. A perfect day to stroll, window shop, sit outside for lunch or a coffee, a fine day to take the kids or dog to the park. There is a nice collection of shops, restaurants with beautifully furnished sidewalk dining areas and a Coffee Bean with its signature outdoor seating area and fire pit. There are great street trees, flowers, and the park across the street is beautifully green.
Playa Vista, while long since excommunicated by its elite New Urbanist designers including celebrities Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, adheres to most if not all of the 12 defining elements of New Urbanism. The shops and park are in the discernible neighborhood center. Most of the dwellings, varied in type, are within a 5 minute walk of the shops and park. The shops are somewhat varied (though a key daily trip generator such as a real market or drugstore seems to be missing).
Playa Vista is dense and filled with playgrounds and parks. There are a variety of outdoor features within a short walk of every residence, many enticements to draw people outdoors. The streets are narrow and human scale, the sidewalks tree lined, the landscape lush. Pedestrian and auto zones are clearly defined. This is a pleasant place to walk. There are enough cars parked to make the place feel safe and lived in, yet not so many as to make it feel as though people are not welcome.
Central Park at Playa Vista
The architecture is varied in scale and in density. Further, this project has been around for a few years. The landscape is maturing nicely, and most of the homes are occupied. Prices have been high, so there is plenty of affluence throughout the neighborhood – disposable income, freedom to get out and be active. The designers got most things right. This is LA’s most significant New Urbanism.
Yet on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June, the streets were largely empty. Only a handful of people were enjoying the park or the shops, the outdoor dining enjoyed by but a few. There were no more people around on this balmy Saturday in June than one would expect to see on a cold Monday morning in January. This ideal New Urbanist environment is empty. The community of residents remain in their homes, or they have climbed in their cars and left their neighborhood – just like every other suburban Angeleno does on a Saturday afternoon.
Why has Playa Vista failed? Why is it, in spite of its pedestrian streets, shops and parks, devoid of people?
I will outline the reasons I believe it has failed in a future post. Look back here in a day or two, or subscribe to this blog in the box on the right. I would welcome your thoughts as well – please add to this conversation below.
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.
Butterfly City, Korea by GlobalDesign Workshop
Beyond New Urbanism
Principles of the Past, Technologies of the Present, Vision for the Future
(Continued from Where New Urbanism Goes Wrong)
It seems that the intent of the New Urbanists is to recreate Old Urbanism, inclusive not only of those time tested principles based on human nature, but also the specifics of architecture and planning that were based on the available technologies of the time. We respect the former and reject the latter.
Throughout history, architects and planners have adopted the technologies of the day. Gothic cathedrals, for example, were technological wonders. Even periods that looked backwards, such as the Renaissance, celebrated technological advancements, such as Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome on the Florence Duomo. Prague is a city that proudly displays many architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Functionalism and contemporary. Yet in their time, each of these styles was new and controversial. The favorite building of Czechs, for example, the “traditional” Art Nouveau Obecini Dum, was extremely controversial in its time. Yet each of these styles, developed largely due to advances in technology, contributes to the richness that is Prague today.
Support the study of what has worked in the past, the application of principles gleaned from that study applied today and for the future, and the incorporation of those principles with the technologies, materials and methodologies available to us today. We reject the forced adaptation of those technologies, materials and methodologies to the sensibilities and aesthetics of the past when the principles neither support to require that adaptation.Prague, Czech Republic
Should a “green” home be forced to resemble a nineteenth century dwelling? Should all contemporary cities be forced to adopt the rigid geometries of the towns in which those nineteenth century dwellings were built? What of our Butterfly City in Apahae-do Korea, designed based on planning principles largely shared by New Urbanists, yet beautifully and metaphorically shaped? What of Daniel Liebeskind’s recent design for Seoul, which, while arguably lacking public plazas, is beautifully massed and creates outstanding pedestrian streets? What, for that matter, of Prague, Rome or Siena, none of which were built on any sort of grid?Seoul City, Korea by Daniel Libeskind
We believe in an architecture that celebrates today’s culture, today’s lifestyle, today’s technologies while incorporating the principles developed over centuries of design and planning. There is no need to reject one or the other.
House in Seaside by Alexander Gorlin Architects
What New Urbanists Get Right
(Continued from New Urbanism: Why Does It Look So Old?)
New Urbanists have wisely studied, analyzed and understood the best towns and cities that predate the auto – urban environments built for people, not for cars. Rather than generating town planning principles based on the paradigm shifting automobile, New Urbanists returned to the archetype refined through five thousand years of human history, have understood its essential ingredients, and crafted those ingredients into an urban design template for cities that accommodate the automobile, but are built for people. Pedestrian circulation, not autos, is the major form determinate. New Urbanists have adapted city planning principles based on people and quality of life to the needs of the automobile, rather than adapting city planning based on the auto to needs and lifestyle concerns of people. 12 of the defining elements of New Urbanism (as defined by Wikipedia) describe an outstanding place to live:
The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 1/4 mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles, and families, the poor, and the wealthy may find places to live.
At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change.
“The New Urbanism, Toward an Architecture of Community” started the movement well with its thoughtful and foundational analysis of the towns and cities of the past. The essays in the book suggest a thorough understanding of streets and squares, open space and urban rooms, walking distance, defensible space and public to private hierarchy. It is a planning paradigm that accounts for daily needs, for a trip to the grocery, a stroll with the dog, a rush to school or work. It is timeless planning that does not require people to travel to a destination to experience (yet rarely interact with) people, but instead provides multiple opportunities for interaction, discourse and even lifelong relationships in the midst of everyday living.
“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.