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Session: The Other Illness | Congress for the New Urbanism

Session: The Other Illness

For many CNUers, the Congress is a time to rendezvous with like-minded people, inspire each other, catch up on news, and feel motivated by how much the New Urbanist movement has accomplished. Dan Solomon, principal of WRT Solomon E.T.C., a co-founder of the CNU and author of Global City Blues, believes that on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Congress, it is past time to take stock, to clearly evaluate where the movement has fallen short, and then to address those issues.

Solomon was the opening speaker at Friday’s session titled “The Other Illness,” and he argued that it is vitally important to talk about what’s wrong with the CNU. His opening remarks were followed by Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Ellen Dunham Jones, director of the Architecture Program at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Stefanos Polyzoides of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists.

Solomon’s point of view is that there are two critical ideas fundamental to the premise of CNU but that the CNU has failed to embrace. That failure has hurt the New Urbanism movement and made it less effective. The ideas? The first is environmental and the second is cosmopolitan architectural eclecticism, which has two parts – placemaking and blurring distinctions between race and class. For placemaking to occur, rather than the “mindless homogenization that is part of globalization, we need real architectural literacy. CNU has not offered much,” Solomon said. “Why is it that architects who are seriously committed to these ideas feel homeless in the CNU…Why don’t we celebrate them and why don’t they celebrate us?”

In order to explore this issue, Solomon contrasted the very different viewpoints of two prominent practitioners: Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates and a co-founder of the CNU and Rafael Moneo, the former chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard. Calthorpe, Solomon said, “is a man of deep principles who is indifferent to architecture. He considers much of what architecture is preoccupied with to be hermetic, elitist, and self-referential.” Moneo, who represents the culture of high architecture, “doesn’t believe in the existence of architectural principles.”

Kelbaugh said that “the world is better off for Calthorpe’s focus on larger issues. He is principled and idealistic.” He said the antagonism that exists between the architecture profession and New Urbanism is “sectarian tribalism.” He also said that his school of Architecture has paid a heavy price for being associated with the New Urbanist movement. “It’s a little bit like being a Communist in the McCarthy era,” he said. He went on to explain that architects are hostile to New Urbanism because the movement “pulls the rug out from underneath architects, from their mandate to be creative, which is central to their very being.” He also said that New Urbanism has overdone its negative reaction to modernist and contemporary architecture. In terms of good architecture in New Urbanism, he said it is rare outside of Seaside, and that is the main reason that architects have fled or rejected New Urbanism.

“New Urbanists are tough as nails about mixed-use, density, streets and alleys. Why can’t they be as tough about the design of institutional and public buildings?” Kelbaugh asked. He concluded by saying that there is a way out of this, for the “two tribes” to come together.

Dunham Jones said that while she shares Solomon’s concerns about the role of architecture in New Urbanism, her take was more optimistic. She said she was originally seduced by New Urbanism’s radical agenda and goal of addressing the problems of sprawl. She said that in its early days, New Urbanism promised to challenge architects to imagine what a new city should be but what’s happened is that “the style of buildings is not as important as getting the planning right.” New Urbanism’s typical neotraditional architecture does not provide the role for architects that was originally promised, she said. She also said that some of the New Urbanist architecture is “astonishingly good” while the bad can be kitschy. “Some academics have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that is stylistically regressive; they also think it is regressive socially, which is patriarchal,” she said.

She said that her feeling was that New Urbanism was becoming too predictable, that she feels that everyone believes that design matters, and that the movement is at a point where New Urbanism is embarking on a new role for architects. “Density and mixed-use are ideas that have become more widely accepted, which means that architecture’s role doesn’t have to be to market the plan. Now architecture can both comfort and challenge us,” she said.

Polyzoides read a letter that he and his wife and partner Elizabeth Moule recently wrote to their pastor when star architect Richard Meier was selected to design an addition to their church. In the letter, they discussed how a building should have lasting value and be beloved. They derided multimillion dollar, elitist construction that “does not have the shelf life of a box of twinkies.” The letter also urged that the pastor poll the congregants on their ideas for the structure in a process that should be “radically inclusive.”

After the presentation, Peter Calthorpe commented from the audience that the “greatest failing and greatest success of New Urbanism is overreaching. From day 1 we overreached,” he said. He also put the divide between New Urbanists and architects squarely at the feet of the architecture profession. “Self-recrimination may be useful but it’s not accurate,” he said. “The architecture profession is so self-involved and self-referential. This is not our failure, it’s theirs. Architects in large part can’t rise to the challenge. We have laid the groundwork for a more coherent landscape for them to operate in and they have failed.”

Solomon responded that complaining about architects would not accomplish anything, and that the CNU has some culpability. One example he gave was the CNU Awards Program. He questioned why the CNU is not reaching out to celebrate great architectural projects.
He concluded by asking “Why don’t we celebrate them and they celebrate us?”

Dunham Jones invited anyone who wanted to explore this issue further to either suggest it as an idea for next year’s Congress or to propose a CNU Initiative on the topic.

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