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"Why Do Our Buildings Look Like Crap?" | Congress for the New Urbanism

"Why Do Our Buildings Look Like Crap?"

That surely gets the prize for the most provocative session title at CNU XV.

Hank Dittmar is the one who posed it, initially to himself, as he was planning the session, which he moderated Saturday. Its less provocative subtitle was "Exploring the Role of Building Crafts in New Urbanism."

There are a lot of beautiful buildings out there in the world, old and new, but everyone knows what's behind the question.

And here's part of Hank's answer: "The skills in making places are not thought of as being as valuable as the skills in designing places or financing them."

There's another way of answering the question: So many buildings are so ugly because they are children of divorce -- a divorce between the design professionals and the building trades.

Steve Mouzon, principal of The New Urban Guild, and John Anderson, vice president of New Urban Builders Inc., joined Hank to talk through some of the issues around building skills and how they affect whether New Urbanism gets built.

Mouzon said, "We've had this divide, over the past 75 to 100 years, between what the architects provide and what people want to live in." And if you want to design the building that people will love, he said, "unless you went to one of the few schools that get this right, you have to go through a lifetime of self-education."

The goal, he said, ought to be "architecture of conviction, architecture that says, 'This is how we build here.'"

In a similar vein, but from the perspective of a builder, rather than a designer, John Anderson spoke of "the time of the master builder" who had "level of quality control that would boggle the mind of the Toyota assembly-line worker."

Local styles convey a clear sense of place. Mouzon showed pictures of a village in the Cotswolds of England, some balconies in New Orleans, some oriels overhanging a Boston street, and a street in an Italian hill town. Each image conveyed a distinctive, almost unmistakable sense of place.

This kind of traditional local architecture can be built by skilled craftsmen without an architect. Places like these also have considerable variety within a small space. But one of the ways to make a place distinctive is to exclude what doesn't belong. If you want a place to look like someplace, you don't allow in structures that could be anyplace.

This has aesthetic payoffs. It also has benefits for builders. If they work in a single style instead of half a dozen, Mouzon explained, it's easier for their crews to "get it," to understand "how we build here."

"And I'm talking trim carpenters right out of high school," he added. Builders can work from a sketch on the back of a napkin ñ and produce a building that people will love.

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