Athena medal celebrates David Lewis’s urban legacy
David Lewis, the pioneering educator and founder of the firm Urban Design Associates, became the fifth recipient of CNU’s Athena Medal for lifetime achievement in a November 6th ceremony in Pittsburgh. The medal, whose recipients are chosen by CNU’s board of directors, was presented to Lewis by CNU President and CEO John Norquist.
Lewis came to Pittsburgh from England in 1963 to establish one of the first urban design graduate programs in the country at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is now emeritus distinguished professor. At a time when it was fashionable to focus on the iconic value of individual buildings, Lewis saw a larger purpose for architecture in creating “components in the perpetual rebirth of cities.” Lewis founded Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh 1964 in order to develop these ideas in practice and to seek out and refine ways of engaging citizens in the design process.
In receiving the award, Lewis — an innovator in the development of charrettes and other methods of public participation — stressed that he’d achieved nothing in his career alone. “The essence of urban design is teamwork. And by teamwork, I don’t mean only the professionals. I mean the citizens, to whom all cities rightfully belong.”
Defender of the city
The Athena Medal is named for the goddess, defender of the city, weaver of fabric. It recognizes the legacy of pioneers who laid the groundwork for the New Urbanism movement and its efforts to reestablish traditions of valuable and enduring urban design and development from the scale of the building and block to the region. Lewis joins past winners Leon Krier, Christopher Alexander, Denise Scott Brown, Robert A.M. Stern, and Jonathan Barnett. While other medals have been presented at CNU’s annual Congress, the award for Lewis was presented in Pittsburgh, in conjunction with a speech by Prince’s Foundation Chief Executive Hank Dittmar, in part because of physical limitations on Lewis’ ability to travel.
In his remarks, Lewis emphasized the importance of distinguishing between history and tradition in the practice of urbanism. “History is the study of the past. Tradition is the bridge between the past and the future. Unlike history, tradition is open-ended, forward-looking, and perpetually unfinished. It is the vital language that citizens use when they relate local heritage to what they want their community to become in facing the challenges of change.
“All of us learned to talk as children. Spoken language comes automatically to us. We seldom give a thought to the fact that most of the words we use are centuries old. Yet, in spite of the age of the words we use, we have little difficulty in expressing new thoughts every day of our lives. The same is true of urban language.”
After more than four decades in urban design, Lewis showed he hasn’t let up in pressing for the principles he believes in.
“I am always amazed that in our architecture schools, we continue to train students to design buildings as egotistical art-objects, as though architects have a divine right to disregard the traditions and urban form of the cities into which they insert their statements. And I am constantly amazed that our professional journals continue to applaud willful buildings that violate the urban contexts in which they are located, as though exciting architecture is only possible to the degree that it’s contextually inappropriate.
“Buildings do not exist in a vacuum. Every city has its own language. When we travel from one city to another, what we enjoy is getting to know the language of that city, its streets and its rivers, its squares and its markets, its history and its people. And the deeper we delve, the more intriguing the city becomes for us.”