It’s the context, stupid
The New Urbanism has always raised the hair on the necks of many academics and opinion makers in the field of architecture. But the fear and loathing have come to a head since new urbanists became the dominant figures in planning for the rebuilding of areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Modernists like Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane’s architecture school, and Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, have attacked New Urbanism since the beginning of the rebuilding process for allegedly promoting historical styles. Early in March, a symposium at Princeton on rebuilding the Gulf Coast showed that architectural academics are not letting up. John Massengale, a new urbanist architect who attended, reported on his website that “most of the professors who spoke expressed the need to keep New Urbanism out of New Orleans.” He added that several of the professors were particularly offended by A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods, created by Urban Design Associates (UDA). Massengale writes: “ ‘This was the final straw,’ one of the professors said, showing an image of the pattern book [on vernacular styles]. ‘When I saw this I knew we had to do something.’ ” An ongoing war over architectural style is petty and ridiculous, and I don’t believe that anyone, even a die-hard modernist or traditionalist, cares that much. Almost two million housing units are built each year in the US, and these are usually built with traditional designs — badly executed though most of them are. You don’t hear architectural academics railing against these buildings — not nearly to the extent that they attack new urbanist developments such as Seaside and Celebration. Modernist New Urbanism There is in fact a long list of new urbanist projects that embrace modern styles. These include Prospect in Longmont, Colorado, Addison Circle in Addison, Texas, Mockingbird Station in Dallas, Downtown Kendall in Kendall, Florida, Metlox Block in Manhattan Beach, California, and Melrose Arch in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Upper Rock District, a DPZ project in Rockville, Maryland, is envisioned along sweeping, modernist lines. Seaside, the favorite target of ridicule of modernists, has numerous good examples of modernist architecture. The recent 2006 CNU Charter Awards lauded several places and projects with modernist architecture, including downtown Vancouver, BC, and Historic Front Street in New York City (see page 8). New urbanists’ extensive research and promotion of vernacular styles — as demonstrated in hundreds of pattern books and projects — are a reaction to the complete abandonment of traditional architecture that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, an abandonment that resulted in a loss of knowledge, which continues to afflict us today. I don’t believe many people think that a working understanding of vernacular styles should be wiped from the face of the Earth; new urbanist firms such as UDA are performing a valuable service in recovering this knowledge. The criticism from the likes of Kroloff and Owen Moss has been widely interpreted as a battle over architectural style. The controversy may sound like it is about style, and critics may even believe it is about style, but it is not. It is really a battle over context, and how much architecture should respond to context. New urbanists, after all, do not prescribe a style. The Charter of the New Urbanism explicitly states that its principles transcend style. Nor do I believe it is intellectually defensible, regardless of one’s personal taste, to attack the recovery of knowledge and the use of vernacular architecture. No, the real challenge that New Urbanism poses to modern architects is that it imposes a discipline, an order, on the built environment. In the free-for-all of single-use conventional suburban development, buildings are objects in space and architects are rarely required to respond to context. That makes architects’ jobs easier, but it makes the built environment considerably poorer. By always thinking in holistic terms, by designing with both sides of the street and even entire neighborhoods in mind, new urbanists are throwing down the gauntlet to the architectural elite. Can you design in context? Put up or shut up.