This lecture by Andres Duany is probably the most important lecture on the topic of Landscape Urbanism this year. The essential takeaway of the talk is that New Urbanism has become aware of the landscape-informed design practices that have been percolating up into practice and academia – and the better practitioners are about to engage them, either as an opponent or an ally. It’s easy to dismiss the lecture as a retardaire hit job on the movement, but the critique heralds the conflict and dialogue that will come along with the completion of landscape urbanist projects, the dissemination of its ideas, and the reaction of architects outside of academia.
I could write reams about his perspective on history or the take on form or why he excludes so much of the interest in infrastructure. I am tempted to get into a CNU kremlinology of what compliments are genuine (he was, after all, the co-founder of Arquitectonica) and which are the clever rhetorical devices of a very smart and charismatic man. Instead, it’s just better if you watched it yourself.
I want to talk about my favorite way to explore and study a city. Let me be upfront with you. All I’m really going to say in this post is “get drunk and walk around.”
More specifically, get together a group of friends, conceal-carry a tasty alcoholic drink, and start walking down the street. In the dark and with diminished inhibitions, a cadre of walkers can become closer to the city than at any other time. When empty and dim, even the canyons of Midtown can seem intimate, as the view from a mountain can be both accessible and impossibly vast. Add friends and a moderate amount of booze, and it becomes a kind of private party on the move, with guests arriving as the group passes them.
Now, the best way to analyze a city is simply to walk around in it; just to see, in an uncritical way, the functioning of an urban environment. This kind of study is called a “transect,” which is not exactly Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Transect zoning system, but it is the underlying idea. Taken from ecology, a transect is an activity where the participants examine conditions along an unbroken line, basically creating a section of a lake, or a rainforest, or a city. The technique has shown success because it enables a holistic understanding of a city, exploring the weave of the so-called urban fabric.
Best, but not the most fun. There are two problems with an academic transect: It is, um, academic. Walking around to observe human-building interaction has consistently proven to be one of the least enticing activities to my friends. On a more personal level, expectations of what sort of urban environments work can interfere with observation. Reason and language get in the way of simple experience. Disarming guarded faculties is critical to being fair and free – and friends are a great remedy for crotchety ol’ critics.
The solution, then, is to turn the transect into a social event. Everyone I know who’s tried a boozy walkabout has had a good time – with repeat customers. Who needs an outdoor café to get that feeling of urbane place? Grabbing a bottle of Coke and mixing in some bourbon not only saves you a stack of cash, it also lets you see more of the city. When the conversation fades you can just take a look around at the beauty and the oddities that surround you, and likewise you can tune it out with conversation.
The evening is the best time for this kind of fun. Evening into night, where you begin in the remnants of the workday, pass by diners on the street, and then you hit peak inebriation at the same time as nightlife gets ebullient, before finally reemerging into consciousness in the cool and sleepy streets. In this time, you see age groups come and go in turn, old, young, and youthful. Before heading home, you and your friends have explored a little bit of the city, learned a little bit, but it won’t feel like an expedition.
There are no books, no notes, and no theories weighing you down. You feel the city, both its living and sturdy parts, and you share these feelings with others. There’s community from the common experience. Connections grow, even between those in the group and those who aren’t.