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.
The public character of Washington has grown around two grand plans. First, Charles L’Enfant laid out the city as a sacred grove for the marking of America’s history. One century later, the McMillan Commission restored and expanded upon that original design to include the history of the Nineteenth Century. Now, The city center has grown up in the second hundred years since then, enough for Congress to declare the Mall closed to new development. Meanwhile, the rest of the city has built up or spread out into suburbs. In light of the last fifty years, a group of traditional Washingtonian architects have developed an audacious proposal for the next lifetime of growth, McMillan Two. Fulfilling some less-known intentions of the McMillan Plan with slight modifications, this plan essentially calls for bringing Paris, mansard , Seine and all, to the Capital of the United States.
Developed by the Build DC Initiative and architect Nir Buras in particular, the design has been sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, the National Civic Arts Society, with some support from the DC chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. Buras’s philosophy draws hard from tradition: we know what is beautiful and what works – and we should do that. Downplaying strident formal innovation, the relationship buildings have to precedents in a cultural tradition guides design. For McMillan Two, France provides that tradition, particularly L’Enfant’s garden models and the Beaux-arts education of Burnham, McKim, and Olmsted. Though the partners have kept much of the project under wraps, Buras has recently begun sharing the outlines of this radical rethinking of DC’s future, namely that “Washington remains the most beautiful city in the nation.”
In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”
Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.
Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient. Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development.
Part two of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.
Against rich complexity of the old Seminary, the houses designed by EYA are then a real letdown. They carry the superficial veneer of “context” that is endemic to New Urbanist planning and its most visible error. To be clear, they are not abominations, but they are dull and only stylistically similar to the outré conglomeration across the street. The application of traditional elements here fulfills a requirement that new buildings respect the architecture of the historic landmark. Okay, sure, sounds good, but the legislation is fairly scant in the details of execution. The easy option, a cynical abdication of artistic responsibility, is to copy the notions of form in hazy facsimile and slap it on off-the-shelf buildings. Even where the designs are competent, the lack of sensitivity results in tepid mediocrity.