The lengthy thread called “CNU is burning” began on the TradArch listserv with architect David Rau’s ringing expression of concern that the Congress of the New Urbanism, which recently met in Buffalo, is opening its doors too widely to modern architecture. This has been a worry of mine for years, but it apparently has reached a new and terrifying peak. My Thursday column will deal with that, but I want to rerun my two columns about CNU-16, held in Providence in 2006, before the “CNU is burning” thread runs out, if it has not already. I will post them in succession, one right after the other.
So here is the first column:
The New Urbanists in Providence
June 1, 2006
STARTING TODAY, Providence hosts the annual convention of the group whose ideas best reflect those of the late Jane Jacobs. Like the great urbanologist in her own time, the Congress for the New Urbanism is being sniped at by modernist architects and planners. Providence is in their crosshairs, too, so we welcome the CNU to our foxhole.
That the CNU holds its 14th congress in a city rather than a suburb, and so shortly after the death of Jane Jacobs, holds great symbolic meaning.
One accusation hurled at New Urbanists is that many of their projects are on unbuilt suburban and exurban land. Of course, critics never mention that the New Urbanism’s short blocks, mixed uses and walkability are illegal under conventional zoning, or that its traditional designs are frowned upon by many officials who implement the zoning. Nonetheless, the CNU aims to export Jane Jacobs’s urbane sensibility to the suburbs, where most people live.
Even a city like Providence, with so much intact historical fabric, struggles against modern planning and design practices. Providence’s historic districts would be illegal to replicate under current zoning if they were destroyed by a fire, flood or hurricane.
In spite of these obstacles, developer Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr., who chairs the CNU host committee in Providence, has pursued the revitalization of Downcity (a district in, not a synonym for, downtown). In fact, the theme of this year’s congress is “Developing the New Urbanism: Implementation.”
Crucial to Chace’s effort has been an overlay code – basically a system of exemptions from the city’s zoning code – crafted by the leading New Urbanist, Miami architect Andrés Duany, his wife and partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and their firm, DPZ. Since 1992, they have led Providence through a series of planning sessions (“charrettes”). Implementing the Downcity Plan has been slow and costly, because of both the zoning and the municipal culture, as Chace knows so well. But the plan’s urbanity is bearing fruit in a livelier, more artful downtown – albeit at a price difficult for starving artists to afford.
The first major New Urbanist development was Seaside, Fla. A beachfront community designed by Duany with housing for a range of incomes, Seaside had a traditional look and feel that was so popular that house values rocketed out of reach for most. Modernists attacked its architecture as nostalgic façades covering a multitude of bourgeois sins — as if a white picket fence could transform a family of four into a collection of hypocrites. Good grief!
And yet, since Seaside, New Urbanists have built or planned another 600 such communities. They are expensive because, like historic districts in cities, they remain rare. As more new communities are patterned after traditional neighborhoods, their cost will decline. After all, as Duany points out, historic districts are merely typical neighborhoods built before modernism. Architectural and planning elites can sneer all they like, but America isn’t listening.
It seems, however, that Duany and others may be listening. At last year’s conference, in Pasadena, the host committee honored Frank Gehry – the antithesis of the New Urbanism. The cover of Duany’s latest book, The New Civic Art: Elements of Town Planning, features Gehry’s ridiculous Guggenheim Bilbao. Increasingly, modernists have been invited to participate in New Urbanist projects.
Will Buff Chace now propose a modernist project on the site of the Grant’s Block, in Downcity? Will his CNU host committee honor Capital Center’s new Glass Box in Diapers [the GTECH headquarters] – the modernists’ first big victory over Providence in 15 years?
Let’s hope not. The CNU got a huge boost from its southern Mississippi charrette after Hurricane Katrina. It has now been hired to design the rebuilding of southern Louisiana outside of New Orleans. Lake Charles unanimously approved Duany’s plan after citizens’ enthusiastic reception. Increasingly, municipalities around America are joining developers in seeking out New Urbanist alternatives. Seeing is believing. Traditional developments’ popularity with the public threatens to overturn the modernist dogma that traditional design is inappropriate for “our era.”
The modernist attack on Andrés Duany and the CNU has been led by the dean of Tulane University’s School of Architecture, Reed Kroloff, who condemns the New Urbanism as “treacly, sugar-coated, neo-precious architecture.” His ideas for a “Newer Orleans” make Frank Gehry look like Charles Bulfinch. Maybe Kroloff will be invited to design a town hall for the next New Urbanist community.
Not likely. Yes, modernists who accept New Urbanist principles are welcome. But that’s unlikely, too. So let’s hope the CNU resists modernists trying to worm their way in. They did it to the old urbanism. That’s why we need the New Urbanism.
New Urbanists visiting Providence should enjoy what they see on tour, but learn from what the tours avoid. The CNU must not let the modernists spin poor Jane Jacobs in her grave.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: email@example.com.
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Illustration, from early version of Downcity Plan, of the intersection of Eddy and
Westminster streets, in downtown Providence