New Urbanism’s easy choice

Kentlands, Md. (emrisse.com)

Kentlands, Md. (emrisse.com)

It is often said that New Urbanism is “agnostic” as to style. Even the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism says so. Rob Steuteville, who edits the urbanist journal Better Cities & Towns, has written an essay, The Four Stages of New Urbanism, that deftly maps its growth since the late 1980s. It notes that New Urbanist architecture has grown “more varied and robust” since the early years, when the NU brand of traditional streets emblazoned itself in the public mind, creating considerable financial success and great hope for new beauty in America’s cities, towns and suburbs.

I would debate half of Rob’s characterization, but would rather merely ask which street most people would want to live on. One is affordable housing in Philadelphia and the other is a new suburban town in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. It is hard to afford, but that is true, in part at least, because traditional, pre-war streetscapes are still illegal in many places. Let more of it bloom and its price will decline. But as a purely aesthetic matter, it cannot be supposed that people seeing these two places will be “agnostic” as to where they’d rather live. Agree? Disagree?

Rob Steuteville’s article is on the PDF below.

four-stages

Paseo Verde, in Philadelphia. (phila.gov)

Paseo Verde, in Philadelphia. (phila.gov)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to New Urbanism’s easy choice

  1. Robert Steuteville says:

    New Urbanism doesn’t solve the problems with the architecture and building culture, nor does it resolve the conflict between those who favor tradition or modern architecture. However, architects who favor the human scale and beauty benefit from how New Urbanism influences the way places are built. The Charter sets the foundation for contextual architecture and building and complete communities. Arguably, it levels the playing field between traditional architecture and modern architecture. While classicists may not like the modern building above, especially the slanted pillars in the corner, it also does many things well. It is affordable housing, which no doubt puts limits on the budget. A lot of people would choose the transit-oriented neighborhood in North Philly–especially since it is more affordable. Leaving that building aside, I’m not sure what more the fans of traditional and classical architect expect from the New Urbanism. It creates more possibilities and settings for good architecture, but doesn’t guarantee it. That’s the job of architects and builders.

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    • westfall2 says:

      Settle for half a loaf or fight for the full loaf?

      Like

    • abdaigle says:

      Very well stated, Rob. To architects bemoaning the state of architecture in NU as well as in existing urban centers: it is you who need to fight for more of these project commissions. Why are you not winning them? Are you proposing traditional buildings that function well, look and feel great to the end users, customers and developers who build them, and can fit into the program’s bottom line? If more trad archers designed something other than houses for the rich and civic buildings and focused on hard-working urban fabric buildings (like mid-rise mixed-use buildings, apartment houses, attached townhouses) then more people would recognize that traditional and classical architecture is relevant, and evolving with the market. Phooey to the schools – they are increasingly irrelevant. Why are you guys not beating down the doors of the developers, marketing yourselves and showing how your product will sell well? Also, who is designing the urban buildings that are getting built? I agree they are in most cases ugly!

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  2. Daniel Morales says:

    “None of the mixed-use buildings in NU projects function as well as those in old urbanism. Why is that?”

    I think Westfall2 said it best, it comes down to education. The materials are not as good, nor is the solidity of construction methods, but that actual disegno is simply inferior in overall scheme down to the handling of details. The best way to get what you want is to replicate the conditions that gave you what you’re seeking. In this case we should re-institute the academic eclecticism of 100-150 years ago that left our cities so many beautiful streets and neighborhoods. Modernists abhor the free play and instruction of history (other than their own), but with-in traditional architecture there exists a lingering fear of being perceived as a “historicist”. Until we get over the apprehension of zeitgeist type labels, we will still struggle to pull more people into the traditional camp, including modernist schools who employ this kind of scarlet label to stigmatize what traditional architects have always done.

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  3. realfinishes says:

    Leon was correct to abstain from the charter on those grounds. The inclusion of Modernism in traditional town planning is much like steel reinforcement in concrete. It permitted New Urbanism to grow very quickly yet sowed the seeds of its future limitation or schism if not demise. How do you convince the Modernist architects who helped to build the movement that they must now forego the only manner of pratise they know when the charter itself does not preclude it?

    Try removing expanding, corroding steel out of a Brutalist building…

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  4. westfall2 says:

    Style is said to be agnostic to New Urbanism’s success, but the two photos tell us that that is part of the cloud on the horizon for this important movement. The clause in the charter that avoids style got there as a compromise that got the charter unanimously endorsed except for Krier’s abstention. Its language is the only change made to the original draft during the discussion in Charleston. It was a mistake. Traditional architecture is a necessary part of traditional urbanism, and the charter ought to say that. So we get non traditional architecture. And we get not very good traditional building, both for perhaps four reasons. It’s cheaper, and the market is competitive. Its cheaper because the building industry does not offer a competitive alternative. The result of these two is the construction of neighborhoods and districts that will not be as sustainable as the real thing that was built in an earlier age. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, the education architects receive makes them receptive to modernism, ignorant of good traditional buildings, and incapable of making better traditional buildings. The entire educational enterprise, with few rare exceptions, lacks a comprehension of architecture (as opposed to cheap, functional building) that equips architects to produce buildings within an ever innovative tradition that produced the models that are so attractive to new urbanists and those who buy what they produce.

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  5. Stephen J. ORourke says:

    You know where I’m living!

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  6. abdaigle says:

    It would be preferable to compare apple with apples – meaning the Kentlands photo shows single family houses and the Philly photo is of buildings that are dense, mixed use. Your point is well taken – that architectural style as well as urban design has a lot to do with the success of New Urbanism. The problem as I see it is that traditional architects, even in New Urban communities, have been unable to duplicate the aesthetic appeal of early, pre-war apartment houses, mid-rise and “Main Street” mixed-use buildings. The townhouses in Kentlands are not as beautiful as those in historic Philly, for instance. None of the mixed-use buildings in NU projects function as well as those in old urbanism. Why is that? Is it because of material selection or available building components? Because unit square footage and therefore floor plates are so much larger in contemporary buildings? Is it due to requirements of fire and other life-safety codes, which add internal and functional restrictions and SF additions? Or do architects today not even understand how these unit types and buildings work in plan? I would love to see a competition that focuses on the traditional design of these denser building types. There is a dire need nation-wide for beautiful, small scale urban buildings and they represent the majority of what will be built the next 25 years in both housing and retail.

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    • To compare similar building types, here’s one of the better multifamily buildings in Kentlands:
      3 Arch Place

      Here’s another view of the same building that is far less appealing:
      Colonnade at Kentlands

      The Philly building has the advantages of central location and traditional urban context.

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