I have lost count of the number of times I’ve quoted Rob Steuteville’s writing for the Congress of the New Urbanism. The latest example is my recent post on “Guatemala’s peaceful Cayalá.” In fact, I must admit my topics on N.U. have declined in recent years as I’ve tracked what seems to be its decreasing interest in the importance of traditional architecture for new city, town and infill planning. The CNU charter’s pledge of “agnosticism” toward traditional and modernist styles got my goat a long time ago, and still has me in its grip.
At first I thought that was just what might now be called a sort of “woke equity,” given that CNU was only on the map because of its trad-styled projects, whose popularity was the envy, then, of landscape urbanists such as Harvard’s Charles Waldheim, who seem to favor a sort of natural, streetless urbanism. In a piece on a debate between Waldheim and CNU founder Andrés Duany, Steuteville cites the professor’s regret at CNU’s “hegemony” in planning circles. Waldheim then criticizes New Urbanism’s “retro design tendencies,” in response to which, according to Steuteville, Duany agreed that:
“[O]ur greatest deficiency is first-rate design.” He added that Waldheim “was astonishingly informed” about New Urbanism’s vulnerability on this front. Landscape Urbanism is self-indulgent at times, but it is “ almost universally better designed and better presented.”
In New Urbanism, there’s very little hostility to modernism except that it displeases the market and therefore modernism is generally avoided, Duany added. Devotees of classical and traditional architecture, who gravitate towards New Urbanism, may disagree with Duany on this point.
That was a long time ago, but Duany’s apparent snuggling up to Waldheim was alarming. Steuteville wrote about this debate for the New Urban Network in 2014. I certainly hope devotees of classical and traditional architecture disagree with Duany that there is “little” hostility to modernism in CNU. There should be a lot, and it ought to be more than just a matter of what displeases the market.
In recent years my former role as a devotee of new urbanism has dissipated as its annual congresses have given more and more attention and awards to the mostly rare (I still hope) examples of modernist N.U. projects. After years of turning the other cheek to modernist sniggering at N.U.’s “retro design tendencies,” CNU seemed to be crawling into bed with the devil! In 2014, after attending the latest congress, architect David Rau tweeted to traditionalist colleagues that “CNU is burning!”: “It was upsetting to discover at CNU in Buffalo that New Urbanism has been divorced from traditional architecture. Kaput, the marriage is over.”
In response to Rau’s cri de coeur, I wrote “Modernism invades the New Urbanism“: The post included this passage:
Modernists now appear to realize that their strategy of sneering at the New Urbanism has failed. They now seek to charm CNU leadership away from the traditional signifiers that the public recognizes as New Urbanism, under cover of an appeal to young Millennials starting careers in planning and architecture. Apparently, it is working.
Just a bit of history that some folks might have forgotten. Ever since, whenever I happen to read about the activities of the CNU and the new urbanists, they seem to have lapped themselves in their effort to place distance between the CNU and architecture that people love, and which made people love the new urbanism. Now it’s all about getting with the program on global warming, or developing new methodologies for implementing increasingly abstruse ideas of urbanism, gears within gears rather than old tried-and-truisms about cities, streets and beauty. Anyway, I don’t hear much about the CNU lately, let alone much criticism from the modernists. Hmm.
In 2015, Steuteville replied to my post “New Urbanism’s easy choice,” and his comment was followed up by an array of comments from traditionalists agreeing or disagreeing with my post. The two photographs juxtaposed in that post – the “old new urbanism” on top and the “new new urbanism” on the bottom – pose a stark but easy choice, it seems to me. The same two shots sit at the top and at the bottom of this post. Steuteville raises some of the complexities involved in why we supposedly cannot have the beauty we deserve, but I still think the CNU has become tangled, or lost, in many of those complexities. It was once a bright shining beacon of hope for Americans. Today, well …
Today, I would dearly love to get back on the bandwagon. I hope I am wrong about CNU having strayed from the traditional straight and narrow, and that Rob and Andrés will administer me a good spanking for my apostasy.
While I’m waiting, allow me to join the long line of comments by email praising the work of Rob Steuteville, whose writing remains enlightening even where we disagree – and, frankly, I don’t think we disagree on much. Keep up the good work, Rob! (You will receive this post by email.)