Steuteville’s public square

The old New Urbanism: Kentlands, Md. (emrisse.com)

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.)

The new New Urbanism? Paseo Verde, in Philadelphia. (phila.gov)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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18 Responses to Steuteville’s public square

  1. All architecture has it’s time 🤍🤍🤍

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  2. Pingback: Landscape urbanism revisited | Architecture Here and There

  3. Rob Steuteville says:

    Hi David, thanks for your kind words. CNU is a big tent over architectural style, and this position is certainly not up to me or Andres, although Andres has a big gravitational pull. The position is a sum total of CNU members, who have joined together based on the principles of the Charter. Nevertheless, CNU is firmly supportive of traditional styles, as you can tell by the typical Charter Award winners, including Cayala. New urban projects are a well-spring of good traditional architecture, although not exclusively so, as you point out. Anything I say about modernism will probably sound banal, except to say that many excellent new urbanist planners are also skilled at architecture in a modern style. I often read your columns and so I would also say “keep up the good work.”
    Rob
    PS, Public Square does not belong to me!

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    • I am glad to hear (as I interpret your comment) that the majority of N.U. projects lean toward the traditional. I don’t think that’s good enough, but I am glad to be able to indict a collection of individuals for their poor taste and their collective folly, rather than indicting just one or two people. Thank you for your kind words – I will try to keep up the good work and to keep my work good. And I recognize that you do not “own” The Public Square. Witness Michael Mehaffy’s excellent piece there cited by Nikos Salingaros in his comment below. You are merely its spiritual leader.

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    • Nikos mentioned “symmetry deficit disorder” which is in part a reference to Richard Louv’s “nature deficit disorder” — and in fact, the two come from the same origin. We’re learning from the research that we humans have a basic biological need to experience nature and natural forms, e.g. “biophilia,” and it has measurable positive health impacts — or negative ones when we’re deprived. (Which was Louv’s point about children, in Last Child in the Woods.)

      The deeper structure of these forms is symmetry, in the mathematical sense of the word. (Not just mirror symmetry, but rotational, translational, scaling, and compound varieties – see e.g.https://www.planetizen.com/features/112503-surprisingly-important-role-symmetry-healthy-places) Interestingly, Alberti and Vitruvius knew much more about this, from a modern math and science perspective, than we give them credit for – in part because we’ve forgotten so much of out ourselves, at least in architecture.

      The trouble with Landscape Urbanism is that it is simply a scheme to “shrub up” the old modernist failures, and thereby re-supply some of their symmetry deficit. It works up to a point, but only superficially. And it is one of a number of “predatory” strategies to steal symmetries from other sources, and (temporarily) camouflage what is essentially design malpractice, from the point of view of human well-being. Other examples of this predatory practice are projects that insinuate into historic contexts and exploit their symmetries (e.g. the Pearl District in Portland, or various adaptive reuse projects) and projects that import cultural relics from elsewhere into otherwise naked environments (e.g. blank modernist interiors that only work as backdrops for the rich symmetries of African art, etc. – ever notice?) This predatory strategy is ultimately unsustainable, as it’s not actually regenerating the deep structures of environmental symmetry that humans need. On the contrary, it’s slowly but inexorably degrading the human habitat.

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  4. David,

    Michael Mehaffy answers your question in an essay published in today’s Public Square:

    https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2021/07/13/never-mind-nimby-and-yimby%E2%80%93it%E2%80%99s-time-%E2%80%98quimby%E2%80%99-urbanism

    We Alexandrians (i.e. those who learned our tools from Christopher Alexander) know that human adaptivity works on all scales simultaneously. It makes no sense to cut off the urban from the architectural and ornamental scales. But this is exactly what Neo-modernist New Urbanism does, thereby resulting in something not “alive”. It has the correct urban scales, but poor architectural and entirely missing ornamental scales. So-called Landscape Urbanism is merely a rebranding of Neo-modernism coupled to attractive landscaping in an effort to continue the non-adaptive modernist architectural tradition. I see no value in it, even though it sells to people seduced by the trendy.

    As Michael alludes to, very recent scientific work on neuroscience proves that human-scaled urban dimensions need to be reinforced by the mathematics of traditional design. The union of the two creates a healing environment. Anything else falls short, inflicting instead “symmetry-deficit disorder” on humanity. Interested readers should look at the books of Nir Buras and Donald Ruggles, and the papers by Ann Sussman and her group (which includes myself) on eye-tracking and visual attention. A human environment depends upon its urban space, which is successful only if the surrounding façades have very specific mathematical properties. Neo-modernism rejects those qualities.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • Thank you for your clarity, Nikos, and for linking to Michael’s piece on QUIMBY, which I read before writing my latest post. He reminds me that the recent (apparent) victory on Providence’s historic College Hill/Fox Point neighborhood against a proposed modernist addition to a lovely old cottage was won in spite of (or perhaps because of) mixed feelings among both opponents and the historic district commission. I have been tracking these phenomena for decades now. I think my column of 2006, “Confusion of the design reviewers,” sums up the predicament when both the developers and the authorities that review their proposals have mixed motives. I suppose it’s a good thing when proponents of bad proposals leave these meeting pulling their hair out in frustration, but the result isn’t necessarily rational urbanism.

      Naturally, Nikos, I agree that readers should seek out the latest neurobiological and eye-tracking research, to dive deeper into my own very frequent summaries of these scientific findings that support tradition.

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  5. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    Alas, modernism, of an especially ugly and transgressive variety, is creeping all across our landscape, and not just in New Urban projects. In my Chevy Chase neighborhood handsome traditional brick houses with slate roofs are being replaced with chaotic assemblies of polymer panels, black windows, and plastic flat roofs. Many are spec projects. The neighborhood is being visually blighted, yet it seems to be what the younger folks want. An old French saying states that each generation rejects the fashions of its parents and reclaims that of its grandparents. We Boomers reclaimed our grandparents Victorian and 1920’s Georgian Revival, so 1950’s Modernism, with a new twist, now seems to be what the market wants. “Oh tempora, oh mores!”

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    • I know, or knew, Chevy Chase well since I grew up in Northwest, Milton, and I am aware of the depredations you describe. Very sad. I’m sure that the young and foolish (which describes all of us at that age) prefer ugliness to beauty as a sort of revolt against the elder, but maybe the Biden administration has the answer, since a poorer cohort will be less able to buy architect-designed new houses. A sort of preservation program in spite of itself.

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  6. John the First says:

    Mind also the dull and cold colours of ‘new urbanism’. Architects should study Belgium in this respect, the Belgians are very fond of black and all kinds of grey, both in residential and institutional architecture (not only in these areas), but also in the area of interior design. Half of the Belgians are a dull people, people of formalism, rigid rules, authoritarianism and bureaucracy. They love dull colours and ‘blocky’ shapes. If I am allowed to re-introduce some traditional parlance: I suggest that the choice of colour and shape are expressions of the soul of a society… Belgium is also the place of the EU bureaucracy with its ghastly brutalist buildings, which appears symbolic.

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    • I hesitate, John, to urge moderation in all things, but I suspect that the urge to boldly color all new buildings would probably be even more ghastly than Belgians’ preference for “dull” color palettes. But you live there, so I bow to your superior opportunity to judge.

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  7. Daniel Morales says:

    New Urbanism is expensive because it’s successful. The more traditional urbanism we build, the less expensive it will be. As for New Urbanism’s agnosticism, why are traditionalists afraid of a little competition? Andres is wrong about Landscape Urbanism being better designed because it’s always been easier to design abstract minimalism rather than formal traditionalism.
    The problem lies with academia’s continued denial of the market’s taste for tradition, which for the record, is not ‘straight and narrow’ or it would never evolve.

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    • I’m sure your market analysis is correct, Dan, but you perceive wrongly if you think that traditionalists are “afraid of a little competition.” It’s not academia’s denial of the market’s taste for tradition that’s the problem, though that continues to hold true, but it’s the thumb on the scale of city and town planning authorities protecting modernist projects from competition from trads that is the problem. Bring an even playing field to the development process, and we’ll see tradition competing successfully for commissions of every type. (Straight and narrow, by the way, is a metaphor, not a descriptive. The “straight and narrow” is never truly straight and narrow, and hence is capable of evolution – a slower evolution, which is usually a truer evolution.)

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      • Daniel Morales says:

        Who is putting the “thumb on the scale of city and town planning”, bureaucrats who know nothing about the traditional vs. modernist debate? No, they’re just looking at what’s been presented by architects with no education in the principles of traditional architecture. Therefore they inherit their prejudices and biases. My experience with the process shows a well trained and articulate architect can work wonders advocating for humane architecture regardless of style. The problem is there are so few of them.

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        • Of course they’re not all ignorant, Dan, but they are marinated in the status quo and its attitudes, whether by education or professional experience. Put enough pressure on them, as I’ve described, and they can be moved to respect public preferences – but that will not happen if no pressure is exerted upon them by neighbors and informed observers. As for humane architecture, it is obvious that traditional techniques and styles achieve a humane result in architecture and urbanism far better than modernist techniques and styles. And you’re right – there are too few architects and planners knowledgeable in the former (and too many whose “knowledge” amounts to ignorance among the latter – though I cannot be certain you agree with this parenthetical).

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  8. LazyReader says:

    New Urbanism fell apart because it was too expensive. Houses sell for millions, those aren’t neighborhoods, it’s a community for single/married professionals.

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    • I don’t believe New Urbanism has fallen apart, Lazy, rather it has gone astray, and there remain many N.U. projects from new rural villages, suburban neighborhoods and urban infill, including affordable developments. Some are expensive, but no more, generally, than modernist developments N.U. or otherwise, up and down the scale.

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