11 August 2010

NEW URBANISM AND THE QUEST FOR THE BEAUTIFUL TOWN


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The New Urbanist movement has been a remarkable endeavor, a force to be reckoned with in planning, government, and design communities throughout the world. It is part academia, part enterprise, part Arcadian vision. The movement has extended a great deal of effort trying to describe the components of various scales of villages, towns, and cities that give these places life, beauty, and a sense of belonging to its inhabitants. Research, discussions amongst like-minded individuals, and a love and longing for traditional town planning has produced a philosophy and birthed something called a Smart Code. This philosophy and code provides a re-think of how to build a city as opposed to traditional zoning codes.  Their work is cohesive and of a whole, quantifying planning elements in a very usable form, at the same time rejecting the separation of land uses and the promotion of the car as the major transportation element that is part of how we have built since World War II.

Smart Code is the bedrock of the New Urbanism ideal. It is clear set of ideas, very understandable, and readably scaleable and usable. It is a package readily adaptable by a community ready to embrace it.

Smart Code, or any code needs an objective set criteria to work, a set of rules that spell very clearly (one hopes) how the city comes to be built, how it is designed, and how it is used. Seaside, New Urbanism’s grand example and launch of the movement from the 1980s, is a wonderful place; it was created under design rules that were destined to be incorporated as building blocks of the Smart Code. The buildings there conform to a rigorous size and shape, forming street and pathway edges. Vistas along axis are arranged to orient and entice, along with a collection of architectural follies and public spaces. All these things have since become hallmarks of the New Urbanism Code; the New Urbanist vision was successfully realized and ratified by the public. While there are criticisms about this being an incubator community, an isolated example propped up by a wealthy clientele, still, it is a place that fulfilled its intentions.

There was another partner to the creation of Seaside, something even more remarkable and exceptional, a force more compelling then the Smart Code and its values. I imagine-no, let me say that I
know that it was an exciting and inspiring time for those who participated in the design and the building of that place. I believe that Seaside's remarkable and exceptional creative partner was one of those very happy and rare circumstances, where the talent and creative competitiveness ruled all, codes or principals be damned. Buildings and places were created to delight the eye, but instead of making a creative babel, the designers were all rifting off each other, serving common goals in individual ways, in a spirit of the atelier rather then to appease a bureaucracy. To my eye, the work done in this community was amongst the ultimate expressions of the architecture of its type; expressions of traditional architecture with clever and ironic twists, but not tied to a specific architectural style. They created places and buildings that acknowledged climate, and addressed the life on the street; they created pathways over to the ocean and over to the town square, great places to sit on a porch, and great places to chat with a neighbor. Beautiful and interesting places to be in.

The New Urbanist movement was born, along with its Smart Code template. But the heros, the silent partners were the craftspersons, the architects, individually weaving, piece by piece, greatness into the design framework.

The vision of Seaside is still lifted up as an exemplar by the New Urbanist movement, a shining example of how to build a town with a clear and ethical vision. I (an individual outside of the New Urbanist camp) look forward to the next time I have a chance to visit there. However, I’m more ambivalent about the New Urbanist development crated since Seaside since the movement has matured. In the quest of beauty and perfection, and as the Smart Code has been published and refined, these subsequent communities have become less relevant to the discussion of city building. As the design motifs have become more specific yet more artificial to our times, the results have become less interesting and more contrived. New Urbanist successes have come in the hundreds, if not thousands; but they are not so much new towns or cities. Rather they are individual building projects, inspired by New Urbanist principals, and built in the messy real world.

No other urban design movement has the clear vision of the New Urbanists. As such, it is so easy to be for or to be against them, to either make it the movement a guiding light, or to cynically laugh them off as a group that has a very narrow version of what is right in the built-world, busily painting itself into a corner. The opponents, the lasse-faire evolutionists, infrastructure futurists, site by site modernists, and suburban apologists, all have their own individual points to make with the rigid formulas, but they all refuse to acknowledge the value of the alternative planning solutions to the New Urbanists present.

You need rules, and you need to administrate these rules when you build a city, by Smart Code, or whatever. The New Urbanists endeavor to teach us that the rules, along with a greater vision of what a place should be, provide a needed and appropriate framework for building worthwhile places. Those that oppose them remind us that great things can happen outside the box, and that there might be other forms of architectural expression besides Neo-French Colonial Revival. A healthy and passionate design community needs the freedom to make the appropriate, surprising, thoughtful, or the adventurous design responses to building briefs that ultimately become a pieces of the city. It behoves us to understand how projects are actually created; that, at the root of it, it is the artistic and creative imperative that piece by piece makes a great city.  Codes are important, vision is important, freedom is important. But craft and its creative imperative is the most important.

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