Urban Conversations

It was cold and raining in Berkeley during the final weekend of February, just as a cold rain, which eventually turned to snow, fell on Boston last March. Many of the same architects, planners, academics, and politicians had gathered in the Bay Area’s winter rains to continue a discussion on urbanism that had begun in Boston a year earlier. Nonetheless, both the intellectual and physical atmosphere at the “Urbanisms: New and Other” conference at the University of California Berkeley was different than 1999’s “Exploring (New) Urbanism” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. [1] For although both schools share a similar relationship to their yeasty host city and the larger city across the water, drawing frequent comparisons, San Francisco Bay is nonetheless a different place than Boston Harbor. Despite Seaside developer Robert Davis’ suggestion that the conference’s acronym, “UNO,” implied one urbanism, the lesson of Berkeley is that urbanism is unique and different to each place.

Nor does “UNO” indicate the first: the Bay Area meeting was actually the third in a series of on-going and evolving conferences that began at Seaside, Florida in September 1998 before continuing to Harvard. [2] As the location of the first conference and the title of the second indicate, the series’ initial focus of critique and discussion was the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the most publicly visible and vocal urban design advocacy group. But in the series’ progression, the topic has expanded to include other urban design agendas. However, New Urbanism still appeared in the title, structure and content of the Berkeley conference. “UNO’s” Friday sessions followed the three-part structure of the Charter for the New Urbanism, beginning with architecture, then discussing the city before moving to regional issues. [3] Today “a set of principles and a value system,” as CNU founder Elizabeth Moule stated throughout the conference, the Charter’s twenty-seven philosophical positions on the city in fact originated as a reaction to the urban condition of specific locations. Opening the conference Thursday night, CNU founder Dan Solomon told the history of New Urbanism from the West Coast perspective, as he and fellow Bay Area architect Peter Calthorpe reacted to the suburban patterns of California’s automotive sprawl in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Eventually Solomon and Calthorpe would found the CNU in 1993 with architects from other suburban metropolises – Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule in Los Angeles and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in Miami. Thus the crucible of New Urbanism is the cities that first promoted decentralized sprawl as a way of life and therefore faced its environmental and social consequences more than a decade before the rest of the country; the CNU was created to organize and share the knowledge gained by addressing the issues of these sprawling cities. The innovation of the CNU founders, like that of the CIAM organizers, was in recognizing that their common practical experience constituted architectural research similar to, but outside of, that sponsored by the academic institutions, as Allan Jacobs claimed after Solomon’s presentation.

In contrast to the universalizing posturing of the GSD debate, characterized by Harrison Fraker Jr as a collection of “one-liners,” the conversations at Berkeley were grounded in a series of case study presentations. Working backwards through the CNU Charter, these began with “The Block, the Street and the Building,” investigating the relationship between the city and its specific moments of architecture, focusing on Berlin, Vancouver and Oakland. John Ruble’s presentation of MRY’s extensive involvement in Berlin provided a background to view Rob Krier and Daniel Libeskind’s competing schemes for the same housing development on the Friedreichstrasse. Krier’s proposal to revive a now-demolished galleria, rendered in his famous watercolors, surprised no one. However, in contrast to the expected aggressively anti-urban architectural strategy employed by his Jewish Museum and Potsdamer Platz schemes, Libeskind illustrated his proposal with a collection of figure-ground drawings, and he even sounded nostalgic as he recalled that the site’s Yiddish name, Johannishoff, has survived Berlin’s extreme changes. The character of his presentation was so unexpected that some conference participants suggested that a détente had been reached in the stylistic wars that characterized the late 20th century, but declaring Libeskind an “honorary New Urbanist” was perhaps too extreme, even if he sounded like a traditional urbanist and employed their graphic tools. At home on the West Coast, Vancouver’s “housing first” strategy for downtown was presented by city planning director Larry Beasley. As Beasley described, Vancouver’s high-rise, street-friendly apartment architectural typology has been created by the interaction between a socialized government responsible for planning the limited territory of an urban peninsula and quality-of-life market forces that demand scenic views, rather than the product of personal architectural vision. Notwithstanding the success of Berlin or Vancouver, a number of conference participants argued that their unique politics and economy made them poor models for the free-market of America, whose urban legacy includes places like Oakland, decimated by urban renewal and made infamous by Gertrude Stein, and just down the hill from the Berkeley conference. Yet as a presentation by members of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency and the ROMA Design Group illustrated, Oakland is also pursuing a “housing first” strategy for downtown and as the last source of inexpensive land in the Bay Area it stands on the edge of explosive growth. Like many cities in America, Oakland’s recent planning has drawn upon the lessons of another West Coast city, Vancouver’s American analog, Portland Oregon, which served as the focus when the conference followed the CNU Charter and moved beyond architecture to consider the city. Although often cited as the standard for urban design, various presentations indicated that the success of Portland’s vaunted urban growth boundary and light-rail system is a subject of disagreement. Ultimately, however, what these urban case studies revealed is that the different political, social and historical geographies of Berlin, Vancouver, Oakland and Portland are registered in each city’s form and architecture, suggesting that these differences constitute the very foundation of urbanism, both as an ideology and as a practice. Hardly singular, the multiplicity of locations presented at the “UNO” conference points not towards a singular urbanism described by twenty-seven points, but a diversity of urban possibilities derived from the specifics of locale.

While comparisons and similarities between Vancouver, Portland and Oakland implies a specifically West Coast form of urbanism, the frequent discussion of California’s urban experience at “UNO” suggested an even more unique type of urbanism. Although not the subject of any discussion panels, undoubtedly the focus on California as an urban place occurred because of the conference’s location in Berkeley and the large number of California architects, planners, and activists in attendance – including keynote speakers Jerry Brown, Oakland mayor and ex-governor, and Phil Angelides, State Treasurer and New Urbanist developer. [4] This gathering Californians nearly transformed “UNO” into a casual symposium on statewide planning issues, illustrating both the formal need for such an event and the untapped relevance of the Golden State’s knowledge for the larger urban design discourse.

Further emphasizing an urbanism of place, the significant number of projects presented by environmental artists, landscape architects and ecologists also provided a methodology for understanding specific locations. Surprisingly, the most interesting ecological projects intervened in the most constructed and designed landscapes – the last place one might expect to find environmentalism. The case-studies ranged from Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s design of a bio-diversity ring around the Netherlands’ Green Heart and the results of a design competition sponsored by the Architecture Institute Rotterdam for the Hoeksche Waard island to North American projects developed by TreePeople for repairing the hydrology of the Los Angeles River watershed and Michael Hough’s involvement in the restoration of Toronto’s Don River. [5] As represented by these projects, “ecological urbanism” derives from the local and often damaged ecology, developing design strategies that do not necessarily recreate natural pre-urban environments. Practitioners of this landscape-oriented urbanism employ watersheds, “environmental footprints,” and other modes of ecological analysis grounded in science as a methodology, not New Urbanism’s emphasis on figural urban spaces and architectural typologies. Despite the Charter for the New Urbanism’s brief references to ecology, its primary environmental benefits emerge not from rigorous methodological strategies but from the perceived reduction of traffic and sprawl achieved by attaining its primary goal of creating pedestrian activity in compact, identifiable neighborhoods. If environmentalism will dominate the politics of this coming century, as a number of conference participants suggested, then landscape architects and other practitioners of “ecological urbanism” may emerge as the primary voices in the future of urban design, just as the CNU has for the past ten years consolidated interests in urbanism.

An even more focused urbanism of place identified during the conference was “everyday urbanism,” illustrated by Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood with a series of small parks and streetscapes designed. Co-edited by John Chase with conference participants Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski, the anthology Everyday Urbanism articulates close observation of existing patterns of life as an origin point for community-orientated urban design. [6] Published just prior to the Berkeley conference, the book served as a departure for Doug Kelbaugh’s presentation “Three Urbanisms” along with two other writings: the Charter for the New Urbanism and “Whatever Happened to Urbanism?” by Rem Koolhaas. [7] Just as his writings, research, and projects dominate the urban design discourse, Koolhaas’ shadow also extended across the “UNO” conference. Perhaps Koolhaas’ rhetoric was introduced at Berkeley because his debate with Andres Duany during the GSD conference was both less contentious and less productive than expected. [8] Nonetheless, for New Urbanists Koolhaas represents the “post-urbanist” position, described in Kelbaugh’s explication as an exaltation of the heterotopian global economy which “overrates the endless future.” In contrast, he characterized everyday urbanism as a non-utopian, populist, urbanism of default that “overrates the present.” Identifying himself with the movement, Kelbaugh defined New Urbanism as an attempt to balance heterotopian and populist positions through idealism, reform, coherence and normative actions. [9]

Kelbaugh’s explication clearly articulated urbanisms, new and other. He thus avoided one of the conference’s failings: the universalism posited by Robert Davis and other conference participants, who claimed that “urbanism” was everyone’s goal. Unfortunately, this effort to locate a common ground following the divided arguments that occurred at the GSD conference ignored significant disagreement about the meaning of urbanism and the means of achieving it through design. But while Kelbaugh avoided universalism, he still defined the three urbanisms as mutually exclusive ideologies, and he declared that an architect’s choice of the three categories was a matter of sensibility (dependent, he suggested, upon how much disorder one could tolerate, perhaps rooted in toilet training). By ignoring the possibility that each urban sensibility might also represent a differing methodological strategy appropriate for differing urban scales and circumstances, Kelbaugh failed to entirely transcend the either-or debate of oppositional ideology.

To some extent, the success of New Urbanism has fostered this either-or dichotomy – a “new,” revived urbanism implies an older, out-dated urbanism; organized independently of other institutions, the CNU is perceived as an alternative to the academies, also creating an apparent gap between practice and research; and through their rhetoric, CNU members have aligned themselves against the practices of other architects, most notably manifested between Andres Duany and Rem Koolhaas. In other respects, the criticism of New Urbanism and the search for an “Other” Urbanism, as implied in the conference title, is indicative of the dualistic nature of Western cultural thinking, as Alan Plattus brilliantly outlined at the conference’s beginning. Plattus framed the debate around New Urbanism within a series of fallacies, from the belief in historical “progress” where the present is the only legitimate moment to conflict between the global and local and the macro and micro. Criticizing the idea that urbanism is a choice between damnation and salvation, Plattus poignantly illustrated the absurdity this dichotomy with the cover of an 80’s edition of Architectural Design. Headlined over drawings by Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier was the phrase “My ideology is better than yours.”

Until now, the conversation surrounding New Urbanism has predominately focused on ideology and terminology. Is it New? Is it Urbanism? As the most vigorously stated urban design position of the past ten years, New Urbanism has attracted the demands of every urban agenda imaginable, and the critiques for failing to accommodate those demands. But whereas the GSD conference was called “Exploring (New) Urbanism” the Berkeley event was titled “Urbanisms: New and Other,” already implying that the topic of conversation would not be localized to the New Urbanism agenda. And at the GSD the six New Urbanism founders featured as figureheads against which the academics, critics and other urbanists directed their attacks, but at Berkeley CNU members were just six amongst the crowd of other urban designers; largely silent during “UNO,” it seemed as though the conversation they started had gone beyond their control. Moreover, this might also explain why the tone of the “UNO” conference was less heated, and sometimes less exciting, than the Harvard conference; removed from the imperative of “damnation or salvation,” less seemed at stake in the urban design discourse. This, in fact, was the most heartening characteristic of the Berkeley conference, which although sometimes failed to transcend dualistic debate, at least suggested that it was reaching an end. Even the CNU seems to be diluting and loosing its focus, as the movement “omnivorously,” as Duany described, consumes all ideas it encounters. Younger members and practitioners of New Urbanism are less strict in their adherence to the principles of the Charter, often preferring pragmatic solutions to particular places. Yet the core leadership of the New Urbanism remains the same, [10] and now entering year eight, it will not be surprising if the CNU’s version of Team 10 emerges soon, disbanding the annual conferences. Perhaps, however, New Urbanism has achieved its mission within history. It has changed and focused the urban conversation.

[1] “Urbanisms: New and Other” ran 24-26 February 2000. “Exploring (New) Urbanism” occurred on 4-6 March 1999. Jonathan Barnett, Earl Blumenauer, Peter Calthorpe, Robert Campbell, Margaret Crawford, Robert Davis, Andres Duany, Harrison Fraker Jr, John Kaliski, Doug Kelbaugh, Elizabeth Moule, Roxanne Qualls, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, Dan Solomon and Anne Winston Spirn participated in both events. Among others, architects Charles Correa, Michael Dennis, Nan Ellin, Allan Jacobs, Andrea Kahn, Rob Krier, John Kriken, Lars Lerup, Daniel Libeskind, and John Ruble; planning advocates John Charles, Judy Corbett, Steve Sanders, and Carol Whiteside; politicians Phil Angelides, Jerry Brown, and Rosemary Corbin joined the Berkeley conference. For a review of the GSD conference see Alan Loomis,  “Urban Debates: Exploring New Urbanism at the GSD”

[2]  Todd Bressi is editing the proceedings of the Seaside conference for a fall publication by Rizzoli under the title The Seaside Debates; the proceedings of the GSD conference are available from Harvard on CD-rom.

[3]  See the Congress for the New Urbanism for a copy of the Charter and the CED/UCBerkele for a schedule of the conference.

[4] In 1989, contemporaneous with Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Kentlands Maryland, Angelides commissioned Peter Calthorpe to design Laguna West outside of Sacramento, one of the first New Urbanist developments.

[5] For information on these projects see the Architecture Institute Rotterdam, the TreePeople, and “Bringing Back the Don” by Mark Wilson.

[6] John Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski, editors,Everyday Urbanism (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1999) Walter Hood’s projects are featured in this book as well.

[7] Rem Koolhaas, “Whatever Happened to Urbanism?” in Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau,SMLXL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996) pp 958-971. This essay was included with the Charter for the New Urbanism in the conference briefing packet.

[8] Duany was paired with Rice Architecture Dean Lars Lerup at Berkeley; however, each presented position papers rather than directly debating each other.

[9] At the time of the conference, Kelbaugh’s essay was unpublished. Since then, it has been published in his bookRepairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisted, (Seattle: Washington University Press, 2002) and online. [Footnote updated 10.2003]

[10] Michael Pyatok declined to participate in the conference for this reason, among others. See his letter to Harrison Fraker, Jr posted as “Declining the CNU Conference.”

Published in the Forum Issue 1Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, online newsletter, fall 2000 | © 2000 The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design (reproduced by permission) [Footnote links updated 10.2003]

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