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Thread: Making place or planning chaos [broadband recommended]

  1. #1
          ablarc's avatar
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    Making place or planning chaos [broadband recommended]

    .

    MAKING PLACE OR PLANNING CHAOS


    A lot of people these days think you can’t improve a natural environment with buildings. In this mindset, pristine nature is the only truly virtuous environment; and all human efforts to modify it with buildings only serve to degrade it. Basically, the world has been going to hell in a handbasket since Adam and Eve.


    Maxfield Parrish: Adam and Eve

    We have become such pessimists!


    Jim Buckels: Princes Kept the View


    Jim Buckels: Deux Chevaux

    Maybe what we really mean is that we’ve forgotten how to do it properly-- since Inigo Jones rearranged England’s landscape and since every fifth Provencal peak sprouted a village of rock hewn from the hill itself.


    Maxfield Parrish.


    Maxfield Parrish.


    Mad King Ludwig.

    Some may grudgingly acknowledge exceptions: perhaps, after all, Fallingwater improves the humdrum Pennsylvania gulch it spans; maybe Mad King Ludwig’s castle aggrandizes the Alpine foothills around Neuschwanstein; possibly the sudden apparition of the Temples of Paestum yields a pleasure greater than yet another stretch of Mediterranean pines; and conceivably Mount Rushmore’s effigies are more rewarding than the anonymous granite escarpment they alter.


    Jim Buckels.


    Jim Buckels: Son et Lumiere

    Why, I even think the Jersey Meadows are possibly better filled with trusswork and cranes, with flame-belching smokestacks, truck-trailer mesas and hazy skylines than in their former incarnation as reedy wetlands.


    Charles Sheeler


    Charles Sheeler

    Some pessimism seems justified; the Three Rivers Dam is regarded as an environmental disaster, as is the clearing of Brazil’s rain forest. These days, we seem able to do anything; and to the authorities that seems justification enough.


    Guy Billout

    But personally I find the big projects much easier to swallow than the ubiquitous smaller offences that routinely vandalize our landscape with visual blight and dismaying mindlessness.


    Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden. Could anyone who knew how this would turn out have actually wished for it? Here all the parts are optimized by a set of non-negotiable rules called zoning, and the whole is as awful as an environment can be. Here is the apotheosis of the trivial: everyone’s driveway is wide enough and pitched below 1:12; and the roofs match…

    It’s naïve and artless to believe that the application of formulas cooked up for any place or every place could yield a worthwhile outcome in some actual place; we might with equal justification anticipate a masterpiece from paint-by-numbers.

    In city planning, paint-by-numbers is called zoning.


    Leon Krier.

    Each place that zoning makes is no place in particular. It can’t be distinguished from its peers, because under zoning no building can respond to its setting with specificity or with the tiniest insight or joy, for no building is allowed to deviate from the abstractions of setbacks and coverage ratios. The poor building must conform to numbers in place of the rich guidance that tangible and particular reality might provide. The purpose of regulation is to enforce conformity; and conformity is what we get.


    Leon Krier.

    Then we have the gall to complain of monotony and blame the developers. The real villains are the eunuchs we appoint to guard us from the developer with a bunch of silly rules.


    Noble Experts Lay Their Plans (for us all). Michael Wolf.

    * * *


    Leon Krier: San Leucio.

    In a memorable place every component responds specifically to the particulars of its locale. Overall harmony is achieved organically by a colloquy of characters that agree to produce coherence at every step --even if that coherence changes over time. The whole that they create is always complete and greater than the sum of its already estimable parts. This condition is impossible under zoning.


    Jim Buckels: Sans souci.


    Alex MacLean: Zoned Lots.

    * * *

    Zoning strays the instant it passes from proscription to prescription --from preventing vice to promoting virtue. It’s only good for immunizing against the abominable—such as, for example the strip-malling of the English countryside or the installation of a nuclear power plant on leafy Main Street. Such limited goals accomplished, further elaboration quickly promotes disease.

    Today’s voluminous regulations promote the disease called Suburbia.


    A place designed without reference to pre-existent zoning formulas: Poundbury by Leon Krier.

    Instead of more regulations, we need talented individuals to take over with flair and insight—as they have so often in the past-- when not overruled by theoreticians, ideologues or morons.


    Guy Billout

    Mistakes are risked, but with zoning they are guaranteed. The zoning itself is the mistake; every project designed under its leaden rule is doomed.


    Leon Krier: Atlantis, a resort town in the Canary Islands, designed without benefit of zoning.

    What makes Poundbury and Seaside successful is that each began with a concrete vision, not a set of performance specs (or worse still, a set of non-negotiable rules). Sure, there got to be rules --but not until after the design concept was nailed down. That way the rules wouldn’t get in the way of the design process.


    Leon Krier: Conceptual sketch, Poundbury High Street with Market.

    After the design concept is nailed down and developed, zoning starts to make sense as the guarantor of the concept against revisionists and the weak-minded. But the concept must be first concrete, specific and visualized in three-dimensional drawings.


    Rendering by Carl Laubin after Leon Krier, Poundbury High Street with Market.

    Architects are able to do this; that is what empowers them to advance the vision of city planning—something that utterly eludes planners, who are not trained to design. It’s why a reasonably-educated layman asked to name major planners will rattle off a list of architects: Michelangelo, John Wood, Nash, Burnham, Tony Garnier, Mizner, Corbu, Niemeyer, Duany…


    Leon Krier: Portrait of the theoretician and planner, Le Corbusier. Mistakes will be made.

    The numbers men—like Ebenezer Howard—came up with the suburb: the elevation to primacy of all things trifling. They’ve been in charge ever since.

    ”MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS: 10 years of progressively responsible experience in municipal planning, with considerable supervisory and administrative responsibility. Masters’ degree in Urban Planning or related field. Must possess excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and working knowledge of various software, including database, spreadsheet, word processing, GIS, IRIS, and Arcview. APA membership and AICP certification preferred. Driver’s license.” –from a job announcement on Cyburbia for Planning Director of Raleigh, NC.

    Nowhere does it require the director to be able to draw. Draw? For goodness sake…


    A possible alternative outcome for Poundbury, with the numbers in charge (Leon Krier).


    * * *

    After San Leucio was deconstructed to yield an understanding of its specifics, it was reassembled and fleshed out to form a town, and its potential reality documented in clear, three-dimensional drawings. This would have taken a wholly different form if the designer had been thwarted by prior decisions of existing zoning:


    Leon Krier: San Leucio, a place designed without reference to pre-existent zoning formulas, but strongly rooted in the physical reality of a not-fully-realized place. The design is site specific and the drawing concrete enough so you can probably see where improvements could occur.

    Another example:


    A town for a large junkyard, once a farm. Certain surviving features of the farm, and all topographical traits have been preserved like archaeological remnants; an old tractor trail meanders through the otherwise gridded town as its Main Street. Tractors are as good at planning as Boston’s legendary cows, and for the same reason: they choose the easy path. So do pedestrians.

    This design deviates from Krier’s dogma by incorporating a mixed-use high-rise and four largish, ground-floor retail parking structures to supplement on-street parallel parking. Can you spot them?

    This town devours less land than most malls with their parking lots, and even manages a little suburban fringe. The bridge links it with a cul-de-sacked subdivision which is appropriated as additional suburb.

    Without a prior program of square footages or other numbers, the town was designed entire, as a physical entity fitted to its site. Afterwards it was deconstructed and described in square feet, housing units and types, population, dollars and other statistics. The developer finds the numbers to his liking -- not surprisingly, as the organism created was a familiar urban type that is known to work. It is, however, quite illegal under existing zoning and requires a PUD. (Fortunately this mechanism for getting around the inanities of zoning is getting easier, as the authorities grow dimly aware that zoning often impedes the best projects. Progress.)


    Here’s the principle that divides making place from planning chaos: You have to be able to see (and therefore, draw) a design BEFORE you make up rules and statistics to describe it.


    Leon Krier. Two scales.

    Design is physical, not numerical. All the well-intentioned numerical rules—setbacks, F.A.R.’s, height restrictions, turning radii, parking ratios, space requirements, landscape demands, lane widths --and all the other petty numbers-- applied in the absence of a prior, concrete physical vision will serve only to guarantee the standardization of chaos through the enforced primacy of the secondary. Optimize the parts and relegate the whole to the junkbin.

    Here are some products of the tyranny of numbers, which produces, unsurprisingly, machine order:


    Math-based zoning principles generate the physical reality of a cul-de-sac subdivion. Alex MacLean photo


    Similar rules applied to a trailer park. Alex MacLean photo.


    Zoning has been around a while; here, the streetcar suburb of Somerville, MA shows its effects. Alex MacLean photo.


    Beach Houses placed according to a set of rules. The trivial enshrined as law guarantees standardized chaos. Alex MacLean photo.

    [Yes…that’s right: of course these illustrations have been chosen to optimize the point. Would you prefer less trenchant images?]

    The rules that zoning presently enforces are nonsense; it seems they’re made up in a spiritual and artistic vacuum by no-talent bird-brains. It’s quite impossible that everybody involved in the practice of planning is as stupid as the rules they produce. No, the problem is with the theory. The result, however, is the same: the whole that emerges is invariably less than the sum of its parts. How could it be otherwise: the parts are at war with the whole?


    A concrete diagram of a simple-hearted idea. Alex MacLean photo.

    Thus we can praise a zoning-generated design for its wheelchair-accessibility or its provision of generous parking or its arrangement of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees, but we can be quite confident that the whole is crap. And the reason the whole is crap is precisely that each of the parts has been so generously and non-negotiably rendered to an independent level of perfection.

    By contrast, an imperfect place is full of compromise. But it is a place. Perhaps by its drawbacks shall ye know it:


    Poundbury.

    Suppose you set out to create a near-perfectly handsome face. Would you get there by optimizing the parts? Maybe you could combine Cary Grant’s chin dimple with Paul Newman’s profile; you could throw in Richard Gere’s handsome head of greying hair, Robert Redford’s mole, Paul McCartney’s bedroom eyes and Errol Flynn’s roguish smile. Would you end up with a great-looking guy? Or maybe a monster?


    LK

    The look of true pluralism applied to a town:


    LK

    * * *

    Whether they can do it or not, planners are involved in the business of urban design; in fact it’s probably what many planners thought they were getting into when they applied to school. Even if their education was defective due to bad theories, the fact remains that planners need to learn how to draw. This crucial faculty unlocks the power to imagine and to dream; that is how to visualize. But if you can’t draw, it’s pointless to dream because you can’t get it down on paper. (Actually, you can’t even imagine it properly.)


    Parrish: Poets Dream. Bureaucrats shouldn’t even try.

    Planning is visualization; it’s the only way to predict an outcome. And it goes without saying: you need the good judgment to choose an appropriate outcome to visualize.


    Jim Buckels: Venice [enhanced with Giudecca as Lower Manhattan]

    Then you can rise to the boldness of Nash at Regent Street, or Haussmann in Paris, or even wrongheaded Le Corbusier (mistakes will be made):


    Corbusier


    Buildings in a Park. Plenty of green space for all!


    The Radiant City.


    Mistakes will be made...


    …even by those who can draw.


    And the mistakes will even get built, although they also get blown up after a while. (Robert Wolf photo.)


    It’s a risk we have to take, because with zoning the mistakes are enshrined in law. There is not just risk of doing harm; there is instead a positive mandate to do it. (Robert Wolf photo.)

    I’m not opposed to all zoning, but I am against stupid zoning, and I’m against voluminous zoning. The authors of the latter pretend to wisdom they don’t possess, and their picayune opinions turned to law amount to tyranny. To prevent this, zoning ordinances should be limited to ten pages of not very fine print, with amendments accompanied by equal-sized deletions.


    Guy Billout.

    Planning without a visual basis is not planning at all. Its outcome is likely to be dominated by unintended consequences of plausible theories (that is how we came to the present farcical state of suburban sprawl).


    Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden.

    It is at once folly and tyranny, resting on flawed and arbitrary opinion comic-operatically made law. It should be opposed by all citizens of a democracy who value freedom and reason –even those who agree with its goal: perfecting the suburb.

    * * *

    SONGS WITHOUT WORDS


    JB.


    LK


    MP


    LK.


    JB.


    LK.


    GB.
    Last edited by ablarc; 15 Feb 2005 at 1:35 PM.

  2. #2
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Very nice!!!

    I agree with you on many of the points. Since health and building codes have taken care of the concerns about "health, safety, & welfare" I don't really see the use of zoning codes....other than as a means for a particular and predictable image for the locale. The volumious or "bulk" regulations in many zoning codes are unnecessary...especially the distinction between types of residential. Is there really much difference between a 15,000 sqft and a 9,000 sqft lot.

    Now, zoning is useful when dealing with "uses". The "use" of a property can be exclusive of the design, depending on the proposal.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Every day is today. Yesterday is a myth and tomorrow an illusion.

    You know...for kids.

  3. #3
    Interesting thread

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman
    Very nice!!!

    I agree with you on many of the points. Since health and building codes have taken care of the concerns about "health, safety, & welfare" I don't really see the use of zoning codes....other than as a means for a particular and predictable image for the locale. The volumious or "bulk" regulations in many zoning codes are unnecessary...especially the distinction between types of residential. Is there really much difference between a 15,000 sqft and a 9,000 sqft lot.

    Now, zoning is useful when dealing with "uses". The "use" of a property can be exclusive of the design, depending on the proposal.

    Ah. It is most definitely of importance to the homebuyer, because his family and their 15,000 square foot lot shouldn't have to exist all jumbled together with the lower orders, as shown on ablarc's idyllic scenes of urbane perfection

    "My family earns $100,000. I shouldn't have to associate with a family earning $60,000 per year." (Direct quote).

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    I wonder what the effect would be of tossing out most of our zoning codes. Would builders soon experiment with different development types? If so would they mostly be closer to Krier's illustrations, or would they be bigger and badder Home Depots? Would the status quo keep getting built anyway due to expectations of lenders and the homebuying public? (The Houston argument)

    I think as long as we all drive everywhere we won't see significant change no matter what the zoning regs say or don't say. In our society we're more likely to see the LeCorbusier towers then the picturesque villages of Krier's illustrations (lowered expectations again)
    .

  6. #6
          ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Seabishop
    I wonder what the effect would be of tossing out most of our zoning codes. Would builders soon experiment with different development types?
    Things would improve gradually, not overnight, as risk-averse developers catiously discovered new and more profitable development patterns. They’re so used to doing things in the way that’s mandated that it will take years of watching their more adventurous brethren running off with bigger profits before they start to try radically new things. Architects will have far more influence as they’re trained to think innovatively.

    Some of their ideas will be truly wretched; some experiments will fail, but the situation will be better from Day One than it is right now, when virtually everything built is a failure in all ways except commercially (and some even that). At least the good nonstandard development patterns currently stifled by zoning or not even contemplated will see the light of day. Only a few at first, then more. There will be genuine progress and innovation after nearly a century of stagnation.

    Quote Originally posted by Seabishop
    If so would they mostly be closer to Krier's illustrations, or would they be bigger and badder Home Depots?
    Freedom is freedom. Some things not presently allowed would be good, even dynamite; some things would be bad. But almost everything built under zoning is bad, so there would be a net gain, modest at first but accelerating.

    There is no such thing as a badder Home Depot; they are already terminally bad. If you mean a Home Depot without bushes in the (now smaller) parking lot and no useless patches of grass, that would be an improvement; it would reduce sprawl, to say nothing of saving your intelligence and sensibility from being insulted by such shoddy attempts to put lipstick on a pig.

    Quote Originally posted by Seabishop
    Would the status quo keep getting built anyway due to expectations of lenders and the homebuying public? (The Houston argument)
    That is indeed the Houston argument, but I don’t think there is much to be learned from it. Here’s what I can glean: 1. Houston is neither better nor worse than places that have zoning, so at the very least the zoning is unnecessary, and those who enforce it can go out and get useful jobs; 2. Houston is an unprogressive place with no cutting edge aspects whatever (sorry Houston). Nobody should be surprised to find a lack of innovation there. If you lifted zoning on Long Island or in Florida, you would see plenty of innovation pronto.

    Quote Originally posted by Seabishop
    I think as long as we all drive everywhere we won't see significant change no matter what the zoning regs say or don't say. In our society we're more likely to see the LeCorbusier towers then the picturesque villages of Krier's illustrations (lowered expectations again)
    Things wouldn’t get hunky-dory right away or everywhere, but at least some meritorious projects that you can’t do under zoning would see the light of day. As they proved successful, they would be imitated, and there would be progress instead of stagnation—as in the auto industry. Face it: except for some New Urbanism, human habitat hasn’t gone anywhere positive since the Twenties and Coral Gables. Innovation? There has been some: shopping malls, big box stores, landscaped parking lots and similar despicable junk.

    Ugh.

    .

  7. #7
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    Have you seen Troy? The set they built as the ancient city was spectacular. Leon Krier could almost sue them for ripping off his design for that "Atlantis" resort. Get the DVD and watch the documentary about the sets. They admit to artistic interpretation, especially for grandiosity, but still, I thought it made a pretty cool place. I have a suspicion that we will be seeing some images of it with your thoughtful commentary here.

  8. #8

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    As always, ablarc, a very interesting well thought out entertaining post. Unfortunately I am somewhat ignorant of ‘zoning’ (most of my knowledge is based on assumptions) but I can see the fundamental point you are making; that essentially constraining development by standards covering every detail does not allow for organic growth (which, after all, is what makes so many great cities great). I certainly agree with the main point behind this, but as always in planning, feel there needs to be a balance. There needs to be certain regulations and codes to allow for some degree of certainty but there also needs to be exceptions to allow flexibility and spontaneity. That is my take on it anyway.

    I would however disagree with one of your comments:

    The numbers men—like Ebenezer Howard—came up with the suburb: the elevation to primacy of all things trifling. They’ve been in charge ever since.
    Ebenezer Howard could possibly be considered as a ‘numbers man’ by your rationale, but I would disagree that Howard came up with the suburb. Howard, inspired by the pioneer industrialists with philanthropic leanings (Owen at New Lanark, Salt at Saltaire, Cadbury at Bournville and Lever at Port Sunlight) invented the Garden City. This vision had the basis of combining the best of town and country living; that is all things at the heart of the town, including jobs, entertainment with the best aspects of country living with access to countryside and parks green spaces. This was in many ways the idea of a sustainable city which many of us try to propagate now. It was certainly not the promotion of a suburban sprawl – Howards ideal Garden City size was 30,000 population at a density of 15 to the acre (37 to hectare), surrounded by 5,000 acres of green belt.

    Some of Howards ideas were developed by his followers; Unwin and Parker went on to build Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. This was a classic dormitory suburb, but nevertheless has many redeeming features in the quality of design and the mix of tenure and house size. IMHO its probably one of the triumphs of twentieth century British design.

  9. #9

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    Ah ablarc, if your analysis were only as good as your images. And while this is your most direct attempt to counter the fact that development is as it is due to market dynamics (which zoning simply mirrors), it still fails. Indeed, the evidence you present as an alternative to development regulated by zoning argues powerfully against your own point.

    The spaces you idealize grew up over hundreds of years. Modern development doesn't happen that way, so it can't possibly look that way. It is going to look mass-produced because it is, and will always be unless well-designed regulations counter the market. What you are seeing is capitalism at work, not zoning. I do not believe any of the positive examples you present evolved in a capitalist economy. Most are the product of tyrannical feudalist and mercantilist regimes, NOT of democracies. The exceptions simply reflect the reality that the wealthy can, if they choose, build nice buildings.

    That zoning is the tail, not the dog is nicely illustrated by richmond jake's recent post. The planners took a visual approach and were told not to do it again by their democratically elected officials - it is not consistent with what the market wants. I cooked breakfast this morning while Karen analyzed the visual failings of another proposed Quizno's, all the while knowing that it will be approved regardless of what her staff report says. My ZA just sent some restaurant developers from Florida on their way because they are unwilling to meet the town's design guidelines, which are a part of our zoning.

    Does zoning create visually dead places? No. It may accede to them for political reasons, but developers do that, and reap the profits. I have an email from our local home builders' association this morning decrying the design guidelines and other things that add cost, but not, of course, the basic regulations that we all need, i.e. all of those specification standards you are railing against.

    Do local zoning regulations and decisions reflect the market? Yes, they do. Does that lead to crappy development? Yes, it does. But one does not cure a disease by mistaking the symptoms for the cause. Your frustration is going to continue unabated until you get the message. Yes, there are one or two developers who might try something different if the regulations were altered in some specific way. But they are the exception that proves the rule. Capitalism homogenizes all that it affects. And that is not an unintended side effect. It is structurally inevitable. If you read The Wealth of Nations you will be reminded that Adam Smith used common pins as his example of the ideal coomodity - you can't tell one from the other. You will also find that Smith pointed out quite clearly that markets in land are not the same as markets in commodities - but that is another story. Curiously enough, you will find that Marx wasn't that accurate - but that too is another story. The bottom line is this: Condemning community's efforts to counter the market reality, however unsuccessful and sad they often are, not only misses the point, but it lends considerable comfort to the folks who are profiting from the problem.

  10. #10
          ablarc's avatar
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    .

    Thanks for your comments, noj.

    Quote Originally posted by noj
    …constraining development by standards covering every detail does not allow for organic growth (which, after all, is what makes so many great cities great).
    Bullseye!


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    I certainly agree with the main point behind this, but as always in planning, feel there needs to be a balance. There needs to be certain regulations and codes to allow for some degree of certainty but there also needs to be exceptions to allow flexibility and spontaneity.

    The question of course is how to achieve this logistically. If the regulation has primacy it slaps down creativity when the two come into contact; if human judgment is allowed to overrule the regulation, you risk corruption (wrong motives). You could speculate that it would work fine if we had philosopher-kings (like the ones in Plato); but you’ll never please everyone: we have sort of a philosopher-king in Charles (well, at least a philosopher-prince), and people are pissed off at him right and left, even though he’s mostly on the money.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    Ebenezer Howard could possibly be considered as a ‘numbers man’ by your rationale, but I would disagree that Howard came up with the suburb.
    Technically you’re right; the Brenta Canal’s lined with suburban McMansions built for Renaissance-era Venetians, and archaeologists can find whiffs of Suburbia in Mesopotamia, but Howard made the Suburb into a smash hit, especially in America. Sold it to the public through the Town and Country Planning Association, which is a not-so-distant ancestor of America’s principal planning association. That partly explains American planners' suburban bias.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    This vision had the basis of combining the best of town and country living; that is all things at the heart of the town, including jobs, entertainment with the best aspects of country living with access to countryside and parks green spaces.
    The fly in that particular batch of ointment was, of course: how varied a selection of either jobs or entertainment can you provide in a town of 30,000? “The best of town living”: maybe not. Entertainment for hicks, and jobs for the same: definitely. The liveliest people had to commute out of these utopias from Day One to get what they needed, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, for that’s enshrined in the numbers, too.

    Come to think of it, you can’t even get the best of country living in a Garden City, can you? Living in a suburb just isn’t the same as living in the country, though the greenbelts help. But wait a minute… you can get the greenbelts in the city too: residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich don’t have too shabby a deal in that regard. And they can hop on the tube to the West End and really get the best aspects of city living.

    No, like all hybrids the Garden City was sort of compromised from the get-go.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    This was in many ways the idea of a sustainable city which many of us try to propagate now
    I’m glad you’re propagating that, noj; I am too. It all comes under the rubric of New Urbanism, which if you scratch it turns out to be Howard’s Garden City with a new name. Better than undesigned Suburbia, to be sure.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    It was certainly not the promotion of a suburban sprawl
    No, but closer to it than we should be comfortable with. It’s often pointed out on these forums when New Urbanism is discussed that it’s just a slight improvement on the suburb.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    Howard’s ideal Garden City size was 30,000 population at a density of 15 to the acre (37 to hectare), surrounded by 5,000 acres of green belt.
    That’s a density of 9600 per square mile, less than the density of a typical American streetcar suburb like Somerville, Mass. (about 15,000/sq. mi. today; 20,000 a half-century ago).


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    Some of Howard’s ideas were developed by his followers; Unwin and Parker went on to build Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. This was a classic dormitory suburb, but nevertheless has many redeeming features in the quality of design and the mix of tenure and house size. IMHO its probably one of the triumphs of twentieth century British design.
    That is one heck of a pretty place, but dull to walk; it suffers in fact from an early case of zoning. A much better place to hang out and live is Hampstead itself, which doesn’t.


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    Unfortunately I am somewhat ignorant of ‘zoning’ (most of my knowledge is based on assumptions).
    Stick around this forum; you’ll get plenty of exposure; you know: “how many square inches of sign should we allow in an area zoned for…” –that kind of thing. Where I live they’re about to pass a provision limiting the number of angels allowed to dance on the head of a pin.

    .

  11. #11

    Thinking out loud

    That was a fun read, why didn't you put some pics of Brasilia? The ultimate planned "community" disaster - inspired of course by Le Corbusier and designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa. Great documentary about Brasilia, The Line: Lucio Costa and the Modern Utopia (Risco: Lúcio Costa e a Utopia Moderna, O)
    I'll have to do some studying about the "Renaissance in the Tropics"

  12. #12
          ablarc's avatar
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    Lee Nellis, thanks for your comments.

    I’m painfully aware of the truth of much of what you say, having to deal with it daily, though I think you're inflating the positive contribution planners make in safeguarding the environment. Your argument also subverts itself: you are at one and the same time protecting the world from greedy developers and powerless to keep their minions, the politicians, from ordering you to enforce the laws those developers foist upon you (and us). Isn’t that called a vicious circle?

    I want things to change. If I wanted them to stay the same, I would make excuses for the status quo as you do. Change is always difficult: private change or change in the public arena--ask any gay who's come out of the closet, or ask the ghost of Martin Luther King--but it's rarely impossible. Just difficult. Not impossible. Let me have my dream, and if you agree with it as you might, then encourage me; I'm trying to influence people and change their minds in the public arena, which includes this forum; and it's not impossible, just difficult. I can use all the help I can get.

    You can change people's thinking individually and collectively; that's what teachers, politicians, leaders, theoreticians, psychiatrists, philosophers, ideologues of all stripes do. And often they succeed--even with hare-brained ideas like communism or the Ville Radieuse or for that matter, Ebenezer Howard's Garden City. The fact that they don't accept reality the way it is doesn't mean that they're uninformed, naive or deluded.

    Lee, your little lesson in reality was pungent and to the point, but you didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about what planners do and why they do it. I know what they do, I don't like it, and I want to change it.

    Self-serving goals: developers are accused of having these, and they do—along with you, me and the rest of mankind. The key to change is to point out to developers that there are unexplored and unimagined realms of self-interest with even greater profit-potential than the narrow spectrum of possibilities that they have had their politician-lackeys install as law. Has anyone ever maxed out the profit potential of his field? But with all these regulations in place you have to admit there’s precious little evolution or progress, and I’m sure you can easily see how the rules trump change.

    If there's anything I've discovered it's that people often don't know everything there is to know about how to get what they want (which, in the case of developers, is undoubtedly money). Mostly their methods resemble each other because they get their expertise from a common source. I do, however, know a developer cut from a different cloth: he only does projects that no-one else would do, because that way he has no competition. This developer profits handsomely from his policy, but he is especially hampered by the regulations. This means: 1. he invariably has to get variances or PUD’s to do the projects he envisions; 2. he can only do large blockbuster projects to justify the cost of #1, rather than the benign infill he would rather do, and that would yield even more environmental benefit. No question here that the rules work to the public’s detriment.

    As for the Market…ah yes, the Market. Well, it’s an article of faith not only that the Market exists but also that the Market can be influenced, changed, even created from scratch (why else do advertising agencies exist, and other, more subtle forms of public persuasion?). Do you remember when there were no home computers? Do you remember the days before laptops? Do you have a crying need for the very next thing? Do you even know what it will be? Whatever it is I’ll bet you’ll get one when it comes along.

    Do you see anything near that kind of rapid innovation happening in the built environment?

    I’ll bet you can give me several good reasons why not, but one of them just has to be the mountain of regulation.

    People can be made to want something they don’t presently want. Ten years ago they wanted to smoke, today they want a smoke-free environment; forty years ago they wanted Kennedy's liberalism, today they want Bush's macho fundamentalism, on and on...

    People are especially deluded about what they want from their environment and how to get it, and they are particularly (yes!) uninformed, naive or deluded about matters of planning. That's why, for example, it's possible for so many of them to think the solution to sprawl is reduced density.

    That's also why the razor-sharp, cultured and totally aware planning director of a major city can joke with me, cocktail in hand, about how he has to play the game and go along with the misconceptions of the high-rollers who look to him to implement the policies they think are in their own self-interest (and he, the technician, knows are not). But does he attempt to enlighten them? Not he! He wants to keep his cushy job till retirement, and he knows the key to this is to avoid controversy. I'm different from that.

    I think we all know more than enough about how things are.

    So I think I'll go on talking about how I think things should be.

  13. #13
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    I get it. Paraphrasing the Bard: First thing we do is kill all the planners and burn all the zoning regs.

    Put the only true thinkers --the architects and the developers -- in charge.

    Give me a break.
    The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men.

  14. #14
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    Gedunker, what's your dream?

  15. #15

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    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    Lee Nellis, thanks for your comments.

    I’m painfully aware of the truth of much of what you say, having to deal with it daily, though I think you're inflating the positive contribution planners make in safeguarding the environment. Your argument also subverts itself: you are at one and the same time protecting the world from greedy developers and powerless to keep their minions, the politicians, from ordering you to enforce the laws those developers foist upon you (and us). Isn’t that called a vicious circle?

    I want things to change. If I wanted them to stay the same, I would make excuses for the status quo as you do. Change is always difficult: private change or change in the public arena--ask any gay who's come out of the closet, or ask the ghost of Martin Luther King--but it's rarely impossible. Just difficult. Not impossible. Let me have my dream, and if you agree with it as you might, then encourage me; I'm trying to influence people and change their minds in the public arena, which includes this forum; and it's not impossible, just difficult. I can use all the help I can get.
    Things WILL NOT CHANGE until the underlying social and economic forces change. If we are moving out of the cheap oil era, we will indeed be seeing dramatic changes. That's one thing that James Howard Kunstler recognizes. There is no incentive under current conditions for anyone to change. Once that underlying economic system changes, then zoning ordinances and regulations will quickly follow. Again: tail wagging the dog.


    If there's anything I've discovered it's that people often don't know everything there is to know about how to get what they want (which, in the case of developers, is undoubtedly money). Mostly their methods resemble each other because they get their expertise from a common source. I do, however, know a developer cut from a different cloth: he only does projects that no-one else would do, because that way he has no competition. This developer profits handsomely from his policy, but he is especially hampered by the regulations. This means: 1. he invariably has to get variances or PUD’s to do the projects he envisions; 2. he can only do large blockbuster projects to justify the cost of #1, rather than the benign infill he would rather do, and that would yield even more environmental benefit. No question here that the rules work to the public’s detriment.
    Again, paraphrasing my response over at urbanphoto: there is little economic incentive to change currently. The big box stores are more profitable, they attract more customers. Maybe their patrons and builders are self-deluded, but zoning is not the primary motivating force behind the giant "power center" at the freeway off-ramp.

    Do you see anything near that kind of rapid innovation happening in the built environment?
    I don't know. Lifestyle centers and power centers are pretty innovative and developed very quickly to meet market niches. High land prices in my city are resulting in new housing types (high density single family) that you may not like but are certainly new and responsive to market forces.

    I’ll bet you can give me several good reasons why not, but one of them just has to be the mountain of regulation.
    A pretty minor part.

    People are especially deluded about what they want from their environment and how to get it, and they are particularly (yes!) uninformed, naive or deluded about matters of planning. That's why, for example, it's possible for so many of them to think the solution to sprawl is reduced density.

    That's also why the razor-sharp, cultured and totally aware planning director of a major city can joke with me, cocktail in hand, about how he has to play the game and go along with the misconceptions of the high-rollers who look to him to implement the policies they think are in their own self-interest (and he, the technician, knows are not). But does he attempt to enlighten them? Not he! He wants to keep his cushy job till retirement, and he knows the key to this is to avoid controversy. I'm different from that.
    No, you post pictures of fascist utopias by European traditionalists or aristocracy who have built very little in the real world (Seaside, as lovely as it is, is not the real world) I am suspicious of our expertise or the expertise of architects who simply KNOW BETTER how to build the world. As your own posts illustrate and clearly admit, many architects are as deluded as the purported uneducated.

  16. #16
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    Speaking of what developers want, I know one who spent his career building run-of-the-mill subdivisions and office "parks" He even subdivided the acreage on which his old Pennsylvania estate house stands, to build McMansions. He next move was to buy a villa in Tuscaby to spend his retirement in. When you paint yourself into a corner, I guess the only sensible place to flee to is someplace where the government doesn't let you paint yourself into a corner. You can't build anything new in Tuscany, unless it is on the footprint of a structure that once stood there.

    Have you considered a pied-a-terre in San Remo or maybe Urbino for your retirement, ablarc?

    You really put the wire to the nerve here! Interesting discussion going on.

  17. #17

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    Quote Originally posted by boilerplater
    Speaking of what developers want, I know one who spent his career building run-of-the-mill subdivisions and office "parks" He even subdivided the acreage on which his old Pennsylvania estate house stands, to build McMansions. He next move was to buy a villa in Tuscaby to spend his retirement in. When you paint yourself into a corner, I guess the only sensible place to flee to is someplace where the government doesn't let you paint yourself into a corner. You can't build anything new in Tuscany, unless it is on the footprint of a structure that once stood there.

    Have you considered a pied-a-terre in San Remo or maybe Urbino for your retirement, ablarc?

    You really put the wire to the nerve here! Interesting discussion going on.

    Well, I understand that Italian suburbs are pretty horrific. Outlawing new legal construction just means illegal construction. The Berlusconi government just issued a blanket amnesty for all illegal construction, including hotels and housing built IN NATIONAL PARKS with no permits

  18. #18
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    I am in total agreement with Lee Nellis. If you believe that our world looks the way it does because of zoning, you are sadly mistaken. And if you believe that if we simply lifted zoning, we would have the aristocratic settings you describe above, you are out of touch with reality.

    Your reference to Houston as an example, if anything, proves the point that no zoning does not do any better than having zoning. I find it hard to believe that a city of millions can categorically be dismissed as 'unimaginative'.

    There are serious issues to be dealt with here, and this nostalgic and imaginary world you are describing does not help address them.

    Yes, be creative and be forward thinking, but do so constructively in a way that deals with the reality of the economic forces at play and more importantly with the complexity of issues that draw individuals to live in the places they live (i.e. suburbia if that is the case).

  19. #19

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    ablarc, thanks for your comments on my post

    The question of course is how to achieve this logistically. If the regulation has primacy it slaps down creativity when the two come into contact; if human judgment is allowed to overrule the regulation, you risk corruption (wrong motives). You could speculate that it would work fine if we had philosopher-kings (like the ones in Plato); but you’ll never please everyone: we have sort of a philosopher-king in Charles (well, at least a philosopher-prince), and people are pissed off at him right and left, even though he’s mostly on the money.
    I know ashamedly little of the US system of planning and so am not sure of the primacy of regulation. Unfortunately I can only really speak of the English and Welsh system in which I practice. We too have regulations covering the many things, but I like to think that the regulations have an inherent degree of flexibility built into them, which enable good, innovative design to be built where possible. This has, combined with higher density living now espoused, recently produced some stunning buildings; and also some tat as well. All planning, to me, is about balancing – all development has an effect on the environment, and practically every development has positive and negative effects. Inevitably you are going to get development which falls within a grey area where effectively you could legitimately decide either way – approve or refuse. This is where the human judgement comes to pass, for better or worse. It may be devolved to a planning officer, it may be done by an elected member, but the effect is the same.

    Technically you’re right; the Brenta Canal’s lined with suburban McMansions built for Renaissance-era Venetians, and archaeologists can find whiffs of Suburbia in Mesopotamia, but Howard made the Suburb into a smash hit, especially in America. Sold it to the public through the Town and Country Planning Association, which is a not-so-distant ancestor of America’s principal planning association. That partly explains American planners' suburban bias.
    Again, unfortunately I have no idea of how Howard sold his ideas in the US. In the UK however, my point about Howard is that he did not propose a suburb, or anything like it. As you say later on, his was the idea of entirely new garden cities, (and indeed a string/radii of them when each one hit the 30,000 population target). The suburb was promoted later on by his various acolytes, including Unwin and Parker. Whilst I am a fan of Hampstead GS for its architecture and mix of housing, some of their other schemes such as Wythenshawe in Manchester were pretty much a disaster.

    The fly in that particular batch of ointment was, of course: how varied a selection of either jobs or entertainment can you provide in a town of 30,000? “The best of town living”: maybe not. Entertainment for hicks, and jobs for the same: definitely. The liveliest people had to commute out of these utopias from Day One to get what they needed, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, for that’s enshrined in the numbers, too.
    I’d like to think that this particular fly was unfortunately a product of its time – Howard was writing at the tail end of the 19th century, when life expectancy in Manchester was approximately 29, and he could hardly be expected to foresee the consequences of liberating the car (it was only in 1896 that Parliament removed the requirement that a car must be preceded along the highway by a man with a red flag).

    Come to think of it, you can’t even get the best of country living in a Garden City, can you? Living in a suburb just isn’t the same as living in the country, though the greenbelts help. But wait a minute… you can get the greenbelts in the city too: residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich don’t have too shabby a deal in that regard. And they can hop on the tube to the West End and really get the best aspects of city living.
    And of course the Green Belt here that the good residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich can gain easy access to is was made possible by the 1944 Greater London Plan by Patrick Abercrombie, directly influenced by Howard, Unwin and Patrick Geddes.

    Maybe I’m being a bit defensive of Howard here; but learning about him in Geography at school and being taken to Saltaire by my parents led me to taking up planning, so he is a direct influence to me. Unlike many of the Planning ‘Seers’ (and in this bracket I would include Le Corbusier, as well as people such as Wright, Perry and Soria y Mata) Howard did not subscribe to the vision of planner as an omniscient ruler who should create new settlement forms, and perhaps destroy the old without question. The complexities of planning in a mixed economy where private interest will promote much of the development that actually occurs and in a participatory democracy where individuals and groups have their own, often contradictory notions of what should happen are all absent from the writing of these planning pioneers. Howards ideas (along with Patrick Geddes) may have seemed utopian, but he never avoided the practical details of how the places would work and how they would be developed. They understood that planning should start with the world as it is and should try to work with trends in the economy and society, rather than impose their own arbitary vision of the world.

    Finally, I realise I've gone off topic here due to lack of knowledge over zoning - my apologies.

  20. #20

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    It is not my intention to rain on your parade, ablarc. I appreciate many of the same things you do. I am simply pointing out two things:

    1) Whatever else the "mountain" of regulations is, in most communities it is a reflection of what the developers want - they hold the cards.

    2) if you want things to change, you have to change the fundamental system, you have to start change at the economic roots. I am working for a place right now where the developers do not hold the cards - but half of the regulations we have don't work right because the economy makes it impossible for developers to follow them - they can't get financing, they can't lease the spaces we want them to build. Our best developers actually like the concepts - at least some of them - from their own personal point of view. But they throw up their hands over the practical consequences. IF you want things change, you have to change the economy.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    It is not my intention to rain on your parade, ablarc. I appreciate many of the same things you do.
    Lee, thanks for tempering your comments; I really appreciate that.

    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    1) Whatever else the "mountain" of regulations is, in most communities it is a reflection of what the developers want - they hold the cards.
    Not just the developers, Lee; the people also have some input, and neither the developers nor the people have as good a grasp of the issues as they should to be giving out non-negotiable directives that achieve the force of law. (Btw, I detected some ambivalence in your previous post about whether we have a democracy or oligarchy. You talked about democracy but you described an oligarchy. The developers in charge: that sounds like oligarchy.)

    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    2) if you want things to change, you have to change the fundamental system, you have to start change at the economic roots.
    That’s a pretty tall order. Can you think of anyone outside a totalitarian system that actually accomplished that goal? Lenin did it I guess, and Deng Hsiao Ping, and maybe a few others like them. But even FDR and Margaret Thatcher can’t really claim to have done that.

    Anyway, I don’t believe for one moment that it’s true. Thinking like that –deep-diving all the way to the ocean bottom to first principles—is a legacy of Sixties thinking. All those Karmic threads of causality…all that interconnectedness, what's the use…why, it’s the Universe, man. Om.

    No, it’s enough to change the smallest circle that you have influence over; you’ll be amazed at the results you get if you try. You don’t have time to change the economy—and anyway you don’t seem to have the stomach for revolution. Do you know how to fire an assault rifle?

    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    I am working for a place right now where the developers do not hold the cards.
    So glad to hear that; sounds like Vermont. Here’s your chance to do something worthwhile: if the no-growth crowd have got a hold on things, you should encourage them with a joyful heart. If ever there was a place where I would wish for zero development, it’s Vermont. But if you can: sneak in a few little hippie communes all informally jumbled and tucked away, like any one of the settlements in Lord of the Rings. And if the big box crowd comes in all disappointed, just shrug sympathetically and show them your hands are tied. Then go home and tell your wife about your good deed.


    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    …but half of the regulations we have don't work right because the economy makes it impossible for developers to follow them - they can't get financing, they can't lease the spaces we want them to build. Our best developers actually like the concepts - at least some of them - from their own personal point of view. But they throw up their hands over the practical consequences.
    Halleluiah.

    * * *

    Lee, I need to tell you where I’m coming from:

    I used to have a handyman; let’s call him Jake.

    Jake was good at everything he did. When I left him to install an antique light fixture beside the front door, I knew when I returned I’d find it plumb and true. When I said to him, “square up the hedge”, I knew I’d be greeted with a sharply trimmed wall of green. When I left him to wash my wife’s car I could count on it to sparkle on my return.

    But I just had to let him go; Jake was too good. There were signs of it all the time, and finally it got to be too much.

    One weekend I asked him to paint the house with plain white paint while I was out of town. He did it with his usual proud standard of workmanship, using nice eggshell paint. I was horrified. “Jake,” I protested, “you didn’t listen to me; I asked for plain white paint.” “But Mr. Ablarc, no-one wants plain white paint; it shows dirt and looks harsh.”

    Jake failed to take into account, you see, that I’m a weirdo. I know what I like, and I like plain white paint. I also like harmful ivy growing on my stucco house and I like my polyurethaned floors glossy, not satin --and hold the stain. I’m incurably weird.

    I also think the mark of a city worth living in is that there are never enough places to park.

    I don’t give a rat’s a$$ that most people prefer off-white, that they like stain in their wood finish, that they hate flat roofs and that they think convenient parking is the most important requirement of their environment.

    I’ve also replaced the switch in my office bathroom –the one that automatically turns on the exhaust fan along with the light; sometimes I just like to go in there and experience a quiet minute. Incurably weird.

    I have a small circle of flaky friends. They also have strange walls; some are purple, some are faux-marbre, and the ones that are white are mostly not eggshell. You can imagine some of the other fringe tastes you’ll find in my circle: Truffaut movies, opera, even anchovies.

    Where I live, we crackpots are a minority, almost an underground. I used to live in places that had actual weirdo majorities --you can probably name most of them—but a lot of them were after the same work as I was, and these whackos were smart. Then, quite by accident, I discovered it was easy to make a good living in the Sunbelt, where the competition is weak.

    I’m adaptable, so I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when my clients drop their casual racist comments, and I’ve learned to flick on the fluorescents in my sunlit office when I see one coming; I don’t want them to see just how weird I am. And I never talk politics.

    I still go for vacations to places with severe parking problems—just as often as I can; sometimes I just have to get out of my convenient and well-sorted sunbelt Valhalla. This Spring will find me in London, where there are never enough places to park, and where I won’t need any. For a week I’ll walk my body back into half a state of fitness and look at strange things. My sub-sixteen children will melt daily into the Underground (Gee Dad, this is so…o…o neat…we don’t need to be driven; we’ll be back at the hotel by nine.), and I’ll dread the looming day of my return.

    So you see, Lee, I probably have nothing much in common with some folks. I probably don’t like the things they like, and they don’t like the things I like. But we all have our right to a place in the sun.

    That’s what I see trampled by such things as zoning regulations; there’s no natural habitat where I live for the likes of me. Or my fellow weirdos, who may be a minority hereabouts, but not a minority of zero.

    * * *

    I hope you don’t need further elaboration about why this is so, but if you do, let me know and I’ll write more to explain. Right now, I have to go home to my family.

    .


    Quote Originally posted by noj
    [We too have regulations covering the many things, but I like to think that the regulations have an inherent degree of flexibility built into them, which enable good, innovative design to be built where possible...This is where the human judgement comes to pass, for better or worse. It may be devolved to a planning officer, it may be done by an elected member, but the effect is the same.
    Sounds more flexible than what we have here. More details of the process?
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 11 Jul 2005 at 2:54 PM.

  22. #22

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    Hmm? Firing a handyman that was too good sounds like a '60's thing to me. But perhaps I am mistaken.

    We all have the right to be weird in our own ways. One of my ways is that I can't not start from first principles. It causes a lot of distress, but it doesn't appear to be subject to change. Sort of like a preference for plain white or places where there aren't enough parking spaces. Which is an interesting thing: you're off to London, while I'm going to the Canyonlands, into the deep wilderness where there are no parking spaces at all.

    Peace, and keep sending us your essays. You really do have a book in you, you know. I will keep fretting about first principles and buying my food direct from the farm, changing the economy one transaction at a time. As for revolution, while I am no expert, I shoot well enough to have fed myself for long periods of time. I think well enough to see that Lenin and Mao changed nothing except who held the whip hand.

  23. #23
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    Nikos A. Salingaros interviews Léon Krier on the future of cities


    False steps and ideology.

    NS: Has humanity, as you claim in your writings and talks, made a fundamentally false step in building its cities, and if so, what can be done about it now?

    LK: Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong -- like communism -- to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. They are ideologies which literally blind even the most intelligent and sensitive people to unacceptable wastes, risks, and dangers. Modernism's fundamental error, however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e. unavoidable and necessary) phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions. Thank God there are, through the applications of New Urbanism in the last 20 years, enough positive experiences worldwide to see a massive return to common-sense solutions.

    New Urbanism.

    NS: Many of the leading new urbanists look to you for inspiration. What are your suggestions for the future of cities if the world can be convinced to build in a New Urban context?

    LK: There already exist excellent New Urbanist models for living in small and medium size towns; higher density projects are only recently being completed, but they don't get the media attention they deserve, so the learning process is slower than it could be. Very great sums are being invested now to renovate 1950s and 1960s modernist estates and campuses, but many of these are no more than the artificial prolongation of failed experiments of social and architectural collectivism. New Urbanism is not utopian and does not impose social master plans. Instead, it allows the infinite variety of human talent and ambition to build harmonious and pleasing environments. It channels competitive forces to flourish as good neighbors while pursuing their own self-interest. The very great challenge of the future, however, will be the urbanization of suburbia, the redevelopment of sprawl.

    The theoretical models are ready, but their application is slow. What is now already certain is that even the most soulless dumps on earth can -- with the right ideas and people, and sometimes very modest means -- be turned around to become places of beauty and human thriving.

    NS: There remains a serious misunderstanding. Planners -- and more importantly, citizens in general, including those elected representatives in a position to make decisions -- don't realize that the solutions you propose apply to all cities, irrespective of style. Urban structure obeys scientific rules that are independent of region. There is a secondary dependence on local tradition, climate, resources, and materials, but that has long been erased with the uniform modernist approach. Current planning practice creates two separate and artificial images of urban form: traditional, Classical and historic centers on the one hand; and vital, dynamic, growing urban fabric on the other. Within this mind-set, the governing body of a city comes to you only when it wants to revitalize itself in a Neo-traditionalist manner. Have the New Urbanists, in carving out a niche for themselves, helped to isolate New Urbanism from mainstream planning? How can this be corrected, and how do you convince the profession that there is no such difference?

    LK: You are absolutely right to point out that urban structure as a set of organizational principles is largely independent of style. Many New Urbanist projects are done using buildings in traditional style because that is the way that we prefer them to be done; at least for the time being. Modernist architecture is generally so bad and arbitrary that it is almost totally inappropriate for most common uses and climates. The most successful and well publicized New Urbanist projects are of course the neo-traditional ones like Seaside, Celebration and Poundbury, but there are plenty of similar schemes done using modernist architecture in Holland, Denmark and Germany, which follow the urban principles but are architectural no-man's land -- and consequently remain unknown.

    I personally resist for the moment mixing traditional and modernist architecture because from experience one modernist building is enough to destroy the spirit even of a largely traditional scheme. The Steven Holl building in Seaside may be the best example of this. Modernists seem to be so disorganized in their ideas that they are quite unable to realize anything so coherent and complex as Windsor or Poundbury; the situation is so critical that Andres Duany and I have discussed for a while designing a modernist town simply to show them how it is done. A town design code could easily limit itself to Le Corbusier's 1920s or 1950s grammar and produce a meaningful townscape; the same could be done with Frank Lloyd Wright -- or even Zaha Hahid or Oscar Niemeyer idioms. New Urbanists are at any rate not limited to traditional architecture, and yet a lot of people spend sleepless nights and are torn between old and new allegiances. But I would say that this is not a transcendental or moral issue, and in the end every one should do in this area what he or she feels is right; and if one is not sure, experiment around a little if the client is prepared to take the risk and then make a lucid choice.

    However, if you are faced with a political situation of common complexity I would always recommend a local vernacular as the basic architecture, because it moves design issues away from the arbitrary and from the political terror of modernist moralism. This choice reduces stylistic and architectural errors to the level of the bearable and away from spectacular errors so common to modernist experiments. Traditional detailing generally has to do with resolving practical problems of building in an elegant way, whereas style is really the quality with which you master what are technological issues.

    What we have to point out to modernists again and again is that in democracies even architecture and urbanism are a matter of choice, and are not metaphysical constraints or absolutes of their own making. Those who don't accept choice in these matters are ultimately anti-democratic, totalitarian and possibly un-modern, however futuristic their buildings may look.

    Scarcity of land.

    NS: Architects trained in the modernist tradition of our schools do not share the same reverence for your ideas as do New Urbanists. They argue that you neglect the serious population pressures that force high-rise buildings on the third world, and commercial pressures that do the same in downtowns the world over. Can you respond to such criticisms?

    LK: There is strictly speaking no correlation between demographic pressure and high rise buildings (with the rare exception of the type of conditions found in Hong Kong). In the US or Europe the "scarcity of land" argument is promoted and maintained by people with a variety of contrasting agendas, reaching from those of landowners to those of ecologists. It is an artificially fabricated myth which dissolves into thin air when we look down onto those continents from the air. We will then realize that our towns and landscapes do not suffer from a scarcity of land or generalized road and building congestion, but rather from badly used land, hence from bad planning. For instance, while Paris doubled its population it spread its buildings over a territory 15 times that of central Paris, despite the proliferation of utilitarian high rise buildings.

    Market forces.

    NS: The built environment is created by market forces, speculative greed, zoning legislation, etc. Is it even possible to build a humane environment within these unfortunately real restrictions?

    LK: Market forces are vectors of human energies and enterprise. No city can be built without them. Planning laws have in the past often strangled such activities rather than let them flourish. New Urbanist principles have the simplicity and practicality of moral precepts rather than the tyrannical sophistications of utopian reform. They are not so much prescriptive as they are permissive. In that perspective, the common interest, in the form of public spaces, is the product of neighbors realizing their contrasting and variegated self-interests.

  24. #24

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    "the simplicity and practicality of moral precepts" Oy! I don't disagree with too much of this, but there is way too much ego in it for it to be inspirational. And, of course:

    The notion that market forces are any more or less vectors of human energy than government is just silly. Where planning strangles good design it is not, ordinarily, an accident. Right or wrong, it is intentional and it expresses emotions about the changing environment that are every bit as fundamental as the market, and indeed far deeper rooted that the worship of the market that began to be encouraged (by those who benefit most) only during the last 300 years or so, beginning when the British had to use armed force to herd people into the cities to work in the mills.

    ablarc, have you read Murray Bookchin? If not, you should do so. As, for that matter, should all of the other participants in this forum.

  25. #25
          ablarc's avatar
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    Lee, Krier admires Kropotkin as much as Bookchin does, and he even shares Bookchin's belief that society has to reform itself from first principles. And furthermore, those first principles are mighty similar. Amazing how most Utopians share certain beliefs.

    I can't sign on to Utopianism; the wait is too long.

    Fortunately, Krier hasn't kept the ideal from becoming the enemy of the possible; if he had, he would not have been able to get anything built. Talk isn't enough.

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