Saturday, December 10, 2005

Katrina's Bank Slate and the Rise of New Urbanism

Ambitious urban planners always dream of realizing their vision on a tabula rasa (blank slate). The notion that an ideal town plan can result in an almost utopian society within has persisted since cities were created thousands of years ago. The modern period, which began during the Renaissance and has lasted to our day, has given rise to particular urban planners their political patrons that wished to eliminate entire parts of the city and replace them with large streets, uniform blocks of dense dwellings and large parks and green spaces. Monumental axes would bind the city toward a visual unity, and accentuate the power of the political entity that brought it about.

A key concept in understanding the sway that the blank slate had on urban designers is the idea of cleanliness. Lewis Mumford’s comprehensive “The City in History” makes it clear that cities were filthy, disease-ridden places since they emerged in the marshes of Mesopotamia. Human waste and rotting corpses were ubiquitous even in ancient Greek cities, which may have contributed to Hippocrates’ prescriptions for healthier living by proper city planning. Rome was hardly much better, as it was vulnerable to numerous plagues, and the presence of sewage on it narrow streets encourage the use of stepping stones to cross the street. The European middle ages did not exhibit any improvements, except for the realization that fanning out a population into the countryside was probably the best way to avoid plagues that thrived in dense environments. Baroque city plans emphasized the ‘cleaning out’ of the city by opening up major traffic arteries in response to the medieval maze narrow streets and dank alleys. Baron Haussman, in addition to enabling greater state control on behalf of his boss the Emperor Napoleon III, sought to sanitize Paris, which earlier in the 19th century was devastated by epidemics. The Modernist movement, whose urban ideas were led by Le Corbusier and his International Congress on Modern Architecture (CIAM) preached hygiene, the healthy affects of lots of natural light and greenery. It seemed obvious at the time that residential areas should be far removed from the dirty and polluting factories, the workplace of a large portion of people during the industrial age, and thus the case for separate zoning was made. The destruction the First World War had brought a new kind of blank slate from which idealistic urban planners could benefit. The opportunities for reconstruction was also an opportunity to set society right again with the proper plan.

In the twenty-first century, the blank slate has returned by way of destructive hurricanes. Days after the flooding of New Orleans and the flattening of cities in Mississippi, many pundits were contemplating on what the future held for the renewal of the cities affected. Most predicted a major permanent depopulation of New Orleans, and others wondered whether rebuilding was worth the trouble given their extreme geographic vulnerabilities. Four months have passed, the trough of federal relief funds has opened, and the decision to rebuild has been made by most municipal leaders, regardless of whether their scattered inhabitants are coming back. By judging the latest professional journals, architects and urban planners see a once-in-a lifetime chance to start over from a blank slate. But what has happened up to now? Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times reports on the recent events regarding reconstruction:

HALEY BARBOUR, governor of Mississippi, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and longtime friend of W., has been joking to colleagues that until very recently he knew only two French words: bonbon and bourbon. Now, he tells them, he's learned a third: charrette, a term architects and planners use to describe a brainstorming session in the early stages of a project.If that seems a rather obscure word for a governor with little professed interest in architecture to be using, it's also a telling indication of how the post-Katrina reconstruction process is shaping up.
Charrette is a favored bit of jargon among architects connected to the Congress for the New Urbanism. And the Congress for the New Urbanism, or CNU, has become, with surprising speed, the go-to planning group for politicians along the Gulf Coast.In Barbour's state, New Urbanists dominated a weeklong charrette held in October at the Isle of Capri casino in Biloxi. Led by Miami architect and CNU mainstay Andrés Duany, the so-called Mississippi Renewal Forum architects and planners from around the country who are loyal to the group's cause.Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has also begun relying on New Urbanists for rebuilding advice. This week the newly formed Louisiana Recovery Authority tapped Duany to lead a statewide charrette and chose Berkeley-based architect and planner Peter Calthorpe, a CNU founder, to develop a long-term regional plan for areas devastated by hurricane flooding.

Far from envisioning a brand-new architectural landscape that follows historical precedent is similar cases, it appears that state and city leaders have embraced retrograde styles and planning principles. Much of what one could call ‘New Urbanist’ is actually a deliberate restoration of historic architectural styles as well borrowing of 19th century garden suburb planning. Thus it is hardly new in the historical sense, yet its proponents skillfully use the term ‘new’ to persuade people that it is an improvement over Modernist urban planning that previously prevailed. A consensus is emerging that the terms “smart growth” (another clever term to denote improvement) is different from New Urbanism in that it emphasizes rules on easements, set-backs and multi-use transit oriented development without promoting any kind of style. I often find ‘smart growth’ mentioned when it involves the renovation of an existing or historic district in a city, while New Urbanist projects take place in the suburbs or farther out into the exurbs. One of the main criticisms against New Urbanism is that it is too modest, providing schemes that work well within the context of a small village in the middle of nowhere but proposing little in the way of remaking denser downtown environments. Andres Duany, of the Florida firm Duany, Plater-Zyberk is one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement that began in the 80’s featuring its fist flagship work in the new town of Seaside, Florida. One look at images of this place makes it very clear that there were strict design guidelines, and the borrowed architectural vernacular of a southern coastal town aims to establish a historic heritage in a place where there was none. This is similar to what the New Urbanists propose for the wrecked communities along the Gulf Coast.

Hawthorne uses this instance of the collaboration between Gulf Coast municipalities and the New Urbanist to frame the heated debate that has been occurring in the architectural and urban design profession in the last few years. One side, composed of the architectural cultural elite, based often in universities and cosmopolitan international cities that support avant-garde design, believes that the devastated areas could serve as the blank slate for an innovative and untraditional approach that could serve as a model for future urban developments. The other is the proponents of New Urbanism who see an opportunity to set right what was for the most part an area blighted by Modernist principles of single-use zoning and auto-friendliness. Hawthorne describes these two sides futher:

Architects in academic and avant-garde circles, most of whom remain loyal to Modernist principles, have charged for years that beneath the New Urbanists' love of picket fences, porch swings and gabled roofs lies an approach to new construction that perverts the Modernist legacy and is too friendly to developers.Indeed, Moss says he was a bit surprised by the uproar his comments about the Mississippi charrette provoked simply because this critique of New Urbanism has become so familiar.As Kroloff told NPR in September, the New Urbanists "believe that within the traditions of 19th century city planning in the United States are most if not all of the answers to 21st century planning." In New Orleans, he added, the result could be an effort "to re-create your grandmother's hometown, for no other reason than that Americans are just besotted by historicism. They love historicism. If we let New Orleans do that, we're going to have a silly, Disney-fied, cartoon version" of the city.All you have to do to understand the level of their concern is to look at the results in the handful of residential developments that have been produced in accordance with the New Urbanist philosophy. If you ask Leland Speed, a real estate developer who heads the Mississippi Development Authority and invited CNU leaders to the Biloxi forum, what New Urbanist developments he sees as models for reconstruction in Mississippi and New Orleans, he will give you two names: New Town at St. Charles, a suburban development outside St. Louis, and Baldwin Park, Fla.Both suffer from an overly precious, faux-historical design. (The first image you see on the New Town at St. Charles website is a picture of three cherubic white kids fishing together on the end of a dock.) The overall effect is Eisenhower-era America as glossily reimagined by Ralph Lauren.

Judging from the reams of email and magazines I get from the Urban Land Institute, the leading professional society for real estate developers, the New Urbanists have conquered the hearts and minds of those who initiate building projects. The complaint that New Urbanist schemes are emblematic of the “disneyfication” of society may be a valid point philosophically, but developers don’t think in this way. They think in terms of potential profits and maximized square footage for the costs. Coincidentally, the nostalgic style, the return to historic dwelling densities of town homes, the narrow lots and alley ways and the communal park in lieu of a private backyard are very effective in maximizing the developer’s investment. Although New Urbanism does require the cooperation of local governments, it is a commercial success in that it addresses the actual desires many Americans want in a community.

Modernism and its contemporary descendants that the architectural elite abide to can never claim such success, as it has been often a matter of inflicting schemes to an immobile population (i.e.: housing projects, ‘urban renewal’). The utilitarian obsession of solving problems for the greatest number has led Modernist planning to completely disregard the whims and aspirations of a majority of Americans. A common post-modern critique still rings true for many people that the Modernist elite seem to ignore at their own peril: Building is less about what the architecture should be from the point of view of the designer than what the client and the surrounding cultural context expect and aspire it to be. Many Modernists make the mistake of seeing the user as perfectly measurable unit, gauging how many square feet the user ought to have, the kind of amenities they ought to like and the nature of the common spaces that they should feel comfortable with. What is often left out in the equation is what the user imagines a home to be or look like, what their actual preferred tastes are. An interesting research project would be to systematically interview the people who live in Modernist-inspired social housing neighborhoods on how they feel about their environment. I would bet that few like the appearance of where they live and often yearn for a more traditional dwelling. The gap between what the enlightened architect suggests and what many everyday people actually want is large and often irreconcilable, and it typically leads the former to accuse the latter of cultural philistinism. I’m guilty of this myself and am often accused snobbish elitism.

But when I look at the communities of the Gulf coast, and as I recall my own experience when I lived there, what strikes me is how that area is so steeped in tradition. New Orleans has a rich and eclectic history and Biloxi has always had a charmingly quaint image. Since few outsiders move in to these Gulf Coast cities, the inhabitants there define themselves strongly to their heritage, the land, and their supposedly glorious past. Plantation style architecture is much beloved there, as well as the Cajun vernacular and pretty much anything else that has to do with old French influence. The region is home to a relatively static culture, with no interest in seriously remaking themselves or moving a bit forward. In my opinion, South Louisianans and Mississippians are among the least embracing of modernity itself. Contrary to what many outsiders think, New Orleans is one of the least culturally fecund cities in the country, as it survives mainly from rehashing its storied cultural achievements from eighty years ago. The irony is that this aversion to constant change and improvement has contributed to a relatively picturesque urban landscape in which the average suburban middle class home is often far more attractive than the mediocre stylistic experiments in most suburban neighborhoods around the country.

In the case of Katrina’s aftermath, the issue is less about New Urbanism’s commercial viability than it is about gaining the support of major political players. When it comes to urban masterplans, the people’s opinions counts for relatively little, and it’s usually a matter of convincing those that will push the project through. Hawthorne observes the Congress on New Urbanism (CNU) have become quite savvy, end-running more progressive architects in realizing their agenda:

THE debate about the New Urbanists' influence in Katrina reconstruction efforts and the way it has begun to ricochet from the Gulf Coast to Washington, D.C., to Southern California in the end has broad ramifications for contemporary architecture.It comes at a time when cutting-edge designers such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid enjoy an unprecedented level of celebrity and public recognition yet have failed to find influence in government — particularly American government or suburban America or with big developers.The New Urbanists, meanwhile, have been more skilled at making themselves welcome on Main Street and in the corridors of power — even as their stock among fellow architects, particularly young and urban ones, has plummeted.No architectural interest group attracts as much criticism as the CNU. But the group's leaders are increasingly able to brush off those gripes, because they have made the calculated decision that the people whose minds are worth changing include everyone but architectural elites.

I get the sense that many city leaders have had their fill with ‘urban renewal’ during the Fifties and Sixties, with its inhumane public housing projects, its impersonal scale and its brutal facades. Certainly, the more modest and sentimental schemes of New Urbanism is seen by them as welcome relief. But the current crop of leading contemporary architects has little to propose in the way of a detailed urban program like their CIAM predecessors. They haven’t clearly codified their urban theory, and most of their projects are limited to the extent of one building or a few urban blocks. Most architecture firms that offer urban design services have mostly internalized New Urbanist and ‘smart growth’ concepts. The above mentioned “starchitects” Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas do have an acute awareness of the workings of the city, and often their architecture crystallizes prevailing pedestrian traffic patterns and historic axial relationships and the surrounding context. But because their architectural responses to each site is unique, they could never propose any kind of accessible manual on how to design for cities that mayors and governors could understand. Anyway, these starchitects have plenty on their plate as it is, and deep down I don’t think they would be all that interested in restoring communities along the Gulf Coast.

The reason I say this is that Katrina has brought about a profound political shift in the ravaged areas. New Orleans was key for any statewide Democrat to win office. With the exodus of potential Democrat voters likely permanent, the remainders who live in the suburbs and in small coastal towns in Mississippi are very conservative. I know very few political conservatives who are sympathetic to modern architecture. Hawthorne implies the political dimension of the Modernist/New Urbanist conflict at the conclusion of his article, noting:

Whatever you make of the CNU agenda or of the developments that have been produced under its banner, you can't help but be impressed by the organizational strength it has displayed in rushing into the planning breach along the Gulf Coast. More than anything, the effort brings to mind the way Republican operatives bested Democratic ones in certain crucial swing states during the 2004 presidential election.The Biloxi charrette, in other words, may go down as the architectural elite's Ohio: the place it watched rather helplessly as its ideological opponents outclassed it not through nimble thinking or grand theory or inspiring plans but simply by being more disciplined and better organized. And there is no need, in this version, for a recount.

Other than revealing a personal political bias, Hawthorne makes a political issue out of cultural philistinism. If you don’t agree with someone’s aesthetic and theoretical point of view, then paint that person in an opposing political light. This is contrary to my own impressions of professional debates on urbanism, where the political overtones vary from slightly left to communistic. The libertarian view, while valuable and often right about many things, is mostly disregarded since it doesn’t provide a means for urban planners or city leaders to exercise control. The philosophy of letting things develop on their own does not appeal to people who seek to claim credit or having solved a problem. Maybe Hawthorne is suggesting that the elite faction should resurrect CIAM and promote a sort of governing body on urbanism. Somehow I doubt such an organization would succeed in the U.S., since the cultural wavelengths of most American leaders is closer to the New Urbanists than it is to the Modernists.

For a very well written essay from the point of view of the architectural avant garde regarding the Katrina reconstruction, read amarc's account at Progressive Reactionary.

For a superb intellectual clarification on why movements like New Urbanism can be so appealing, Michael at 2 Blowhards is worthwhile reading.

Hattip to Tidewater Musings for mentioning Hawthorne's article.

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