Cliches and Misdemeanors: The Architecture of the New
In remarks prepared by Douglas Kelbaugh for a symposium
honoring the work of Patrick Geddes at Princeton University, the dean
of Taubman College of Architecture at the University of Michigan commented:
"As trite and mediocre as new urbanist architecture can be -- a professional
and academic embarrassment for believers in the movement like me -- the
Congress for the New Urbanism is serious and remarkably effective about
recuperating a normative, infill, walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use
urbanism." While his keen observations announce the triumph of the New
Urbanism over the production of relentless sprawl, his personal mortification
and professional shame are the results of an assortment of architectural
design issues disregarded by the Congress for the New Urbanism in its
worthy quest for public space.
But what kind of public space is one without architectural beauty? Is
architectural design a true necessity? Is the new urbanism capable of
surviving the ugliness or experimentation advocated by its attackers?
Is our progress real, comprehensive and truly phenomenological? Or is
it just the product of new pragmatic minds attempting to plug into every
worldly and marketable possibility?
The production of incremental buildings with authentic cultural significance,
true tectonic precision, and genuinely crafted artistic expressions is
a moral issue that must be addressed immediately. Despite the elegance
and formal sophistication of the new urbanism, architectural clichés and
skin deep traditionalism are destroying and stylizing the tri-dimensional
expression of project all over this country. Should the Congress for the
New Urbanism be really committed to its own Charter, it would halt the
production of stereotyped pattern books advocating style over building
type; it would obstruct the promotion of projects with a profusion of
standard buildings repeated at exhaustion; and, most importantly, it would
consider the idea of cataloguing a series of architectural design misdemeanors
in which "tastelessness" and "fakeness" would occupy the top of the list.
This is not a claim for the obligatory invention of form or for the expression
of new technologies -- in fact, Ivy League Schools are already too busy
putting forward these artistic agendas. The point is to raise the quality
of the architectural design discourse to the same level of superiority
that characterizes the CNU's debates about urban form, regulations, ecology
The first design insight should be to position the architectural debate
back into discussions about the relationship between building types and
urban forms. Behind the apparent endless proliferation of architectural
objects and decorative elements, there is a far lesser number of apparently
fixed types. In the same way that no two specimens of a rose are ever
exactly the same but each one is clearly the product of its formative
type, architecture has Types and Models: The Type is the rule for the
production of the Model; the Model is the realization of the Type. The
problems is that, whereas the numerous Models are visible and tangible
and can be examined at leisure, the Type is never seen or sensed, and
its very existence is only inferred through the evident effect it has
upon its Models. Yet, in a paradoxical way, the essence of the Type is
more indisputable than the reality of the Model.
Buildings should be examined and compared with the aim of illuminating
a cultural logic which transcends a regional one. A new review of our
cultural diversity, as a potential generator of building types, will offer
a framework for thinking about viable alternatives to the suburban tract
house. It is time for the Congress for the New Urbanism to address conceptual
principles rather than stylistic characteristics.
The architectural universe may be a mystery, but it is not a secret.
Jaime Correa is a Knight Professor in Community Building at the University