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A Conversation

The Style Discussion panel, from left to right: Andrés Duany, Milton Grenfell, Dan Solomon (with microphone), Michael Lykoudis (in pink shirt).

The Charleston Council of 2002 featured an open discussion on the issue of style and building. The event began with statements from the panel: Michael Lykoudis, Milton Grenfell, Dan Solomon and Andrés Duany. After the exchange transcribed below, the discussion was opened to the floor, and in fact was carried on through online listservs over the course of the next several months.

The Council Report III/IV has essays from all the panelists and a compilation of the online discussion. The Council Report III/IV also contains a wealth of additional material from the Charleston Council and the Santa Fe Council held later in the year. Download order form.

DAN SOLOMON: I understood this as a conversation -- not as an address. So I don't have an address prepared, but I will enter the conversation.

I can't disassociate the experience of being here from the experience of getting here. I left my office in the very complex and politically-fraught neighborhood of South Market in San Francisco, went through a succession of taxi rides, bus rides, plane rides -- to Philadelphia, and then to Charlotte and here -- and traversed a set of environments and landscapes -- rooms and places and non-places -- that were, I thought, what the movement of the New Urbanism was to address. And then I came here and ascended the steps of the Daughters of the Confederacy, to a beautiful room where we have a breakfast of red herring, in a conversation that seems to me largely delusional.

I joined with colleagues 10 years ago because the limits of my architectural practice did not address the set of rooms and landscapes and experiences that I moved through, getting here. And to be circumscribed in this beautiful room and concerned about its relevance or potential relevance to that world, seems a very, very circumscribed and self-circumscribing view for us new urbanists who banded together to deal with the journey -- not with the destination. I'm really interested in that journey, and only to the degree that this room and the traditions it represents, serves what that journey has been, is this room interesting. Otherwise, it's uninteresting and irrelevant to a much larger set of concerns, which, I think, have liberated me, personally, from a very circumscribed architectural practice to one that is really grappling with something much larger.

I think that the attempt to repeal the 20th century is so fundamentally doomed that it marginalizes those who subscribe to it. We looked yesterday at a project that I think is extraordinary -- well, extraordinary, but not unique -- and that is Paul Murrain's Melrose Arch, which seems to me in every way a healthy project, and one which joins a whole series of other things around the world, which I'd like to cite, and to which I think the conversation about style becomes irrelevant. It seems to me that every conceivable nuance of a cogent statement on this subject has been said and re-said, to the point where we should simply move on, because the examples are powerful ones -- Melrose Arch is certainly one. Addison Circle and the other Post Properties projects -- Uptown and Legacy Town Center outside Dallas -- are moving experiences to me in the same way, as is the new fabric of Vancouver.

I think that all of these places show that the deficiencies of the modern movement -- its mistakes, its bad urbanism, its granting of autonomy (a destructive autonomy) to individual buildings and individual architects -- can be addressed. And they can be addressed without renouncing and without alienating ourselves from the culture that produces the new, and the inevitable, unalterable human impulse -- or the impulse of our times -- to gravitate to the new.

The questions about longevity of buildings, their imperviousness to water, etc., seems to me [to be more] questions of skill and of budget than of style. The beautiful buildings that RTKL and others did in Addison Circle are going to last a long time; they are beautifully made and beautifully detailed, and they're done with great skill. The buildings of Vancouver, which are very much in a modernist aesthetic, are producing a beautiful new city of great streets, great parks, enormous vitality and enormous economic energy. Melrose Arch seems to be a similar sort of place; one can only hope. If it creates an architecture that embraces everything that is hopeful and fearful --but more hopeful than fearful -- in South Africa, what a glory that is, if urbanism can represent the best aspirations -- the best political aspirations -- of what's occurring in South Africa.

To the degree that we distance ourselves, alienate ourselves, make ourselves irrelevant to that set of aspirations, we doom ourselves. We doom ourselves to breakfast in the Daughters of the Confederacy, as opposed to engagement with the journey from South Market in San Francisco, through Philly airport, on the bus to here, which I think is the much more interesting set of questions.

But before I leave this, I want to cite one architect as a model -- for me as a model. He's a model in some ways, and not in other ways. He's not a model, because I think he has so far proved himself not adept at dealing with the normative problems of low-budget buildings. But enormously adept at taking the aesthetic of modern architecture and transforming it to both an urban and an environmental poetic of enormous power. He's a student of Kahn and he's gone far beyond Kahn, and that's Michael Hopkins.

Michael Hopkins has produced a kind of modernism; he has moved from Norman Foster's office to an independent practice of enormous power. He has taken Kahn's attitudes toward tectonics and embraced environmentalism and the handling of daylight, the handling of air -- all of the issues of an environmental and urban aesthetic in buildings that are new, inventive, and richly contextual. It seems to me that those are the kinds of models -- Vancouver, Melrose Arch, Addison Town Center, Addison Circle, the works of Michael Hopkins, and so on -- that make this question of style utterly irrelevant, just simply not part of the conversation of what our mission needs to be. I think our mission is clear, and I think it doesn't reside in this room.

Thank you.

ANDRÉS DUANY: I usually find myself agreeing with the new urbanists when they speak about architecture -- just as I find myself disagreeing with the academics. And I think that it's because those within the ambit of the CNU have disciplined their propositions by the common good and the higher morality of urbanism. That's why we all make sense. Although I do disagree with Dan in one major way: It is not that we are irrelevant to modernity because we're concerned about traditional architecture, but that modernist architecture is, unfortunately, irrelevant to our mission. It does not serve our needs in certain ways.

I have begun a list of what I believe architecture needs to become. It can serve as a kind of proto charter for New Urban Architecture. (Editor's note: This was further developed since this Charleston Council, and it appears in the associated column.)

First, architecture needs to work off an open system of construction. By that I mean that it needs to be made by something that you can find in a lumberyard, brickyard or Home Depot. There were two projects presented yesterday that did that, while Paul Murrain's did not. Everything about the buildings in Paul's project seemed to require special fabrication. There are very few areas of the United States where you can get special fabrication well done at a decent cost. Now, as it happens in this country, classicism is an open system. You can get everything you need -- the windows, doors, doorknobs, claddings, gutters, columns -- off the shelf, from multiple manufacturers. And they interlock visually and tectonically. I would personally love it if modernist architecture was to gradually become available as standard stock.


DUANY: IKEA? Well, it's a good emergent trend for furniture. But IKEA is not the world of the builder, or my world for that matter. I've never been in an IKEA. I don't live in San Francisco. Right now we need the whole kit of parts to be in Home Depot. I really mean that -- not San Francisco. Most new urbanists are in the muck, working in the primal ooze culturally. We need an architecture that communicates to the consumer -- not an architecture that's dependent on patrons.

Patrons are people who know an awful lot about architecture and are willing to pay for it and, in some cases, are willing to suffer discomfort for it. This is who commissions Richard Meier, Michael Graves, and Frank Gehry -- patrons.

Then there are also the clients. Dan, you and I sometimes have clients commission our work. These are people whom you meet with and who you bring along to an acceptable level of sophistication. You have the chance to teach them enough about architecture to have them, in your case, understand modernism.

However we, the urbanists, don't have clients; we have customers. I don't meet the people at the sales office to explain to them an architectural idea. It is the building they see and visit that confronts them, unmediated by contact with an architect. If it does not communicate with them, they walk out and go live somewhere else. We cannot provide clients who trust us with their livelihoods with a product that will not sell. It bankrupts them. And the community, which is what we are primarily about, will not be built. As urbanists, it is more important that we build better communities than that we advance the art of architecture.

So let's ask: What would it take for modernism to actually begin to communicate with the common person -- the American middle-class customer? Two things, I would say. First, modernism has to stabilize its language long enough so that the customer can begin to understand it and read it. I often see what happens because it does not. For example, I went with some people to see Steve Holl's building at Cranbrook. They hated it, of course. Then I undertook the time to explain the ideas involved: the materiality, the structural relativism, the perceptual composition, the fundamentalism. After some effort, they understood enough to accept it, and a couple of them even started getting into it. Then we went on to the building by Todd Williams . well, again, it was, "What the hell is going on?" Once again, nothing in the language communicated with them. It was another personal vocabulary.

Now, it is obvious how this continually undermines the ability to establish a common language. People are capable of being brought to modern architecture, but the modern architects have to stabilize their language, among themselves, and to hold it still for a substantial period of time -- not just a fashion cycle. If not, it is all quite useless to the needs of the New Urbanism. I should add that this is not too much to ask. It has occurred before, and with great success, when ex-Bauhauslers built most of the buildings in Tel Aviv. These were and are popular with the people as they were able to assimilate the common language. Neal Payton has written about this in "The New City."

SOLOMON: If people don't like modern architecture . then why are certain units selling so well?

DUANY: I'll tell you why. There are victims. We misunderstand each other because you operate in a world where there is a scarcity of housing, where people have little choice. They are so grateful to find a dwelling in San Francisco (or Manhattan) that they put up with housing that they may not like. The world that I operate in -- the suburban Sunbelt -- has the opposite: enormous choice. Once you qualify for an $80,000 mortgage you enter the threshold of choice. There are 10 projects to choose from with four models each. I am referring to unconstrained markets where there is good old American choice. When one of our projects doesn't meet their expectations the customer just drives off to buy some shitty Colonial or Mediterranean, and that's a big difference. That's the difference. One of the reasons that we can do modernist buildings in Aqua is that Miami Beach is a victim situation. We're doing modernist high-rises across from Manhattan, and it's no problem. But anywhere else out there in the 'burbs -- all those the places that you said you drove by -- try to put modernist houses out there and you will bankrupt the community builder.

Mind you, I'm not saying that we must be traditionalists. What I'm saying is that we need to establish a cadre of modernist architects that will share and stabilize the language so that both the people and the producers of construction materials can follow it. New urbanist architects must differentiate themselves by eschewing exaggerated individual expression and try not to follow fashion, which changes too often to support the cycle of urbanism. When we look at architecture and judge it, we must be aware if it was created for a patron, a client, a victim, or a customer.

Now what language should the modernist one be? It should grow out of an integrated, passive environmentalism. A modern architecture that is no less good than the traditional vernacular at providing a matter-of-fact environmental response. And it must do another thing: Do you know Stuart Brand's book "How Buildings Learn"? It is about how buildings must be adaptable if they are to respond to the evolving needs of society. We, as urbanists, must have architecture that is robust (to use Paul Murrain's term). If not robust, our communities will fail in the long run. As we know, modernist architecture is notorious for preventing modification and rejecting additions. For example, in the Dutch new town of Alemere, which is an interesting place designed with a combination of traditional urbanism and modernist architecture, there is a large complex of housing in the downtown that is only a couple of decades old. However, it must now be torn down because it cannot be modified, because it is so specifically made by one-of-a-kind elements. No one makes the stuff anymore. So out they go -- hundreds of units. Now, had they used an open system of bricks, clapboard or stucco, they would have been able to cut it, open it, add to it, remove parts of it, etc. We as new urbanists need such an architecture, one that has the ability to learn.

Another thing that I have noticed about modernist architecture is that when the building syntax is self-expressive -- as it usually is since the demise of Mies' reputation -- it does not lend itself to achieving mixed use. For example, to have a house near an apartment building and be acceptable to the consumer, that apartment building cannot be an eggcrate of balconies. And an office building cannot be a steel-and-glass cube; people will hate it and fight the mixed use. On the other hand, when the syntax is shared, there seems to be no problem (providing the parking and noise controls are worked out). Style is camouflage, and that is its principal use to an urbanist. That is why we code for a shared syntax. When we were working in downtown Birmingham, Mich., there was a notorious building that people disliked. We went to see it and found that it shared the local setback, was only three stories tall, and was made of brick. The only reason that it caused a visual crisis is that it had horizontal strip windows! People are quite sensitive. Imagine an avant-garde architect let loose, what that would do to the consensus required to achieve urbanism. There's efficiency of design.

There is also the attitude of the modernist architects. The genius model that is requisite with the style. When we recommend a modernist architect to one of our developer clients it goes like this: "Please pay me a higher-than-usual fee so that I can take your project away for a real long time to agonize over it and when I bring it back to 'defend' it don't try to point out that there are not-enough-closets-sort-of-thing and when it busts the budget just come up with more dough because it cannot be changed."

What an agony it is for us to overlook such architects! And it is incomprehensible to the community builder who can just retain certain traditional architects and get done what they need efficiently and well with a traditional building.

Furthermore, there is the problem of the locations of modernist architecture on the Transect. We need to have architecture that is rural in rural areas, suburban in suburban areas, urban in urban areas, and metropolitan in metropolitan areas. The language of modernist architecture is very deficient in the middle range of Transect Zones, which is the most widespread in the United States. It's fantastically good on the metropolitan end -- the concrete or glass or steel high-rise, but as you get into suburban contexts modernist architecture does not perform. In the rural areas, with buildings separated by distance and buffered by landscaping, it does fine again, as one uniquely expressive building cannot be seen simultaneously with another. Glenn Murcutt does a particularly good job in rural Australia and Lake Flato in Austin -- but even then there is the problem of a specialized construction. All of these architects achieve their rural character through craft. They are practically Ruskinian in their use of "honest" materials and craft building, so it is not economical. It is not from Home Depot. Be that as it may, the real problem remains the absence of a modernist proposal of the middle ranges of the Transect where the majority of American urbanism occurs and where most the new urbanists consequently operate.

And finally, there is the win/loss ratio. Dan, you and I know that there are between 300 and 3,000 modernist masterpieces. We've visited them, we admire them, we understand them. They are not the problem. The problem is the 30 million failures of modernism that have destroyed our cities and our landscapes. You cannot have one without acknowledging the other. There were very few failures prior to modernism. Architects and builders could rely on tradition to give them a base below which quality would not drop while not preventing masterpieces. The problem with modernism is that without acknowledging tradition there is no bottom it does not reach. Too many architects, unsupplied with genius, are asked to emulate the design methods of Wright, Mies, LeCorbusier, and the few geniuses there have been. And the result has been a comprehensive, world-girdling disaster. We cannot, as urbanists, for the sake of the occasional masterpiece, tolerate such an abysmal win/loss ratio. No one would in any other field. Why should architects be exempt? Especially when there is evidence that other fields don't fail at such a rate because they all build on tradition -- and incidentally this does not exclude the master art of our time, cinema.

The plea that I'm making is to create a modernist architecture, based on the tradition of modernism. Because this does not occur, we the new urbanists resort to the vernacular tradition of architecture. So let's get modernism going, so that it meets the criteria of the normal, the useful, the dependable. Let's write a charter on those conditions.