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VOL. 6, NO. 2-- SUMMER 2004

Cliches and Misdemeanors: The Architecture of the New Urbanism

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 or traffic.

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 of Miami.