Putting people back into architecture

Americans are rethinking their cities. Chicago is tearing down its low-income housing projects. Houston is building a new transit system. Community organizations across the country are combating suburban sprawl.

The New Urbanist movement is influencing all of the above. It's a philosophy of architecture and urban planning that calls for the construction and reconstruction of communities around the pedestrian and the neighborhood, rather than the automobile.

Prof. Vincent Scully, an architecture historian at Yale University, is a pioneer in the movement. He traces the origins of New Urbanism to the New England town and shows that the traditional 2-1/2-story high-gabled houses of a town like New Haven helped create livable communities.

He recently took time off from teaching to speak about New Urbanism and the future of modern architecture.

What are the basic components of a New Urbanist-designed town?

You have to understand how important the grid is to the town. You have to understand how everything filters through the grid. It's a structure that tells you where you are. The most important thing you can do is get rid of the mega blocks, with buildings that take up an entire block. It's important that people are within walking distance of the center of town. That streets are narrow and connected. And that the street is a place for people - not just automobiles.... We started thinking about architecture as the structure of human habitation. The origins of New Urbanism are basically in the New England town.

You've seen your hometown, New Haven, change quite a bit.

After World War II, New Haven was destroyed by the vile business of the Interstates, which were put through by Eisenhower. And the Interstates went right through the cities, and each department of transportation in each state was to work out where they would go.

So this served modernistic planning perfectly. They came right in and destroyed what they called the slums - most of which were viable neighborhoods. They ghettoized the town and demoralized the inhabitants by building the high-rise buildings.

We forced people to live in the kind of architecture no one else wanted to. And that was modern architecture. So we immediately dehumanized them.

What is dehumanizing about high-rise buildings?

The poor need community. The poor trade off and help each other. The poor have to have that. The only people who can live happily in high-rises are the rich, because they have a lot of money and don't need community. At least they don't think they do. But the poor need the interaction. That isn't part of the experience in a high-rise.

And New Urbanism is partly responding to this problem?

New Urbanism's critics like to say it's only for rich people out in the suburbs. But New Urbanists' deepest wish is to redo all those horrible low-income projects according to decent principles: the way people ought to live. If the rich and the poor lived basically in the same character of architecture, then there can't help but be more fellowship. Everybody's a human being.

In some ways, New Urbanism isn't really that new.

A major point of history is that it picks up incomplete experiences from the past, often failed experiences that might have been wonderful, and brings it to our attention again. That's exactly what happened to the vernacular architecture of the 19th century.

What are some successful examples of the revival?

There are really some beautiful places. Seaside Park, Fla., is pristine and just adorable. Compare it to Modernism with this weird, cataclysmic, German sort of totalitarian architecture that thought it had to teach people how to live, in high-rises and all together. One of Modernism's big points was - they got it from European socialists - was that the small town is bad and especially the suburb was bad. They thought of them as hubs of fascism. They built these horrible barracks in response.

What about criticism that New Urbanist towns like Seaside Park are homogeneous?

A town is no good if one architect designs everything. But you have to have an agreed-upon language for it to be coherent, for people to communicate. So you need a building code. And the trick is to write the code so you get the normal variety, but so that the basic type is respected.

What is the future of the skyscraper?

Skyscrapers mark the first architecture ever of which the basic principle is impermanence. A skyscraper will probably last about a 50-year life span and then collapse. It happens to them all the time. Modernism had built into it a principle of impermanence. Look at [Frank Lloyd] Wright's Falling Water [house, which has been repaired three times]. The skyscraper will be gone in a thousand years, Modernist building will be gone, but the grid will be there, and the basic impress of the order of the town.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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