Andrés Duany: Miami and Oakville

The following interview with Andrés Duany was published in March, 1997, in The Globe and Mail. Given the celebrated U.S. urban planner's presence in Oakville during 18-24 September 2003 for a charrette on the future of the town's northern development, I thought it a good time to revisit my feature about him, and review (in a note below the interview) his kick-off talk in Oakville, given 18 September 2003.
John Bentley Mays

MIAMI--This happened a couple of weeks ago, as I was cabbing across Miami for a meeting with architect Andrés Duany.

His office address was scribbled on a scrap of paper, which I handed the driver. He took one look at it and said flatly: "Looks like you're going to the architecture building."

Before I got to ask just what he meant by "architecture building," he added: "There's this dog in there. Just watch out. He'll take your leg off."

So not without apprehension did I edge out of the cab onto the sidewalk, and approach the classical, canvas-curtained entrance of the old aircraft-engine repair shop, deep in a working-class Latino neighbourhood, that houses the firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

The dog was waiting for me at the door.

Some dangerous pooch, as it turned out. This office pet is a happy dachshund named Teddy who thinks he's an architect, a DPZ staffer told me. He looks over plans spread out in Andres Duany's splendidly becolumned, skylit office and meeting room, generally counts himself in as a member of the DPZ gang, and recently got a promotion to principal non-human partner when the rooster moved out. According to Duany--a Cuban émigré with the compact, agile build of a street fighter and the sit-still ability of a fifth grader--his wife and partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk demanded that Antonio be pushed off his perch in the office after all that crowing started getting in the way of business. (It's a cutthroat profession, architecture. Just for the record, however, Antonio seemed happy enough when last spotted, heading off down the street with some hens.)

But if the cab driver was wrong about Teddy, there is at least a couple of living creatures in DPZ's serene, spacious Miami temple who are currently striking fear into hearts across North America, for good reason.

Their names: Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

Along with one or two other Sun-Belt American architects--notably California's Peter Calthorpe--this creative couple constitutes the high priesthood of the most controversial and generally talked-about tendency in contemporary North America architecture.

It goes by the harmless-sounding name of New Urbanism, and, as the name suggests, is more about planning than building. The emphasis on learning from what's worked in the past and avoiding the calamities of big-time architectural experimentation certainly sounds harmless enough. "We work from models, and we emulate success," says Duany--the successful models being the most durably attractive old neighbourhoods and villages of Europe and America, with pitched roofs, little shops, front porches and laneways and a "Howdy, Neighbour!" feel largely absent from life in modern cities.
It's right here that the problems for the New Urbanists begin. Among the sludge-words sometimes thrown by more stringent Modernists at Duany and compatriots: sentimental, fantastical, "Lassie-Come-Home" nostalgic.

Be that as it may, a couple of factors have conspired to push New Urbanism to the forefront of architectural discussion. One is that it's gotten big, especially since the mid-1980s, after years as a tiny sect. Another is that it's getting bigger, partly due to the evangelistic fervour of its adherents, but also to a sudden upswing of interest in the work of "neo-traditionalist" planners and architects by real-estate developers.

Just to give you an idea of how big: An estimated 3,000 planners, architects, academics and developers are expected to turn up in Toronto in May [1997] to attend the Congress for the New Urbanism's first rally in Canada.

And on the practical end, DPZ alone has about 90 projects at the talking, planning or building stages across the world, including the Law Development Group's $2-billion new town of Cornell, slated to take shape in the Toronto suburb of Markham over the next 20 years.

It hardly matters any more if a lot of critics and architects are having problems with what they take to be the ye-olde agenda of New Urbanism. It's here to stay. Or as Andres Duany says: "Neo-traditionalists choose whatever works. It's going to be the dominant ethos to the year 2025."

But Duany's not taking anything for granted. Swinging a leg over the arm of his chair, he says: "We have had extraordinarily good press. But now -- well, people are beginning to see the flaws in the feet of clay."

Take Seaside, for example. It's the DPZ traditionalist community that launched the office, and its approach, into global orbit, and remains the architects' most famous (or notorious) project. "It's a failure," says Duany. "There is no privacy, just community. It doesn't have character. We built a cartoon."
If it sounds a little odd coming from Duany, the opinion of neo-traditionalist architecture as cartooning is one of the commonest criticisms you hear about New Urbanism. But as it happens, old-fashioned, tried and true urban design -- not styling in this or that historical manner -- is the part of architecture that fascinates Duany most.

He jumps up, and takes me down a long row of superbly crafted models for DPZ's large, luxurious villas in the Florida Mediterranean style preferred by the firm for its work for private clients. "It's all boring," he says, dismissing the whole heap of zillion-dollar residential projects DPZ has been building since its incorporation in 1980. "At first, we got hired just by rich people. Then we realized we weren't getting anything else. We wanted the difficult programs."

But if the architect found working for rich private clients mostly a drag, he claims to have learned one thing from them that's applicable to the town planning that preoccupies him now. "Very demanding ladies taught us how to ask the right questions." What's really necessary in a house or a town. What's pleasing and what's not. What works.

His current supreme example of what works is Cornell. Duany has called the master plan for this 1,275-acre cluster of small neighbourhoods in Markham DPZ's "absolutely flawless, best, flagship project," and the model for the firm's future international projects. If New Urbanism as a whole is about getting out of the house, walking to school or the store and elsewhere, then Cornell will be an NU paradise. "This is not about moving Florida north! Nobody walks in Miami, everybody walks in Toronto. I would never have done this design had I not seen the way Toronto people walked!"

Duany, normally a quick talker, gropes for words laudatory enough to describe Ontario's former New Democratic government, under which the basic design work for Cornell was done. "Working for a government with great confidence in its ability to do good is an amazing thing for an American planner," he says. "Because we gained their confidence, we were permitted to do excellent work. And the Markham government--they were the blockade runners through the bureaucratic process, they knew what excellence is and expected it. We found ourselves sweating more than we usually do, and everything miraculously fell into place."

If all keeps falling into the places Duany wants them to, the neighbourhoods of Cornell will be "medium density, like Cabbagetown," "multigenerational," with not a house farther than five minutes' walk from transit, shopping, everything -- "what I'll use to teach planning." Not a gated community on the property. There will busy main streets in small-town Ontario's good old Vic-brick style, garages out back of the houses, nice porches and sidewalks out front. It will be everything New Urbanists love, and Old Urbanists hate: cozy, architecturally unchallenging but lovely, familiar (at least from movies made in Nebraska in the 1930s) -- a place for just folks, not a training -ground for the New People dreamed of by the utopian Modernist planners. It will be the quintessential example of Traditional Neighbourhood Development (or TND, in New-Urbanist lingo).

In the end, however, all Duany hopes for may not come to pass. He is particularly worried about the Markham planners and politicos who've replaced the ones he admired, and who've been monkeying around with the design codes he carefully prescribed for his ideal Cornell. "They have made simple plans complex. [The present layout] does not have the clean simplicity a traditional TND must have. The greatest single flaw in Cornell is its overcomplicated code."

Whatever we are to make of Duany's comment about Cornell, it tells us a lot about the man and the New Urbanist thinking he's working to advance in American architectural circles. His strategy, at bottom, is as much about rigorous control, clean urban form, streamlining and efficiency as an unreconstructed glass-and-steel, concrete-box Modernist. So how come the images of gingerbread Victorian porches and such that pop to mind when you hear the words "New Urbanism?"

It's because we are just not getting the point. "The difference between the Modern project and ours," Duany explains, "is that they were doing untested inventions, while ours are emulations of historical successes. They tried to evade the past, because it stood in the way as witness. Modernism gave very appealing, really clean thinking, but, to a very great extent, their experiments failed. I am allergic to untested inventions."

He particularly scorns the great public-housing projects of the postwar Modernist heyday. "I would never experiment on the poor."

Duany likes the word "nostalgic" even less than he admires "experiment." He believes the New Urbanism has kicked off the most exciting debate about the future of urban design since the 1930s, when Italian architects were going toe-to-toe over Modernism versus a version of Mediterranean neo-traditionalism. For this architect the two positions are not opposed. He strongly believes neo-traditionalism is the child, not enemy, of 20th-century Modernism -- the historical heir and successor, sharing much of Dad's social idealism and realism, outdoing his best accomplishments, repairing his mistakes.

It's not an easy proposition to dismiss. After all, on what kind of streets and in what kind of houses do Toronto people with imagination and economic choice tend to live? There's really only one answer: Brictorian, with trees along the sidewalks. It's the reason housing is expensive downtown, and cheaper on the fringe--with downtown brick detached homes, as the enemies of New Urbanism never stop telling us, the priciest of all. "It's because everybody has done crappy work. The only way to control price is to create a stock of much more excellent housing."

It obviously burns Duany up to think about how hard it's been to convince the architectural world that creating new Cabbagetowns is the wave of the future, because, he, and New Urbanist thinking itself, are on exactly the right historical track from Modernism into the future. "They think we're nostalgic! They think we are flogging picket fences! We are the most Modern people in the world!"

Thoughts after Andrés Duany's first Oakville presentation, 18 September 2003.

This is "a creative week to get things done," Mr. Duany said at St. Volodymyr Cultural Centre in Oakville. Kicking off the North Oakville Charrette, he made the announcement with his famous evangelical zeal and conviction, and followed it up with some 90 minutes of brilliant illustrated analysis of what's right and what's wrong with contemporary cities.

Here, as throughout the decade or so since I became interested in New Urbanism, I found myself in general agreement with the New Urbanist proposals for streets and housing and commercial development--though less because of the theoretical power of the arguments than their obviousness. There is great, good sense in learning from past architectural experiments and urban happenstances that continue to work well, as Mr. Duany and his followers have been insisting for the last twenty-odd years.

Making ourselves less dependent on cars, by living within walking distance of the things and services we need, is simply a reasonable, sound suggestion for making city life happier. New Urbanism may be, in the end, little more than a set of eminently sensible proposals for rescuing growth from sprawl, and allowing our urban concentrations to intensify according to principles as old as human dwelling itself.

If if that's all New Urbanism is, it's quite enough.

But to what extent has massive city development since the Second World War made doing things the old way impractical, perhaps impossible?

Real-estate developers appear as committed as ever to covering all available land with sprawl, and more sprawl. While nobody likes expressways any more, transportation planners remain wedded to the idea of wide, fast arterial streets linking monocultural blots--houses over here, shopping over there, and offices still farther way, each function segregated into a specially designated, zone-protected park.
Indeed, the most conspicuous result of more than two decades of New Urbanist thought, agitation and planning may be the invention of picturesque sprawl--sprawl with front porches and gingerbread trim and the cars round the back. Developers, aware of the North American tendency of the early twenty-first century to seek the comfortable and safe and unsurprising, were ready for the sturdy old diet New Urbanism was serving up--though, as things have turned out, they were only really interested in the sweet things reserved for inevitable cheat days. It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Duany, or any urban thinker nowadays, can make Oakville developers and politicians see the error of their ways.

I am also not sure that any successful New Urbanist project can avoid being overwhelmed by its success. Witness Seaside: Six years ago, it was a "failure," in Mr. Duany's view. The casual, old-South composition of structures and streets, Seaside's great walkability--these factors, and others, combined to make the town, first, a popular destination for tourists eager to walk around and shop, then, as real-estate sales shot up, a holiday village for wealthy urbanites.

My reason for mentioning the fate of Seaside is not to deter anyone from attempting New Urbanist town creation. It is rather in the hope that planners and politicians will acknowledge, and provide for, the headaches that success can bring.

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