Friday, September 13, 2013

Mark Lamster at the DMA and a Defense of CNU

Last night I was able to attend the Dallas Architecture Forum event at the DMA featuring new DMN architecture critic Mark Lamster.  It was as uncomfortably formal as it sounds (through no fault of Lamster's) and the audience seemed a perfectly Dallas split between "tell us how to fix everything, Howard Roark" and "tickle our belly and look on our works, ye mighty, and despair."

You may or may not be surprised to find that I agreed with everything he said, from the slight subjective critique of Klyde Warren Park's busy overclutteredness (something I echoed about Main Street Garden and the nature of public design processes turning into wish lists and the designer into geometric arranger of over-programming) to the more objective poor urban interface and relationship between KWP's off-ramp/barrier next to the children's play area and the Perot Museum (I have yet to enter the Perot so I can't comment on his perception of claustrophobia in its interior display spaces) to Museum Tower's alien presence in the Arts District (which is too bad, because something OTHER than performing arts venues is exactly what the Arts District requires).

Where you might think I would disagree is with his criticism of the Congress for New Urbanism, or CNU, of which I'm not only a card carrying member, I'm also the President (of the North Texas chapter - one of the nation's largest).  In his analysis of CNU he is right to point out that CNU has had the biggest effect on city coding.  The reason is CNU is fundamentally viral.  It has infected all things, from transportation to architecture to planning.

His criticism is that CNU is overly conservative from both an architecture and social standpoint.  The picket fence, the retro-1950's leave it to Beaver house and family.  He's both right and wrong.  There's also a notion (which he didn't repeat) that seems to be swirling in the NYC design illuminati circles that CNU is somehow racist, which is absurd.  I'll get to that in a moment.

He's right in that these are the exact same issues I fight against.  I detest Celebration, FL and all of the off-center "town centers" built as Potemkin Villages to hide their true nature as malls without roofs.  They're walkable!  See: sidewalks!  You just have to drive to get there.

This is one of the reasons (as new president of the CNU-NTX chapter) I've been visiting various local architecture firms to introduce CNU and the pending national congress in 2015 to talk about what CNU is and more importantly what it is not (which are often the common misconceptions about style).  Please, read the charter if you have the chance.  Linked here:

He's wrong in that he's merely responding to one perception of CNU (which has some merit, which I'll get to).  From the perspective of the charter, it is much like the constitution, with 20-something fairly generic adopted bullet points, that serves as a framework of an operating system.

And like the constitution it is merely an input.  We, as designers, developers, and consumers, the market, are the throughput.  What comes out, we may not always like, but that has more to do with the filter that is the market and the inherent politics, economics, and culture of the day.  For example, as Americans we believe in the constitution, though we may not believe in the manner that some parts of it are currently interpreted, like the 2nd amendment (don't shoot me, I'm a Kennedy and that would look bad this year).

Similarly, the CNU as based on the charter can't possibly be blamed for the faux 1950's new suburbia.  That is simply one way in which the market interpreted it.  Similarly, CNU can't possibly be racist, but people or outcomes could be (within any organization).  Therefore those that buy or espouse that notion are being small-minded and petty, usually because they're worried about loss of market share.

Shocking, I know, but there is still racism in the country and that is abhorrent.  There is also some pretty terrible aesthetic sense out there.  Because the CNU and its viral nature infects all things, it is somehow blamed for these two maladies.  Instead, maybe it should be given more credit for that which is good that it is directly responsible for, which is the return of interest in downtowns and walkability, the development of places like Pearl District in Portland or State-Thomas, which catalyzed the rest of the urban infill that comprises uptown Dallas.

There is also nothing about architectural style in the CNU charter.  And frankly, within CNU circles the debates between modernism and traditional are nauseating, something that are entirely subjective and not within the realm of the charter.  I avoid them at all costs (and will hopefully prevent them from occurring at CNU2015).  Instead, the underlying theme of the Charter is connectivity, buildings to the street, streets to the network, uses to compatible other uses, etc.

This is why CNU is a big tent.  It houses modernists and traditionalists alike.  I, for one, am a design agnostic, particularly with regards to the exterior of buildings.  My personal aesthetic for interiors is a weird post-industrial/modernist style that I wouldn't push upon anybody.  Yet those that do push styles on others and litter the world with their own personal aesthetic seem to be those that are most critical of CNU for just a mere subset of by-products that are quasi-attributable to CNU.  Instead, the problem is the filter, the throughputs, and that means the body politic and economics of the day producing that which is worthy of scorn.

In terms of style, there is a time and place for just about anything, just don't be terrible, internalized, nor destructive to your surroundings.  The CNU shouldn't be blamed because one market output is a terrible suburban fake town center nor because there are stoops on a house with picket fences in some ode to an imagined history of the previous century (which does indeed seem to appeal to a wide market on a political level).  Perhaps it's the market's preferences, the economics of the day, the politics, or the transportation that warps the charter into something less than desirable.

What DOES matter and where those projects went wrong had nothing to do with style nor really the market but the underlying rules that the system of cities play by, their inputs.  This is why CNU is most effective at trying to re-write codes so that mixing of uses isn't prohibited or why we're trying to breakdown the inertia of transportation planning by formula and standards that produces sprawl and inhumane, unwalkable roads.

This is why I consider architecture (and Dallas's obsession with object architecture) to be the tail wagging the proverbial dog of local design culture and dialogue.  The architects are merely working within dystopian, hellscapes as context, engineers are just following the standards imposed upon them, and developers are just playing by the rules of zoning and market- and spatial- response to the transportation system that is wholly inequitable and destructive to the city as a functional system for social and economic exchange.

All that matters is that cities focus on that which effects us all, that which is universal: equality of opportunity, accessibility, walkability, choice in housing type, neighborhood character/density, choice in mode and route of transportation.  Through those form of universal empowerment, and once they're taken care of, then we can get to the less critical, subjective items such as style.

This is why I think we can create a lot of positive change through two simple fixes to the DNA of the city: 1) take power back from TxDOT (which just so happens to be serving it up on a silver platter) in determining how our streets and blocks look, feel, and function, and 2) rewrite the parking code to be sane, contextually-based, and market-oriented.