New Urbanism Group Takes on Saving of Central Cities

By Herbert Muschamp N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

New Urbanism Group Takes on Saving of Central Cities


Herbert Muschamp N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


The Congress for the New Urbanism is the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War era.

As the only organized nationwide movement of consequence initiated by baby-boom architects, the new urbanists challenge the conventional view that members of this individualistic generation are incapable of collective action.

But the organization is now at a crossroads. Founded in 1993, it has devoted itself single-mindedly to promoting suburban developments like Seaside, Fla., the "neotraditional" resort planned in the 1980s by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two founders of the new urbanism.

Last month, however, the group took a major step toward expanding its agenda to include saving America's aging central cities. Convening in Charleston, S.C., the new urbanists signed a charter that began by opposing "disinvestment" in the central cities by banks and business interests and went on to affirm "the restoration of existing urban centers and towns."

This shift in part reflects major changes in leadership of the congress. Charleston was the final conference organized by the founding members. In the past year, the group has added new board members with a demonstrated commitment to revitalizing the central city.

The shift also reflects the desire of many of the organization's 1,600 members to live up to its name. The question now facing the membership is whether its admirable solidarity can survive this important enlargement of its scope.

Founded by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, Elizabeth Moule, Stefanos Polyzoides and Dan Solomon, the Congress for the New Urbanism started out with an appealingly simple idea. Persuade builders to model new suburban developments on the compact scale of small towns. Increase the density of residential development.

Place shops, schools and recreation within walking distance of houses. Orient plans toward pedestrians and public transportation. Design guidelines that draw on traditional ways to humanize and animate the street: porches, stoops, balconies.

Although the new urbanists have been brutally dismissive of the modern movement, the congress was in fact modeled after the Congres International de l'Architecture Moderne, which was primarily responsible for creating modernism's solidarity.

Many architects outside the new urbanist organization are offended by this appropriation. How dare the Congress for the New Urbanism claim the legacy of a movement for which they have only contempt?

But in a crucial respect, they've earned the right to make that claim. Like the modernist congress, the new urbanists are concerned with the pragmatics of building. Le Corbusier, the modernist organization's leading guru, designed as his personal symbol a device he called "The Open Hand." An upraised palm, with fingers spread, the image stood for humanity's mastery of tools. And the Congress for the New Urbanism has been nothing less than masterly in its use of the tools available to architects today. …

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