Readers Interview Stefanos Polyzoides

May 10, 2004, 12am PDT | Stefanos Polyzoides
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In PLANetizen's new interview series, Stefanos Polyzoides, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and co-principal of the architecture and urbanist firm Moule & Polyzoides, answers reader and editor questions about the roots of the New Urbanism and its impacts. He also describes the true objectives of the CNU Charter and shares his candid views about the promises and frustrations of today's development environment.

This is the inaugural article in a new Planetizen series featuring exclusive interviews with prominent planning, design, and development figures. The series represents an opportunity for readers to actively engange with the planning community by choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. Please continue to submit your interview nominations and questions and check back often to see who we feature next time.

 Stefanos PolyzoidesHow and why did you co-found the Congress for the New Urbanism?

The CNU was founded out of awareness that by the end of the 1980s, sprawl was becoming an overwhelming force. There was hope that advantages would be drawn by sharing a common agenda, a common theory and a common platform for practice among a small and isolated group of colleagues. And that among these urbanists who shared a strong opposition to sprawl culture, a vigorous recapturing of the traditional discipline of urbanism could be attempted.

Beginning in 1989 Liz Moule, Lizz Plater Zyberk, Andres Duany and I were working closely together on the Playa Vista project in Los Angeles.  We met once a month in Los Angeles for project related reviews. Over a breakfast one day at the Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica, we agreed that a non-profit, pro-urbanist institution of which we would be both leaders and members, that operated under a large ideological umbrella, would have a fair chance to remove the stranglehold of sprawl ideas over both planning and development.

In early 1990, Peter Katz brought the four of us together for a meeting in New York along with Peter Calthorpe where we negotiated the first philosophical common ground among us. The results of this meeting were the essays for Peter's book, The New Urbanism, and the first clear statement of the intellectual scope of New Urbanism. Dan Solomon joined us shortly thereafter as a founder.

The first three Congresses followed and during the fourth, in 1994, the Charter of the CNU was unveiled, largely authored by the founders with the help of Doug Kelbaugh and Alan Plattus.

You can find a lot more information on this subject on the Moule and Polyzoides website:

follow the path:
Practice of New Urbanism
Greeting by the Chairman of the Board, CNU 10, Miami
Introduction, The Seaside Tapes

The Moule & Polyzoides firm's recent Robert Redford Building in Santa Monica, CA is a shining example of sustainable New Urbanism at the building/block scale. How does the New Urbanism perform at the neighborhood/district and region/metropolis scales in terms of ecological sustainability?

The New Urbanism is not a centralized and monolithic organization directed from the top down. It is really a volunteer professional association with members that use their work opportunities, that is their projects, to act consequentially as individuals and as a group under a Charter of Principles that they hold in common.

When one works as a new urbanist, one pledges not to work to support sprawl practices. One respects cooperation and collegiality among all members of the CNU, and one thinks constantly about advancing the understanding and practice of urbanism through the sharing of emerging theory and practice and through criticism.

Having said that, new urbanists are limited by the range of commissions that society extends to us, and by the degree and depth of advocacy that we all choose to engage in.

There are by far more potential sustainable single building projects available out there than neighborhood, district and corridor projects, and even fewer regional scale projects.

Yet, there is great work being done everywhere, at all scales. Examples:

There is code reform going on across the board, both at the General Plan and Zoning Code level. This is the most critical subject of the next decade, as all sprawl is enabled through municipal and state planning and development rules.

There are many regional plans under way in many parts of the country that balance transportation, land use and architectural objectives.

There is work being done by new urbanists to establish the transect as the instrument that mediates the relationship between natural and built form at the regional scale.

Neighborhood, District Corridor:
Dozens of authentic TNDs are under construction nationwide that promote through traditional neighborhood and building design, high passive environmental performance.

For example, a network of narrow streets that through appropriate streetscape limit the effects of heat islands. An interconnected grid of streets that reduces vehicle miles traveled. Street sections that conduct water to areas where it can percolate into the earth. Building orientation and massing that maximizes natural insulation, venting and cooling.

These passive environmental practices can have enormous positive effects on various current environmental challenges. If any of you are interested, I can post a recent project-related environmental performance chapter for a project at this scale.

What are the limitations of the New Urbanism?

The New Urbanism is a theory of policy and design that aims to build urban places that sustain human life in balance with nature. It is an evolving general theory, constantly adjusting to the evidence of continuous friction with the needs of society.

All the limitations I can see are those of particular projects, designed by individual designers and clients that fail to adequately translate pragmatic requirements and challenges to the level of inspired solution and artful physical presence.

The most severe current brakes of the New Urbanism are design actions taken by those who practice it in site plan alone, and fail to reveal it in three dimensional form.

What is your response to critiques of the new urbanism as nostalgic "social engineering?"

New Urbanists are on record as acting in the interest of pluralism and choice. It is really high modernism and sprawl, both, that have elevated 'one shoe fits all' social engineering thinking to the level of foundation principle for their cause. Look at the way production builders divide the market into dozens of market segments and claim to design particular facets for each one. They miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

The nostalgic part is also a hollow accusation. The best architecture and urbanism have always been rooted in spirited responses to the past. Frank Gehry is emulating Mendelsohn and Scharoun, Thom Mayne is more brutalist than the Brutalists, Arquitectonica is following in the footsteps of Niemeyer. There is no architecture without precedence, and there is no recognition of precedent without deep emotion.

It is New Urbanist support for traditional architecture and urbanism that infuriates avantguardistas and status quoists alike and invites accusations of nostalgia.

By practicing in a variety of living vernacular architectures, we see the possibility of practice in regional contexts, both cultural and environmental. We stand against the monumentalizing of every design task, small or large, we categorically reject the reduction of architecture to personal languages. Architecture cannot be invented by third rate minds every Monday morning. Tradition crystallizes conventions and allows a level of recognition and legibility in architectural language that is essential to the design of housing, which is by nature repetitive.

Please read the CNU Charter and understand this movement as a general theory, an inclusive, positive and progressive theory of planning and design that is open to formal innovation as it is rooted in precedent and in history. We know what we have known for generations. We should practice it, as we proceed to invent what we do not know.

Have you heard of doctors having a divisive discussion on appendectomies?? Where is the profession of architecture headed without a theory and a stable continuist body of practice? Surely to the dustbin of history.

What concerns you about the current development landscape? What inspires you?

There are some developers that use new urbanist ideas because of both their wide currency and their political effectiveness, but without any degree of dedication to the Charter of the CNU.

Practicing in half measures, in hybrid solutions, only serves to undermine the overwhelming potential benefits of new urbanist neighborhoods and towns, and confuses people about the goals of this movement.

I am distressed by corporate development firms treating infill architecture and urbanism the way they practiced sprawl for 50 years: Designing a limited number of widgets and airdropping them into towns independent of the particulars of each project setting.

I am inspired by small firms building projects specific to their region and site, and succeeding in the market through the belief that people ultimately wish to live a rich and rewarding life as residents of beautiful buildings and neighborhoods.

Stefanos Polyzoides
is a distinguished architect, author, and educator in his home of Los Angeles and around the world. In addition to his position as co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, his Pasadena, CA and Albuquerque, NM-based firm, Moule & Polyzoides, is currently working on a master plan for the revitalization of Downtown Los Alamos, NM as well as a number of mixed-use transit-oriented developments in Pasadena, CA. Mr. Polyzoides also serves as the principal designer of Civano, a new town in Arizona that is an exemplar of sustainability in the Southwestern U.S. His recent writings include the books
Los Angeles Courtyard Housing: A Typological Analysis, and R.M. Schindler, Architect.

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