A Scuffle Over Urban Design at the GSD

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on December 9, 2010

By Meera Deean

“Territories of Urbanism: Urban Design at 50,” a recent symposium at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), drew a crowd of several hundred alumni, students and interested spectators purportedly for a scholarly discussion of the history and future of urban design. In truth, the real attraction was the promise of a rumble. The week before, a founding principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Andres Duany, never one to shy from conflict, fired the first volley. In Metropolis, he suggested that landscape architecture department chair Charles Waldheim and the new chair of the urban design and planning program, Rahul Mehrotra, orchestrated a “coup” at the GSD in which urban design had been subsumed by landscape urbanism and developing world initiatives. With the GSD ceding any “urbane, urban design sensibility,” Duany argued that the only viable urban design approach remaining is New Urbanism and drew a clear battle line between landscape urbanism and New Urbanism.

Alex Krieger, the outgoing chair of the urban design department, quickly fired back and argued that “addressing urbanism wisely in its many contemporary guises, we now know, requires a multiplicity of arrows in our intellectual quivers—ecological considerations being among the ‘sharpest’ of these.” He further suggested that Duany’s postulation of a coup at Harvard was “a cover for a personal worry that the term landscape urbanism will soon supplant New Urbanism amongst the purveyors of design sloganeering.”

“Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements? We really can’t screw around.” Michael Sorkin

Despite Duany’s attempts at provoking Harvard and the landscape urbanists to fisticuffs, a fierce debate never materialized, perhaps because the battle lines are not as clear as Duany would like us to believe. During the final discussion of the two-day symposium, ecological urbanism, landscape urbanism, landscape infrastructure and New Urbanism were among the popular catchphrases discussed among the panel (on which Duany served). But Michael Sorkin, distinguished professor of architecture and director of the graduate program in urban design at the City College of New York, suggested that such turf wars distracted from pressing problems: “Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities. Enough said? Any disagreements? We really can’t screw around.” Georgeen Theodore of Interboro Partners, one of the younger alumni among the panelists, spoke of her own, more-pragmatic approach: to cherry-pick what is most appropriate for a given project from the various “–isms” without strictly adhering to any single school of thought. This opportunistic, less-dogmatic approach to urban design was refreshing and perhaps more honest than all the taglines and buzzwords otherwise deployed on the academic battlefield.

3 Responses

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  1. Monarch Ridge Hill said, on December 14, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    It’s interesting to see the battle between landscape urbanism and new urbanism. Both certainly have their differences and similarities, but a little bit of heated debate never hurt the buzz!

  2. Bruce F. Donnelly said, on December 15, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    There is less difference at the level of rhetoric than at the level of design. At the level of design, the Landscape Urbanism (or Ecological Urbanism) really is very different from the New Urbanism. To me, the biggest differences are that the LU tends to co-mingle or dither (in the graphical sense) the natural and man-made, and it avoids “nostalgia.” The NU, by contrast, has a finely-graduated “Transect” or gradient of zones from rural to urban, and it uses culturally specific, semiotically legible, building, infrastructure, and landscape elements.

    Someone prominent in the NU has suggested (I don’t feel comfortable saying who) has suggested that styles revive, and the LU/EU is a revival of Team 10–CIAM’s successor. The next step is the revival of post-modernism. If that happens, the NU will have bridged the entire time period between early 1980s post-modernism and the revival.

  3. John Anderson said, on December 16, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Mr. Sorkin shouldn’t sell himself short. He really can screw around.

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