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Urban Design Roundup

December 2011
December 2011

Reviewed by Ernie Hutton

Three new books by thoughtful architect-urbanists, usefully read together, explore the current state of urban design. Each author investigates historic and current trends in the evolution of specific American locations, and posits approaches for responding to local character and shaping future growth.

Combinatory Urbanism: The Complex Behavior of Collective Form
Click the image above for details about each book mentioned in this review.
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Lars Lerup left his native Sweden to come to America in 1966, and has lived in Houston for over 20 years, serving as dean at the Rice School of Architecture from 1993 to 2009.  In One Million Acres and No Zoning, he notes the implications of Houston's unique lack of land-use regulation—how its development has responded to "an immense, flat playing field." He diagnoses the resulting "middle ground" of suburbia, a social norm of subdivisions whose supply and demand are dominated not by space (which is ubiquitous in its uniformity) but by time (commuting patterns and transportation costs). And in this charmingly illustrated book, he creatively suggests how, in the absence of zoning controls, a dual emphasis on public-sector infrastructure and ecological preservation can act as a framework for private-sector development and individual locational choice—a new paradigm for regional growth that can serve as a welcome model for other U.S. localities as well.

Architect Michael Maltzan analyzes a similar place, his adopted city of Los Angeles. A native of Levittown, New York, he has a keen appreciation for the "underlying order and connective threads" of both of these seemingly repetitious landscapes, and the "subtle characteristics of place" that give personality to such environments. Rather than focus only on his own reactions, he structures his book around a series of interviews with myriad other transplanted LA observers—discussions that circle in on the city and region as a multi-layered social and physical artifact. Throughout the book, edited by Jessica Varner, Maltzan describes the need for buildings and plans that specifically represent the city and its culture, rather than importing other urban models. He emphasizes this place-based approach in his architecture as well as in planning prescriptions for the city’s future—a strategy applicable not only to Los Angeles but to other sprawling conurbations.

Finally, Thom Mayne (who was born in Waterbury, Connecticut) and his Morphosis associates (with a useful associated essay by Stan Allen) describe their analysis of the "complex behavior of collective form"—building on questions posed over the last 50 years by urban and systems theorists such as Jane Jacobs, Fumihiko Maki, and James Gleick. They propose a new operating paradigm—"combinatory urbanism"—characterized by finding a balance among the often contradictory forces at work in urban growth. The emphasis is on values and tactics rather than predetermined form, resulting in "deeply contextual, highly associative, and radically elastic solutions." This description can be applied to Morphosis' architecture of the last two decades, and its planning application is illustrated in the book by proposals for large-scale projects varying in size from the World Trade Center site to the reconstruction of New Orleans. At the district or city scale, the firm's diagrammatic and physical resolution of identified urban forces often results in megastructural form that requires an equally megastructural implementing client—polar opposites to Lerup’s regional public framework for individual private action or to Maltzan’s contextural and culturally driven design approach.

Reading these three books together provides a fascinating conversation among three deep thinkers about the evolving growth of American metropolitan areas.  While the prescriptions diverge in their approach to strategic implementation, their common thread is an emphasis on place making based on function and context.

Ernie Hutton, president of the New York-based planning firm, Hutton Associates, Inc./Planning Interaction, grew up in small town Virginia and now lives in brownstone Brooklyn.

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