On Wednesday night, I attended the “East End Planning Conference” in downtown Riverhead, New York, which was jointly sponsored by AIA Peconic (Eastern Long Island) and APA New York. The series of presentations and discussions gave a good look at how form-based codes, Smart Growth, and traditional urbanism are growing here on Long Island, the “birthplace of suburbia”.
Though short, the conference did an excellent job of tying together the many strands of what makes traditional planning and urbanism tick. It moved from the broad to the fine, starting with talks on regional comprehensive plans, then moving to village master plans and community efforts, and culminating with a discussion of architectural and urban guidelines, form-based coding, and what has worked so far in the region. As a lifelong Long Islander, it was exciting for me to finally see all this work being done here, particularly in light of the ardent NIMBYism that tends to permeate this place.
The part of the night that most engaged me came near the end, when much of the audience had headed home. A group of planners and urban designers gave a nice synopsis of the form-based codes and graphic design guidelines they had already produced on Long Island. They discussed how these codes tended to “nudge” designers and builders in the right directions rather than dictate style; they even contrasted the local codes they produced against pattern books, which give far more detail about architectural language. Long Island is largely auto-oriented and full of crumbly old ‘60s and ‘70s sprawl, so the goal is to make its urban form better without quibbling over style.
After these presentations, an older local architect jumped up and gave what I would best describe as a stump speech for starchitecture. He declared that “architecture is poetry” (a nice sentiment I think we can all buy) and then went into a tirade about how form-based codes as presented would entirely stifle the creativity of architects. He said that poetry was impossible under codes like these. To prove his point, he invoked Frank Lloyd Wright, rhetorically asking whether any of his works would have been possible under a form-based code. His words were met with stifled applause from about half of the audience, most of whom were older architects like himself. The presenters gave a well-reasoned response about how their projects were more about building density and public space while allowing stylistic freedom, but it was clear the poets in the audience were not impressed.
I wish I could call up Mr. Poet now because the morning after the conference, I woke up with a realization: most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s large body of work WOULD have been possible under a form-based code. I immediately thought about the Robie House, which most Americans would probably recognize as typical Wright. While it did re-interpret notions of horizontality and verticality and utilize new motifs in decoration, roof expression and floor plan, the Robie House works quite well with the urban language of old Hyde Park: it is two stories with a roof, it utilizes masonry construction and it has similar setbacks to the other buildings nearby. Although it has whole walls of windows, the fenestration is such that the scale and quality of each window matches nearby homes.
Wright’s Oak Park homes are similar; to the untrained eye, they could easily blend in with nearby late 19th and early 20th Century architect-designed or pattern book homes. They are not alien forms with fractured masses and random elements. In South Bend, the two Wright homes elegantly match the urban pattern of their streets. The DeRhodes House on West Washington Street (1906) sits among its neighbors respectfully, with the same height, scale, setback and materials as multiple nearby residences. The Usonian Herman T. Mossberg House (1948) is outside downtown in an early auto-oriented suburb. It sits far back and low from the street like other nearby homes. It is not an “in your face” rule-breaker, but the subtly unique work of a master.
Despite the age and experience of the architect who spoke, there seemed to be a flaw in his understanding of cities and urbanism. When he referred to Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing creativity being stifled, he was most likely thinking of his more iconic, fanciful buildings like the Guggenheim, Fallingwater or Taliesin West. The problem is that these are all object buildings, the Guggenheim an urban foreground building, and Fallingwater and Taliesin two rural villas in the landscape. Form-based codes are primarily concerned with the urban fabric, the everyday “background” buildings that make up the guts of the city.
The funny thing is that in traditional cities, object buildings were indeed distinguished from their neighbors, just as Wright did when he made a museum out of an inverted nautilus shell. Take the Guggenheim’s nearby neighbor, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While it is a Neoclassical masterpiece partially designed by McKim, Mead and White, it is also an object building, just like the Guggenheim. It is not part of a street wall, it has four exposed sides, it is of a different scale (in footprint and height) than the nearby fabric and it is one of precious few buildings in Manhattan that is set back from the street more than a few short feet. The Guggenheim shares many of these same qualities, showing once again that Wright understood the city. Of course, basilicas, castles, city halls, post offices, obelisks and other types of foreground buildings worldwide are architecturally distinct from the fabric around them.
The disconnect in today’s practice between the lessons of the city and what architects are producing reveals something about the state of the architecture profession. Most architects turn all of their projects into foreground buildings. They want style and flair (like The Nanny?), pizzazz and pop, regardless of what they are designing.
Most clients, especially homeowners, are seeking a comfortable, homey, and familiar place to live or work or shop, and not necessarily some avant-garde, never-before-seen creation born from the computer. The awful irony behind architect’s attempts to avoid guidelines and maintain a vaunted sense of “poetic” license is that the architect is fast becoming obsolete in everyday construction. After all, why spend extra money paying a designer when the tract home builder or floor plan book can give you a product closer to what you actually want?