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Andrès Duany, Riverfront Gambler

Planning guru guiding Vancouver's East Fraserlands fends off critics. A Tyee interview.

Adele Weder 16 Jan

Adele Weder is a widely published journalist with a special focus on architectural issues.

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Duany: 'New urbanism' founder

Even if you've never heard of Miami-based Andrès Duany before, you've felt his impact. As co-founders of new urbanism, he and partner Elizabeth Plyter-Zyberk have reshaped much of the thinking about cities in the past two decades, arguing that higher density can be compatible with market-friendly neotraditional and vernacular architecture.

New urbanism has influenced contemporary urban planning approaches from Saudi Arabia to downtown Vancouver. But it still suffers a bad rep from its first and best-known early '80s manifestation: "Seaside," a rigidly planned town in Florida that's beloved and reviled for its folksy cuteness. (It's notorious as the setting on The Truman Show, that cinematic send-up of an artificially constructed life.)

Now Duany is on the verge of reshaping Vancouver even more directly, as the master planner of the so-called East Fraserlands Project. The proposal to reconfigure an entire swathe of East Vancouver was unanimously passed by Vancouver City Council on Nov. 14. If all goes as planned, the triangular region bordering on Marine Way will transform over the next 15-20 years into a pedestrian-oriented village-within-the-city, complete with town square, waterfront plaza, and shopping within walking distance of all residences.

The buildings themselves will be designed by various local architects; James Cheng Architects and Hughes Condon Marler Architects are stickhandling the first application, and it's being commercially developed by Peter Wesik's companies, ParkLane/WesGroup. But the entire project is orchestrated by Duany's master plan and new urbanism ideals. Not everyone is happy about this: Vancouver's cutting-edge architects are aghast that a New Urbanist will soon be let loose in our backyard.

The Tyee caught up with Duany for a conversation when he visited Vancouver recently. Here is what he had to say on...

The problem with architects who treat cities like modern art galleries:

"You cannot make a city with avant-gardist architects, because an avant-gardist architect is continually trying to do something new, and to stand out. The problem is that modern architecture at this moment -- avant-gardism -- is expressionist. It's all about shapes and spikes and articulation, materials, and elbowing away things, and you can't make a city out of it. You can make some great buildings: avant-garde architects are really good these days, no question. But you can't make a city."

Whether his New Urbanist, old fashioned-looking neighbourhoods end up being too expensive:

"We can deliver affordable housing, but it doesn't mean they stay affordable. And by the way, I'd like to know why the New Urbanists are being tarred [as agents of] gentrification, when every decent place in the world is gentrified. No New Urbanist community sells for $400 a square foot like downtown Vancouver. Why are they not casting the first stone at downtown Vancouver?

"It seems to me a false criticism to only point to the new urbanism and say, 'Well, you can't deliver affordable housing.' We deliver affordable housing, incidentally; we wrote the standards for Hope VI, which is the American housing scheme, which is responsible for between 180,000 and 280,000 [units of] affordable housing, all subsidized, many of them designed by charter members of the new urbanism, but thousands of them designed by regular architects. Actually, we've been responsible for almost all the affordable housing designed in the United States in the last 10 years, since the Hope VI project."

On his running argument with environmentalists:

"The environmental movement has conceptualized itself as using the tool of nature [in designing communities]. In other words, they 'green' things. For example, the environmental assessment of our projects, or of projects in general, [demands] an increase in natural quotient. They want less lot coverage. They want more permeable surface. They want naturalistic landscaping that is as close to looking like nature as possible.

"When you get a waterfront, they want the waterfront to be restored to nature, like in East Fraserlands [where] there's an industrial waterfront. I'm fighting terribly hard so that 10 per cent of it is actually an embanked front, a proper urban frontage. And the environmentalists want everything to be naturalistic.

"[But] urbanism is environmentalism by other means. The environmentalism of urbanism is not about more green -- it's about having people willingly living in high density. It's about willingly walking rather than driving, and willingly taking transit.

"See, North American environmentalism was born out of the national-parks movement in the 19th century. So wilderness is the ideal...The tree-huggers, but also even intelligent environmentalists, present London as a problem. But London isn't a problem. London is part of the solution. London is people taking transit, living densely, not driving and not sprawling."

On why he cares what the middle class thinks:

"Do you know why I embrace the middle class? Because they're the cause of the environmental problems of the world. They're the number-one cause. It's the way the middle class lives. It's life style. It's the way they drive; it's how they consume land.

"And their numbers, their sheer numbers. The poor are few, and the rich are even fewer. And by the way, the poor behave very ecologically, because they walk, and they live in small dwellings, et cetera. So the fact that we address the middle class puts us at the centre of the problem."

On why 'avant-gardist' architects tend to build fancy mansions for the rich or social housing for the poor:

"Because they only deal with patrons who are highly educated, highly sophisticated people who are willing to retain Frank Gehry and then pay whatever it takes to build it. So they work either with patrons, or the poor [who] are actually victims and have no choice.

"The poor live in whatever you give them. They're grateful for a bathroom and a roof and a little kitchenette. So the avant-gardists or the modernists are always doing affordable housing.

"The problem that they have with the middle class is, the middle class has choice. If you do something they don't like, they'll buy into another project. And that's what always flummoxes them – architects -- at least North American architects."

On whether his "four Cs of good planning: compact, connected, complete, convivial" tend to create boring theme parks, especially with strict zoning codes and chain stores in the mix:

"Nothing interests a human more than another human. We're a very gregarious species. All the other stuff we buy -- the Ferrari, the suit, the shoes -- all this is designed with the hope to keep us amused, and I look at it and say I'm bored already. But a human is very interesting.

"Traditional architecture manifests human activity: you look up and see a studio window, and you say: 'Shit, that must be cool up there.' Or you look at a house that has a porch and, even if the porch is not inhabited, you can project yourself into what it would be like: 'Oh, I could be sitting there with my buddies or having a party or drinking beer, or my child could be playing.' Traditional architecture expresses how humans inhabit it. It communicates to those who are untrained in architecture."

On whether his 'new urbanism' style of community design will be flexible enough to change with the times:

"Yes. For example, we're working now in East Fraserlands and that's exactly what we're after...a traditional building, a box made out of brick or clapboard. You can actually graft on at probably six, seven places. The building allows it. Clapboard's still made; brick is still made; similar windows are still made. So the thing molts; the building can work. One of the things we want to try here in the East Fraserlands is to create an architecture that can evolve over time organically, that can really respond. That's going to require non-specialized materials, like brick and corrugated metal."

On whether he thinks architects and critics are out of touch with people who just happen to like Victorian house styles:

"Completely. But completely. To the point where if I brought an architect and I let them loose in a charette, it would crash within an hour. They hide, they impose, they do tricks, but they actually can't design a house for their own mother. Remember, Vancouver's an exception, in the sense that this is a highly constrained market. There are very few houses being built here.

"But go to Calgary, go to Toronto: it's a hundred per cent kitsch! But it's kitsch! The people there, they're very much regular folk, and they adore Victorian kitsch in their houses and in their buildings. What I ask is this: is it my agenda? We're dealing with a dozen major problems: the way thoroughfares are conceptualized, the way retail is delivered. Do people seriously think we have to take on the architectural crisis of North America too? Well, we can't. The whole thing has rolled so far downhill. The place I know best in Canada is north of Toronto: Markham. Just to do something that is not vulgar, let alone modernist, is a fight already, because it's just so lost."

On why style, oldish or newish, in the end doesn't really matter:

"There's a bunch of young people coming up that actually like modernism, particularly '50s modernism. Not too long from now, there will be a market for modernism -- a kind of traditional modernism. So long as we can build towns that are compact, walkable, diverse, et cetera, then style is just a tool, as opposed to the thesis they nailed to the door.

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