ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK is an architect, urban designer and planner, and a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism. Her work shaping the tenets of New Urbanism was instrumental to the design and legislation of both private and public housing in recent decades. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation.
How do you frame housing in a larger socio-political context?
This is a complex context. I would like to focus on the fact that housing is part of a larger real estate development and finance picture. These are peripheral forces that determine many aspects of housing production and that have a larger impact than anything architects can do for the so-called housing crisis. Housing has become an equity class, part of real estate portfolios in which people invest and assess value completely abstractly. It is a market of buying, selling, and trading on that abstract value that has relatively little to do with the market of need or users. The world of finance has infected housing—in fact all of real estate development—in a way that perhaps it had not yet when we were starting out, 30 or 40 years ago. I have heard it said there is no housing crisis, it’s just all in the wrong place. That refers to the urban places that have lost jobs and population, a phenomenon that is the result of the larger national and indeed global economic reality.
So, is this the avenue of the architect—to speak the language, and engage with that financial and political discourse?
I think you have to understand it. Only then can you set off to impact housing design and production.
When the New Urbanists started out with change in mind, we already understood some things about housing production: for instance, builders really valued the floorplans of their building—that was their brand: ‘I put this diagonal wall by the front door and I sold 6 houses that way. I don’t want to change it.’ We understood the field of operation for us really could only be the master planning of the aggregation of houses. If we didn’t touch the inside of the house, we could move the garage to the back alley. So some of the urban design changes we proposed may not sound like a lot, but they enabled the making of places more compact and walkable, to achieve the environmental and social goals we thought were important. So, as an architect, I think you are always looking for how you can be more clever than the system that has been set up, its components independent and uncoordinated: finance wants one thing, regulators want something else…
Can you discuss the significance of image in housing, specifically in New Urbanist designs for government programs like Hope VI?
Image is important in housing, as it embodies identity for the residents. Contemporary expression seems more acceptable now. But when we were starting out, there was no way that you could build for the market anything that was not in some way historically derived, at least in the United States. That wasn’t true in Canada or Latin America. But, in the U.S. the image of housing needed to be related to either the American Colonial tradition in the northeast, or, maybe the Mediterranean tradition, which was somewhat invented, but nevertheless represented the beginnings of South Florida, for instance. In the 1970s the Venturi’s created a show at the Renwick (Washington, DC) about the American culture of housing, when I was working for them just out of school. So as young architects working with developers (as distinct from patrons) we were acutely aware of that reality. And, we said, instead of being cynical about it, or Post-Modern, or trying to reinvent it, let’s just do it well. Let’s do the traditional design with dignity, let’s see if we can make it beautiful for our time.
The historical derivation, that was initially a market-driven decision?
Yes, housing customers (customer as distinct from client) were more comfortable with it. Our first suburban housing commission was for a subdivision of 110 units of housing. We misread the code, and instead of making garden apartments we made side-yard housing, using Charleston as a precedent. The developer decided to call it Charleston Place. It remains, many years later, a very appealing place. There are never any for sale signs, ownership changes hand to hand.
We used to say, ‘Don’t experiment with the poor,’ which is kind of what early affordable housing did. The residents got beautiful modern architecture, but they didn’t like being distinguished by that. This can still be a problem today as the imperative for innovation in architecture sometimes trumps cultural or contextual concerns. For instance, the fashion for designing apartment buildings with black exterior surfaces—there is one near the School here in New Haven—how does anyone think that is either culturally or environmentally responsive?
New Urbanism seeks to produce conditions of mixed income. How do you negotiate this space of difference?
Producing mixed income is difficult and policy requirements are often needed to make it happen. But let me focus here on the design. Style is the great equalizer. It is the component of design that gives unity of character, that lets people know that they are the same as the others or part of a community. Sitting here, we are looking at two different kinds of housing on the street in front of us… There is a brick building with beautiful stone surrounds next to a more modest building, and they are quite compatible. The reason is because they are generally similar in scale, they share an alignment of streetwall, they both have vertical proportions, masonry materials…while different they harmonize.
But sometimes this adjacency is not possible. You have to be open to all possibilities. The more tools you have to work with, the better chances for overall success, and that is where the designer plays a role of either mitigating the shortfall by celebrating the things that are more important. So, if the project requires that separation, how would you make that housing dignified, and on a larger scale, how do you ensure that separation does not negatively impact access to important destinations—transit, jobs, etc.?
What is your attitude towards deletion and then rebuilding? I’m referencing the legacy of the HOPE VI project, which was a reinvention of something that was already there; a removal and a replacement.
At some point you make judgements about rebuilding or building new. More often than not I want to save things and remake them, as they represent cultural history and embodied energy—more often than the implementers do. The client or developer may argue that the codes have changed, we’d be practically rebuilding it anyway, and it will take longer and be more expensive. I think you have to pick your battles about what you choose to save, and what not. There is another side to that coin, which is that when you are working with an area of a certain character, if you add something that supports that character, you are elevating everything that is still there, re-valuing rather than de-valuing. You are saying that the old place has value. If you add something that is a contrast, you are saying, the old is out of date, and therefore only the new has value. So, that is an issue we have often dealt with. Some of the HOPE VI used the structures and just did things like turn them front to back or added porches. But, sometimes, there is also this overwhelming, pervading sense of ‘We’ve just got to get rid of it, we need a new image.’