Notre Dame, New Urbanists, and List Servs

Author: Katlyn Cotton
Feb 09, 2009

I wrote it in the first blog entry I made and I’ll write it again — I have by far the best job in America. I get to do all kinds of cool things. And this week was one of them.

The School of Architecture at Notre Dame University held a three day symposium entitled,Sustainability and the Environment: The Original Green. What a great learning opportunity for me!

The speakers for the symposium were (myself excepted) a Who’s Who of the Congress for New Urbanism. This isn’t so surprising, since when, every two or three years, some ambitious student posts to one of the New Urbanist list servs the question, “I want to practice traditional architecture and town planning, where should I go to school?” The answer from the New Urbanists is nearly always the University of Miami (where CNU co-founder Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is dean) and Notre Dame (where classicist and New Urbanist Michael Lykoudis is dean). Further, it was New Urbanist founders Plater-Zyberk and her husband Andres Duany who a couple of weeks ago received the Richard H. Driehaus Prize which is awarded annually by Notre Dame.

Dean Lykoudis had a wonderful response in anticipation of those who would claim that traditional building design stifles creativity. He said, “Classicism is free will nurtured by tradition.”

Here was the symposium line-up:

Tom Lowe, Director the North Carolina office of DPZ. Tom talked about the principles of Light Imprint design for communities.

Steve Mouzon, principal of the New Urban Guild. Steve is always great about translating what others try to make complicated into simple, understandable, straight-forward concepts. Steve avoids the mumbo-jumbo, technical definitions about sustainability and defines it as “Can you keep it going for a long time into an uncertain future.” What a great definition! Steve, by the way, is the originator of the phrase “The Original Green“.

CNU member and Hampton University professor Shannon Chance talked about the ongoing research about the relationship between the urban environment and health…particularly among both ends of the chronological spectrum – children and the elderly.

David Thurman is a senior associate in one of the country’s other most prominent new urbanist architecture firms – Moule & Polyzoides of Pasadena. David effectively made the case (that was subsequently echoed by others) that building sustainable communities is a decidedly multidisciplinary approach.

I was particularly pleased that the Notre Dame organizers understood that historic preservation is at the core of sustainable development. Hence their invitation to me, but also to Mark Thaler, a principal in the firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott. Particularly valuable to the audience made of primarily of architecture students, Mark gave examples of the techniques to make historic buildings more energy efficient without diminishing their architectural character.

Bruce King is the Founder of the Ecological Building Network. Bruce made a stunning and extraordinarily witty presentation about the magnitude of the ecological crisis – peak oil, global warming, population explosion – that we have to face…and face sooner (like yesterday) rather than later.

Alan DeFrees was the only faculty member, other than Dean Lykoudis, who made a presentation at the symposium. But it was a fascinating story about the natural cooling and ventilation systems that housing types from all over the globe had until we decided that a thermostat and an HVAC system would solve all our problems.

Michael Mehaffy is one smart guy. Michael is Chair of US INTABU the International Network for Traditional Architecture, Building and Urbanism. As would be expected Michael is an unwavering advocate for traditional building typologies. But instead of making that case on some sentimental urge for nostalgia, he effectively makes the case that the understandings emerging from complexity theory (that chemists, physicists, and biologists are developing) support the underlying logic of traditional buildings and neighborhood patterns. His long association withChristopher Alexander is certainly evident here.

And the symposium was wrapped up by urban journalist Neal Pierce, the unquestioned best of columnists who both write about AND understand the nature of cities. His organization theCitiStates Group is composed of writers, thinkers, and practitioners who address cities from a metropolitan region perspective. The weekly Citiwire Net is a column by Pierce and another by one of his associates, and is a useful read for anyone interested in cities.

Another of the New Urbanist intellectuals who was in attendance for the entire time and asked probing questions, but did not make a formal presentation was Philip Bess, a faculty member at Notre Dame. I’ve loved over the years reading Phil’s postings on various New Urbanist listservs because he views the issues through the lens of philosophy and theology…neither of which I know much about but the perspective is always intellectually challenging and intriguing.

And the organization and logistics for all of this was superbly handled by Kara Kelly, the kind of staff person every university department wishes they had.

I don’t know if the students realized what a huge learning opportunity the School of Architecture provided them, but I certainly did. I learned an incredible amount in three days.

But one of the great lessons was independent of the formal lectures. Over the years I’ve been a bit of a critic of the New Urbanists. While I never had much of a quarrel with the underlying design principles, I was often offended by the incredible egos and by the seeming intolerance for the slightest deviation from the dogma. Dissent – even by those who were 90% in agreement – was dismissed as not only erroneous but treasonous.

Well, maybe it’s because the movement has matured, maybe because they are today confident enough in their impact that gargantuan egos and suppression of dissent aren’t needed any more. The New Urbanists at this gathering – Steve Mouzon, Michael Mehaffy, Michael Lykoudis, Tom Lowe, Shannon Chase, Philip Bess, David Thurman – are vastly more modest and humble than their expertise would warrant.

Further, there is now a degree of objectivity in what New Urbanism is and is not doing. Steve’s presentation, in particular, spelled out in clear fashion, “Here’s what we New Urbanists are doing right; here’s where we still have quite a ways to go.”

Many of the people at this conference I only knew previously because of their postings on listservs. Getting to know them in person was a great pleasure.

Oh, by the way, if you happen to be a student considering a career in architecture – talk to them at Notre Dame. They won’t just teach you how to design buildings…they’ll teach you how to love cities. And that’s vastly more important.

I do have the best job in America.

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