Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's a Celebration

Slate recently had a very interesting piece on the planned town of Seaside, Florida. If you saw The Truman Show, you've seen Seaside - most of the movie was filmed there. I've never been to the town, so I my opinions are only based on photos and the descriptions of others. But I have a somewhat mixed reaction. I like how it looks, I like the plan to make a walkable town, the attempt to roll back the trend of building around automobiles. On the other hand, it's only made possible by very strong regulation, controlling what owners can and can't do with their property. The libertarian in me intensely dislikes that aspect.

Seaside, and other planned towns like it, such as Celebration, help frame larger questions. What kind of towns do we want to live in? Is New Urbanism really nostalgia dressed up as a movement? Free market thinking would indicate that the kind of towns people really want are suburbs designed around automobiles. Or is that putting the cart before the horse - is that what everyone is buying because that is the only thing available?

But more interesting to me is the more central question of design. How do we decide what is best in design? In my work, in engineering, this is often a very straightforward question: the ship must meet certain specifications for speed, strength, mission capability, etc. But once those criteria are met, the process becomes much more gray. Is it better if the messroom is forward off the galley, or starboard of it? Questions of arrangements, especially, fall into this category. The challenge is more akin to architecture, and city design. And very few engineers are equal to the task. I know I'm not. Luckily, not my job right now.

The challenges of design impact my city, my neighborhood, quite directly. Many in DC are now questioning the height limit. Unique among modern American cityscapes, Washington hugs the ground, and the skyline is punctuated by a handful of significant buildings - the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Cathedral. I am a big fan of the height limit - it makes DC unique and special. Seeing the Cathedral in the distance from the Metro bridge still amazes me. Others argue that the height limit stunts the growth of the city, and encourages sprawl. But I've also heard about low tenancy rates at many office buildings, and a quick look at sites like Near Southeast show more space is coming. I say keep infilling around existing Metro stations, right up to the height limit, then worry about sprawl.

Closer to home, the Potomac Yard development is going up just a few blocks from my house. The renewal of the the largest undeveloped urban tract on the east coast is at least attempting progressive design. It's not a pocket suburb of cul-de-sacs and curving lanes - it is set up as almost a city-in-miniature, with a downtown commercial area surrounded by a grid of residential streets. As I said above, I'm not sure if I'm necessarily a fan of new urbanism style designs like this, but it is definitely better than another strip mall fronted by massive parking lots. And there is a chance it could lead to an infill Metro station closer to my place. In about 10 years...

So, what kind of place do we want to live? Distant suburbs and exurbs, with plenty of space for yards and garages and playgrounds? Dense urban centers, served by mass transit and only footsteps away from the full range of services and cultural activities? Do you want to own property in the boonies where you can do whatever you want with your land, or live in a condo with a million rules but right next to the Kennedy Center? I say give Burlington, Vermont some thought. Recently cited as the "Best Green Place" in the country, among it's other accolades, it's a fine town. Big enough, but not so big it suffers for it. But don't move there - too many people would ruin it. Go find someplace else like it, though.

Beyond cities and homes, what makes for good design? Is pragmatism the only yardstick, or should we give weight to aesthetics? But if "form follows function," isn't extra credit for aesthetics immaterial, since if it works well, good form will naturally follow? Then we just need to define function. It's easy to decide if a stapler works: it staples or it doesn't. How do you measure measure the functionality of a house? A city? Is a pleasing aesthetic part of the core function of a city? I think so, but taste varies so much, the city might "function" for some and not for others. I think you are starting to see why I'm an engineer, with more straightforward design questions, rather than an architect like Chris.


Ryan Eling said...

I have not read much about it, but Lucas' buying and restoring of the Presidio is an interesting aspect of aesthetics. For me, preserving what we know is beautiful is so important; DC's height limit definitely does this.

Christopher said...

The good people in our local city planning commission don't trouble themselves with such quandries. They just allow construction firms to build and build and build.

I guess they take comfort in the fact that when the big one hits Tokyo, they'll have a chance to start from scratch and correct past mistakes.

DesignDictator said...

Perhaps Washington DC is the happy medium of zoning, somwhere in between Tokyo and Phoenix and Celebration. Certainly the city is nearly exactly the fruition of its original design intentions, an extreme rarity in planning.

Form follows function. But my favorite follow-up question is: what functions?

If something is built that people like to look at, that in itself is serving a function. Call it metaphysical function, in the original Newtonian sense. (is that right?) Intellectual reaction can be as valid as physical reaction/interaction, and each influences the other as well.

I love the original Seaside urban code (what would be called zoning bylaws in most places). Unbelievably, extraordinarily elegant. It took the form of a single 24x36 drawing, with a matrix of lot types (each for a different building use like commercial, rental housing, single-family residences, duplex residences, etc.) and then the limits placed on each basic building component for each lot. For example, porch requirements, parking requirements/restrictions, heights/setbacks, outbuildings...beautiful.

Dan said...

Metaphysics comes from the title of a book by Aristotle. It was the work after his famous Physics, and Metaphysics only means "after Physics." It's a glorified sequel title.

I agree that the design code in Seaside results in a lovely town, and the document itself is a beautiful document. It's the spirit of the thing, limiting someone's property rights, that I have an objection to. But if that's important to you, you can just choose not to live in Seaside, so it's not an argument that holds water.

What'sHisName,ApolloCreed said...

Just to be clear, Seaside has an urban code (zoning law) and a design code. The urban code is what I praise as sublime.

Just about every town in America with population has a zoning code. Zoning talks generalities - you have to build this far away from your property boundaries, you can't build any taller than X, you can't build a mufflershop (building use-group) on your particular lot, etc.

Design covenants are less common but not overly unusual - they are put in place by homeowners' associations (tools of the devil) for neighborhoods, or groups of homes built by a developer. These are, on principle, agreed-upon rules within a small group of people who do not have any other governing structure.

Design codes for towns are more rare. This is for an entire town, where the governing laws are put up for vote by the general population or by the town selectboard on behalf of the citizenry.

I'm not as enthusiastic about (or as familiar with) Seaside's design code as I am about the urban code, but it's pretty good nonetheless. I believe it traffics in generalities too, as much as possible. The design code is the document that requires porches for certain lots, and sets forth that they have to be in a certain size range. It probably says that vinyl siding is not allowed. It says that metal roofing is required. Etc.

What I like about it, though, is that wherever possible (while still maintaining the spirit of the Florida environment in which it is located) their design code intentionally leaves latitude for creativity & nonconformity and expression. A bad design code seeks to create carbon copies of some original source of inspiration. Seaside allows for evolution of that inspiration. Whether it allows enough latitude is up for debate, but at the least it is one of the best examples of a design code out there.

What I love is when a poor design covenant/code gets completely undermined by an original thinker. There's a beautiful example of a house by the Jersey Devil group, which was in Mexico or somewhere. It was on the beach, in a wealthy area with a design covenant. The covenant called for houses that had to be clad completely in white stucco, and had to have a red Spanish tile roof at a certain pitch with tile courses of a certain size, with a certain overhang. Obviously they were aiming for:

What they got from Jersey Devil was:
\ /

Ha, ha, ya burnt!