Q&A: William Saunders

There’s “an assumption in architecture culture that architecture’s at the top of the pyramid,” says the editor of the new book Urban Design.

William S. Saunders, editor of Harvard Design Magazine, and GSD professor Alex Krieger, collaborated on the new book Urban Design, which asks prominent architects, landscape architects, and planners to take stock of the field of urban design—how it’s evolved, where it’s fallen short, and what its purpose should be. I visited Saunders in his Cambridge office recently to get his take on the complex issues presented in the book.

Your book starts out by looking back to the first conferences on urban design, in 1956 at Harvard, which attempted to establish the new field as a collaboration between architecture, landscape architecture, and planning. But now urban design is mostly the domain of architects. Why do you think that is?

I think Krieger is right when he talks about urban design as more a state of mind than a profession. You could be an urban designer and be a physician if you simply thought in terms of how parts of cities should relate, how parts of cities can enliven cities, and things like that. But there is this sort of cultural “number one” spot that architecture has usually had, this cultural status. And it’s kind of bullied its way to the top.

Speaking of bullying, someone in the book points out that the people who disagreed with the architectural definition of urban design started dropping out of those conferences. Do you think that was intentional on the part of the architects?

I doubt that. It’s more likely a result just of structures of power asserting themselves, and unconscious habits of exclusion. And an assumption in architecture culture that architecture’s at the top of the pyramid. Landscape architecture is now much more strong in terms of being responsible for urban design. In fact, I was just looking at Martha Schwartz‘s designs in Ireland, and urban parks like Michael Van Valkenburgh in Brooklyn and Teardrop Park in lower Manhattan. These are really important urban design elements.

Landscape’s growing importance in urban design is a strong theme across many of the essays, but I’m still not entirely clear on what “landscape urbanism” is.

Landscape architecture traditionally has been beautiful parks, open spaces for relaxing and pleasure. Now, contrast that with Fresh Kills, in NY, which is not purely aesthetic; there’s no way that project can be conceived of as an isolated object. There are too many ecological issues that have to be taken into account, especially how you deal with the pollution of the landfill. So these landscape projects, because of their scale, and their connection to a larger system of nature, have to be conceived of in urbanistic terms. Which really means larger scale, more complex terms—economic, ecological, biological, sociological—and it’s a move away from any kind of purely aesthetic situation. Infrastructure becomes important in landscape urbanism. It’s not usually thought of as part of design’s territory.

Thinking about how we can get back to that original goal of integrating the fields, Denise Scott Brown made an interesting point: that Penn had an MA in “Civic Design” which tried to integrate architecture and planning, and she says it didn’t work at all. She thought that was because the ordering was out of whack—the students didn’t have enough architectural background yet to relate it to the planning they were learning, and vice versa. If we are going to integrate these fields, what do you think is the right order to do it in?

Harvard has a tradition of formalism, saying that you have to start with simple forms and get more complex: so you design a wall, then a house, then a neighborhood and then a region. Now, we’re trying to get to a point in which people’s disciplinary thinking is much more exposed to the knowledge of other disciplines from the get-go. The problem is of course that people say, well, if you over-emphasize that, you have dilettantes, people who don’t really know any one profession thoroughly. So most people say you have to have one discipline really under your belt, even as you take in other things.

What’s a good example of urban design?

The one in the last decade everyone refers to—and it’s on the cover of this book—is Millennium Park in Chicago. It is an outstanding project. It’s used by the citizens of the city as well as tourists, it’s beautiful, it’s high artistic quality, it serves public needs with its concert spaces. Then you could think of things like what Foster did with Trafalgar square, to take cars and trucks out of it and turn it into a pedestrian zone. But again, following Krieger’s idea that urban design is something that happens in many different realms, including the realm of real estate development, I think it would be important to think about good private development projects that make contributions to the quality of life in the city around them. I’m not coming up with one right now…well, what do you say about the recent changes of Diller and Scofidio to Tully Hall at Lincoln Center?

May be too soon to tell.

You could look at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which is another Diller Scofidio project, which has attempted to link itself to a walkway along the water throughout greater Boston, and they created this little outdoor theater under the cantilevered building. So that’s urban design done privately. I think it’s also safe to say that architects are less likely than they were thirty years ago to ignore questions of how it fits with the rest of the city and how it contributes.

When you asked participants for examples of good urban design, many responses involved unplanned urban design—and many of their examples of planned urban design were bad. Do you find that disheartening?

I think the negative comments, which also showed up in [Michael] Sorkin’s article, had to do with a kind of commercialization and conventionalization of public space, tied to what are called “lifestyle centers,” and to real estate developers and city planning offices relying on a lot of clichés about what a good urban environment should be. A lot of that is New Urbanist thinking and imagery. So that when you’re looking at a project—like one down here in the Lechmere area of Cambridge—you’re disheartened by the fact that people have, kind of rotely, put in elements like trees and benches, and tried to have mixed uses, and put in a coffee shop and all of that stuff and it just feels too formulaic and shallow. There’s a sense that true urbanity and urbanism is much less formulaic and predictable, and more rough-edged. There’s that whole problem: how can you plan for spontaneity?

Speaking of Sorkin, another issue you raised in the book was about his complaint that urban design fails to bring all the different parts of society together in one public space. You questioned whether that is a valuable goal in itself. Should that be a goal for urban design?

Yes. I was asking about the automatic response of people who think about public spaces as places that expose people to differences, and otherness, and varieties of class, race, ages, and types of people. What I was asking was just: OK, you can have a situation like most of the streets of New York, in which there’s an unpredictable mix of people walking by each other all the time, and the question is: Does that have the effect on people’s way of thinking and feeling that everyone hopes it does? Does it make people more tolerant, open-minded, interested? Certainly, it can be said that it makes the street a much livelier place to be. I think everyone has to decide for themselves. I’ll say for myself that I’ve sat in the Gehry concert area [in Millennium Park] and heard Spanish music, and I was sitting next to tons of Latino immigrants, and I felt great

I wanted to ask about something Krieger said about the many potential roles for urban design. One of them was normative: envisioning new ways that people should live, new ways cities should be organized. He calls this one of the biggest factors drawing people to the field, but says there aren’t really any prominent examples of this in recent years. Can you think of any recent examples of visionary urban design?

Yes. The problem is that most of the big visions like Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris or the urban redevelopment visions in the ’50’s and ’60’s in this country were top-down, and they were so large-scale that, basically, the notion was that this was imperialistic behavior. And no one person can decide how millions of other people can live.

So once you discard top-down, is there any room for large visions?

I’m thinking of Chicago again, because Mayor Daley, with his immense powers, has tried to turn Chicago into a Green City. All government-related buildings have to have green roofs, and he did an extensive tree planting and landscaping scheme. The result is not something I think anyone could say is oppressive. Some might think of it as somewhat superficial, as in the case of the giant planters in the median strips, but they’re really nice. It’s a very civilized and humane way to upgrade the city.

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