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Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents

Andrés Duany and Emily Talen, editors
New Society Publishers, 2013
Reviewed by Alex Krieger FAIA

More than two decades ago, a group of young American architects, concerned by suburbanization and the accompanying disinvestment in cities, organized a campaign called the New Urbanism. For a couple of decades, with the gradual support of the planning community, zoning reformers, subdivision developers seeking a marketing edge, and substantial media attention, the New Urbanists held center stage in efforts to wean Americans from their capacious instincts to sprawl.

As a reformist movement, the New Urbanists positioned themselves against modern architecture, whose search for all things new they blamed for the turn away from traditional urban typologies, ultimately abetting sprawl. But now that the Congress for the New Urbanism is essentially mainstream, the founders have found a new enemy to combat. Thus this volume of essays, purporting to be a careful evaluation of a newer design movement called Landscape Urbanism.

Driven by a youthful vanguard, the Landscape Urbanists have been seeking to emerge from the shadow of architecturally dominated urban-design discourse, questioning the supposition that urbanism is the prerogative of those disciplines alone. They suggest that contemporary urban strategies might be found at the intersection of ecological awareness; infrastructure planning and engineering; recovery of industrially polluted ground; progressive social policy; and, indeed, the insights available to the landscape architect. Despite internal protestations against precursors, echoes of Ian McHarg, Rachel Carson, Benton MacKaye, Patrick Geddes, and even Frederick Law Olmsted may be discerned, along with others who have focused on environmental underpinnings for city design.

The Landscape Urbanist asserts that it is with the land that the planning and design of the modern metropolis must begin. Such a startling proposition becomes less revolutionary the moment one tours any contemporary metropolitan area from the air, noticing the infinitesimal amount of Nolli Map–like area to be found. Diverse forms of urban conditions exist, and each, they claim, must be approached without a predetermined solution for what constitutes the “urban,” but with environmental stewardship in mind.

Many aspects of Landscape Urbanism rankle the New Urbanists, not least being the presence of a rival on the urbanism discourse scene. To be fair, the newer arrivals are rarely kind to the New Urbanists, often accusing them of a narrow approach to urban design, if not downright Luddism, by not acknowledging that settlement patterns, and responses to these, have become far more varied since the Industrial Revolution.

If the Landscape Urbanism Reader, published in 2006, was perceived by the New Urbanists as a shot across the bow in the brave fight for the soul of the 21st-century city, then this book is the (surprisingly delayed) response.

Several authors seek a measure of common ground. Among these are Doug Kelbaugh, Neal Payton, Daniel Solomon, and Nan Ellin. Others add insight from a broader cultural perspective, such as Jason Brody. The overall tone of the volume, however, exudes disdain. It begins with the book’s title and the laudatory jacket blurbs: “This important collection of essays lays bare the comprehensive wrongheadedness at the foundation of Landscape Urbanist theory,” opines the apparently discontented New Urbanist Jeff Speck. Then there is the chapter titled “The Zombies of Gund Hall Go Forth and Eat America’s Brains.” Howard Kunstler seems to imply that an academic institution set about to adopt a nonsensical intellectual position called Landscape Urbanism for the sole purpose of discrediting New Urbanism. So much for deep insight.

Instead, overstatement and clichéd bifurcation are found throughout the book and sadly mimic the broader debate among proponents of these two “urbanisms.” Payton’s sentence, while intended as parody, sums things up pretty well: “The Landscape Urbanists view the New Urbanism’s concern with street types and ‘place making’ as hopelessly naïve and passé, whereas the New Urbanists view the Landscape Urbanist project as a sophisticated form of sprawl.” How silly and disrespectful of both camps, yet accurate in describing the typical jabbering among the respective combatants.

So my suggestion is the following: Hole up at some fine urban venue with both the earlier Landscape Urbanism Reader and this volume. Wade through both with common sense chestnut-eliminating scissors at hand. Then ask of your Landscape Urbanist colleague: Is there no value still in the idea of a compact urban precinct such as those that have characterized urban places for millennia? And, turning to your favorite New Urbanist polemicist, ask: What precisely is troublesome about a supposition that the land and natural processes should be a primary consideration in contemporary urban design? Surely, the urban regions that now contain half of humanity, and soon more, can accommodate both perspectives­ — and a few others as well.

How Architecture Works

Witold Rybczynski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Reviewed by Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA

In my first architectural history class, each student was given a brick along with an assignment to live with it for a week. This meant never letting it out of your sight and drawing it as much as possible. The goal was to personalize it and understand its essence. (Six residences later, my brick lives on my front porch.) All architects graduate with experiences that fundamentally shape how we understand architecture and materials that make our work more than just the sum of its parts. In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski has created an educational journey for us, breaking down the elements of architecture to create a framework for the reader to build an understanding of how to see and feel things similar to how architects approach their work. It is both a toolkit for the reader and an author’s journey to uncover a topic that cannot be conveyed in words only.

The book is loosely grouped into Fundamentals, Craft, and a philosophical discussion of style, history, and taste. As with my brick assignment, architecture is presented as an assemblage of elements, each with its own meaning, function, and spirit. Rybczynski delights in considering how architects bring these pieces and their permutations together. His approach was likely influenced by the freshman seminar class he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. A reader not familiar with the many building references may do well to keep Google handy. Still, the writing is approachable, so much so that I felt I was having a beer with my professor and hearing all the back stories.

How Architecture Works is a contemporary response to Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture, a book the author studied during his own education. Following Rasmussen’s example, Rybczynski writes only about buildings he visited personally — with two exceptions — and it is clear that the influences are predominantly Western architecture. The carefully selected images rightly focus on the built work of architects, not the architects as individuals. However, Rybczynski sometimes lapses into anecdotes about Le Corbusier’s influential eyewear and the clothing preferences of architects. Missing is any discussion about the role of female architects, with only a few references to women currently in practice.

Rybczynski draws interesting parallels between how architects approach practice in the public realm and their own residences. The homes of Marc Appleton, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, and Peter Bohlin provide insight to their professional approach to history and materiality. Rybczynski argues that architecture lasts longer than any fashion or popular cultural item, spanning generations; therefore, its longevity has great social impact. Although the practice of architecture may appear to be simply based on function and aesthetic, it is also a social practice. Architects learn their craft from other architects, and the author’s focus on the personalities that create the buildings and the result of their creations strikes the right balance.

I fell into contemplative states as I read, attempting to reconcile my own concepts of architecture with Rybczynski’s ideas. Then I realized that a great teacher presents you with just enough information to spark independent ideas. There are no judgments in his writing, only positions. Two exceptionally well-written chapters, “Detail” and “Style,” gave me a renewed appreciation for the subtlety of details. Rybczynski stops short of providing answers, thankfully so.

The book opens with a quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.” Like my beloved brick, I consider How Architecture Works a useful item to add to my understanding of architecture.

Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch

Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel
NAi Publishers, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew J. Kiefer

Is there a more mutable, more equivocal subject than water? It sustains life but also threatens it in ways large and small, from moldy basements to rampaging floods. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy wrought their respective devastations, the effect of water on American cities has gained sudden urgency in an era of inexorable climate change.

Thus the appeal of Sweet & Salt. While learning to live with water may vex us now, it has informed the Dutch way of life for centuries. This thought-provoking book is not alarmist; in fact, its reassuring lesson is that, like the Dutch, we can face this challenge and even benefit from it.

Co-written by a journalist and an art historian, its title and its graceful combination of text and graphics hint at several dualities within — not only fresh water and salt water but also land and sea, ecology and economy, nature and culture, and even art and life.

Especially in the delta that is Holland, the boundaries are blurrier than you might think. The Dutch are blurring them even further as they pioneer ways to accommodate water rather than resist it — measures such as opening dams, allowing low-lying polders to flood periodically, and building in and on the water.

The book is an outgrowth of a year that Metz, who sat on the Dutch government’s second Delta Commission, spent as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. This led to a two-year collaboration between Harvard students and the Dutch government on planning with and for water.

Metz’s readable, policy-oriented chapters outline new planning and design approaches in the Netherlands. Water management is central to Dutch society, requiring the kind of communal action that helped gestate Dutch democracy in the 17th century. It culminated in the famed Delta Works, a gigantic series of dikes, locks, and dams built to protect Holland from the sea after the epic North Sea Flood in 1953.

A half-century later, the Delta Works needs augmentation, and in some cases reinvention, to address its unintended consequences: erosion and habitat destruction. Today’s challenges include not just deciding how — or even whether — to keep salt water out but also how to keep fresh water in, for crops, industry, and drinking.

Metz’s chapters alternate with chapters by her collaborator, van den Heuvel, who elucidates how intrinsic the Dutch relationship with water has been to its culture and self-conception as expressed in its art. Dutch iconoclasm upended the Christian tradition of depicting water as a symbol of sanctification and cleansing.

The Dutch, after all, invented not only landscape painting, in which the realistic landscape became the subject rather than the symbolic background, but also the very word “landscape,” signifying a domain shaped by human hands. Fashioned from a river delta, the Dutch landscape is in fact uniquely malleable — a cultural artifact as well as a natural one.

The syncopation of these chapters makes for an unusual experience: a beautiful book with important lessons. The well-chosen images enhance the resonance of the lessons, and the lessons in turn make the images even more arresting. Just as water has long found its way into Dutch art and cultural expression, Dutch cultural history is now finding its way into the design of new landscapes. In the end, Sweet & Salt provides the best antidote to alarmism. It’s a testament to human ingenuity.