And Now...designer Communities

February 10, 1991|By Edward Gunts

When architect Charles W. Moore received the Gold Medal last week from the American Institute of Architects -- an award considered by many to be architecture's highest honor -- the developers of a new residential community in Maryland had good reason to be glad.

The 3,000-unit Russett community will go on the market starting this spring as the latest of three large developments in western Anne Arundel County, and one of the features that sets it apart from its competitors is that the community center has been designed by Mr. Moore, a longtime friend of co-developer Curtis F. Peterson.

The community center, slated for construction starting this spring, is one of the first buildings in Maryland designed by the 65-year-old architect, whose engaging, humanistic, often whimsical projects include the Sea Ranch condominiums in northern California, the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, Kresge College in Santa Cruz and the Beverly Hills Civic Center.

His AIA award can only help marketing prospects for Russett, planned for a tract just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But according to Joel Mostrom, president of Curtis F. Peterson Inc., the real reason for using an architect of Mr. Moore's stature is not to get name recognition but to get the high-caliber work for which he is known.

"The idea for this new development is to use a few initial buildings to set the tone for what will follow," Mr. Moore says. "If we do that right, it will entice people to say: 'That's where I would like to settle.' "

RUSSETT IS THE LATEST OF several residential communities in Maryland that represent a growing trend. Developers are hiring leading architects to design all or part of a large residential subdivision that typically wouldn't have a very strong design orientation. They know that today's buyers aren't just buying a home anymore -- they're buying a community. And they want the best possible designers to create it for them.

Other well-known architects who have been hired to put their stamp on a Maryland community include Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Miami; John Burgee and Philip Johnson, Emilio Ambasz, Arthur Cotton Moore and Stanton Eckstut.

The involvement of so many prominent designers in local residential development represents a marked change from the recent past, when leading architects for the most part had little to do with mainstream housing.

In the first half of the century, of course, many of the world's best known architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were deeply involved in housing issues. But during the 1980s, architects such as Michael Graves, Frank Gehry and Helmut Jahn have had relatively little to do with housing, except perhaps for the one or two fabulously expensive houses a year they may design for a millionaire client. For the most part, today's best-known architects have built their reputations on public and corporate buildings, not housing.

But all that seems to be changing in the 1990s, and Maryland is on the cutting edge of the change. In an age of designer jeans, designer sheets and designer tableware, perhaps it was only a matter of time before architects would get a chance to try their hand at "designer communities."

At the start of the year, Maryland had no fewer than a dozen such communities under construction or on the drawing boards. Over the next decade, more than 5,000 residences will be built within their limits. And it's not just happening in Maryland: Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, Alexander Cooper and Jaquelin Cooper are among the leading architects working on new communities in Florida, New York, Virginia and other states.

Actually, there is no hard and fast definition for a designer community. It typically involves a sizable residential development of several hundred acres, containing hundreds or even thousands of residences of various types, including single-family detached houses, town houses, condominiums and apartments. These communities will usually be constructed by a variety of builders, who acquire lots from the land developer who TC assembles the property and obtains the preliminary construction approvals. It is the land developer who usually seeks out the designers for the community.

What most separates the designer communities from regular "planned unit developments," which civil engineers map out to show public officials that the project will comply with local building controls, is their emphasis on design as a means of achieving a better quality of life.

In some cases, the architects try to rethink the standard &L subdivision and come up with new ways of laying out streets and buildings or mixing shops and workplaces with housing. In other cases, they focus special design attention on the public spaces and common buildings used by everyone.

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