City planner wants return to town concept

CRITICIZING THE SUBURBS

March 29, 1992|By J. Linn Allen | J. Linn Allen,Chicago Tribune

Andres Duany is trying to make a speaking career out of being obnoxious. Or so it seems.

"There's a good chance you'll find me an obnoxious and abrasive person," he told a crowd at the National Association of Home Builders convention in Las Vegas recently.

Certainly his supercilious manner, sarcastic wit, monumental self-assurance and faintly foreign accent might well be thought likely to alienate a group of down-to-earth, plain-spoken house .. builders.

As might his love for the word "stupid" when applied to almost everything builders, developers, architects and planners other than himself -- as well as society in general -- have done for the last 50 years.

Or his habit of skewering revered institutions by name and in person, as when he addressed a meeting of the Urban Land Institute and referred to it as the "United Lemmings Institute" because of the group's developer members' frenzied rush to build golf course communities.

But if Mr. Duany's aim is to outrage, he may be failing. His two-hour presentation to the builders drew enthusiastic applause and the throng of questioners around him afterward was not hostile but eager to learn.

One of the crowd, James Hemphill, head of Northfield, Ill.-based Home by Hemphill and last year's president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago, invited him to come speak to the group.

The warm reception reflects an increasingly positive response to Mr. Duany's near-messianic message: that the typical American suburb is a monumental mistake, responsible for a host of social ills, and that only by building tight-knit towns in the mold of the 1920s and before can we restore to this country a decent quality of life.

Mr. Duany, 42, a Yale-trained architect who operates a Miami architectural firm with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, has achieved a remarkable prominence as the acknowledged, if occasionally resented, leader of what has become known as the neo-traditional town movement in the United States.

He has been widely hailed as the planner for Seaside, a quaint development with an old-timey feel on Florida's Gulf Coast, and Kentlands, a Montgomery County suburban development that aspires to be a fledgling Georgetown. As a dozen or so of his many other town plans move forward, he travels the country preaching his gospel.

Striking a chord

Until now, the word has been spread mostly among members of his profession and others connected with urban planning and residential building. But there are signs, such as a recent appearance on national television, that his words may be striking a chord with a larger audience.

Mr. Duany's presentations often deal with codes, regulations and technical planning matters, particularly when it comes to traditional grid street networks as opposed to meandering, curvilinear subdivision streets. But he continually emphasizes the broader significance of his ideas.

In speaking of one of his key concepts, the decline of the public realm, which means anything outside the house, he relates it to "the breakdown of society and the fragmentation and privatization of the family."

Once suburbanites step out of the "fabulous interiors" of their houses, they encounter "stress, hostility and ugliness," he said. "What goes with the fabulous interiors is an incredibly undercooked public realm -- traffic, signage and their fellow citizens competing for asphalt."

"[I] used to apologize for presenting what seemed like a panacea," Mr. Duany said. "But I see it so clearly."

Put people in the typical suburb, and their lives will deteriorate, he says. Put them in a cozy little town, and they will become better parents, children, friends and citizens.

Mr. Duany is certainly not the first social critic to decry suburbia, but he has emerged at a time when the suburb is as embattled as never before. Traffic, taxes, environmental concerns, and no-growth and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movements have galvanized a generation.

And part of Mr. Duany's power is that his message is seductively simple: If we go back to traditional town design, with small gridded streets, public squares and walkable dimensions, we can conquer social ills.

"The neo-traditional town," Mr. Duany said, "is just a small adjustment. It's not as radical as it seems. People can't believe that a thing that has such radical effects can be such a small

change."

Of course, on the other hand he can refer to the eventual time in which his ideas have triumphed as "after the revolution." But modesty is not his style.

In his blood

He sprang a surprise on the home builders in Las Vegas when he told them that his father and grandfather were developers and that this heritage had profoundly affected his ideas.

His father built homes in Cuba during the late 1940s and early 1950s -- the era of tract houses -- while his grandfather laid out a streetcar suburb in Cuba before World War I. Mr. Duany had a cosmopolitan upbringing, living and going to school in the United States, Cuba, Spain and Switzerland.

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