Following up on last week’s post on the GREAT City proposed outside Chengdu, China:
I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Kindel, AIA, ASLA – Director of Urban Design for Adrian Smith Gordon Gill Architecture. Peter and I discussed a number of issues relating to the design, its background, and the pushback that comes from some New Urbanists on projects like this.
The conversation reinforced to me that, whenever projects like this get rolled out to the world, the interesting aspect is to talk with the people actually working on them, rather than resorting to snap judgments. Like any human, I’m guilty of the latter, and have an upcoming post where I’ll likely be snap-judging away. Stay tuned.
On a couple of key quick points from Peter – the architecture will ultimately be a much wider variety than what the aerial model indicates; the circular shape is not arbitrary – it’s a response to site conditions; and the design has gone through several iterations (still ongoing) that are making some of the blocks smaller and more regularized.
Peter and I talked for a bit about ideals of density, height, etc, since that is a sticking point among New Urbanists. The Leon Krier camp, for lack of a better phrase, is adamant that we shouldn’t ever build cities that are essentially taller than about 5 stories, or where humans can have direct interaction with the street. Given Leon’s long experience with traditional European urbanism, it’s an understandable point of view. And, it’s hard to find fault with that viewpoint – I think most of us (myself included) sincerely prefer that scale of city.
Another camp suggests that we have no choice, however, but to live with the realities of modern times. For one, some people really enjoy living in very tall buildings. Secondly, how will some of the developing countries house the millions of people rapidly urbanizing if we don’t go significantly higher than 5, 10 or even 20 stories? Is it possible to accommodate the masses, preserve desperately needed farmland, and deliver the high FAR’s that some clients demand without towers?
The GREAT City (yes, the name is an acronym) crystallizes these discussions and more. (A copy of part of its award submission to the CNU is attached below) For New Urbanists, it also forces us to look at our long-held bias against contemporary forms of architecture. I know the Charter principles are architecture-style neutral, but the reality is also that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanist designers have a strong dislike, if not outright hostility towards “modern” architecture.
So I restate my original questions – what are our measures for success? If the GREAT City is built (Peter states it’s possible that construction could begin in Spring 2013), and if it becomes a walkable, livable place that achieves anywhere near the environmental data that the design aims for, does it become a model that urban designers the world over should aspire to? Do the small blocks, ample public spaces, and variety in architecture make this worthy of emulation?