Friday, March 18, 2016

Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses at Lovely Lane

It is quite unusual to have two international star architects debating each other in Baltimore and share their diametrically opposed views in a church filled almost to capacity in spite of St Patrick's Day with the audience cheering on each side as if it were a presidential debate.

But that is precisely what happened when Elizabeth Plater Zyberk (Duany Plater Zyberk, Miami) and Thom Mayne (Morphosis, LA) ended a day of touring Baltimore with a round of fiery arguments about urbanism. 
Tom Mayne, Elizabeth Plater Zyberk and Kelly Cross
(photo ArchPlan Inc.)

It wasn't the American Institute of Architects, Morgan State or the University of Maryland who brought these cult figures of architecture to Baltimore but Kelly Cross, a local layer and glamour networker who is president of the Old Goucher Community Association. His worldwide networking also brought to the Lovely Lane Church Grażyna Kulczyk, a Polish investor and art collector and one of Poland's the wealthiest businesswomen as well as Maryland's First Lady, Yumi Hogan. Kelly Cross is running for his district's city council seat. 

The evening had been billed as a panel discussion about "Baltimore's Future Growth and Development" but it was really more an argument between two old lions of architecture with Baltimore as the backdrop.

Kelly Cross had shown them the City Jail, posing the question of its future in light of Governor Hogan's demolition funding which would wipe out a large portion of the old castle style buildings. Cross would like the old jail preserved, the active jail functions relocated and the JFX lowered so that the city could weave back together where it is now separated. But the guests were not easily lured into such details of Baltimore politics, at least not before first clearing up some of their more general views on urbanism.
Prison complex. Demolition in red. (Department of Corrections)
Plater Zyberk served up the comfort food of the Congress for New Urbanism which she and her husband Andres Duany founded and branded. A perfected closed system with a canon of rules, terms and edicts almost as watertight as a catholic encyclical.

New Urbanists revolutionized how developers do new developments in the last twenty-five years to a point where almost all major new subdivisions follow at least a part of the rule set emulating old towns, villages and hamlets. Mayne used these terms at one point to state they were not relevant anymore ("We don't play stickball in the streets anymore") upon which Plater Zyberk gleefully remarked, "he knows this stuff".

Cross playing moderator asked his guests how New Urbanism applies to Baltimore. Zyberk answered "I will talk about something else" but essentially asnwered the question by saying "don't mix up new and old everywhere. Preserve historic and even rebuild, even if it is heresy for an architect to say. Be as respectful as you can with the old, that is what makes your place special." Mostly mild mannered, she allowed this fairly stark criticism: "Don't just keep muddling along as you have done in the last 30 years". 

Tom Mayne delighted even more in throwing verbal bombs like "history is dead", a statement that landed like a dud under the painted ceiling of the 1884 Romanesque church designed by famed architect Stanford White. He explained "I am not here to tell you how great your city is and how wonderful you are. The history is not the issue. Your issue is contemporary. Cities are the product of cultural, social and political will. We live in a culture that is experimenting, a confluence of many cultures. Later he added "I am a mutt. There isn't even a common idea of culture. This isn't Paris. San Gimignano [an Italian hill-town in Italy] is not the world we live in."
Lovely Lane Church, (photo Chapman)

When Zyberk allowed that Baltimore with 600,000 residents isn't comparable to Hongkong, Shanghai, Sao Paulo or these other mega cities that Mayne had posited as proof of a new complexity, Mayne responded: "600,000 people is not a village. If you think you understand this city, you are way beyond me". Mayne sees mistakes as inevitable because "these are complex problems". He kept pointing to global shifts. "If we are looking globally we [in the US] are as comfortable as can be." He left6 open why, then, these mega cities were so imprtant for Baltimore, a question that Zyberk asked repeatedly.

As an example of sustainable technology that could come to the rescue Mayne spoke about his Tesla automobile that is fully electric and faster than a Porsche. "Well maybe the $250,000 price isn't so sustainable" he admitted when he saw a lot of incredulous stares.

Zyberk insisted that one can be a small town and still be a globalist. "You are a midsize city of neighborhoods, you are still like a bunch of villages. It's not over". She mentioned New Urbanist godfather Aldo Rossi and his term of Analogous City in which he says "you can have moments of coherence". Asked about the Governor's large demolition budget for Baltimore's neighborhoods, she cautioned that "demolition should be done with place-making in mind, it needs to be done surgically, not by engineering standards". Mayne observed that we "haven't learned to deal with shrinkage".

This got Mayne going about leadership and how it takes big interventions to make a difference, that the small thinking was exactly the problem. "If you don't have broad leadership you don't need to worry about the front yard because you don't have a city."

At which point Zyberk dryly remarked: "You are Robert Moses and I am Jane Jacobs", a summation that seemed to capture the two positions quite well but also illuminated the fact that these were mostly yesterday's wars. The real Baltimore is in a different place as several members of the audience interjected at various times.

Finally speaking about the prison, both panelists got very thoughtful and quiet.

Zyberk: "The suffering that this place represents needs a [future] use that doesn't just forget about the history it represents. The granite building has a future. It reminds me of the power plant at the river Thames in London." About Baltimore's only protected bike lane: "The beautiful bike path along there is so sad because of what it runs along, the prison, the highway, but there is a river underneath and value to be uncovered".

Mayne spoke about the high US incarceration rates and ruminated about a visit with young men at risk in Bridgeport the day before as part of his role with the Presidential Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. "I don't want to see these young men in these cells". About the prospect of preserving parts of the prison he said: "The walk of the prison was difficult. We cannot separate architecture from what it represents. ...The prison as a museum.... it needs to be put into a larger context. One building doesn't change the city." Eventually he roused again to his energetic and optimistic view of things: "It would take outrageous optimism to do this [the prison]. Turning this around would be an amazing statement. If you have the will and desire anything can happen." he exclaimed echoing a very American form of idealism.

It remained unclear if Polish investor and art lover Grażyna Kulczyk shared the optimism and would consider investing in Baltimore or the jail re-use as an art museum, one of Kelly Cross' motives of bringing her here.
Mayne after the talk with Morgan students
(photo ArchPlan Inc.)

After the talk a whole class of Morgan architecture students mobbed Thom Mayne and hung on his lips. Now the two speakers were more like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The old men of the fights of the seventies seem to become popular again.

"It's not the biggest or the strongest but the most able to adapt" he quoted Darwin and obviously invigorated by the young people around him veered back to his favorite topic of our multi-cultural world. "If my students mention God," he said emphatically, "I always ask back, whose god? Whatever god they believe in, there are bound to be many others who believe in another god, if they believe in one at all". Rebel-rouser in a church.

I had spent the morning of the same day at the SEAM conference jointly organized by MICA and Hopkins students as part of their joint program teaching "human centered design". I felt that what I had learned there was more relevant than this evening duel of the legends.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA