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On My Dinner with Andrés

Twenty years ago New Urbanism was launched as a big idea. And like other powerful ideas, it has mutated as it has metastasized and gotten weird in multiple ways. Like other assaults on orthodoxy, it has become an orthodoxy (or several). I called my recent talk at the Congress for the New Urbanism, My Dinner with Andrés, because I wanted to talk to Andrés Duany and about him. My friend Andrés is a complex fellow; he is more than one person, sometimes more than one person at a time. The tensions and the conflicts between or among his multiple selves are some of the same tensions and conflicts that run through CNU as a whole. Perhaps those tensions are what keeps CNU kicking after 20 years – healthy as American politics used to be when Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan could get sloshed together. Ever since I met Andrés about twenty-five years ago, he has wanted to produce his own equivalent to the Athens Charter of Le Corbusier, the template for so much of the world in the last half of the 20th century. Andres dream, or one of his dreams, has been a similarly sweeping prescription, but this time one that would get everything right. My attitude toward this segment of his plural ambitions is summed up in a little passage in the Mishkan T’vila, a Jewish book of prayer:

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O God of truth, deliver us.

Yet, Andrés is a fantastic source of ideas and observations, one of the most fertile and amusing minds I have ever encountered. He thinks in at least two contradictory ways at the same time, one which I find beautiful and moving, the other scary. First are his sharp insights about the uniqueness of places, like his observation that the culture of New Orleans was based on people of very modest means who had clear title to their houses and no debt. They did not have to work frantically to subsist and had time for the cuisine of slow-cooking stews, the church, and for music of great complexity. The physical city is secondary to this essential fact. Then there is Andrés the planner/systematizer, the reductionist, the maker of categories, the guy who is going to figure out everything everywhere, including dimensionslike Freud, Marx or Le Corbusier. Sometimes, Andrés the acute observer lapses into Andrés the systematizer, sweeping a whole army with him. His Urban/Rural Transect is an elegant tool for description. The problem occurs with the leaps—the oh-so-tempting, always fatal leaps—from broad description (very useful), to claims of universal description (a bit preposterous), to universal prescription(preposterous and dangerous). This progression - description to prescription - is from a kind of literary intelligence to something like pharmacology. There is now a whole crowd of pharmacologist writing universal prescriptions. Beware the drugs, especially the over-the-counter type. Pret-a-porter  urbanism (new metaphor) may be cheap, but it never quite fits. I must thank Andrés’ legion of Smart-Coders, and their near cousins the multiple authors of LEED-ND for helping me to make up my mind on the impulse (irresistible to many) to attempt to figure it all out. I don’t have it figured out; I’ll never have it figured out, I don’t want to try, and for good historical reasons, I am terrified of those who do. Codes and coding have their place and usefulness, but only when they are about real places in all their nuanced uniqueness. See my new Island Press E-ssential, Beside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) for more of the story.