An Architecture of Place: An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides
By Simmons B. Buntin
About Architect and Urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides
Architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides was born in Athens, Greece. He attended Princeton University and graduated with a BFA and MA in Architecture and Urban Planning. He has lived in Los Angeles since 1973. From 1973 until 1997, he was Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California. Polyzoides and his partner Liz Moule are two of six co-founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism and are current members of its Board of Directors. They are also co-chairs of the upcoming 13th Congress of the CNU in Pasadena, California, June 9 to 11, 2005.
Polyzoides is a principal of Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, located in Pasadena. His recent projects include master plans for various TODs in Southern California; master plans for the reconstruction of downtown Newhall, California, downtown Yorba Linda, California, and the Rio Nuevo project in downtown Tucson, Arizona; campus plans for Occidental College and Pomona College in Southern California; various architectural projects, including mixed-use, transit-oriented development for two new Gold Line stations, in Pasadena and South Pasadena; and courtyard housing projects, including 7 Fountains in West Hollywood, and Granada Court and the Vista del Arroyo Bungalows in Pasadena.
Polyzoides’ writing frequently appears in both national and international journals. He is the author of two books: Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles: A Typological Analysis and R.M. Schindler, Architect. His research has produced four distinguished exhibitions and exhibition catalogs: “Caltech: 1910-1950,” “Myron Hunt: 1868-1952,” “Wallace Neff,” and “Johnson, Kaufmann & Coate.”
Terrain.org: In Charter of the New Urbanism, you state, “In contrast to an Architecture of Time, a New Urbanist architecture is an Architecture of Place.” Why, especially in the desert Southwest, does development so often seem to ignore place, ignore the “deep values held by those who live in and around” a place?
Stefanos Polyzoides:To deliver the promise of the New Urbanism at present, on any given project, planning, design, market, political, and development interests should be thoroughly aligned.
It goes without saying that in particular, the architecture of production houses and housing doesn’t often reach the level of architecture at all. Subdivisions are built by designs imported from elsewhere, often copied through the popular press and, sometimes, by people who are unqualified to be engaged in design at all.
In general, the current practice of architecture is dominated by the design and production of isolated objects. These are presented to society as necessary and relevant because, somehow, they are the most up to date expression of the values of our culture.
It is the obsession with its relevance to right now, that qualifies this body of work as an Architecture of Time. Ironically, these projects don’t express the will of our society as self evidently as they claim. They are slaves to consumerism and fashion, narrow personal gratification and financial benefit to a few. How ironic, that our streets are littered with buildings designed to be exulted as works of individual genius, while their authors are either ignored, or already forgotten.
By contrast, an architecture of place delivers projects that respond to two fundamental purposes: Incrementally constructing the city and establishing a sustaining relationship with nature. And doing so for the economic, and psychic benefit of all. This pro urbanist and pro environmentalist Architecture delivers settings for human life that are constantly evolving, while being validated by those who stake their identity and their everyday life around them.
The operations of conventional subdivision developers and production builders resemble those of a cartel. They have been doing business for decades based on a dubious production analogy. They control the entire machinery of sprawl suburb production, its codes, land sales, comps, marketing, financing, design, and construction. They keep operating looking at the world through a rear view mirror that distorts last year’s successful sales, as exclusive justification for this year’s models.
Their work has nothing to do with place or time. They merely build and sell ‘product’ based on formulas that are autonomous, completely closed to outside influence and oblivious to contextual forces. The more extreme the natural conditions of a region and the less evident its cultural history, the more violent the development trespasses. For example, the more the tender history, built culture and natural environment of Arizona and the Southwest are ignored, the more development emerges there in a normative, stereotypical pattern that spreads terminal placelessness in its wake.
Have you noticed how increasingly difficult it is becoming to know exactly where you are while stranded in a typical American suburban townscape?
Terrain.org: One of the first New Urbanist projects in the Southwest—which you designed—is the Community of Civano in southeast Tucson, Arizona. Once Fannie Mae became controlling partner, and more so when Pulte Homes entered the equation and offered to (and since has) purchased Neighborhoods 2 and 3, there was an immediate sense from New Urbanism practitioners that Civano is lost. At the beginning of discussions, there was a belief from neighbors and city officials—only an idealistic hope it now seems—that Pulte could do the right thing because it said it would. But as you noted last year, “You have been facing an acute problem at Civano for quite a while now…. How to take people, like Pulte, who have destroyed the west, its cities and nature through 50 years of building trash, and to convince them, for God’s sake, if not everyone’s children’s sake, to build neighborhoods worth living in, rather than the car-dominated subdivisions that are their hybrid NU masquerades.” Now it is painfully clear that Pulte is not interested in the founding ideals of Civano, principles like walkability and indigenous architecture. Is it simply not possible for a production builder like Pulte to effectively participate in New Urbanism? What can we learn from the losses at Civano?
Stefanos Polyzoides: I have learned a couple of things: The New Urbanism should be practiced based on its principles expressed in form, not the hollow promises of developers and politicians. Hybrid projects are a worse fate than death for the New Urbanism, because they dilute us as a movement, as they confuse the world about our intentions and standards of practice.
Cities, citizens, and professional urbanists alike should never believe the assurances of self-interested developers and builders that have practiced sprawl their entire life. The likes of Pulte should always be engaged through the practice of the ‘Show me’ method. Instead of allowing them to dupe with half truths, they should be forced into charrettes, where they have to design for the common good. The terms of engaging them should include a town plan, neighborhood plans, urban and architectural codes, and a process of being held accountable to the community during the execution of their project.
Pulte should have been forced by both the City and neighbors to deliver on the decades-old ideals of Civano, instead of being allowed to trample them.
Begin to get used to the idea that sprawl development is a political process. You can submit to this state of affairs, or you can resist it. If you decide to fight back, you need to organize, get financed and engage in a political battle. Sprawl developers can be beaten in their own game. Beating them is not about stopping their projects. It is about changing the dominant planning and development ethic of our country.
Relevant examples of such success are municipalities where New Urbanists have run and won seats in city councils and mayoral races. Another is the model of the NRDC, the National Resources Defence Council. Their strategy is confronting environmental polluters and resource wasters through legal means.
Civano was not killed for aesthetic reasons. It was viciously eliminated to slow down the inevitable advance of the New Urbanism in the Southwest, and to protect the interests of the sprawl economy for another generation. Will they get away with it? It is up to you.
Terrain.org: While the scale of your work ranges from full districts to individual buildings, many of your projects and writings focus on core gathering areas—courtyards and plazas—whether Seven Fountains in West Hollywood, California or the Plaza at Aldea de Santa Fe, a new town under construction in New Mexico. Why do courtyards and plazas specifically draw your attention? What are the biggest challenges with designing these public spaces? The biggest rewards? Is there a greater meaning or symbolism attached to these public spaces for the entire community?
Stefanos Polyzoides:The figural void of the city is the essential ingredient of Urbanism, as the building is the measure of its Architecture. Cities should be designed reciprocally between buildings and the public realm they define.
Architecture has been historically conceived as a discipline in terms of formal repetition, types of objects recurring over time. In the practice of Urbanism, urban space should also be cast typologically.
The patio, the courtyard, the quad, the green, the field, the plaza, the square, the greenway, the thoroughfare, are all kinds of urban space with historical precedence, dimensional and proportional characteristics, geographic and climatic variants, symbolic and functional expectations.
This is what interests me most about urbanism: The character of a project at any scale depends on the judicious mixing in design of all the types of urban space at our disposal. We know that these may vary for each region we are typically asked to design in, the Southwest versus the Northwest, for example. In order to reveal the formal character and performance expectations of all types of urban space, we have had to become heavily engaged in learning through continuous research.
Thus, the 1979 book on Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, our participation in the new “Civic Art” of 2003, a forthcoming book on The Plazas of New Mexico, and ongoing academic projects on Street Making, Campus Planning and Housing.
Ours is an office in which the urgency to act is moderated by the propensity to think. Reading, writing and drawing have become central to our method of design. Principals lead by example, and our entire staff is heavily involved.
Terrain.org: Tell us about the Doña Ana Plaza reconstruction in Doña Ana, New Mexico. How does your approach differ for the redevelopment of a site such as this versus newer infill or “greenfield” development, or does it?
Stefanos Polyzoides: Urbanism is not a style. It is a set of place making options ranging from simple to complex and from rural to urban, that can be realized through judicious physical design. Every kind of development site, in redevelopment, new or old infill, brownfield or greenfield, has its own powerful character and context that need to be tapped to provide the founding idea for a project.
Historic places possess physical traces of human intentions, that if properly revealed and celebrated, can become important points of reference in a project. Doña Ana is a village in southern New Mexico founded in the 18th century on the Camino Real. The pattern of its thoroughfares, the size and geometry of its blocks and the character of its buildings are steeped in centuries old design traditions. We felt obliged to uncover this urban, architectural and cultural heritage before starting to design.
Doña Ana is also a living community. Working through the University of New Mexico, we engaged the villagers in a process that confirmed a leadership structure, a program of ritual and common needs, and an implementation strategy. There were a number of startling discoveries made before design.
The most important was that the historic plaza in front of the village church, erased and paved for a parking lot thirty or more years ago, was still used for dancing and religious festival events. Ritual use and physical place, albeit a remembered one, were coincident in peoples’ minds. We felt obliged to recast this historic plaza with new buildings.
But how to design a new plaza? None had been attempted in New Mexico for over a century. New Urbanist, transect-based practice, suggested that a village center is a place where informality of conception, simplicity of material execution, and roughness of construction were defining characteristics.
We tried to disown the arrogance and authority bestowed upon us but what we know about architecture and urbanism and their practice in the present. We imagined ourselves as rooted, practically minded villagers of two-hundred years ago. We induced imperfections in the geometry of the plan, imposed severe limitations on the palette of construction materials, and embraced the local, traditional building trades. Most importantly, we shut down the urge to self expression.
The result was an authentic design exuding permanence and local character, in balance with the timelessness of both the existing agricultural landscape and the building fabric of Doña Ana.
Terrain.org: In a 2003 article jointly authored with Juan Gomez-Novy, you detail the loss of Tucson’s three-plaza settlement, noting that in 1967, “Bulldozers erased a uniquely irregular street network and obliterated a rich heritage of adobe structures. . . . Three hundred nineteen homes were torn down and more than one thousand residents were forcibly relocated.” The conclusion: the crime of urban ‘renewal’ “involving an incalculable cultural loss was finally completed.” Nearly 40 years later, Tucson is embarking on a renewal project of a different type: Rio Nuevo. What is your role in Rio Nuevo, and can it bring people and culture back to Tucson’s downtown?
Stefanos Polyzoides:Rio Nuevo is a remarkable project for which we shared the honor of leading the urban design with Oscar Machado, of Miami.
Forty plus years ago, Downtown Tucson was obliterated by Urban Renewal, without any regret by the powers that were. One of the great, historic city centers of the Southwest was demolished to make way for the normative, great modern city of tomorrow. Shockingly, half of the Downtown was built out through banal modern buildings in an urban form unsuited for human habitation. The other half, west of the Santa Cruz River, was left vacant.
The Rio Nuevo project aims to rebuild and enhance the parts of downtown Tucson so badly disfigured by planning and design since 1960. In 2003, we were asked by Rio Development, Justin and Jerry Dixon, to respond to an RFP to design a neighborhood on the west side of the river, centered on a new public market, a traditional Mercado. We ended up winning the commission.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for winning was the presence on our team of four young and ambitious Tucson builders. They had already built lots of traditional adobe and rammed earth houses in the Barrio and Presidio neighborhoods surrounding the site, with resounding aesthetic and financial success.
Through the charrette process, we designed a traditional neighborhood on an irregular grid that followed the traces of ancient acequias on the site. Its form followed CNU design principles applied to a desert climate and culture. It received the enthusiastic endorsement of neighbors, elected officials and city staff. The project was strictly coded and survived intact through the entitlement process.
Currently, construction on the infrastructure has begun, and buildings will begin to appear within months. The act of rebuilding a lost city is hugely therapeutic. It brings back places and memories lost. It also confirms the existence and cultural values of those that were removed, the Latino population of Tucson. By operating within the boundaries of their architectural and living traditions, we are paying homage to their creativity and zest for life.
The Mercado neighborhood is one of many initiatives now unfolding in Downtown Tucson. Redevelopment on Congress Street, infill development everywhere, new civic buildings, the Mercado, a new plaza, are among the projects underway that are changing the face of the center city. Despite the fact that there is no compelling overall plan for the Rio Nuevo project, the fact is that Tucson is finally being transformed to the core and people are noticing.
Terrain.org: Nearly all of your work is in the Desert Southwest, from Southern California to New Mexico. Is this simply a matter of proximity—with your offices located in Pasadena and more recently Albuquerque? Or is it something more about the geography, the environments and cultures of the Southwest, the inherent architecture of place?
Stefanos Polyzoides: My partner Liz Moule and I, and by extension those who collaborate with us daily in the office, fervently believe that the New Urbanism is both an enabling theory and an empowering method of design. Its principles can be expressed in diverse form and stark contrast to one shoe fits all tendencies, particularly those of internationalist modernism.
The Architecture and Urbanism of Place, first and foremost, varies from setting to setting. We are convinced that the most important ingredient of any design is its physical permanence as a response to the unique qualities of society & culture, climate & geography, city & nature inherent in every region of the world.
Before we profess in a given setting, we become expert in its history and evolving life. If we are asked to work in a place where we have not been or practiced before, then we spend the time and energy to become native there, in the shortest period of time.
The fact also is that we love the Southwest, its people, its rituals, its urbanism and architecture, its natural environment. We live in Pasadena by choice and are constantly challenged working in the region. We have learned how to be effective designers within the cultural framework and physical constraints of this beloved part of our country.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
Header photo of Civano in Tucson, Arizona, by Simmons B. Buntin.