I would be returning now my beloved blog theme (of late), Savannah, were it not for the fact that I've lately been been absorbed with the task of evaluating a facility design for possible LEED-NC (2009 v. 3) certification. I find the LEED assessment process an intellectually rewarding and informative experience for much of the same reasons I enjoy thinking about Savannah and researching timely issues of development, transit, and urban design in the blogosphere.
What is interesting about LEED-NC to me is the way it opens up the architectural task of designing buildings to the greater task of design for the user and his/her community. The surrounding context of design, both local and global, comes into the primary purview of the architect's design enterprise. LEED for New Construction and Major Renovations, in effect, repositions the role of the architect as the role of the urban designer. LEED-NC tells you that location matters. That site decisions matter. Suddenly, the community and its public realm, with their exorbitant diversity and interconnection, become entities to think about with bearing on the design work.
Of course, an architect worth his salt out there will stamp his feet and huffily tell you that good architectural practice always does address the purview of urban design concerns and matters and more. Urban designers would just as well spare us the pretense and worry themselves more with becoming good "architects". Urban design is just hip at the moment, because the trend-setters suddenly love that word "urban", but really...is it not just a weightless distinction, especially since planners, architects and landscape architects can seemingly claim the role at will?
Well, I think urban designers do matter, regardless what they call themselves. (Of course, everyone's definition of "urban design" is probably more expansive and generous than it needs to be.) First of all, urban design as a special field of focus and professional specialization matters because places like Savannah exist. Some designers actually did dream up Savannah and Philadelphia. Urban design mattered in the inception of those communities. We say not just "Paris" but "Haussmann's Paris", not just "DC" but "L'Enfant's DC", for a reason. But, of course, urban design continues to matter even after the inception and the broad-broad stroke. It matters in how communities continue to adapt their environment incrementally during changing circumstances, often at the behest of their changing self-identities. The process of change is why you need planners, but the physical fact of change is why you need a subset of architects and planners that specialize in urban design. In spite of how invisible or unappreciated their "small strokes" might be, you simply need people who have a professional focus on design of the public realm and who work in that area of environment where the public is the primary client and where design decisions are shaped by the diversity of actors who have a stake in the public realm. When architects do get public commissions their primary role switches to urban design. The urban designer is the architect who never stops thinking about the city. The commission is just a component of that broader enterprise of shaping the public realm in a manner that represents more than the sum of its constituent parts. This to me has always been what distinguishes the work of good architects: the city is their true client and commission. People like Gehry, Richard Meier and Rem do not have just the building in focus. Maybe they do deserve to be in the pantheon of architects we call "starchitects". Whether by luck, talent or both, they obtain their distinction through what I call "urban design". Depending on your critical stance that may be unfortunate or not, but the critique itself must also engage a theory of "urban design". Urban design is an interpretive stance, more so than architecture, because it is the will of the public that it is interpreting, and for that, it deserves to be critiqued. It deserves to be a field of professional endeavor.
Of course, my particular stance is that urban design is "messy". Often, urban design happens in the vacuum, without anyone driving a vision. But if the best urban design is ad hoc, unplanned and after the fact, that is because communities are adaptive and resourceful enough to practice urban design. Pedestrians and their needs enact a kind of low level urban design, day by day, much as bees create hives. True, part of urban design is knowing when to step out of the way, and for that you need more robust theory and professionalism...more thinking and sharpening (Rem style), not less. Urban designers wield a dainty scalpel. That scalpel can matter and it cannot, it can succeed and it can fail.
Two kinds of urban design are present in the image above. One in the background and one in the foreground. What process led to either, who can really say? Whatever professions were involved, the result was urban design. However, some things can be said. The one in the background, Vancouver's Olympic Village, was shaped by the process of applying urban design criteria clambering to earn the project as many LEED-ND pilot program points as possible. Here is a work of master planners, architects no doubt, who not only embraced the role of the "urban designer", but, in fact, applied urban design prerogatives much like builders do placing together the elements of a building. The LEED-ND pilot program criteria was the driver and the straight-jacket that they had to tectonically coordinate with their client's even more demanding program. Its design was shaped by the need to stack the right stone on the right stone to find a new sweet spot...rising and falling they went together until a strikingly good balance was found. If LEED-NC brought architects back to urban design, LEED-ND brought urban designers back to architecture.
...And my, oh my, what a great development this is for the trajectory of urban designers everywhere.
In a day where architecture as a field is becoming less relevant, as BIM technicians replace practicioners with AIA stamps (in paycheck if not in effect), here is one bright note where we can smile at the future of architecture. The introduction of LEED-ND is one place where architecture matters as a profession. And where it meets urban design.
I practice architecture and urban design in Charlotte, N.C., often as a consultant in transportation projects. The rest of my time I help layout the developments of the clients of the firm I work for. While I'd like to be an urbanist, if anything, I'm an expert in the layout of parking lots. For now, just consider me an "aspiring urbanist", until governments allow me to practice what I preach.