Andres Duany vs Harvard GSD

Architect Andres Duany is none too pleased that Harvard GSD's Urban Design program has been replaced by Landscape Urbanism. Here's why.

Without a doubt, architect Andres Duany is a pivotal figure in creating a less car-dependent, more walking-oriented American landscape–the kind of human-scale, personally navigable, tight developments that seem to have sturdy green roots and point, generally, toward a more urban lifestyle. Certainly, densely-settled cities have what Duany and his cohorts have been advocating for 30 years. But now as these cities begin to re-engage with nature, to create their own, healthy and life-affirming environments, surprisingly (at least to me) Duany is not cheering, he’s jeering. He seems to equate the new “dogma of environmentalism” (my quotes) with the recent changes at the Harvard GSD, where the old Urban Planning and Design department is giving way to Landscape Urbanism. And so I must ask this, is he just looking for a fight, or is there a constructive dialogue to be had here? –sss

Last April, upon attending a remarkable conference at the Harvard GSD, I predicted that it would be taken over in a coup. I recognized a classic Latin American-style operation. It was clear that the venerable Urban Design program would be eliminated or replaced by Landscape Urbanism. Today, it is possible to confirm that the coup was completed in September–and that it was a strategic masterpiece.

To summarize: The first step was the hiring of Charles Waldheim, who, after long and patient preparation, had circled in from the academic hinterland acquiring “famous victories” at Illinois and Toronto. The second step was the “general strike” of the huge Ecological Urbanism Conference–the one that I attended last April. With some thirty speakers, it was both a remarkable show of force, and simultaneously the casting call for the next faculty.

The conference began with a shock: Rem Koolhaas’ keynote address destabilized the then-current GSD regime. It was most unexpected to see the grand, aging revolutionary, distancing himself from all starchitect work (including his own) and aligning anew with his origins in the “humble, local and climatically responsive” work of his 60s teacher, Jane Drew (I made a note at the time “Jane Drew is the New Leonidov!”). To my fevered imagination, it was quite a frisson to witness a real show trial.

Then another shock: Midway though the conference there was suddenly a very unusual performance for a university president. Drew Faust transcended the expected insipid greeting, baring quite some fang when stating forcibly that the GSD was going to change to the ecological line–and to get used to it. Dean Mohsen Mostafavi followed with an interpretation of what was meant by that change: an unalterable commitment to the ecological basis but also, soothingly, assurances that the GSD would not neglect the high-design filter.

The third step was the publication of a red brick-like summa of the proceedings, Ecological Urbanism–the first official guide of the new regime. In size and weight and format it is clearly a replacement to Rem’s silver SMLXL testament.

Then last month, by interview, Charles Waldheim disclosed that the once”small” Landscape Architecture Department he now heads would within a year hire ten new faculty. He also announced (in both the interview and in the summa) the official name change for the party, from the revolutionary, unique, branded, “Landscape Urbanism” to the reassuring, generalized, mature–conservative even–“Ecological Urbanism”. A by-the-book protocol, just as the glamorous but scary “Red Brigades” transmute into comforting “socialists” once they take power.

Then this week [October 18] it was announced that Rahul Mehrotra (a denizen of India) was hired as a full professor with tenure to head the Urban Design Program. Alex Krieger, the levelheaded head of that program is presumably out. It is not difficult to conclude given Rahul’s specialization, that the Urban Design Program will morph entirely toward third world initiatives–all offshore–thereby leaving the field clear for Landscape/Ecological Urbanism to be the GSD’s only urban program operating in North America and Europe.

Done! This coup was brilliantly conceived and comprehensively executed. Machado and Silvetti, plantados in gentlemanly formal principles, will probably retire soon in frustration. The agile Koolhaas will be the one Old Party survivor, as he has already provided the intellectual underpinnings for Urban Design’s third world focus (with his Lagos work) while supplying infrastructural meta-visions (North Sea Power Rings et al) such that will allow Ecological Urbanism to seem downright pragmatic.

So. . . there will not be much of whatever remained of the urbane, urban design sensibility. Landscape/Ecological Urbanism will rule without dissension.

The CNU should now stand to salute Charles Waldheim and his companions. As Churchill said of Rommel in 1941: “We have against us a very daring and skillful opponent and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”

Categories: Landscape, Planning