The Nature of Urban Design is the product of a mind that can work on many intellectual levels and emotional constructs. This book, by Alexandros Washburn, Assoc. AIA, former chief urban designer for the NYC Department of City Planning, is many books: a precisionist explanation of the premise of urban design; a concise map of the historic conditions of New York City’s urban construct; and a personal journey through Hurricane Sandy. Through it, we get a glimpse of the urbanist as poet. One gets the sense that the book is not quite finished, which is refreshing and true to Washburn’s ethos of an artist’s fluidity influencing space rather than exerting control over the city.
At the 01.13.14 Oculus Book Talk, Washburn explained that writing the book was difficult, but he likened it to a survival tactic. He needed to have a framework to present the value of urban design and civil virtue to the city’s stakeholders. The genesis of his commitment to urban design is his relationship with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Washburn tells the story of his internship with Moynihan, and praised the senator’s belief in the value of public space, in particular in New York City. His description of his relationship to Moynihan is notable and tender.
Washburn proposes two frameworks to move the many dialogues forward. He presents his first holy trinity or “three bosses”: Robert Moses, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Jane Jacobs. His next muse is the idea that finance, politics, and design, this life-lesson passed down from Moynihan, enables Washburn to discuss the potential of the three entities throughout the book. He is truthful about how these three forces work together; the text is peppered with phrases like urban design “influences everything, controls nothing.”
Washburn’s big thesis in The Nature of Urban Design is a bit latent, but he does frame the idea that nature and cities are no longer in opposition. The imperative condition of resiliency is based in this idea. His pantheon of exemplary projects – such as the Singapore Marina Barrage, the High Line, and the Seoul Cheonggyecheon River project – illustrate this. The visuals and case studies offer a clear and dynamic path to manifest these types of projects with a creative flare that he advocates throughout.
There are two surprises in the book. First, Washburn comes off as a bit soft on the suburbs. He states that the reality of New York City is a myriad of densities that are all working and, frankly, the American people want choice. Next is a description of what he terms “Freeboarding”, or raising habitable space off the ground plane in flood-prone areas. He maintains that raising the entrances of shops and houses would make for a boring streetscape. I found this stance confusing and think that the New Orleans garden forecourt and the Brooklyn brownstone are examples of the streetscape being more than a ground floor.
Washburn draws. We see glimpses of his beautiful hand and dense visual world throughout the book. I want more of this. I want to see how these ideas unfolded throughout the Bloomberg Administration and maintained a visual narrative. Drawing is how New York City, for Washburn’s tenure, was discussed. Drawing is a tool for research. It illustrates his democratic ideal of the pedestrian at the center of urban design. He has measured the streets of New York. I wish the book had stood more steadfastly behind the alchemy of drawing.
In the end, the entire book is about alchemy. And in an age and condition when budgets and spreadsheets are the main communicators in the urban mechanism, I am happy that Washburn has not tied this epic organism called the city into a tidy bow.
Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Event: Oculus Book Talk: Alexandros Washburn, The Nature of Urban Design
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.13.14
Speakers: Alexandros Washburn, Assoc. AIA, Former Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning; and Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, AIANY 2014 President
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee