Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk on Seaside, Miami, and Making Tall Buildings Good Neighbors
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is the co-founder of DPZ Partners, a leading architecture and urbanism office based in Miami. One of the founding members of the Congress for New Urbanism, she holds the Malcolm Matheson Distinguished Professorship in Architecture and serves as Director of the Master of Urban Design Program at the University of Miami. Previously, Plater-Zyberk served as Dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture and held visiting professorships at the Yale School of Architecture. In addition to writing numerous articles and essays, Plater-Zyberk co-authored Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream and The New Civic Art: Elements of Town Planning. This interview originally appeared in the architectural circular, pulp.
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CK: Charles Kane
EPZ: Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
It has been 22 years since the Charter of New Urbanism was signed in Charleston, and 25 years since the founding of the Congress for New Urbanism. A quarter century in, how is it going?
The New Urbanists have had a strong influence on urban development. There are many wonderful new and rebuilt communities that are direct results of applying the principles of New Urbanism. Many municipalities now promote Transit Oriented Developments. While automobile-oriented development also continues, examples of New Urbanist solutions have proliferated and they offer solutions in new communities, revitalized downtown neighborhoods and retrofitted suburban malls. These will always stand as examples for future development much like the Progressive Era new towns served as models for us.
Let’s go back to your arrival to Miami and how you transitioned from Arquitectonica to DPZ. What caused the shift between the two firms and why was a new firm a solution instead of changing the focus of Arquitectonica?
We were all in Miami in the mid-70s escaping the oil recession of that time, which hit the building development industry intensely. Miami was just beginning to establish economic connections with Latin America, and we actually thought we’d be on our way to Latin America.
Miami was meant to be a stopping off point.
Yes. Our first project—published by Bob Stern in 40 Under 40—was a building in Quito, but then we started getting work in Miami. We stayed here developing work and teaching at the University of Miami. Andrés and I wanted to keep up research and teaching; Bernardo and Laurinda wanted to build the business. We were looking at two different working methods, so we agreed to separate in 1980. We began our practice with small scale suburban housing—the first, a subdivision called Charleston Place, was a big hit. Seaside followed, a truly exploratory project. These early projects laid a foundation that served us well.
In those early years, at the genesis of New Urbanism, what people and places influenced your thinking?
Very important was the understanding that the United States has an honorable history of urban settlement. Historian Vincent Scully called that to our attention in his courses at Yale and in his writings. Civic Art by Hegemann and Peets, and The Anglo-American Suburb that John Massengale and Robert Stern put together in 1980 for an issue of AD was also a direct influence, gathering the early 20th century models that we could visit and hope to emulate. (Stern recently expanded this monograph into the larger publication, Paradise Planned.) Also, the drawings, writings, and lectures of Leon Krier and his brother, Rob Krier, showed that other parts of the world were dealing with similar concerns.
Leon Krier defines human scale as whatever can be traversed comfortably on a daily basis: horizontally and vertically. He goes on to state that skyscrapers should be forbidden. What are your thoughts on the skyscraper?
While I am sympathetic with the desire to keep skyscrapers out of communities, there are many parts of the world where the skyscraper is already established. It’s hard to say they should not exist. I have been involved in writing zoning codes that try to make them better citizens, for which there are some important refinements.
They should always be part of a transit-rich, walkable urbanism as the traffic they can generate is otherwise unmanageable. And they need expensive and continuous management to be successful—that may be difficult for residents of modest means. The long-term sustainability of the high-rise remains a question, given the type’s dependence on energy and technology.
How does code work to make skyscrapers better citizens?
Zoning codes can address how the building meets the street, the uses facing the sidewalk, how you enter the building, and generally how it provides a face to the public realm. If there is a garage, it should not be the primary interface between the pedestrian and the building. A liner of housing, offices or retail concealing the garage is absolutely necessary. The existence of a front door so you can walk in off the sidewalk rather than scurry in through the parking garage is essential. Does it seem unnecessary to require something like this? You’d be surprised!
Yes. Too often. So there are a lot of misconceptions, especially in the architecture community about the meaning of New Urbanism. Some people understand it simply as historicist architecture or perhaps a Texas Doughnut [a parking garage wrapped in apartments and shops]. Which is the biggest misconception in your mind in regards to the uninformed architect or larger public?
There are two. One is that New Urbanism is limited to traditional architecture. Many examples of New Urbanism use contemporary architecture. The other is that it is expensive and not intended for those of modest means. This may have begun with Seaside’s establishment of a rental program. The early houses were of modest scale, but, responding to the rental market, the later ones grew to be much larger and more expensive. Throughout the country, much of the New Urbanist work is both affordable and beautiful, including many projects realized through HOPE VI—the HUD program that rebuilt public housing as mixed-income communities, using New Urbanist principles.
Indeed, New Urbanist communities are more efficient. Because residents can walk to school, work, and transit, they can spend less on a car and live more affordably. The annual cost of owning an automobile can be a mortgage down payment!
There has been a widening division between architecture and urbanism, both in academia and in the profession. New Urbanists have expressed skepticism in architecture schools’ ability to train urban thinkers. Some have suggested the creation of schools for New Urbanism. Why do you think this skepticism exists?
A number of New Urbanists feel some discouragement about the state of architecture today. The innovation that each building seems to require and the individual brand of the architect sometimes appears to be more important than the shared design responsibility of making a great place. Those who say the schools are at fault are referring to that outcome. In academia, there is a great deal of emphasis on the individual and the originality of the individual’s work. This comes from the way research takes place in architecture schools—it’s highly individualized. It is not the teamwork of science research which is enabled by the large funding sources of government and corporations. Urban design and promoting concern for the city as a whole requires a different approach than that needed to produce the individual building. Some of the tension that is implied in your question is inevitable.
Absolutely, inevitable. You served as dean from 1995 to 2013. While you were dean, what was your vision for the school’s pedagogy?
A number of years before I was dean, a relatively young faculty came together to shape what was then a new school. We asked, “What can we hope to accomplish with minimal history and resources?” We emerged with an understanding that each one of us had unique interests and strengths, but the city could be a unifying matrix for all of our individual work. Whatever differences we had in terms of priorities or ideology would be unified through the aggregation of our work for the good of the community, and we maintained that focus through my deanship.
Where do you think UM is headed, currently?
I’m happy to say that it continues under the current leadership of Dean Rodolphe el-Khoury. He has brought new components to that but the unifying vision remains.
What schools do you believe try to reduce the divide between architecture and urbanism?
I think a lot of schools try to do it.
I should say, do it well.
Setting out to give you a list, I realized I have too many colleagues in schools throughout the country who share a unified vision to call out any few! But the best schools encourage students expand their perspective—to take a real estate course, a planning course, and an architecture studio where all these disciplines work together. While the priority given to the individual building makes it difficult, I must add that the individual building is an important educational focus.
The practicing architect needs depth as well as breadth in education, a certain degree of specialization, because it’s a complex endeavor to put a building together, and you can’t be only a generalist to do it. The best urbanists are generalists who have expertise and depth in their original discipline—architecture, law, planning, traffic engineering, and so on.
Miami21, a form-based zoning code, is now almost eight years old. What were the biggest challenges in getting it implemented?
The challenges were mostly political. This was an enormous undertaking from a political perspective. Prior to Miami21 all of our codes were optional: their use was incentivized within a conventional zoning code structure. No municipality had quite said we’re throwing out the old and starting over. But that is what Mayor Manny Diaz in fact did. He was an ambitious mayor. From his perspective, at the beginning of the 21st century, the city was booming but did not have the correct guiding structure for growing into a successful dense city. The old code was suburban in intent: deep setbacks, big parking requirements, separated uses, emphasizing quantity over quality. He understood that it was not producing a satisfactory public realm.
Miami 21’s intent is to encourage building development that produces a high quality public realm—to make streets and places that pedestrians experience as safe, comfortable, and interesting. The city was already zoned for density from the 1980s in a kind of wishful thinking about the future, but it started to grow rapidly around 2000. In the high density areas our code asks all the buildings to line up, to hide the parking garage behind habitable liners, to be careful about the location of entries to parking garages and loading docks. That is the development part of a regulatory framework whose goals are ‘conservation and development.’
The conservation component is intended to preserve the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown and promote preservation of historic and cultural resources. For the latter we introduced transfer development rights, which hadn’t existed before. During the public process we often said that writing a new code was like sending an adolescent to finishing school: there was a lot of history and evolution embedded in the structure of the city that needed to be incorporated, and while the vested rights of certain densities might not change, the public face of development would be improved. The two come together in the interface of commercial corridors with residential neighborhoods, where transitions in height and density limit growth.
Have you noticed any shifts in development pattern so far?
There are already visible differences. In the high density areas, we essentially eliminated exposed parking garages. They all have liners. Now you see the habitable faces of buildings on important streets and there is more consideration of the street frontage of buildings. In lower density areas, along old commercial corridors, drugstores and banks that used to be built behind a sea of parking, now are built up to the street with sidewalk entries and the parking concealed behind. These are visible changes.
Miami21 was the largest New Urbanist zoning code to date. Has there been any interest from other cities to follow suit?
Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Boston and a number of major cities around the country have gone in this direction–sometimes creating hybrid codes. Dan Parolek, who wrote the book, Form Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities, and Developers, for which I wrote an introduction, has worked on some of them. Placemakers is a firm that has done a lot of form-based codes throughout the country, and keeps track of all the new codes. I am working on one now in Lower Merion Township outside of Philadelphia. Most American cities had form-based codes at the outset of urban regulation in the early part of the 20th century. Some never gave them up, like New York City. Let’s not forget that today’s form-based codes owe a debt to the initiators of our time—Seaside and Cooper Eckstut’s Battery Park City
One last, more specific, question about Seaside: I want to talk a little bit about the formal quality of that main horseshoe shaped public plaza that opens to the water. What were your references or guides? Formally, I’m reminded of the Royal Crescent in Bath and the arc of buildings unfurl to a naturalized landscape.
In our early years, we picked up an extensive knowledge of public spaces from around the world. Ruskin Square, the small green at Seaside, with three-story townhouses with balconies above, was a very clear reference to Jackson Square in New Orleans. The eight building types in the project were traditional American types. Those references we knew from our days in New Haven with Vincent Scully, and from getting to know early Florida settlements. The square evolved from its central location, pinned to an existing dune cut to the beach at the intersection of the radiating streets of the town plan. Its width was related to the intended four-story height of its surrounding buildings, and all was determined on site visually, using poles and flags to test the layout.
Featured image: plan for Seaside, courtesy of DPZ.