NU Redux: Good, Better, Best
Editorsıs Note: The following was made from the authorıs
opening remarks at the first Council meeting.
New Urbanists want to leave the world better than they found it. Thatıs why
they insist on leaving their ivory towers and going out to engage the world.
Andres Duany points out that architects are often satisfied building
wonderful ivory towers flying beautiful banners, and refusing to muddy
themselves in sprawl and inner-city struggles outside their walls. But New
Urbanists, particularly the founders and staff of the CNU, have fought the
good fight instead.
So that today, less than ten years after the founding of the Congress for
the New Urbanism, the United States Department of Housing and Urban
Development tears down what Jane Jacobs called Urban Removal Projects and
replaces them with Traditional Neighborhood Developments. The governor who
heads the National Governors Association and the mayor who runs the U.S.
Conference of Mayors are New Urbanists.
And the magazine for the National Association of Homebuilders said five
years ago, in their section Whatıs Hot And Whatıs Not, "Say youıre
neo-traditional even if youıre not."
CNU member Harriett Tregoning founded and funded the Smart Growth movement
at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which later made
Atlanta the Smart Growth capital of America by taking away its highway
funding. CNU founder Peter Calthorpe forged alliances with environmental
groups like the Sierra Club, which today is one of the most effective
advocates of urbanism in the United States. These are successes very few
people would have predicted ten years ago.
Ironically, some of the biggest failures of the CNU come in the area where
it is supposed to be the strongest: in the making of beautiful places. The
CNUıs critics say thatıs all New Urbanists care about, but getting TNDs
built is a long and complicated process, with many compromises along the
way. Many CNU members are unhappy with the quality of the places that have
This reaction is both idealistic and pragmatic. New Urban designers
idealistically strive to make the best places we can (we are designers,
after all, because we respond to good design). And we realistically
acknowledge that the most important factor in public acceptance of New
Urbanism has been the successful completion of good models.
Last year, I made a short trip with Rob Steuteville, the editor of the New
Urban News. In the middle of visiting five New Urban projects in two days,
Rob suddenly said, "You know, sometimes visiting these projects really gets
depressing. When I started the New Urban News eight years ago, I thought
weıd be a lot farther along by now. But on a scale of one to ten, I canıt
give this project more than a three."
The next day we saw a town-center project under construction that Rob liked
a lot more: "Iıd give this a seven," he said.
"If this is a seven, the Campidoglio is a twenty-seven," I said.
"You canıt compare a New Urban commercial development to a Roman piazza!" he
said with exasperation.
But New Urbanists know how simple some of the most beautiful Italian piazzas
(or best New England villages) are, and how simple it should be to make
something as good.
There are many reasons why we have yet to equal the quality of a good
American small town or city street from a hundred years ago, and often the
least of those is design. One is our contemporary building culture, which
has very low standards and a great deal of confusion about what makes a good
place. Another is the mass of building and planning regulations, which apply
generic, auto-based suburban standards virtually everywhere in the country,
regardless of whether they are being used in an old downtown or the middle
of a forest.
Again, we have an ivory tower problem. At the first congress, Michael Dennis
advocated that New Urbanists build only in the city, leaving the suburbs,
and thereby 90% of everything built today, to others. But we will never
reform America if we refuse to leave our noble fortress, thinking that our
beautiful banners will be enough to make others forsake developing
How can New Urbanists work with Pulte Homes and Toll Brothers without giving
up the possibility of the best? To answer that, I would like to look at a
concept I learned in a different type of design, furniture design.
The concept is way of grading things qualitatively, as Good, Better or Best.
I first heard of Good, Better, Best when I owned a store called America's
Best Traditional Designers and Craftsmen. From my architecture practice, I
knew a number of craftsmen who made wonderful traditional furniture, windows
and paneling, and other types of cabinetry and woodwork. I also knew how
difficult it was to find these woodworkerswho usually worked out in the
country somewhereand how much more exposure greatly inferior craftsmen had.
So I started a store to sell their work.
Once I was selling eighteenth-century-style American furniture, I had to
learn more about it, and I learned all sorts of things I heard about in
architecture school. That included the secrets of traditional finishes, the
qualities of various woods, how traditional joinery differed from
contemporary practice, and a knowledge of how construction details varied
from region to region.
I went to museums and looked at the best American furniture collections,
which trained my eye to see subtleties I hadnıt noticed before then. And I
found lessons that applied to the design of architecture and urbanism.
The dimensions of the eighteenth-century chair embodied hundreds of years of
experimentation. By 1700, chair makers had discovered the proper angle for
the back, the perfect height for the seat, and the ideal depth for a cushion
which would support the leg without cutting off the flow of blood behind the
Chairmakers perfected the form for the comfort of the human body and then
used that form to make supremely beautiful art from functional objects.
Sheraton chairs, Chippendale chairs and Hepplewhite chairs all had the same
basic dimensions and yet they looked very different, because both their
forms and their elaboration were very different.
The chairmakers knew where to put their energies in making those
elaborations. All the best chairs had several carvers working on them: the
best carver would work on the top rail, the next best would work on the
carving around the seat, and the apprentices would carve the feet. Not
because the feet were less important than the top rails, but because they
were farther away from the eyes of the beholders.
In 1951, the leading dealer of eighteenth-century American furniture wrote
an interesting article for Antiques magazine in which he ranked many pieces
of antique American furniture as Good, Better or Best, and showed how to
make those judgements. He later turned that into a book of the same name,
which became one of the most influential books in the world of antiques.
The criteria for the judgements were simple: 1) design and proportion, 2)
construction and detail, and 3) materials and finishes.
There are some obvious comparisons with the Modernist principles of
architecture and urbanism which swept away traditional design. Even though
they invented "the science of Ergonomics," many of the Modernist designers
who made furniture only paid lip service to the functional paradigms for the
comfort of people sitting in their chairs.
The proof is in the pudding: in the name of functionalism, superstar
architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames designed
some of the most uncomfortable chairs in the history of the world. They were
less interested in comfort than the the expression of modern materials and
Van der Rohe wanted to perfect the assembly process of chairs made with
curved chromium tubing. Eames was fascinated by the manufacturing process
for bending a piece a piece plywood. Both wanted to tackle problems like
speeding up the mass assembly line, or how to make chairs that would stack
efficiently for storage. Each wanted to create an unprecedented form that
expressed their industrial age and individual creativity. That produced a
very different result than the traditional values of Good, Better, Best,
which judged objects not on the basis of their originality, but on the
execution and elaboration of ideas and forms that had been proven to work.
Enough looking at different examples of eighteenth-century chairs trains the
eye to see the differences and appreciate the distinctions that distinguish
one from another: one sees immediately that while one Chippendale chair
might have a pair of front legs with beautiful curves, another chair has
legs that by comparison are only good. Similarly, one chair might have a
beautifully carved top rail, but another might have even better carving. Put
that all together, and you have a list of objective criteria for judging
The same principles apply to architecture and urbanism. Traditional
buildings and streets are judged not on their originality, but on the
quality of their design and their execution of enduring principles distilled
over time. Twentieth century architecture and urbanism rejected timeless
principles of design for principles judged to be of the time. This was often
done by turning traditional principles on their head, to create what Machado
and Silvetti call "unprecedented reality."
The search for novelty made the criteria for judging architecture and
urbanism subjective, while the standards for judging traditional
architecture and urbanism are comparative and objective. For example, within
the various forms of Classicism -- Romantic Classicism, Palladianism, etc.
-- we can say which in each category are Good, Better or Best.
This has many useful benefits. One is that you can teach the principles for
making a good traditional building or street to anyone, so that the student
does not have to be especially talented to reach the level of Good. With the
looser standards of Modernism, only the most talented and inventive reach
the level of Good. The exception is in a Modernism based on well-defined
principles, as is taught at Cornell. But in this age of Eisenman and
Koolhaas, that is rare.
Another benefit is that when dealing with the contemporary building culture,
we can have different standards for different clients. Pulte Houses gets the
parti and materials that a budget for the Good level can support, while the
high-minded developer of the Windsor, an expensive Duany Plater-Zberk
designed TND-like resort in Florida, gets a code for the Best. Pulte might
be allowed to use the Windsor line (no relation) of wood substitute windows,
while Windsor can be held to the highest window standards, with only wood
A large obstacle to improving the buildings in New Urban developments has
been the cost of quality materials and supplies. Most of the projects canıt
afford the best supplies, and there is an enormous drop in quality from the
best to practically everything else.
When dealing with window manufacturing companies, we can have one set of
standards for the economy budget (Good), another for a better budget, and
third for the highest budget (Best). If we can pull some of the largest
manufacturers and builders up to the level of the Good, we will have
accomplished a lot. Trying to raise the level of design and construction of
the pseudo-traditional materials and supplies prevalent in the building
industry today is one of the primary missions of the Institute for
Implicit in Good, Better, Best is also a way to resolve Rob Steutevilleıs
problem: if we create a scale with Good assigned 1 to 10, Better 11 to 20,
and Best 21 to 30, we can grade the 27 piazza on the same scale as the 9 TOD
town center without disparaging the town center.
There are also less obvious implications. Comparing Seaside to Celebration
illustrates one of them. At Seaside, Duany Plater-Zyberk and Robert Davis
proposed a regional, construction-based vernacular, while Robert A.M. Stern
Architects, Cooper-Robertson & Partners and Urban Design Associates planned
Celebration to be built with a style book. Thus Seaside has blocks with
consistent building types such as Charleston houses facing each other across
the streets, while Celebration intentionally makes every block and facing
block have a mix of styles that are primarily confined to the massing and
the front façade.
This is partly, I think, because my old boss Bob Stern likes playing with
style, designing one house with five elevations, for example. And perhaps
partly because so much of Urban Design Associatesı work has been with
inner-city clients who can not afford traditional construction: their
traditional component is mainly in their urbanism and their facades.
But more importantly, Seaside was built by private owners and small
contractors, while Celebration was built by national "homebuilders." There
was plenty of money to be made at Celebration, but most of the builders did
not want to spend too much time thinking about their Product: a generic name
that accurately reflects the amount of design time spent on the individual
Achieving the streetscapes that were built at Celebration was an important
achievement. It was enough to say that inside the houses the homebuilders
would build a product their buyers would want.
Celebration raised the standard for large-scale development in Florida,
where there are only a few new projects that can be called Good. But if you
drive from Celebration to Miami, for every 100 places you see along the
waynew or oldCelebration is better than 99 of them. Thatıs something to be
This is probably the first time since CNU I in Alexandria that we will spend
so much time talking about design. Everyone who was there knows that was a
very special event: you looked around the room and thought how lucky you
were to be at the start of something like the CNU. We talked a lot about
design, but the unspoken sentiment below the surface was how we would use
design to change the world.
I also remember CNU IV, here in Charleston. Mark Schimmenti said, "This is
the best. All this great discussion and then you step outside and youıre in
Charleston." I think weıll have just as good a time this weekend. On with
the show. Thank you for coming.
John Massengale is an architect and urbanist in New York, and the Director
of the New School for Traditional Architecture and Urbanism (TAU) in
Charleston, South Carolina. Co-author, with Robert A.M. Stern, The
Anglo-American Suburb and New York 1900, Metropolitan Architecture and
Urbanism 1890-1915, he has a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced
Studies in the Visual Arts to write Do the Right Thing, Notes from a