This is an extended transcript of the interview, in which the couple discuss their Pasadena-based practice,
Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule in the courtyard
of their Pasadena office, formerly the studio of Wallace Neff.
of their Pasadena office, formerly the studio of Wallace Neff.
On The New Urbanism
UglyAngel: Your involvement with New Urbanism is well known. How have you developed and deepened that involvement?
Stefanos Polyzoides: On top of the general theory of New Urbanism, which Liz and I are obviously very engaged with, we also recently wrote a series of guidelines for sustainable development and sustainable design: Canons of Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism.
So we’ve taken the subject of the New Urbanism one step further and tried to merge it, both in theory and in practice, with sustainability.
Elizabeth Moule: Inherent in the initial idea of the New Urbanism was a principle of sustainability: that we live in more compact places, and in doing so are able to preserve agricultural land and natural habitat; that we reduce automobile emissions by walking more, biking more, and using transit and, in so doing, address climate change.
When we were initially involved, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the particular environmental issues weren’t so present as they are today. But Stefanos and I were very early critics of suburban sprawl, because the metropolis was being taken very, very far out and we were bothered by taking out so much beautiful land. We were concerned that what we were building in its place wasn’t as good as what was being taken out.
We had nascent environmental goals then, and we were just as concerned with the kinds of social issues that suburban sprawl was inducing. We were certainly critics from an esthetic point of view, as well as from a larger lifestyle point of view. We objected to the point that it was a lifestyle that you had to have—that you didn’t have any choice, because that zoning rules were such that you couldn’t do anything else. As we were starting to practice, working in different parts of the country, we became deeply concerned about the issues of water, of habitat, of energy, of conservation.
Particularly on the architecture side we really ramped up on sustainability. We knew that what we were saying in the
UA: Is the New Urbanism communism or socialism, as conservative opponents would have us believe?
EM: We’ve gotten that for years. The New Urbanism is not communism; it’s not even socialism. It’s totally market-driven.
The thing is this: We’re not interested in making the same mistake that the rules for suburbia were all about, which is that it was mandated. What we’re trying to say is that there’s an alternative out there: people can get involved in making cities through an open, public process called the charrette. People can make decisions on their own about where they want to be, instead of a zoning approach imposed from above, with the same rules for the entire country. Nobody ever had a say in that.
What we’re saying is, in a democracy people can decide where they want to be, and here is an alternative. If people want an alternative that’s suburbia, someone else can design that for them—we’re not going to do it.
SP: It’s fundamentally about choice. It’s about an alternative to the half-regulated universe we have which produces crap. With some similar degree of regulation, or perhaps even less so, we can produce something halfway decent, the way we used to a hundred, 80 or 70 years ago, before suburban sprawl.
UA: The current political climate doesn’t seem too amenable to the New Urbanism.
EM: There’s a political structure in this country that has a particular point of view. But if you look at the geo-political story right now, the question about whether the United States can continue to rely on a source of oil in the Middle East becomes a question of whether this country’s security should really rely on that source of energy in a part of the world that’s very unstable.
The extent to which the rest of us can work on solutions that don’t rely so heavily on that source of energy is a very important thing. We’re not so much anti-petroleum as we are pro-walking, pro-solar, pro-other alternatives.
SP: The thing that’s very ironic is that all of these revolutions [Egypt, Libya, etc.] are happening in public space. So you have to ask the question, what kind of politics does an urbanism that destroys public space or does not produce public space generate? And the answer is self-evident: It’s a public space in which nobody gathers to do anything. As a society, we need to organize ourselves around certain kinds of places that, more than our guns, allow us to claim our rights peacefully.
UA: The Congress for the New Urbanism is worldwide movement now.
EM: There are chapters all over the world: Australia, Canada, Europe, South and Central America.
SP: Not Asia . . .
EM: Not yet! But we just hosted the head of design from China’s major university. It’s an international movement because a lot developing nations take their development ideas from the United States.
SP: When we started this practice in 1990, we tried to decide what we would call ourselves. I suggested “architects and urbanists” and Liz glazed over, because at the time the word had such little currency. Now, urbanism has become a given. Perhaps our greatest contribution is that the notion of urbanism—the idea that cities merit significant attention—has made it to the top of every agenda in this country: the academic agenda, the political agenda, the municipal agenda. The fight now is about how we do it, but the fact that we need to do it is absolutely without doubt.
On Their Projects
UA: What are some your current projects or recent projects you’re particularly proud of?
SP: Last year we finished a new main street for Lancaster in the form of a ramblas.
EM: Lancaster, in the exurbs, was a poster child for sprawl. But interestingly, they were able to put a very big pot together to create a new downtown, around a vibrant, 24-hour, mixed-use downtown.
Downtown Lancaster used to be highway strip. When people drive down the street at 60 miles an hour, they’re not stopping at retail stores. The ramblas adds a spectacular public space, with an allée of trees right down the center, and a place for public celebrations. We made a whole new civic space. And the interesting thing is, we didn’t go to them; they came to us and said “We have this problem.”
SP: It has to do with respecting people enough to give them something they can claim as their own and form their life around, whether it’s in their building, their block, or their whole community. There are real people, real economies, real lives, real jobs, and real aspirations in these kinds of places.
UA: Lancaster was featured prominently in Mike Davis’s book Dead Cities.
EM: I’ll have to call up Mike Davis and tell him it’s been brought back! (laughter)
SP: We’re doing a new downtown plan for Fresno, which has the greatest concentration of poverty in the United States. It’s a very tight-knit community, much maligned in the world but very admired by us as a client and as a place.
'We’re working on a campus building of some seriousness and depth at Scripps College. We’re also creating a new street between Claremont McKenna College and Scripps—taking a no man’s land a making a beautiful street out of it.
Abroad, we’re working on a small series of town in Panama as well as on a project in the Mauritius Islands in the Indian Ocean—a resort town and a number of hotels—and trying to persuade the Mauritians to develop a sustainability strategy for their island. This place, which is 27 hours by plane from Los Angeles, is as sprawled, as car-oriented, as mindless about development as the San Fernando Valley was 30 years ago.
SP: One project in Pasadena that we’re hugely proud of, which most people might not know about, is the North Fair Oaks affordable housing project [Fair Oaks Court] for Pasadena Heritage. It was not a particularly nice part of northwest Pasadena.
EM: We’ve woven the neighborhood back together. It’s a nice complement to the retail that was concluded at Fair Oaks and Orange Grove. It’s a project we’re particularly proud of because it’s affordable, lower middle market housing, and we’ve been committed to developing high-quality housing for every income bracket.
SP: It’s amazing accomplishment to build that of housing, with that kind of quality and that kind presence.
On Their Home: The Hale Solar Laboratory
UA: You live on the grounds of the Hale Solar Laboratory, near the Caltech campus. Tell me about how that happened.
EM: It’s a very interesting structure built for George Ellery Hale, an astronomer who was instrumental in the development of Caltech and who founded Mount Wilson Observatory. The building was designed by Johnson, Coate and Kaufmann.
Along with being a solar observatory, it also has an amazing library. We had our eye on that building for a long, long time; we said if it was the last thing we did, we were going to buy that building. It came up for sale and we were fortunate to be able to purchase it. It comes with a garden designed by Beatrix Ferrand.
The reason we were interested in it was, first of all, we loved the garden and building very much, and we would be able to house our architecture book collection in the library. We’ve also always been dilettante astronomers, and it’s located within walking distance to our kids’ school, to our office, and to shopping on Lake Avenue.
There’s currently a house on the property in which we live and to which we’ve done some work, but one of our long-term dreams is to build a house on that property.
UA: Is the observatory still functional?
SP: The observatory is perfectly usable. It’s an antique, but it’s a working observatory—one of the few solar observatories in the world.
EM: The building encapsulates that wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of George Ellery Hale [1868-1938], who was a real renaissance person. He was not only an astronomer; he also designed every piece of equipment in the laboratory and had it manufactured. He was involved in the arts. He was interested in history; the library has a lot of Egyptian pieces in it. Hale also sat on the board that selected the architect for the Pasadena Civic Center. He is the kind of figure that we want to live close to—the kind of person that ought to populate Pasadena today.
On Esthetics in Architecture
UA: Is there a social value to beautiful buildings?
SP: There’s an environmental value to beautiful buildings that is indisputable. An ugly building has a very limited life because it’s unloved by anybody but the person who made it. That person disappears from the scene, and the building becomes a candidate for demolition.
The fact is that we cannot afford any longer to be thinking of demolishing buildings. It takes energy to build a building, it takes energy to use a building, it takes an enormous amount of energy to destroy a building, and it takes even more energy to restart the cycle. We need to think about buildings being forever as we build them, or most of them in any case.
Beautiful buildings have the advantage of being claimed. Like children, they’re being claimed and they’re being loved and they’re being grown. They’re being endowed with energy and with care, and when places are meaningful to people, they end up being permanent. Liz and I have been arguing for years that the number one value of sustainability is not pinned to technology but to beauty and permanence. A Greek village or Italian village or Moroccan village has more value in terms of sustainability than a neutral, abstract, unclaimed modern something out there.
UA: Why is vernacular architecture in Greece or Italy more wholesome and rewarding than the kind of vernacular architecture we find today in the United States?
EM: It has a lot to do with the fact that those building are still made by hand, by individuals who care about craft. They’ve evolved out of societies that are not always wealthy; they do well with limited means, and they realize that when they put something in place it is going to be there for a long time, so they invest more in the initial capital of building something right the first time.
In the current financial structure for building housing, in the developer home-building paradigm, there’s a very limited amount of money devoted to design, maybe an even more limited amount of money dedicated to significant, real, deep, physical fabric. There’s a lot of money devoted to fighting cities and to the political process of getting the project entitled, which is really about shoving something down people’s throats. And there’s a lot of money given to financial entities, who stand to gain a lot from those projects.
The equation should be reversed.
UA: What you think of Rick Caruso’s developments, such as The Americana and The Grove?
SP: They’re too inward and too much like malls. They’re too controlled. They’re faux cities.
EM: What Caruso has done is to reposition a mall. The difference between a real city and a mall is who controls the public realm, and the public realm is really in private hands in those spaces. It’s not part of the city fabric; it’s not a real civic space because it’s not public, it’s private.
I have high hopes that we can make building fabric for housing that is just as durable and permanent and well-designed as a lot of other kinds of structures. The kind of housing that we’ve been trying to achieve is one where the buildings feel very substantial and part of an existing place. That’s a huge challenge, and I’m not sure Caruso has been very successful.
SP: The specification that [Caruso] is working with has to do with manipulating people’s feelings for retail income purposes, which is part of the aura of the mall syndrome. It’s all about manipulating every last piece of the design in a place, as opposed to letting it be more open.
On Living and Working in Pasadena
UA: Why Pasadena?
EM: We didn’t set up shop here to be Pasadena architects, as much as we love it. Obviously we like to make a positive contribution to the place we live in, but the gravitas of what needs to happen goes well beyond Pasadena.
We adore Pasadena. It’s a beautiful city. It’s a place where you can have a say in how your city is made and run. This is a place where you can have a voice. You can know your mayor and council people—you can make meaningful contribution.
SP: You cannot have urbanism in a place like Los Angeles, because it’s so far-flung and dysfunctional that you will never get planning department cooperation or executive decisions or community participation to make something like this happen.
We’ve been arguing for the longest time that Los Angeles ought to be de-organized on the basis of a borough system. It doesn’t have to break up, but it needs to be de-centralized meaningfully so that it functions meaningfully, like a Pasadena, like a Glendale, like a Riverside—like every other single municipality in Southern California that manages to find its own.
So coming to Pasadena was big for us; it’s the kind of place that could carry our ideas forth politically. And also, we felt that since there was such a huge number of architects on the West Side, all of them pursuing a view of this region that we disagreed with, it was much better for us to be working here where there is a history, a context, a meaning in the existing city.
The roots of the city are important, and we have to be working on those roots, both to preserve and extend them. Those other architects can live and practice where they want to, trying to discombobulate this place; we can live and work in a place that is solid and important, and we can point to it clearly out our windows—and where we can be seen as being the advocates of a rooted approach.
For 20 years as partners we’ve practiced in virtual quarantine and isolation. It’s wonderful feeling. Culturally, Los Angeles has been hijacked by forces—in the universities, in the press, and elsewhere—that argue that this is a rootless place: a place that has no past, no history, no quality of place, and that every architect’s work is construction from scratch. We discarded that view of the world decades ago, and the best place to practice the alternative in peace and quiet is right here.
We like our colleagues, even the ones we disagree with—we live in a very civilized world—but this the place to argue that there is an alternative Los Angeles, of a kind that most people, most citizens care about. Our greatest strength is not with the architectural elite, but with the people who actually live in this region.
UA: What would you like to see happen right here in Pasadena?
SP: We did the last master plan for the Pasadena Civic Center [in the mid-1990s] that generated the reconstruction of the mall. Unfortunately, there has not been an updating of this plan of any significant value, but it’s something that needs to happen.
The Civic Center plan for Pasadena, which is one of the most important plans in the country—a Beaux Arts plan drawn up by Edward Bennett in the mid-1920s—simply needs to be concluded. It should be revisited. There are sites across from City Hall that beg the question of whether the city of Pasadena should have a master plan that matters.
EM: We were very interested in re-opening closed streets.
SP: We’re hoping to take down the bridges, to turn the one-way streets into two-way streets, to put transit in the streets, to re-do the planting of the Civic Center, to infill all the sites that are undone—it’s a major undertaking. We proposed a plaza in front of City Hall that was never built. There were many beautiful things in that plan that were never realized. I don’t think it’s seen as a priority in Pasadena.
EM: A lot of the most recent growth in Pasadena has been private-sector growth. The city needs to work through how it configures its own public buildings and the public space, which could be done right away.
SP: It’s a very important question, and it’s a question that has no end. It can be taken up in 20 year, in 50 years, in 100 years, or tomorrow morning. But it does have to do with public initiative and caring.
About nine months ago I gave a lecture in conjunction with the Pasadena General Plan process, which was beginning then. People felt they were being barraged and offended by new buildings and by congestion. So I did something very unusual: I went to the GIS [Geographic Information Systems] archives of the city; I took out all the building permits and plotted out the entire city by date built, from 1870 to 2010. It was absolutely shocking: Ninety percent plus of the entire city of Pasadena was built between 1885 and 1930.
It must have been absolutely incredible to live in the city at that time and see it getting built; it must have been just one bloody building site. And these are the most beautiful and beloved parts of the city! Every beautiful street, every beautiful bungalow, every beautiful public building—all of them were done pre-1930.
Why did we have a vernacular architecture that mattered before 1930? It has to do with how money was being spent, how people valued their time, how people were prepared to act as professionals, what people were prepared to do on behalf of other human beings, now the human beings who lived in these placed made their wishes known as to how they wanted to live, and it goes on and on.
You put eight or ten of these factors together and you have the difference between a society that’s going off the deep end, and another one that was rooted and that cared about the way we live and cared about making its presence felt and permanent.
On Their Practice
UA: What do you consider your main mission?
SP: We have done our very best over the last 20 or 30 years—despite enormous odds—to try to regenerate this world. It’s a quixotic undertaking on a level that I find difficult to sit here and explain. It has to do with changing zoning codes, with changing administrative codes, with putting the public process at the heart of everything.
It has to do with changing the way developers behave by generating new models of building, by changing street standards and transportation standards and utility standards. All these things are underway. We attacked Fannie Mae and their cohorts in Washington because they were not allowing mixed use in their dealings, so we’ve been trying to change the investment rules.
It is an incredible undertaking, but at the end of it, our only hope to have a sustainable world is to be building traditional cities: cities where people can walk or can take transit, where people can have pleasure and instruct themselves on a daily basis about how to live more generously.
In ten years, the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] process, which is to some extent an admirable process, has certified only 800 or a thousand buildings. How can we possibly generate a sustainable world if we put our money on a system that certifies a thousand buildings a decade? It’s completely absurd! It’s the culture that needs to change, and the way in which architects relate to it and generate a built place of a completely different kind from what we’ve undertaken in the last generation.
UA: You both spend quite a bit of time lecturing.
EM: There’s a huge advocacy component to what we do, and we have to stay engaged in that.
SP: We’re in the process of publishing another book, The Plazas of New Mexico, which is really an urban history of New Mexico with an emphasis on its foundation towns. We’ve been working on it for 12 years. And we’re also working on a book called Courtyard Housing Today. We’ve done 26 courtyard projects in the last ten years, of which ten are built.
The reason we’re still afloat in today’s economy is because all the various dimensions of our practice are completely overlapped. Each of them informs every other. It’s an exhilarating way of running an architecture practice. The scope of work at this office keeps us awake at night.
Liz and I are completely engaged in the work from beginning to end. One day you’re thinking about the design of door handle and the next about a regional plan for the island of Mauritius. But it’s important for architects to have this kind of perspective: the very small picture, the middle picture, and the very big picture connect into one whole. We’re very privileged to have that kind of practice.
Many thanks to Stefanos and Liz for their generous interview.