Paradise Planned: A Review

forest hills aerial

Forest Hills, New York

paradise-plannedThe new book, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove cannot be taken lightly in any way.  Weighing in at 1,003 pages, with over 3,000 illustrations, it is a largely successful and inspiring attempt of an encyclopedic history of the “garden city.”

The idea of the garden city can mostly be credited to Ebenezer Howard, who popularized the concept as a means of confronting the new deleterious urban realities of late 19th century industrial England- overcrowding, pollution, disease, and relentless, expediently developed tenements that gave the workers little access to nature or civic space.

Howard is certainly given his due in the book, as well as the most prolific and persuasive of his follower, Raymond Unwin (Hampstead, Letchworth, etc.) . But the authors set the stage for the garden city movement first in the origins of the suburb, in particular Regent’s Development in London (1811-1832), and in cross-Atlantic incarnations like Llewelln Park in New Jersey (1853) or Olmstead’s Riverside (1869).

Olmstead's Plan of Riverside

Olmstead’s Plan of Riverside, 1869

Alexander Jackson Davis' Llewelyn Park, New Jersey (1857)

Alexander Jackson Davis’ Llewelyn Park, New Jersey (1857)















The idea of the garden city in its most didactic and popular form really begins with Howard and his book Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1898).  Whereas much of the history of suburbia, particularly the American incarnation, was based on a retreat from the city, and a conservative and moralistic view of domesticity, Howard’s intention was to combine the best of the city with the best of country.

Partial Plan Diagram  of Howard's Garden City showing zoning relationships of uses.

Partial Plan Diagram of Howard’s Garden City showing zoning relationships of uses.

Raymond Unwin was the most persuasive and influential designer of garden cities, in particular Hampstead and Letchworth. This history is well known and documented; Unwin’s garden cities have probably been more influential on contemporaneous urban planners than any other planner/architect.  As expected, there are numerous pages devoted to Unwin’s garden city projects.

plan hampstead

Plan of Hampstead, by Raymond Unwin, 1907

Study of Hampstead street by Unwin showing variations of building groupings and placement

Study of Hampstead street by Unwin showing variations of building groupings and placement

Examples of different effects from variations in building groupings and placement by Unwin at Hampstead

Examples of different effects from variations in building groupings and placement by Unwin at Hampstead

But what is exciting in Paradise Planned is the sheer quantity of projects included, many quite obscure.  These projects,  presented in drawings, plans, and photographs, span the globe, categorized by place, scale, and chronology. This has the effect of showing the disseminating power of these ideas, instead of the typical presentation of a handful of distilled precedents. Paradise Planned moves beyond the prototypes to create a rich survey of towns, suburbs, and what might be called ‘infill developments’ today.

With over 3,000 illustrations, the variety of design applications of the garden city idea can be understood in all its subtleties and variations.  From such a vast survey, one can understand the different ways these ideas can be embodied, and for different purposes.

Venice, Florida plan by John Nolen

Venice, Florida plan by John Nolen

Cite Industrielle by Tony Garnier

Cite Industrielle by Tony Garnier

Alfredshof, by Robert Schmohl, Essen, Germany, 1893

Alfredshof, by Robert Schmohl, Essen, Germany, 1893. This was typical of much of the German plans using perimeter block buildings to both define streets as well as inner courtyards. In this case there were grand picturesque axes which punctured the blocks, tying them together at a larger scale.


Paradise Planned shows different applications of these garden city ideals.  For example, there is a chapter on Company Town, a chapter on Garden Cities, on Garden Suburbs, on projects in Europe, the Americas, and on “the rest of the world”.  While some of these projects could only loosely be identified as garden cities in the strictest sense, they all share an attempt to balance the built environment with nature, a systematic and carefully designed way of distributing mostly mutlti-family housing throughout a development, a respect for the street, the framing of public open spaces, the understanding of the urban block and its potential, an appreciation of the multiple housing typologies, and the belief that these places need to serve communities and support cultural, commercial, and civic needs.

Het-Gooi, by S.R. DeMiranda; Netherlands, 1929

Het-Gooi, by S.R. DeMiranda; Netherlands, 1929. The circular plan with it’s absolute geometry is indicative of many of the utopian plans that inspired garden cities.

Leobschutz, by Ernst May,1923

Leobschutz, by Ernst May, 1923. This urban plan of a siedlung is markedly different than the more abstract, rational, systemized zellenbau housing of May in later years.

Cite Jardin de Drancy, France, by Bassompierre-Sewrin and de Rutté, 1921-31. Detail of street; only thee standardized house types were used, and grouped together in as many as rows of six.

Cite Jardin de Drancy, France, by Bassompierre-Sewrin and de Rutté, 1921-31. Detail of street; only thee standardized house types were used, and grouped together in as many as rows of six.

The examples in Paradise Planned have served to inspire some recent urban planners and architects (most notably New Urbanists), but perhaps, and this is something I fervently believe, they can inspire a more contemporary adaptation of these principles.  The post-war paradigm has created an onslaught of suburban sprawl and low-density, energy-dependent development in the age of dwindling natural resources and climate change. This situation is at least as precarious a way of living as that of the industrial cities Howard and Unwin inveighed against. This book will hopefully inspire architects and planners to think in a balanced and progressive way how to tackle these formidable issues.  The numerous precedents in Paradise Planned are invaluable to study, and for this reason should be on every architect’s bookshelf.


Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove (Monacelli Press: 2013)



The Plazas of New Mexico


An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides 

click above for book website

The Plazas of New Mexico, recently published by Trinity University Press, seems to be that rarity in architectural and urban research today: a panoramic study that looks at a well-defined subject in multiple ways. Such a wide exploration of a narrow subject contrasts to much contemporary urban academic discourse, which produces theoretically narrow readings of wide, heterogeneous trends and global phenomena.  The book looks at the form and cultural significance of plazas in New Mexico, one of the most important elements of American southwest urbansim. These plazas have evolved over time, and such evolution is an inherent part of this study. In this study, urban artifacts are alive and evolving, and assume different cultural significances at different points in history.  The book profiles twenty-two plaza-based communities in their own chapters, and covers about seventy in total. It is lushly illustrated and contains new photographs by Miguel Gandert specifically commissioned for this study.

Plazas is a collaboration between Stefanos Polyzoides, Chris Wilson, and Miguel Gandert. Polyzoides, partner of Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, is a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the author of numerous books and articles including Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, a groundbreaking study of this architectural type. Chris Wilson is the J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies, and the Director of the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program at the University of New Mexico.  Miguel Gandert is a nationally recognized photographer whose work focuses on the culture and people of New Mexico and has appeared in numerous exhibitions and books.  He is a Professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico.

I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Stefanos Polyzoides to talk to him about this book and some of its implications for today’s architects and urban designers.

JOHN DUTTON:            I just received a copy of this very impressive new book of yours: The Plazas of New Mexico by you and Chris Wilson, with original photography by Miguel Gandert.  It’s certainly a larger book than your Courtyards of Los Angeles, one of the best typological studies I know of. Can your talk a little about your approach and the book’s organization?

STEFANOS POLYZOIDES:            There are various ways of engaging in documentation, all of which begin of course with observation.  One is by observing and writing; another is by observing and photographing; another yet, is by observing and drawing.

We were fortunate to have a historical record of some existing drawings and plans; writings by Bainbridge Bunting, J.B. Jackson and others; and a rich collection of mostly twentieth century photographs, by some of the most prominent photographers of the Southwest. Considering the vastness of the subject matter- the urban history of an entire state of the United States- it became clear from the book’s inception eleven years ago, that all of these techniques had to be used if this were to become a powerful document, distinguished by its scholarship, by the artfulness of its drawings and by the depth of its photography.

JD:            There are three parts to the book: History, Cultural Narratives and Place-making.  Were these seen as specifically germane for your study of New Mexican plazas, or do you see these as applicable in general to the study of architecture?

SP:            They are all relevant dimensions of the study of architecture and urbanism.  History is essential because it reveals the structure of time and place.  Cultural narrative is also important because it connects the design of buildings and public space to the needs and emotions of specific people living in specific places.  Place- making is about the instrumentality of received ideas and their translation through theory into new projects.

There is also a fourth crucial component of the book: Case Studies of some thirty key plazas.  Here, theory, history and place- making are brought together in the interest of understanding how to incrementally produce plazas unique to their city or town context. This is in sharp contrast to one of the more disturbing aspects of current architectural culture, producing buildings and places that are frozen in form, beyond further evolution.

Sectional Geometries

Plan Geometries

The plazas of New Mexico, as well as their architecture, are not closed compositions. Every plaza is actually a piece of a bigger process, an element of the construction of the city and the management of nature over time. How a building or place evolves is as important as what it is at the moment of its construction.

JD:            In looking through the book, it’s amazing to see the great diversity of plazas, as well as some often radical changes in their form over time. So can it be said that the type itself isn’t necessarily normative or fixed in any way but varies according to ritual, culture, place, climate, size of city perhaps?

SP:            The fact that these plazas have prospered in New Mexico beginning a thousand years ago, speaks to a number of things: To the enduring power of their imagery as the spiritual and public face of their communities.  To their serving as the central gathering places for their citizens in times of celebration or of trial.  To their climate-modifying design in a desolate border region where living has always been difficult.  It is notable that plazas were inserted at the heart of all New Mexico settlements, independent of who the settlers or their cultures were. The plaza form is simply being repeated and elaborated to our day.

JD:            How original are these particular plazas- are they a uniquely American, or a Southwestern, phenomenon?

SP:            Public space in the form of squares and plazas has been part of the design of towns and cities within all prominent American urban traditions, as well as English, French, German and Spanish.  What is unusual about the plazas of New Mexico is that they are first born out of the Native American imagination and its religious strivings.

Then, there has been speculation in recent scholarship that the invention of Hispanic public space in the Southwest of the US through the Laws of the Indies was not only the brutal cultural imposition of a foreign building model onto the native people of pre- colonial North America, but also in part, an adaptation to their space norms.

So, it may well be that the unique dimension of the first two phases of the urbanism of New Mexico is that it is an accommodation between European and Native American ideas.  This assimilation of design ideals persists through the design of Anglo American railroad towns in the 19th century.  An instrument of internal, American colonization through massive migration and real estate sales to be sure, but also patterned according to the fusion of indigenous and imperial design traditions that preceded it.

Hispano Plazas

Pueblo Plazas

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