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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Soft Infrastructure: Interview with Mario Gandelsonas

Last year for the USC School of Architecture’s journal IDNWS, I interviewed architect and urbanist Mario Gandelsonas who was on campus to give a lecture entitled ‘Soft Infrastructure.’  Gandelsonas is a professor at Princeton University (where I first met him when I was there as a graduate student). He is also a principal at the renown firm Agrest + Gandelsonas, Director of Princeton’s CAUI (Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure), and author of numerous books and articles on urbanism and theory.

I thought his ideas on the evolution of urban infrastructure were insightful and provocative, and also relatively optimistic in terms of the importance of public space in the new post-industrial, digital city (despite all forecasts to the contrary).

Penn Station: The 'hard infrastructure' of the industrial age had terminals at the beginnings and ends of routes dedicated to the movement of goods and peoples.

The new 'soft infrastructure' supports the production and dissemination of information. The mobile phone has turned us all into 'body-terminals.'

JD: Your recent work proposes that we need to rethink the idea of infrastructure, that ‘hard’ infrastructure is being replaced by ‘soft’ infrastructure? What is the difference?

MG: I call hard the infrastructure developed in the late 19th century and early twentieth century, on the basis of the technical advances of the industrial revolution. The late 20th century and early 21st. century softer technologies–of electronic information processing and of media and communication systems–are generating new possibilities of interaction and contact for the production, reception, and distribution of information. However, they do not constitute yet a soft infrastructure equivalent to the hard infrastructure of trains, cars and airplanes.

JD: What is the connection between modernist urbanism and hard infrastructure?

MG: Modernist urbanism was based pragmatically and symbolically on the machine which becomes a model for architecture and for the city.  There is a section of a New York street in Le Corbusier’s book “the city of the future” that describes the different underground infrastructural layers of the modernist city including water management, sewage, electricity and heating. With respect to mobility infrastructure the  modernist city created a condition of total fluidity for the car by “killing” the street produced by the historical city of fabric and replacing it with city of objects on a field.

JD: How is this emergent soft infrastructure replacing, subverting, or challenging our systems of hard infrastructure?

MG: I am not proposing that this soft infrastructure will just replace the existing hard infrastructure but that their interaction will modify, displace and in some instances render obsolete the 20th century hard infrastructure.

In fact, I am not interested in those infrastructures per se but in the “couplings” that are formed between hard and soft. i.e. in the sixties the coupling between the house and the tv or the coupling between the car and the radio.

JD: Do these ‘couplings’  undermine traditional notions of urban – and suburban-  experience?  The advent of soft infrastructures, say the radio, allowed us to extend our notion of the hard infrastructure, in this case the house, into cultural realms which weren’t inherently part of the domestic. Yet in this case the two parts of the coupling were still very much distinct and culturally legible.   Has the nature of these soft/hard infrastructural couplings changed with technologies beyond the TV and radio? 

MG: The opposition between urban and suburban has been undermined in the last 30 years by the development of the exurban city and now the monoculture of the car is being challenged by its incompatibility with the new media. Young people are not buying cars anymore in Europe and in Japan. Teenagers are not getting driving permits in the US: they rather get their parents to drive them so they can keep texting.

JD: What role does ‘traditional’ media and its terminals (radio, television) play in urban form?

MG: In fact we should use the past tense to refer to the “urban role” of the radio and the television because these two media have transformed, multiplying options and articulating new combinations with the internet– satellite radio, internet radio, internet tv, etc). The sixties and seventies the equation house/tv//car/radio provided an apparently stable opposition between the center city and the suburbs. With the arrival of the internet we have to talk about a fluid media environment that articulates multiple possibilities of combining radio/tv/internet. The effect is increasing demand of wireless public transportation environments and an increasing demand of indoor/outdoor public environments for “body terminals”.

JD: So if terminals of the modernist city were static, such as nodes of transport such as train stations, ports, the private garage, the terminals of ‘soft infrastructure?’ are inherently part of our body?

MG: Yes, as opposed to the twenty century terminals as fixed nodes in urban space, we carry the new devices with us and perhaps in the near future within us; we- each and every one of us-  are now the point of departure and arrival of information. I refer to “body terminals” to describe this condition.

JD: Has our notion of mobility therefore changed? Are the goals of speed and efficiency relevant still in the city?

MG: Mobility is not anymore linked to access the way it use to be, because the new telemediatization devices make contact possible without physical mobility. The cellphone and the internet have multiplied the possibilities of contact and one of the results is the increased mobility to provide the physical contact that complements the digital contact provided by the new media. Speed and efficiency are terms that describe only some of the possibilities and coexist with the desire of “lingering”, of slowing down, of “hanging out” and the need of urban spaces where these desires could be fulfilled.

JD: Is ‘telemediatization’ producing a sedentary life, as some critics predicted?

MG: Not at all. The research group at Pew Internet is constantly polling, describing and analyzing the effects of telemediatization and has been arriving to conclusions that contradict the common assumptions about them. Contrary to fears that email would reduce other forms of contact, there is “media multiplexity”: the more contact by email, the more in-person and phone contact. As a result, Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the internet. In person contact, implies displacement, and travel.  The new connectedness is increasing both the internet traffic and the real traffic, in particular because the new social networks include people who do not live nearby and therefore travel to connect.

JD: So can it be argued that telemediatization and the emergence of individual ‘body-terminals’ is creating new demands for public space?  If so, what kinds of public space and how do they differ from that of the modernist ‘machine-city?’  

MG: A multiplicity of publics spaces that result from “augmented” forms of public space, where the new soft infrastructure is overlaid to the old infrastructure. For instance publictransportation doubling as workspace or entertainment space. For the time being, there is no physical change or insignificant changes. However these augmented spaces represent a potential laboratory for the exploration of new configurations that result from the impact of the soft infrastructure on our design tools and fabrication processes.

Greenbelt Studies, Gandelsonas and CAUI