An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides
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.
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.
JD: That’s right- you discuss in your essay three general types of plazas: the original, historic plazas of the indigenous people; the plazas built or “imposed” by the Spanish colonists according to their Laws of the Indies; and then the railroad plazas developed mainly by speculators and railroad companies as they expanded west.
SP: Well, certainly, these are the three traditions in New Mexico and the book illustrates them in photographs, drawings and writings. What is beautiful about all these plazas is that each one of them has its own unique urbanism, its own architecture, and its own ritual dimensions. Yet all three traditions have coexisted in the same natural and social context for a very long time.
JD: And I would assume you would be able to approach the study of plazas in other parts of the world in a similar way, according to their particular political and cultural context? It seems that these public spaces inevitably reflect celebrations or tensions in democratic or political control, that there are often challenges to the way daily rituals are staged or allowed. Of course one can’t help but think of Tiennamen Square, or Tahir Square in Cairo recently.
SP: On September 11, 2001, following upon the terrible news from New York, the people of Santa Fe gathered in their plaza to demonstrate their grief through a candlelight procession.
In America as in the rest of the world, the public space of free association in plazas, squares and greens is synonymous with democracy and represents the very idea of a community of shared interests. The Santa Fe plaza is the locus of political and social action for a city of 68,000 people.
The powerful thing about the book is that its authors found a way to channel writing toward history and theory, drawing toward the physical description of plazas, and directed photography to describing the patterns by which citizens occupy a free urban space. The brilliant photography of Miguel Gandert confirms the social and cultural prominence of the plazas of New Mexico, by introducing people in his frames either as casual everyday users or participants in seasonal civic and religious rituals. His images confirm the singular importance of these places to the culture of this part of our country.
JD: Which is so powerful and colorful in New Mexico, of course, with the indigenous people actively dancing in these spaces- almost exotic, really, to most non-southwestern US residents. But daily rituals could be much more pedestrian or familiar, of course, as varied as they might be. I would assume you could apply the same process of documenting rituals in almost any type of square around the world whether New York City business people having lunch in pocket parks or…
SP: Well, one of the fundamental reasons for undertaking the writing of such a book with Chris Wilson is that I fault modernism as a movement for being normative, for designing new buildings and places in a vacuum, fit to be placed anywhere and nowhere, without a clear understanding of the signature of the place being affected. The signatures of such new buildings end up consistently destroying the signatures of existing places.
In New Mexico, one of the largest and most under populous states of our Union, Native Americans seasonally engage in ritual dancing in their central places. In Santa Fe, Las Vegas and or in the large railroad towns of Eastern New Mexico, people celebrate the Fourth of July by gathering in their square. Similarly, Times Square in New York City, the Place des Vosges in Paris, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, the Zocalo in Mexico City, all possess a physical architectural form, a spatial form, a ritual and daily social form that are unique and as varied one from the other as life is.
So the task of architecture and urbanism should not be to dismiss admiration for these places as nostalgia and to relegate them to the trash bin of history, but to see them as active canvases, as places to be incrementally completed over time, and as places that will provide the inspiration for the design of the next great public place. It is idiotic for current architects to be admiring (and visiting) great public spaces in the world, but to have abandoned them as design precedents, and their propagation as a design imperative.
JD: You said that these plazas were the centers of commonality and community. In today’s digital age of the Internet and Facebook and so forth, do you feel that these public spaces around the world are as significant or as relevant? Or are they heading for extinction and need to be revised?
SP: What has happened to the idea of public space over the last generation? What forces in life, in the economy, or in culture have challenged it and what have supported it?
On the one hand, the car has had a very negative effect on public space. Megablocks and residual, left over spaces after roadway design have been the order of modernist place making since the publication of the Ville Radieuse by Le Corbusier in 1932. The noise, fumes, and physical speed of cars are also antithetical to the experience of a compressed and formed public space.
On the other hand, electronic media have had exactly the opposite effect. Working in front of a computer for hours is so experientially confining, that if human beings didn’t have access to public space they would probably become insane! Also, electronic media, through streams of place-specific information, can enable people to decipher and use public places, to experience them and to enjoy them in unprecedented depth. So I find current culture and the idea of public space very compatible.
JD: You may be aware of this, but research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has come to the conclusion that, despite all forecasts to the contrary, there is actually a renewed desire for public space today, that this new generation of young people using mobile devices and connecting digitally to social networks actually use more public transportation, and demand more community, public places like parks, cafes, and libraries.
SP: Perhaps this is at the heart of the idea of Urbanism Anew, a judicious return to designing through the millennial lessons of urbanism.
For a city to have a future, it has to have a past. A single human being or an institution cannot reinvent a city in all its complexity. The city is a phenomenon of extraordinary size and structure that is beyond any one person’s control. Individual minds can control significant pieces of architecture. But it’s insanity to think that cities can be reinvented in one lifetime based on architectural methods and visions alone. It is, therefore, important to know your city. To know what it has been for and about, how other generations have used it. Being aware that it represents a significant bequest to all its citizens, and an invitation to be its stewards and to enhance it with their contributions, is a really profound compact among human generations, the very basis of the idea of sustainability.
In order to use a piece of machinery you need instructions. Cities come without instructions so they need interpretation. Books like ‘The Plazas of New Mexico’ are intended to inform us on the constituent parts of Southwestern US cities, and how they can be combined to produce a mixed use, high intensity, walkable urbanity of the highest order. I don’t think this book is a call to repeat the urban forms of the past. It is about getting to new projects, designing typologically. It is about understanding the genetic structure of cities and producing designs that extend their inherent order.
JD: It’s also a book which acknowledges that these types throughout history have been built in all kinds of cultures and all eras, that they sometimes transcend specific cultures, and that still have relevance today. Typology is something that Europeans have understood better than Americans certainly. European cities are often composed of similar building types along a street but with a variety styles. It’s the typological consistency that creates urban harmony, and the sum of typological variety which makes any urban place unique. Analyzing type throughout history certainly seems to be the way you have consistently looked at cities, beginning with your Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles book almost thirty years ago. Clearly there is a lot more to uncover in terms of urban types, and a lot that architects and urban designers can learn from this study.
SP: This is an argument for a design position that I may call ‘Open ended continuity’. In our time, architects/ urbanists can either be stylists or typologists. I don’t think there’s any other role open to us. If a designer can discern the differences among the immense formal variety of places in the natural and built world, then they may be fit to operate on them. If on the other hand, they can only produce self-centered projects and normative metropolitan forms, then they are by definition fashion-obsessed stylists. There’s no other professional position between those two.
The ideology of ‘Open-ended continuity’ depends on multitudes of interpretive documents like ‘The Plazas of New Mexico. In the hands of typologists these books are meant to be transformational. But in the hands of stylists, they are merely charming, if not useless, coffee table books.