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Breadth and Depth

A Connecticut firm specializes in residential design and New Urbanist planning. By Dan Cooper

While most architects are notable for their accomplishments in a specific area of expertise, few possess the range of experience of Robert Orr, principal of Robert Orr & Associates in New Haven, CT. Present at the birth of New Urbanism and the revival of Classicism, and the historicism that followed, Orr and his firm have made their mark in each of these areas. His career, which spans 37 years, includes single- and multi-family residences of distinct styles, as well as grand projects, some of which were created under extremely pressing conditions.

Orr did not set out to be a Classicist. In fact, when he was in school, the concept didn't exist, for Modernism was still in vogue. "Classicism and historicism hadn't been discovered when I was at Yale," he says. "I was the only person interested in what could be loosely termed traditional architecture, but it wasn't historicism. I was looking at old references, looking at street vernacular, and what interested me was the repetition of elements. Go to any city or town and you'll start to see things that were copied over and over again. Charleston, with its side entrance courtyards, is one of the more obvious examples. The gables in Key West are another. I'd spend a short time in a town and figure out their architectural language, as if it were a dialect."

Orr's career began in an unusual fashion. Right after graduation, he received a commission to build a house on Martha's Vineyard, and spent the first year living onsite in a tent. After returning to New Haven, where he had his own work for a year or two, he worked for Herb Neumann; when things slowed down during the Oil Crisis, Orr moved to Florida and started designing state prisons. "This was not the most artistically rewarding job, and when I was offered a position to teach at the architecture department of the University of Miami, I jumped at the chance," he says. "In a way, I got my education there, for at the time, Yale was pretty free-form. In Florida, I had to create a much more disciplined course of studies. I wound up being the co-head of their first-year program."

After his contract expired, Orr relocated to New York and worked for Philip Johnson, just as Postmodernism was in its nascent stage. "At the time, Johnson was coming out of his doldrums," says Orr. "He only had about 20 people there, and shortly after I started, he got the AT&T Building commission and a bunch of other projects, and this was the beginning of his historicism. When historicism began, there was an irony in the use of these revived elements and forms. Now I see them without irony."

Orr eventually left Johnson's office and returned to New Haven, where he worked with Allan Greenberg for three years. In 1982, Orr started his own practice in New Haven. "Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had just split off from Arquitectonica, and they had just gotten this project in Florida called Seaside," says Orr. "My role was to design the community's first structures, collectively known as Rosewalk, and I've been working with them closely ever since. My firm has always done a mixture of residential and commercial work, until the late 1990s, when we branched out and began to do planning." To date, the firm has produced a variety of New Urbanist projects in the eastern part of the country.

Instant Urbanism
Most New Urbanist projects are the result of years of planning accompanied by government and community input. It's a lengthy, painstaking process, and quite daunting, as there are many voices that must be appeased. Then again, there are rare instances when a disaster strikes, and suddenly a once-vibrant city is decimated and must be immediately rebuilt.

Just such a challenge was presented to Orr and others in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While media reports focused on the hurricane devastation in New Orleans, it appears that few outside the immediate area were aware of the damage that was wrought upon coastal Mississippi. "In Biloxi, we saw entire riverboat casinos that were picked up and hurled inland 200 ft. over power lines," says Orr. "I was assigned the city of Waveland, and it was just so depressing; here was this vibrant main street with banks, grocery stores and other mixed-use buildings, and there wasn't a splinter left. There wasn't a single beach house remaining. Waveland's buildings, some of which dated to 1802, had simply vanished – all that remained were the cement floor slabs, street and sidewalks.

"So then Andrés Duany met with the governor of Mississippi to discuss how to bring back these devastated cities. Within the space of a couple of weeks, it went from Duany working on one city to three cities, to six, to nine, then all 11. It was just way too big a project for one firm, so he enlisted the Congress for New Urbanism, knowing that this would bring in a group of talented people. What was so remarkable was that 125 of us from the CNU descended upon Biloxi right after the hurricane, and the 11 cities were parceled out to team leaders. My city, Waveland, was the city most destroyed. We designed all of the cities in one week, a lot of bright committed folks, and there were 12-15 architects working just on buildings alone. I logged 2,000 volunteer hours rewriting Waveland's zoning and designing whole neighborhoods, municipal buildings, and some 28 house plans using the principles of New Urbanism. The resultant effort yielded an intricate planned community that fully respected the tenets of New Urbanism and the historic past that has been destroyed."

New Urbanism in the Northeast
Having designed many New Urbanist projects, Orr observes that the prophet is not always welcome in his hometown. "Ironically, in New England, 'they' really don't like New Urbanism, as it's perceived as a green-field development that spoils farmland," says Orr. "The cities in the rest of the country are far ahead of those in New England. Look at Pasadena, Charleston or Denver – they get it, and these cities are attractive and people want to live there. We have to understand that it's not about jobs, it's about the quality of life. Portland, OR, doesn't have huge employment opportunities, but people want to live there."

In Portland, ME, Orr says people aren't quite as receptive. "We have a project that we designed for a developer there, but he is terrified that it will never be approved because of the zero setback and mixed use," he says. "This project would go up in a New York minute in Portland, OR. The developer caught the New Urbanist bug, abandoned sprawl, and went from the most loved developer there to the most hated."

When questioned as to why this might be, Orr notes that the biggest challenge is trying to get zoning to conform to reality. "The tipping point is when you reach eight units per acre, and then people will relate to their neighbors," he says. "In the borough of Stonington, CT, we got up to 10-12 units per acre you can see that it's a wonderful place. Narrow lot sizes cause problems, as they're perceived as letting in a 'bad element,' and yet look at Beacon Hill in Boston – it has 100 units per acre, and no one complains about that."

It was a keen observation by one of his students during an architectural tour that brought an interesting concept to Orr's attention. "Walk through any brownstone neighborhood, and you'll see that the entire block is in actuality one building," he says. "There's no joint in the brickwork between units; the builders articulated each residence by defining it with stoops, doors and windows."

The Single Family Address
One might assume that Orr and his firm focus entirely on multi-family and New Urbanist projects, and yet they've also produced an impressive portfolio of high-end, single-family residences. Well-versed in the various styles that have arisen over the centuries in this country, Orr has produced striking juxtapositions of these forms. In Greenwich, CT, on a Federal-style home, Orr created an external chimney and fireplace that begins as rustic stone at ground level and slowly transforms into finished brick as it clears the roofline. Additionally, it extends through a pergola, and the resultant effect is a fascinating mélange of Classicism and rusticism.

This eye for detail can be found in other projects as well. Orr's stairwells, for example, are studies of the graceful reinterpretation of iconic styles, be it restrained Colonial Revival railings and spindles or complex and ornate wrought-iron balustrades. For a glassed-in Neoclassical living space in Lyme, CT, Orr used cart-wheel-shaped windows in the gable to suggest Classical references in the pediment and permit additional light to enter the dwelling. In another Connecticut residence, Orr worked in the Shingle Style, designing a cedar and cobblestone house where the first floor is cobble, including the columns and the bay window.

Conversely, Orr can suddenly transform into a devotee of Richardson, such as with the Lebovitz residence in Colorado, where he designed a flat-balustered gallery and rough-stone fireplace with a bold rusticism. In his Williams residence project, Orr displayed proficiency with the Gothic Revival, designing a fireplace inglenook spanned by a broad Gothic arch that melds into the surrounding beams and library shelving.

In a departure from these more traditional, New England styles, Orr's Patio House in Alys Beach, FL, is a complex array of façades – a sort of mini-village. A trellis patio is incorporated into the street-side façade that breaks up the wall and creates visual interest.

Orr is reflective about architects and their role in the successful reinterpretation of an historical style. "There used to be this holistic relationship between the designer and the builder of a structure," he says. "You couldn't become a carpenter or an architect until you had spent years honing your skills. Everyone went through this journeyman system, and there was a lot of correspondence back and forth between the parties. The simplest vernacular farmhouse has the same elements as the highest examples of that style. Today, many builders and developers won't have anything to do with an architect. They feel it will cost more, that we're difficult to work with, and that we need to be pampered. Because of this, the refined vocabulary is lost in a lot of current architecture."

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