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New Urban Outfitters

Through design charrettes, educational workshops and plan books, the New Urban Guild is making its mark on today’s New Urbanist architecture.
By Will Holloway

After a New Urbanist development has been conceived, after the transect has been consulted and the master plan has been finalized, after issues of walkability, mixed-usage, sense of place and sustainability have been addressed, the individual residences themselves are designed. For years, the options were limited: developers could hire a single architect and risk homogeneity of design; or developers could hire many architects and risk compromising quality. As evidenced by such New Urbanist developments as Alys Beach, FL, Lost Rabbit, MS, New Town at St. Charles, MO, and Mellon Valley, UT, developers seeking a coherent set of traditional designs from the hands of a variety of architects and designers are increasingly turning to a novel organization with an old-sounding name: the New Urban Guild.

Background
The guiding force behind the Miami, FL-based New Urban Guild is Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA, CNU, LEED. When, in 2001, developer Nathan Norris was looking for architects to design houses for Gorham’s Bluff, an arts retreat in the mountains of northern Alabama, he proposed the idea of an architect’s guild to Mouzon, the then recently hired town planner for the development. "At the time, Gorham’s Bluff was a great idea that was undercapitalized," says Mouzon. "Nathan was looking at ways of getting plans that he didn’t have to pay for right then, and so he came into my office one day and said, ‘Steve, let’s get some of the best young talent in a 150-mile radius – from Montgomery to Nashville to Atlanta – and start an architect’s guild. In exchange for them doing work and not immediately being compensated, we’ll promote them as a group, so they’ll get notoriety.’ I told him it was a great idea, but that if you’re going to go ahead and assemble a bunch of, in effect, rising stars, why not make it a polemical organization – let’s do something that will have a wider-reaching impact." Thus the New Urban Guild – or the Architect’s Guild, as it was called in those days – was born.

Later that same year, during a charrette for the Village of Providence in his hometown of Huntsville, AL, Mouzon presented the idea of the guild to Andrés Duany, a founding principal of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and a leader of the New Urbanist movement. "On Saturday of the charrette," says Mouzon, "I remember walking across the studio floor with Andrés and saying, ‘Have I ever told you about the Architect’s Guild?’ and him saying, ‘No, what is it?’ When I started to tell him, he stopped mid-stride and turned and looked at me with a funny look on his face – I was thinking that I’d offended him – and said, ‘Do you have any idea how long I’ve been looking for this?’"

For the next few years, struggling to find its niche, the guild experimented with a variety of methods of conducting charrettes, essentially working for free and hoping clients would see the value in its work. It was in January of 2004, with the charrette for Alys Beach, that the New Urban Guild developed the model that it utilizes to this day. "With the Alys Beach charrette," says Mouzon, "Andrés said, ‘Let’s try a new method – I’m going to get you the work and we’ll get you all hired and paid to do this, but instead of doing it during the planning charrette, we will do an architecture- specific charrette.’"

The results of that architecture-specific charrette are now sprouting-up at Alys Beach, the DPZ-planned development on the Florida panhandle between Seaside and Rosemary Beach, two other seminal DPZ developments. Currently, the guild, along with PlaceMakers – the Miami-based planning, pattern book and SmartCode customization firm at which Mouzon and Norris are principals – functions as something of a support organization for DPZ. "They have been our patron from the beginning," says Mouzon, "If it were not for DPZ, the guild as we know it, would not exist.

"We listen very hard to what the leaders of the New Urbanism say needs to be done at the scale of architecture, and we simply try to give them what they want. In that regard, we feel like we are, in many ways, a laboratory for the leading edge of architectural thought. In the charrettes that we either put on or attend, there have been a tremendous amount of advances in recent times – so we feel like it’s the most fertile seedbed for new ideas in traditional architecture right now, because it is bringing together all these great minds that are not only pretty competent theorists, but also day to day practitioners. Getting them in a room until late at night, several days in a row, produces a lot of things that haven’t been thought of before."

Organization
Today, the New Urban Guild is comprised of 49 architects and designers from 17 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Barbados. Having been organized in 2001, the New Urban Guild is still very much in its infancy. Yet, over the last five years, it has developed a business model that effectively delivers the quality of architecture that New Urbanist master planners, such as DPZ, are looking for.

The for-profit side of the guild, the New Urban Guild LLC, is essentially a talent agency for – and a single source of information on – some of the leading traditional architects and designers in the country. The non-profit side of the guild, the New Urban Guild Foundation, is an educational organization that propagates the principles of traditional architecture and New Urbanism. It is also, as Mouzon points out, polemical in nature – unabashedly trying to prove a point. "For a very long time, since the great decline in about 1925, you’ve had a situation where those who were trying to do traditional architecture were basically just style merchants – pick a style, any style," he says. "The idea of getting back up to the level of saying that there is a best architecture for a particular combination of climate, culture and conditions – that’s a proposition that most of architecture operated on for most of history until the last century, and we’re trying to revive that every chance we get."

Mouzon believes that traditional architecture is roughly three decades into a "New Renaissance," which he estimates began around 1975. "At this point in the New Renaissance, we are at what I actually feel is the tipping point," he says. "Our two choices are to get enough people educated to really do the stuff right, or we could literally screw it up for the next three or four generations by a bunch of people claiming to do New Urbanism when it really isn’t."

Lew Oliver of Roswell, GA-based Whole Town Solutions, has been a member of the guild for two years. Having participated in the recent charrettes at Lost Rabbit, New Town at St. Charles and Mellon Valley, he believes that the guild is crucial to furthering fundamental methods of approach and traditional design. "It’s superb," he says. "You get a great mass of creative talent – when you’ve got that amount of architects and designers together, it generates an excessive amount of creative energy. I think the collective effort is better than the sum of the parts."

"New Urbanism, as a whole, is the one place where this profession truly works in the collaborative state," says guild member Eric Moser, of Moser Design Group in Ridgeland, SC. "It’s all about authenticity, and the New Urban Guild, as a group of like-minded invividuals, achieves that. Every time I participate in a charrette with guild members, I walk away with new information and better information, and I’m always better for it."

The Charrette
The primary service of the New Urban Guild is the architectural charrette. Typically, between half a dozen and a dozen architects are brought in for a charrette – either the custom version, where units are designed from scratch, or the plan-based version, where existing plans are re- elevated to match the architecture of a particular place. After the charrette, the architects typically return to their offices and execute working drawings in the normal fashion.

The Alys Beach charrette was of the custom variety. Not only did it produce the mix of Bermudan and Guatemalan-inspired whitewashed masonry and stucco courtyard homes that are now taking shape at Alys Beach, but it also brought an influx of new talent to the guild. "When we held the charrette, some of the architects [Birmingham, AL-based EBSCO Development] brought in I was aware of to a degree, but others I had actually never met," says Mouzon. "I was so enormously impressed by the level of talent in that room that I said to all of them who weren’t currently guild members, ‘I’m inviting you all into the guild.’

"The results at Alys Beach are incredible. I’ll put it this way – it’s the one place I’m aware of that has been built in our day that you can go to and say, ‘What about this place isn’t perfect?’ The notion of something perfect has so totally eluded us for so long, but it really is some incredible work going on that is setting a new paradigm for excellence in American architecture."

In July of 2004, Mouzon, Oliver and Moser, along with guild members Julie Sanford, of Starr Sanford Design Associates in Amelia Island, FL, and Milton Grenfell, of Grenfell Architecture in Washington, DC, convened in Jackson, MS, for the Lost Rabbit charrette. It was the guild’s first plan-based, or, as they call it, "re-skinning" charrette. The 260-acre development is currently in construction, with a dozen or so houses coming out of the ground. French Colonial, Classical Raised Cottage and Greek Revival are the primary styles; Mississippi Italianate and Mississippi Federal add variety.

"We had a group of us who have a similar sensibility and we got down there to something of a blank slate," says Grenfell. "The Urbanism had been done, but the architectural nature of the place was rather undefined. So we brainstormed about what it might be and basically cut to an early Mississippi Colonial, if you will, going back to the origins of European architecture in Mississippi. We got down to an interesting kind of architecture that I’ve never used in a town before, and I think it’ll be very much of its place. It’ll have a really strong character to it, not just a grab-bag of eclectic suburban architecture."

But what Lost Rabbit will be remembered for, according to Mouzon, is the rediscovery of the transmission device that allows for the wisdom of how to build in the vernacular tradition to be passed from one generation to the next. "For years, we’ve sort of understood the vernacular mechanism, but the transmission device was a great mystery," he says. "On the last night of the Lost Rabbit charrette, on the steps of the Milsap Bouie House – where we were all staying – there was a conversation that took place. Something that Milton Grenfell said sparked another thought and another thought, and we feel that as a result of that conversation the transmission device has been rediscovered. If you think about it, it had to be something really simple and it had to be a verbal tradition. We think it’s as simple as four words: ‘We do this because.’ In other words, if you put the rationale for every pattern in those terms – where you open up the rationale to everyone again – then we feel it’s possible to actually re-fire the engines of the vernacular process and actually get it moving again. It’s incredibly great stuff and we’re just now starting to tap into it. A year and a half later we’re in the process of doing pattern books based on that rediscovery."

A month after Lost Rabbit, a custom charrette was held for New Town at St. Charles, a 726-acre development 25 miles northwest of St. Louis. Because DPZ’s master plan had organized the development into a combination of mixed-use neighborhoods delineated by a system of canals and lakes, guild members drew on European cities such as Venice and Amsterdam for inspiration. For Mellon Valley, a 2,500-acre development in Hurricane, UT, a custom charrette was held in February of 2006. In this case, guild architects envisaged an appropriate architecture based on less tangible factors. "Because of the fact that when the original Mormon architecture got imported to Utah from New York it didn’t have enough time to acclimate itself to the region before we hit the era of cheap fuel," says Mouzon, "the proposition there was to take the original seed of this idea that came from New York and is part of the culture of the Mormon people and imagine how it would have acclimated over time to the region.

"We’ve actually done two or three charrettes where we haven’t had a specific architecture for the place, which, ultimately, is the combination of climate, culture and local conditions. So we’ll try to learn from the climate, take what we have of the culture and develop for the condition – all combining to create a unique architecture that will look very comfortable and familiar, but not quite like anything that’s ever come before."

Mississippi Renewal
While Alys Beach, Lost Rabbit, New Town at St. Charles and Mellon Valley are private-sector developments, the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina presented a unique opportunity for many architects and designers to approach affordable housing for the first time. In October of 2005, less than two months after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, 200 practitioners gathered at the Isle of Capri Hotel in Biloxi, MS, to offer their services to the communities of southern Mississippi. Twelve New Urban Guild members were among the 100 or so New Urbanists who took part. Over a span of six days, teams of development experts, planners, architects and designers produced traditionally inspired planning and architecture guidelines – which the communities could choose to implement or not implement – for rebuilding the region.

Speaking at a plenary discussion on rebuilding the Gulf Coast during the recent Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference in Chicago, IL, Mouzon emphasized the importance of the rebuilding effort to the healing process. "One of the big charges that we had from the beginning was that if we are to rebuild in a fashion where there is forever a sense of loss – that what came before is better than what we’ve built since – then the hurricane will forever be a great tragedy to the entire region," he said. "If, however, we can rebuild in a fashion that is more likely to be loved, then that perhaps will not be the case a generation or two from now."

With that in mind, the New Urban Guild Foundation compiled plans developed during the Mississippi Renewal Forum into Gulf Coast Emergency House Plans. The 80-page book in-cludes an introductory section on the principles that underlie New Urbanism; plans for 17 emergency housing options, including tiny (one of which is guild member Marianne Cusato’s widely publicized Katrina Cottage I), thin and double cottages; and a resource section, which contains pertinent web site links, information on manufactured architecture and FEMA technical fact sheets.

"Gulf Coast Emergency House Plans is the first book of Katrina Cottages," says Mouzon. "They were designed in response to a call from Andrés Duany right after the hurricane for something that could basically be a FEMA trailer with dignity, and would deserve to be there after the recovery had taken place.

"What we’re also doing with the book is starting a program called ‘Manufactured Architecture.’ Basically, if a manufacturer will jump through a series of hoops that they’ve never even considered before – we’ll hook them up with the architect of one of the plans, and they’ll allow the architect to approve the shop drawings and the prototype, and then it will get what we’re calling the ‘New Urban Guild Seal of Approval,’ which they can use for marketing purposes."

Forthcoming publications from the foundation include Gulf Coast House Plans, which will feature larger coastal houses. Along with plan books, the foundation also offers educational workshops; most recently, "Door and Window Details" was held in Miami Beach. The guild’s website (www.newurbanguild.com) includes a section called the "Tool Foundry," which is an ever-growing open source of information on traditional architecture and New Urbanism.

The Future
As its services have become more widely known, the guild has grown from holding three charrettes in 2004 to holding ten in 2005. Mouzon says the guild is on course to hold one charrette per month for the foreseeable future, although it has shown to be capable of holding two or three in a month. As the principles it furthers become more widely implemented, the guild will continue to expand. "Originally we were focused on just Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia," says Mouzon, "and then we quickly moved on to a more regional situation. Now we have members throughout a good part of the United States. What we eventually see happening is following the model of both the Congress for the New Urbanism and The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, where we’ll establish members worldwide and then break up into individual regional chapters.

"Our basic notion is that if you really want to start a new living tradition, what you have to do – instead of sitting there as an instructor – is tell a story that is rational and compelling and inspiring. If we can do that, we can actually engage the real people, not just a very small group of designers – so we’re looking for the larger audience. In that regard, a lot of what we do is this exploration of what the architecture should really be."  

 

 

 
 

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