Reinvention 2009 officially kicked off with a rousing keynote speech by Andrés Duany, FAIA. (Duany and his wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FAIA, LEED AP, also won residential architect's 2009 Hall of Fame Leadership Award, which was presented at lunch later that day.) An architect who practices mostly as a visionary planner of neighborhoods, towns, and regions, Duany possesses a unique perspective on how designers can have a greater effect on the built environment. And his commanding speaking style engaged and challenged his audience of 200-plus Reinvention-goers throughout the 90-minute talk.
Duany borrowed a page from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel by citing the vast opportunity present amid three current international crises: peak oil, global warming, and the now-exploded housing bubble.
"All three have to do with the lifestyle of the American middle class," he emphasized. He noted that many architects design high-quality housing for the wealthy and for the poor, but that the middle class (whom he described as "customers" rather than as higher-end "clients" or "patrons") had been essentially neglected by the architecture community. By influencing the way the middle class lives, he posited, architects could diminish the seemingly intractable problems facing the world today.
"Those of you who are 'client' architects, do not have contempt for architects of the New Urbanism," he warned, referring to the urban design movement he and Plater-Zyberk helped start. "They're trying to change the world, and they need to connect with the enormous middle class. ... Do not hold other architects in contempt because they're dealing with another level of society."
He exhorted the audience to get more involved in policy and planning issues within their own communities.
"This is the chance to use your skills," he said. "You can affect the world to a greater extent than any other trained professional." He pointed to New Urbanists' involvement with the U.S. Green Building Council in forming the new LEED for Neighborhood Development guidelines as an example. And he encouraged architects not to abandon the suburbs, pointing out that places evolve over time. "Much more than 50 percent of America now is suburban sprawl, and much of that is first-generation," he said. "Much of it will eventually be cities. Every one of the typologies of suburbia can be densified."
Duany criticized what he called "the ruralization of the cities," saying it discourages pedestrians and active street life. "Wherever you see naturalistic landscaping, humans are not," he noted. He also railed against overregulation, which he said "has created standards in which affordable housing is impossible to create without government subsidies." His stated desire to "create legislation where you can opt out of government involvement in housing regulations" drew a cheer from the audience.
Mobile homes, he said, rather than modular structures, should be explored as an inexpensive and efficient affordable housing solution. "Anybody who can design a mobile home so it doesn't even remind you it's a mobile home is going to win the lottery."
Another topic the keynote addressed was the marketing of sustainable design. Duany divided the market for green architecture into four groups: "ethicists," who buy green because it's the right thing to do; "cool greens," who are interested in sustainable design as long as it looks good and doesn't cost more; "gadget greens," who admire technological sophistication; and "survivalists," who see green design as a necessity for living with diminished natural resources.
"'Cool greens' are the tipping point right now," he said, but "in five years this nation will be in a survivalist mode." He listed the single-family house as the next in a series of shunned vices that include smoking, sugar, and cars, and suggested that architects have the power to avert that fate and transform the home into a virtuous environmental solution. "Say it's capable of generating electricity through photovoltaic panels, or that you can grow food very efficiently in the yard."
Duany concluded his remarks with a look at SmartCode, the open-source, form-based design code written by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the Miami-based firm he and Plater-Zyberk oversee. "Codes are what matters to urbanism," he said. "The code is not style-specific. We're taking the genetics of form-based codes and extending them to the region."
The audience members—some New Urbanists, but many more not—appreciated Duany's bold candor and thoughtful presentation. "It was the kick in the pants we need," said one.
(Watch the full Keynote Address video or the abridged version)