It is a great pleasure, and indeed an honor, to be here to speak to you this evening. I’m especially gratified that Robert Simon is here. Having never had the chance to speak in Philadelphia with William Penn in the audience, or in Detroit with Antoine Cadillac there, I think that this may be the first time I’ve addressed an audience in a town in which the founder has been present. We had a wonderful talk this afternoon about Reston, and its history, and about the challenges you now face. I’ll talk specifically about them in a moment, but first let me say a few things about architecture and cities in a more general way. I should mention that I won’t be showing slides this evening, since I want to start out by making some very general points that don’t really benefit from them. And when it comes to talking about Reston, I am sure all of you have more vivid images in your minds than anything I could provide.
So let me start out by saying a few things about cities in general, and how architecture relates to them, and defines them. Maybe the first is a simple principle, which is that architecture never exists in isolation. Every building has some connection to the buildings beside it, behind it, around the corner, or up the street, whether its architect intended it or not. And if there are no buildings near it, a building has a connection to its natural surroundings that may be just as telling. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, his remarkable modern house in the Parisian suburb of Poissy that was finished in 1929, was designed to stand alone in an open meadow, a machine in the garden. But it is not really alone, any more than an apartment building standing shoulder to shoulder with other buildings a few miles away in the center of Paris is alone. The Villa Savoye was designed to open to its landscape on all four sides, and its design is closely connected to that landscape. I am sure you can think of dozens of things in Reston about which you could say the same—that they would not have taken the form they did but for the landscape they are a part of, and that they are not just objects dropped willy-nilly into a landscape, but integrated with it in a complex and dynamic relationship in which landscape affects architecture, and architecture affects landscape.
In most urban buildings, however, landscape is not as important as it is in Reston, and the context in which most buildings sit is made up of other buildings. When the buildings are fairly similar to each other, they make better streets. But what does being fairly similar mean? If buildings are too much the same, the result can be oppressively dull. We look to the street, in part, for visual stimulation, and that depends on a certain amount of variety. Think of a classic small town American Main Street, where there is likely to be a mix of brick and stone buildings, one, two, and three stories high. Some may have some stone ornament or decorated cornices, and others are plain. Some are thirty feet wide, others forty or fifty. One shop front may have a large sign, another a blue awning, another an old neon sign. There may be an old limestone bank with Doric columns, and perhaps, if the town is big enough, an office building that rises to six or seven or eight stories. None of the buildings are the same, but they work together, largely because they are all fairly similar in scale–which is to say size in relation to the human figure–and overall size; they use similar materials; and they share a sense of responsibility to the street. They face the street, and they are organized for the benefit of people on the street. The architect Louis Kahn once called the street “a room by agreement,” which is an absolutely wonderful line, poetic but powerful, since he meant that there is a kind of implicit consent among architects of buildings on a street, an understanding that although they may choose to design different kinds of buildings, they will work together and not show each other up. Like dancers, architects follow each other’s lead and endeavor not to step on any toes.
But that leaves plenty of room for architectural expression—or at least it ought to. One of the best streets in New York is Central Park West, which contains buildings ranging from Henry Hardenbergh’s Dakota Apartments of 1884 to Robert A. M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West of 2008, as well as four iconic twin-towered apartment houses from the early 1930s. Now perhaps I wonder if I shouldn’t have brought slides, although I suspect that many of you have been there and know these buildings, but even if you don’t have a picture of them in your head, the point is that every one of them is different, and none is what you would call restrained. It is a long way, both chronologically and architecturally, from the dark German Renaissance Dakota to the limestone-clad 15 Central Park West, which was designed to echo the late Art Deco buildings of the 1930s. But these buildings fit together the same way the ones in that hypothetical Main Street do, and for the same reason. For more than a hundred years, their architects honored the unspoken agreement to work together, to line their buildings up with each other and to work in a consistent scale and with materials that are compatible. The result is a boulevard that is both dignified and visually engaging. It is worth contrasting with Park Avenue across town, where nearly identical apartment houses line both sides of the street for more than a mile and a half: there is coherence, but to a fault. Disorder has been kept so much at bay that the result is boring. Dignity is more appealing when it is combined with visual energy.
That helps explain why Paris, much of which is made up of essentially one building type, the eight-story stone apartment block, works so well: not merely because the buildings are similar—as Park Avenue shows, that is not always enough—but because they have so much visual energy in themselves. Moldings and cornices and balconies and grandly scaled windows and doorways bring variety and texture to every one of those limestone facades on the wide Parisian boulevards, and they give your eye a degree of sensual pleasure. The average Parisian building has both lushness and solidity. Consistency here is perfectly balanced with variety. You feel a pattern—you know when you look at one of those apartment buildings that this is a type reproduced all over the city—but the idea of repetition never seems to take precedence over the visual pleasure that any one slice of the streetscape brings.
That is true to a certain extent in many European cities, though rarely quite as much as in Paris. In much of London, there are rows of similar or even identical townhouses arranged in terraces or graceful, curving half circles, compositions in which the individual houses are like members of a chorus line. They are supposed to look identical, and their moves are all calculated in terms of their effect on the whole. And like any chorus line, these work only because the director, which is to say the architect, knew precisely how to balance texture with uniformity. The houses may look the same, but each member of this chorus line is attractive on its own. Like the Paris apartment houses—or, more to the point, like the Place VendÃ´me or the Place des Vosges in Paris, where identical structures surround a square—each building on its own conveys a sense of richness and sensuality. And their scale is comfortable and inviting. The Royal Crescent in Bath may be monumental, but its monumentality is made up of small parts that all feel accessible.
There are plenty of other models for an urban street beside the chorus line. But all of them demonstrate an essential notion of urban design, which is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I will go farther and say that this is the single most important principle of urban architecture: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For a city to work, architects need to feel as if they are designing a section of a much larger composition, a composition that began long before them and will continue long after them, and that however different their work may be from what adjoins it, they cannot design as if the other buildings were not there.
Planners and urban designers have tried for more than a century, without total success, to create formulas to assure that streets are attractive places to be. You have, of course, tried to do this in Reston, where strong design guidelines have been in place since the beginning. In creating them, you were following in the footsteps of Camillo Sitte, the Viennese architect whose 1889 book, City Planning according to Its Artistic Principles, is in many ways the beginning of the field of urban design, who argued against long, straight streets, which he thought were dull, and grandiose roundabouts like the Place d’Ã‰toile in Paris, which he felt were impossible to cross. Sitte liked open plazas, situated irregularly, which he referred to as a city’s “rooms.” He felt a particular attraction to the medieval city, with its winding streets and changing vistas. His orientation was clearly to the pedestrian and to the notion of the city as an inviting rather than an intimidating environment.
I have a particular fondness for Trystan Edwards, an architect and theorist, though we stretch the latter term to call him that, who followed in Sitte’s wake in 1924 with a book called Good and Bad Manners in Architecture. To Edwards, urban design and architecture were simply a matter of etiquette: as a person should respect one’s neighbors, so should a building. Buildings, Edwards says, should show deference to one another. He praises traditional towns in which the hierarchy is clear: public and religious buildings are the most prominent, then shops, offices, and houses. “Civic order, social stability, and a fine, conservative temper are expressed by such an arrangement,” Edwards wrote. “This precious standard of values, however, cannot be maintained when there is manifested a strong tendency for each building to display a spirit of selfishness, a profound disregard of its neighbors and of the city of which it forms a part.” Edwards’s priggishness is amusing–in a chapter entitled “The Bugbear of Monotony,” he has a section called “The Rude Gable”—and yet he was on to something. He knew that blocks of identical buildings are dull and also that fussiness and over-decoration is an unsatisfying response to the need for variety. Underneath his pretense and his reactionary taste is a genuine understanding of the principles that make some city streets appealing and others not.
What Edwards understood is that cities have two types of buildings: background buildings and foreground buildings, and that they are different. They have different missions in the city, different meanings, and hence different architecture. A street or a neighborhood composed of too many foreground buildings will be a cacophonous mess, even if the buildings themselves are well designed. But a street with no foreground buildings at all will be a hopeless bore.
Foreground buildings do not have to resemble their neighbors, and often they are better if they don’t. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a superb work of contextual architecture, not because it looks like anything around it—as almost everyone in the world now knows, it is a highly sculptural object of titanium and glass sitting amid old buildings of masonry. It is contextual because Gehry designed it with the neighboring buildings always in mind. It opens up magnificently to the river on one side, but when you see it from the other side, looking down one of the old city streets, there is an even more powerful view. The museum is a punctuation mark at the end of the vista, and it makes the city into a frame for its action. None of this is happy accident. Gehry wanted his building to stand out, but his way of standing out came not from indifference to what was around him but from a deep understanding of what was there and how a different kind of building might play off against it.
If I have learned anything about what makes a city feel comfortable as a work of design, it is that streets matter more than buildings. That may seem like heresy for an architecture critic to say, but urban delight is not the same thing as architectural pleasure, and good buildings are no guarantee of it. Some of the most appealing times I have had in cities around the world have been walks along streets that have no significant buildings at all: Madison Avenue in New York, the Strotget in Copenhagen, Rue Jacob in Paris. Each of these streets has a sense of activity, pedestrian scale, and enough variety to keep your eye engaged, all the time. Monumental architecture would almost get in the way.
A city is much more than an assemblage of streets, however, and it is worth stepping back a bit farther to say something about the city at this moment in history, not only as a work of design but in a broader way, as a figment of our culture. How much do cities mean in an age of cyberspace, and how much does sense of place—one thing we expect buildings will help to give—matter? For all that our culture today celebrates architecture, even wallows in it, with spectacular buildings by famous architects increasingly the norm in large, medium, and small cities around the world, I am not sure that we any longer have the ability to create in a city as strong a sense of place as we once did. Paradoxically, the explosion of exciting architecture—what some people call “the Bilbao effect”—has not done much to counter the trend for cities to become more and more like other cities, and the sense of any place as special, rare, even unique, is fast disappearing. I tend to think that the Bilbao Effect, or the desire for more and more spectacular architecture, is in part a desperate cry to make places different, to make them stand out, in an age when every place seems more and more the same. I say that not to be critical of ambitious works of architecture by famous architects—some of them, like Bilbao and Frank Gehry’s other masterpiece, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, are among the great achievements of our time. And there is something wonderful about people responding to architecture, about people making it part of the cultural conversation, so to speak, in a way that it has not been for a long time. I can’t stand here and say that the rise of Gehry and Herzog & de Mueron and Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano and Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid—I could go on—is not a good thing, or more a good thing than bad.
But my point right now is different. We have not had any tools other than this, other than the spectacular effects of brand-name architecture, to address the problem of the city today, and the problem of place. We cannot underestimate the damage that the automobile has done to our sense of cities over the last fifty or sixty years. For all its virtues, it has ripped away the street, and it has changed the nature of urban experience. A commercial strip out on the highway is not a street. It is made to be seen fast from a car, not slowly on foot. Everything that it represents visually is different, and everything that it represents socially is different. “The road generates its own patterns of movement and settlement and work without so far producing its own kind of landscape beauty or its own sense of place,” J.B. Jackson, the great landscape historian, has written. “That is why it can be said that a landscape tradition a thousand years old in our Western world is yielding to a fluid organization of space that we as yet do not entirely understand.”
Jackson’s words are even truer for the age of cyberspace. This is not the time or place to delve fully into the homogenization of culture, and I think it’s fair to say that Reston was definitely created so as not to look like other places. But it is impossible to think about the meaning of architecture in our time without thinking about this phenomenon, since it affects this place, too. Indeed, I think that if Reston Town Center can be faulted—and I’ll come back to it in a moment or two—it’s because it feels too much like the new-style, latest generation malls-without-roofs-that-pretend-to-be-urban villages that we find in so many other communities now. So the real question is, in an age in which American architects design skyscrapers for Singapore and Shanghai, when Swiss architects design museums in San Francisco and stadiums in Beijing, when McDonald’s restaurants are to be found in Tokyo and Paris, when expressways create a similar automobile landscape almost everywhere, and an age in which suburban sprawl has made the outskirts of London look not so different from the outskirts of Dallas—in such a time, is the very concept of sense of place now a frivolous luxury? If every city is truly going to look more and more like every other city, and every suburban node more and more like every other suburban node, then what is the point of special architectural expression at all?
I am not ready to give up on the idea that there is still great potential inherent in the notion of uniqueness of place, however powerful the forces working against it may be. I think it’s not just sentimentality that makes us treasure special places, and resent the fact that Denver has come to look more and more like Houston, Charlotte like Atlanta, and that these cities’ suburban rings are even more generic, products of time rather than of place. A suburban office park in Bethesda is no different from a suburban office park in Portland, Oregon; there is nothing, not even the stores within, to distinguish a mall in Boston from a mall in Phoenix.
There is another challenge, beyond the car and the sprawl it invites, that we face to creating or maintaining a sense of place today, and I want to say something briefly about it before we come back around to Reston. It is digital technology, which increasingly defines how we live, and affects the meaning of community, and hence the meaning of architecture. We socialize online as much as in person, we speak in an instant via cellular telephone to people anywhere in the world, and human encounters shaped by their physical setting are increasingly rare. Physical surroundings do not matter in cyberspace. To protect us, and our computers, from the weather is the most important contribution architecture makes to conversation in cyberspace. It does not create a backdrop for conversation, and hence affect it in myriad subtle ways, as it does in “real” human encounters; it becomes invisible. Architecture is no longer a stage set for human drama. While it’s true that webcams and video chats by computer or iPhone change this somewhat by providing at least a visual backdrop, that is hardly the same as a setting. It is still hard not to feel that in cyberspace the role of architecture as a social enabler, as common ground, is pretty much suspended. Is architecture then irrelevant to the new world technology is making?
Perhaps. But then again, in another way you could say that the technological revolution makes everything, in effect, a city. The random connections, the serendipitous meetings, that occur on the Internet, the replacement of linear order with the interlocking web of ties, broken and re-formed and broken again a million times, the sense of accident and surprise—these are the very events that real physical cities have always provided and for which they have been valued. Random encounters are the city’s greatest gift, and random encounters are cyberspace’s stock-in-trade. It is not for nothing that commercial online services like to refer to their conversation areas with architectural analogies: the “town square,” the “lobby,” the “chat room,” and sometimes even show tiny computerized images of doors through which the curious may enter. The technological explosion is making the entire world a virtual city, a new city, the new marketplace of human encounters, which happens not to be defined by architectural form.
We are not entirely comfortable in this new city, however, and I think we are far from ready to give up on architecture. Buildings are not obsolete and won’t become so. But they no longer define all of our public places and hence no longer provide the sole stage for public, and thus civic, experience. So it is inevitable that the meaning of architecture in our culture will continue to shift, as it has shifted during the previous technological advances of the last century. Whatever strength there may be in old cities, the traditional, dense city for which busy, active, people-filled streets are the measure of success is less and less something we can count on.
Now I realize that this sounds like a discouraging backdrop for a conversation about Reston. What’s the point, if the forces operating against traditional towns and cities are so great, of trying to build one? I think this is actually the greatest moment in the history of Reston since its founding, however, and I don’t say that lightly. This is an extraordinary time, because one of the anti-urban forces I have been talking about, the automobile, for the first time may be receding in its ability to shape urban form. The New Urbanism movement, which Reston in some ways prefigured, has had a significant effect on our landscape and in the fight against sprawl. We have begun to recognize the environmental consequences of too much reliance on cars and fossil fuels. We want places to be denser. We want to strengthen urban cores and encourage more walking.
There could not be a better time, then, for Metrorail to be coming to Reston. When Reston was first planned, the car was king, and even the tentative steps that Conklin and Rossant took toward traditional urban form and a pedestrian orientation seemed bold. Now, of course, they look limited, especially in light of the greater and greater prominence that automobiles, as well as the interstates and expressways and toll roads that they travel on, have come to have in the landscape of Fairfax County in the years since Reston’s founding. After all, Tyson’s Corner wasn’t much of anything in 1964. Now, it symbolizes the ability of the car to distort urban form, to turn it into something else altogether.
But of course Reston’s pathways and open space, which owe a debt to the great plan of Radburn, New Jersey, from 1929, but which are also very much Reston’s own, look all the better, all the more important, as a stand against the dominance of the automobile. Then again, on the other side of the scorecard, I noted Bob Simon’s comment in an interview in the Reston2020 blog about how devastating New Dominion Parkway is—“a giant wall that cuts Reston Town Center in half,” he called it, with justified anger, I think.
Still, for all of this, and the other signs that we so often seem to plan thinking only of our convenience when we are behind the wheel, and never picture ourselves as pedestrians, bicyclists, or whatever—still, to be fair, you couldn’t mistake Tyson’s Corner for Reston. When you look at Tyson’s Corner today, you see how different, and how special, Reston still is. Design guidelines and the overall plan, not to mention the rigorous oversight of the Reston Association, have made this place still a product of planning, not a product of spawl. Very little about Reston, good or bad, is an accident. And I guess I might add parenthetically that very little about it in the future is likely to be an accident either, given the volume of studies, reports, and documents of all kinds that this process has generated. Reston is about as far from the laissez-faire city as I have ever seen.
That’s good, not only because of your traditions of planning, but also because Reston is not entirely immune to the forces I’ve been talking about. The danger for Reston isn’t that it can become Tyson’s Corner—it can’t—but that it could become just a prettier version of a contemporary suburb. That, in a way, is the great temptation here—to trust that because the original plan and the design guidelines keep Reston safer than most places from the disease of sprawl, because they assure that things will be tasteful and pretty, that the original vision has been fulfilled. But that is not enough. Reston has to be something else, something all its own—a place not like other places, and for a better reason than the presence of good taste and the absence of billboards. Reston needs to fulfill its destiny to become a true regional center, a place that shows it is possible to incorporate density and energy and culture, the things we like so much about cities, and make them compatible with the twenty-first century and the reality of the automobile.
And this is where the coming of Metrorail offers such an incredible opportunity. Cities have always developed around transit hubs; this is nothing new. But in your case you have the opportunity to use this to fulfill, at last, the hope that I think was part of Reston’s original conception, the hope that this place will have real density, that it contain one or more true centers. So far, places like Tyson’s Corner have been the only model we have for agglomerations outside of older cities—edge cities, as many people have called them. Reston has the opportunity to show us a new model, a model that will really incorporate the strengths of cities with the convenience of suburbs.
A few months ago, my colleague Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column about the extension of the Gold Line in Los Angeles to eight new stations. (You have the Silver Line, they have the Gold Line.) He made an astonishingly simple observation, which I will quote: “More transit means more pedestrians, more people who pay attention to the shape and design of the city up close. That, in turn, means a growing constituency for shared space in Los Angeles and new interest in our long-neglected streetscapes and public sphere. To put it another way: Transit and the life of the street are inextricably intertwined, and a boost to one is almost always a boost to the other.”
Well, yes. But how rarely we see it that way. How often we overlook this basic, simple truth—more transit means more pedestrians. More transit means more connection to the street, which in the end, as I said before, is really the fundamental element of urban design. And more transit means more focus on the street, more use of the street, more pre-eminence for the street.
But the great tragedy of transit-oriented development is how often this is ignored. The other day I was traveling from Philadelphia to New York on the Acela, and the train, as usual, stopped in this place called Metro Park, somewhat in central New Jersey. Metro Park was created many years ago as a stop between cities on the New York to Washington rail line, in the hope that it would be a node around which transit-oriented development would grow. Well, plenty of things have happened at Metro Park, but if this is transit-oriented development, we are in trouble, since by any measure it is no different from the most conventional suburban office park anywhere. The only difference is that it has a train station in the middle of it. But the train station and the office park seem to exist in different worlds, in parallel universes. There is the universe of train travelers, most of whom come by car and park in a large garage and take the train to Philadelphia or Baltimore or Washington or whatever, grateful that they don’t have to drive all the way to a city. And then there is the universe of office workers, who also come by car. Nobody, or almost nobody, seems to be using the train line to commute to work. Everybody who has any business at Metro Park, whether to board the inter-city train or to work in one of the office buildings, seems to arrive by car. There is no other transit system, no light rail or local transit system, connected to Metro Park.
And needless to say, once you are in Metro Park you need a car to move about, since the buildings tend to be boxes sitting in a sea of parking. This place is not big on streets. It is not big on anything we would consider to be particularly urban.
I don’t think Reston runs the risk of being another Metro Park, but this story provides us with an important caution, since it reminds us that you can’t plop a transit station anywhere and poof, you have an urban node. No, if you do that, you have a suburban node, and that is not the same thing. So the first lesson we can get from this—the first principle of designing transit-oriented development, we might say—is that transit needs to link to other transit: it cannot be alone, because if any segment of the transit system is left in isolation, cars will fill in the gaps. Automobiles abhor a vacuum, we might say, and they abhor a transit vacuum most of all, and will fill it faster than you can imagine.
The second principle, if I may continue this impromptu list, is streets. Streets are more important than buildings, as I said a moment ago, and they are also more important than boulevards and expressways and just about anything else. You can’t have true urbanity without streets. And you can’t have a meaningful transit-oriented development without a close connection to streets, whether this means integrating into the existing pattern of streets or creating new ones that follow that model.
I keep harping on streets because they mean more, in my view, than atriums and lobbies and all kinds of private spaces that, in the urban communities of today, often substitute for true public space. But they don’t. Here again, Reston is better positioned than most places, because of its tradition of shared public space. In Reston, unlike almost every other suburban community in the country, you have the opportunity to combine true public space, nature, and density—three things that should go together, but rarely do. Higher density gives a community energy; great public open space makes it livable. So many communities make the mistake of thinking that the goals of open space are better served by low densities, but the opposite is true, since low densities usually can’t support ample and generous public open space.
After all, the essential truth about great and even not-so-great cities is that whatever their mode of governance, in their essence they are deeply, profoundly, absolutely and utterly public. Public means for everyone, and it also means, by implication at least, that they are not entirely controllable. Here, of course, we have a bit of a difference between Reston and traditional, older, denser cities, because in those places we accept messiness as part of the deal—unevenness, disarray, complexity, a mixture of people and things, a certain amount of chaos, are all a part of the price we pay for the extraordinary creative energy that emanates from traditional cities, for the way in which they continually reinvent themselves like organic objects, for way they offer us the presence of true common ground, and, most important, for that elusive, difficult to define quality we might describe as a sense of authenticity.
This is relevant to Reston not because Reston is likely to change its system of management of public space, but because of the notion that underlies my comment, which is often the hardest thing for planners to accept: the notion that some things are best not planned, or that we cannot and should not plan down to the last detail, programming every space as well as physically designing it. That is worth remembering as a general guideline, and maybe we might even call that the third principle of good cities and transit: that they treat the public realm as truly public, and still leave some room for spontaneity, for change, for serendipity and for accidents. There is, of course, a paradox here, since we are talking about places that cannot exist except through highly activist, interventionist planning. Laissez-faire does not give you transit-oriented cities. Maybe that should be on my list of principles, too. Only smart, committed planning is going to get us where we want to be here. Trust in the market and we will be disappointed.
But at the same time we need to know the limits of planning, and we need to know and be comfortable with what the idea of the public realm means, and with what constitutes authenticity in an urban environment. Cities that work have a balance between the planned and the unplanned, and not the least of the challenges facing the construction of these new, transit-oriented centers is how much to leave unplanned, how much to leave to the forces of culture and economics. It is not an easy balance to achieve, and there are no formulas for it. We cannot say that if we plan 84.7 percent, then the other 15.3 percent of a place will turn out just right, left to its own devices. Every place is different, and every circumstance is different. But what we do know is that if we plan 100 percent, or think we are planning 100 percent, reality is going to intervene, and we will have shot ourselves in the foot. As I said a moment ago, in a real city, we have to accept a little bit of messiness as part of the deal. And by messiness I mean not just physical messiness, but political shifts and changes, and demographic shifts and changes, and so forth.
Let me propose a fourth principle, or general idea that should be in the minds of planners as they face the issue of new transit cities, and that is that the positive effect of transit is often in inverse proportion to its visibility. This, too, is counterintuitive—shouldn’t you want to see the transit that provides the reason for being of a place, around which a neighborhood or a development is centered? Theoretically, yes, but in actuality, no, because most transit is far less appealing visually than the things it is bringing us to, and in some cases, such as train tracks, it isn’t any better, or at least not much better, than freeways and expressways for cars, the very thing it is presumably helping us to avoid. Train tracks, like highways, can be genuinely destructive of the urban fabric—the very urban fabric they makes possible and energizes, but life is full of paradoxes.
I am not talking about stations, of course, which have always been among the great architectural opportunities, but about tracks and roads—and here I should say that I would make an exception for light rail, as I would for conventional city streets. When I talk about transit as being destructive of the urban fabric, I am thinking of train tracks of the major, inter-city type, which for all we love trains and believe in them, can sometimes be as divisive as expressways when they are thrust into the center of an urban neighborhood. It may be the price we have to pay, but we should be aware of it, so that we can minimize it.
If you doubt this, contrast two transit-oriented development sites in New York City. One is the125th Street train station in Harlem, a place that should be a natural transit-oriented development if there ever was one. Yes, it is Harlem, not the most prosperous part of New York, but doing better and better, and until the recent downturn there was a tremendous amount of new construction there. Almost none of it was near the train station, however, which should have been a magnet for it, and the logical focus of new development in the area. This train station is on a busy, wide, commercially active street. A subway station is nearby, making for relatively easy connections to other transit, thereby meeting our first principle. But almost nothing has happened there, largely, I think, because the railway tracks themselves are elevated, running through the neighborhood on a long concrete viaduct. They divide, they do not bring together. The viaduct is big, and heavy, and not beautiful or inviting by any standard. The space underneath it is mostly dead, and while it could be used more imaginatively, it will never be easy.
We can contrast the failed opportunity at 125th Street, where we could have had significant and strong transit-oriented development, with the situation about four miles to the south, at the end of the line, at Grand Central Terminal. This, of course, is the mother of all transit-oriented development, and I am not sure we have ever done it better. It is now nearly a hundred years old, and it remains our greatest model anywhere. Think, for a moment, about the things that characterize Grand Central: great public space, streets—real streets, not expressways—great architecture, an overall sense of order balanced with natural urban growth and change; and the invisibility of the thing that makes it possible, since by the time they get downtown, all of the train tracks that were so destructive to the urban fabric at 125th Street have been buried in tunnels, and are absolutely invisible.
Grand Central Terminal came into being in the mid-19th century, when the city of New York, upset at the frequent and destructive accidents involving steam engines in the city, banned all trains south of 42nd Street. The New York Central railroad immediately built a station at 42nd Street, the first Grand Central. But the problems didn’t go away, and as the city’s population grew, the accidents increased. It is probably a worthwhile caution to us today to remember that trains were once like cars—that is, they were dirty, noisy, ubiquitous and dangerous, and they made a mess of the urban fabric. Limiting them and controlling them seemed as urgent then as limiting and controlling cars seems to us today.
In any event, I will make a long story short by saying that the ultimate solution was to electrify the railroad, and that allowed the tracks to be buried below 96th Street, and a new, larger Grand Central Terminal was constructed to accommodate the new tracks and the new trains. It may be the most exquisite integration of pedestrians, local trains, long distance trains, subways and automobiles ever conceived, particularly given that its centerpiece is a great work of architecture by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, a landmark if there ever was one. Grand Central was important for a lot of reasons, however, that go beyond its architecture, ambitious and serious and brilliant and innovative as its architecture was—and this was, and is, one of the great American buildings of all time. But it was also the first air rights development in history, and it included hotels, office buildings, stores, and apartment buildings, all arranged around Grand Central Terminal, which functions as much more than a place of arrivals and departures. It is truly a town square under a roof. Pretty forward looking for 1913.
Now, it may seem odd to conclude a talk about the potential of Reston’s next generation of development by talking about Grand Central Terminal, a century-old project in a very different kind of place. But the lessons of this project still have resonance for us now, and not only because they remind us of how much design and architecture can matter. Grand Central is an exceptionally beautiful building with inspiring interior space, but it also connects to streets, and enables the life of the street; it does not get in the way of that life. Public space is key; this is the public realm, beautifully integrated with the private realm—the premise of Grand Central is that neither the public nor the private realm can be expected to exist without the other. It allows for change, and evolution; it is not frozen in aspic. And—maybe most important of all to Reston—it reminds us that architecture never exists in isolation, but as part of a larger whole, and that it is possible to combine the greatest, boldest, highest aesthetic ambitions, which is what I hope you will always have for your architecture, with all of the other things that make a community vibrant, civilized, and gratifying to live in every day.