Atlantic Cities

A New Urbanism Fantasy, Painted in Oils

Looming in the distance of "A Classical Perspective," a new oil painting by architectural artist Carl Laubin, is a pink-granite skyscraper. In Louisville, where the tower—the Humana Building—actually resides, it's known as the Milk Carton, so called for architect Michael Graves's sloping pyramid design for the building's upper floors. Laubin's painting is obviously not a depiction of Louisville. Here, the postmodern tower appears to belong to a downtown one village over. The city in the foreground is plainly not any Kentucky settlement past or present.


Carl Laubin's "A Classical Perspective." Click for larger version. (2012, oil on canvas. Courtesy University of Notre Dame School of Architecture)

No city like the one depicted in "A Classical Perspective" exists anywhere, in fact. The painting is a capriccio, a made-up model that demonstrates a relationship between elements where no such relationship exists. In this case, the capriccio comprises buildings designed by the winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize. Every year, the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture presents the award to a top mind working in the field of traditional or classical architecture. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Driehaus Prize this year, Laubin painted "A Classical Perspective" by compiling buildings and plans by all 10 winners.

So the painting is clearly something of a lark, a nice commission for Notre Dame. But probably any one of those designers would tell you that such a city is not just desirable, but feasible. And not just feasible, but necessary. The scale and dimension that informs classical architecture is key to the formal planning style known as New Urbanism. And while New Urbanism’s been out of fashion for a while—it got its start in the 1980s, when the postmodern revival of classical-building concepts was also at its height—its proponents say that traditional architecture is newly relevant. Now that the broader conversation about cities has turned to issues of walkability and sustainability, designers of traditional architecture say, their ideas present a plausible model for urban planning. "A Classical Perspective," then, offers several insights into this vision for the future of cities—right down to the placement of Michael Graves's Milk Carton.

Laubin doesn’t see his painting as a start for any urban plan. But he cites Collage City, a book on urbanism by planners Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, as a discussion of the role that capricci can play in designing cities. “Most historical cities have acquired an element of the capriccio about them as they have evolved over time, juxtaposing stylistic changes while maintaining an overall continuity in approach," he says.


An early sketch of Carl Laubin's "A Classical Perspective." (Courtesy University of Notre Dame School of Architecture)

While it may look a bit like a neo-Roman blur, the painting features some of architecture's greatest hits. It's a diverse lot. Robert A.M. Stern's House at Seaside is tucked just behind the Abraj Mosque designed by Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil, which faces the water; across the river, on the near bank, is Demetri Porphyrios's Belvedere Village. Those projects—a manse in Seaside, Florida; a mosque in New Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and a development in Ascot, England—couldn't be farther apart geographically or in terms of program. But their designers share core beliefs that scale up to the level of city.

"Urban design today concerns itself with aggregating buildings and infrastructure around a single unifying factor—the automobile," says architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. She shared the 2008 Driehaus Prize with her husband and co-partner, New Urbanism leader Andrés Duany. Six of the painting’s 64 buildings are Duany Plater-Zyberk designs. The husband-wife team's first urban plan was for Seaside, Florida, which may be the U.S. town that comes closest to resembling the hamlet depicted in the painting.

If the key to classical architecture is the human scale between a building and an individual, the key to the neo-classical New Urbanism on display in "A Classical Perspective" is the human scale between buildings. In her work, Plater-Zyberk places every residence within 5 minutes' distance—walking—of almost any amenity a person requires. Another Driehaus winner, Léon Krier, designs his neighborhood quartiers as walkable in 10 minutes. Hence the neo-traditional scale of "A Classical Perspective": The 64 buildings in the painting aren't located within a single municipality. Graves's Milk Carton anchors a separate town in the distance.

"The painting harkens back, like the law, to the history of architecture, through references and cross-references," says Michael Lykoudis, dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame. "One of the ways you can see the unity in traditional architecture is in the proportionate openings. And all of these have a pitched roof. Some of the buildings feature arcades, some colonnades, but there is a proportional continuity that ties most traditional architecture together."


An intermediate stage of Laubin's "A Classical Perspective," before the final trees were added. (Courtesy University of Notre Dame School of Architecture)

Driehaus City would register high on any walkability metric. But is it at all realistic to think that classical architecture could anchor a sustainable development? Flying in travertine marble from abroad to build in the U.S. is hardly a sustainable best practice. Lykoudis notes, however, that materials employed in traditional architecture vary widely by place and that modern, sustainable materials can be used to build projects with durable, classical skins. "This discussion needs an alternative point of view," he says. "Not a stylistic bias, but a discussion about the values of economies, construction, how people live together and how they build."

Laubin doesn't consider traditional architecture to be a set of prescriptive principles about design, a book of guidelines. "My idea of classicism is somewhat wider than the image of a doric Greek temple," he says. "I tend to see classical architecture as an approach to rationally expressed building that includes developments over the ages since Classical Greece—often involving breaking the rules of classicism rather than adhering to them."

Kriston Capps is an editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. All posts »

Join the Discussion