Narrative: Captive or Captivating

Should We Have a Narrative for Urban Design?

Teddy Kofman (MAUD '18)


Image by Daphen Binder and Teddy Kofman

In preparation for a class presentation about New Urbanism, it was suggested to me to watch a conversation, moderated and organized by Alex Krieger. This confrontation of two distinct ideologies and architectural schools of thought took place in Piper auditorium in 1999. Andres Duany, the co-author and propagator of the New Urbanism movement debated Rem Koolhaas, for whom the city is where the globe is held captive.

The conversation is captivating. Both speakers have parallel world views on professional operation: while Koolhaas chooses to “reflect, understand and manifest the culture of our time” in his architecture, Duany is looking towards its reform. Duany argued that people desired the suburb, and New Urbanism was an attempt to make it better and “fix” its inherent problems. In response Koolhaas questioned the cultural and social implications of Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s movement. “The relentless commitment to changing things,” Koolhaas retorted, “is unbearable in terms of the immaturity of the profession as it is currently constituted.”

The relevance of this conversation has not subsided in the 19 years that have passed since, yet it is hard to imagine it happening today. It stems, in my view, from a lack of a dominant contemporary narrative in urban design or architecture. It is not that pertinent issues relating to design are not discussed and addressed. The influence of technology on design, the integration of ecological infrastructure, walkability, housing and equality, to name a few, are all ‘of our time’. Rather, these issues are dealt with in isolation and as a result do not aggregate to become a larger framework of operation; there is no clear sense of direction of where this is all going. Having a narrative, some would even say ideology, could mean having a path or goal which can be achieved through design. While it has formal consequences, a narrative is not solely formal. It can provide a broad holistic reasoning and purpose to our work as designers. It may offer an alternative to following the most current technological advancement or responding to the recent ecological crises, important as they are. On the other hand, a collective narrative could be considered dogmatic and confining. Can a single ideology adequately capture the broad and complex nature of design?

New Urbanists have defined their own narrative and are following it, but for the rest of us, what is our story? While we constantly try to come to terms with the natural environment and technology, what is the vision we put forth for the spatial environment we would like to live in, and the culture it both represents and generates? It seems like we are operating in a multiplicity of individual narratives, which cross paths at moments while implementing the latest trend. Design trends come and go, and as influential and important as they may be, they don’t yet come together to become a movement. As architects and urban designers, we don’t have a collective professional vision to align with, or to push against. Will the lack of narrative, or the search for one, define our time? Have we reached a mature state as a profession in which we don’t need a narrative, or is this simply a loss of direction? Whose role is it to define our narrative? And most importantly, do we need one?

Link to the conversation: