Living Urbanism

Stones for the Glass House by Scott Ford
July 2, 2009, 9:41 PM
Filed under: Living Urbanism Images, Volume 002 | Tags: , ,


The purpose of the art of architecture, of architecture as high art, has been to provide us with symbols of the nature and reality of the state- that is to say, of the established order of things that has been made to stand… and that, by standing and enduring, affords us the legal and ethical frame of reference within which we manage to lead more or less civilized lives. Norris Kelly Smith (Smith 1980)

Located in the clearing of a well-manicured wood in New Canaan, Connecticut is a transparent glass and steel-frame box, paradigmatic for the extent to which it expresses the aesthetic ideals of modern art and architecture. Built in 1947, Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” is the abstraction of a house to its reductive limit. Indeed, it is a house built for one. In its solitary location and characteristic transparency, the design is entirely self conscious to expose nearly all of its contents to view. The only work of art hanging in the spare interior is Poussin’s Burial of Phocion. Phocion, “The Good”, as he was known in ancient Athens for his virtue and frugality, was condemned to death for his defense of the city and its citizens against the barbarians. It is fitting, thus, that this temple of modern art contains a depiction of the death of The Good and the demise of the polis; for modern art, along with science, arose with the demise of a culture rooted in sacred order and Aristotelian virtue ethics. To this cultural crisis, Reiff offers the provocative charge, “Confronted with a picture gallery as the new center of self-worship, civilized men must become anti-art, in the hope of shifting attention toward modalities of worship wholly other than that of self.” (Reiff 10, 1987) As a picture gallery of self-worship, the “Glass House” represents the fragile, temporal and isolated state of a culture unmoored from sacred order and authority. Indeed, it is at the end of the line of civilization and the options, as Reiff suggests, are either to continue into the entropic wilderness of social atomization, or to return to the city to draw upon the durable, collective wisdom of the centuries for a communal expression of The Good. If civilization is to be redeemed, and art to regain its ethical role, it will be through the restoration of a shared conception of human flourishing.

The plight of the modern self can be understood, in part, in relief against the conception of its predecessor, the traditional self. The traditional understanding of human nature, expressed in the Aristotelian conception of human flourishing, is ‘the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others.’ Implicit in Aristotle’s observation that, “Man is, by nature, a political animal,” is the conception of an essential and communal human nature. “All being,” as Clarke notes, “…is by its very nature as being dyadic, with an ‘introverted,’ or in-itself dimension, as substance, and an ‘extroverted’ or towards-others dimension, as related through actions….To be is to be substance in relation.” (Vitz XXI). The traditional self is thus understood, both by its communal role and in relation to its potential, its telos. The notion of a telos entails a vertical order of being, in which some states of being are ‘higher’ or closer to the conception of the good than others. This hierarchical order, the sacred order, is defined by Reiff as the ‘vertical in authority’ in which authority is understood to be, “an order or accredited facts and corresponding beliefs in their commanding truths, by which life is conducted within the range of that authority.” (Reiff 249, 1991) Authority, therefore, is inextricably linked to the concept of traditional ethics, the study of the means by which man can move toward his telos. MacIntyre observes:

Ethics therefore in this view presupposes some account of potentiality and act, some account of the essence of man as a rational animal, and above all some account of the human telos. The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. (MacIntyre 53)

Culture is the rich matrix of vertical authority and horizontal relationships in which the traditional self is anchored. “For according to that tradition,” MacIntyre states, “to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God.” (MacIntyre 59). This matrix of culture provides an ethical framework that includes the principles and boundaries of the telos. According to Rieff, culture’s role is to, “…communicate ideas, setting as internalities those distinctions between right actions and wrong that unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement.” (Reiff 4, 1987). A culture of ethics cannot be understood in the absence of community and a telos and therefore the fulfillment of the pre-modern self is achieved through community. Moreover, “Culture”, as Rieff states, “is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.” (ibid)

If traditional culture is a matrix of authority and ethical activity, the modern self is the stippled plane of autonomy, independence and isolation. The modern self is assumed to be a self-created product of the will that is notably ‘self’-conscious and indebted to reason for its formation (Vitz). The origins of the modern self lie in the fragmentation of moral discourse that occurred in the Enlightenment Project, through which philosophers sought to provide a rational vindication for morality separate from theology. As MacIntyre documents, the philosophical, political and religious events of the Enlightenment are interrelated and the joint challenges of the Reformation and Newtonian science initiated an inquiry in moral discourse that had fundamentally reoriented the self by separating the means of social order from their teleological ends.  MacIntyre states, “The self had been liberated from all those outmoded forms of social organization which had imprisoned it simultaneously within a belief in a theistic and teleological world order and within those hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such a world order.” (MacIntyre 60)  The self had been freed from the traditional cultural matrix of relationships and hierarchical order.

As a result, MacIntyre states, “there is one hand, a certain context for morality: a set of injunctions deprived of their teleological context. There is on the other hand, a certain view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is.” (MacIntyre 55) Whereas ethical reason once provided instruction to the pre-modern self for how to realize one’s telos, the modern self is without such a reasonable guide to the Good. Absent of sacred order, modern reason surrenders its most important role, the recognition of essential knowledge and the kinetic transition from potential to act. It is now limited to the contingent knowledge of facts and mathematical relationships. (MacIntyre 54). Further, there is a fundamental mismatch in the remaining elements of the Enlightenment moral discourse, the moral injunctions without their teleological content, and the view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is. An observation of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is is unlikely to reveal the behavioral rationale for the moral injunctions, which are rational only when understood as teleological. Thus, MacIntyre concludes, the Enlightenment Project inevitably fails and there is no rational conception of morality outside of sacred order.

The inconclusive vacuum of the Enlightenment yielded a wholly alternative theory of moral discourse that plays a central role in the conception of the modern self. Nietzsche observed that if there is no rational basis of morality, then it is the will, rather than reason, that is the basis of morality.  MacIntyre summarizes Nietzsche’s central thesis, “…that all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will.” (MacIntyre 117). In Nietschian moral discourse, morality is subjective and thus the modern self is “free” to exercise its will to power to live life on its own terms.

allegory of good governmentThe subjective morality subverts any shared notion of authority, teleology or human nature. The will is thus exercised in opposition to- or defined against– communal culture and morality and consequently, modern society merits the individual on the basis of innovation and self-expression in the departure from traditional norms and forms. There is no rational morality to which one can make ethical claims and judgments. MacIntyre deems this characteristic of the modern age as ‘emotivism,’ “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (MacIntyre 12). Emotivism demolishes the foundations of culture by democratizing authority through the subjective evaluation of moral claims. Rieff notes the atavistic nature of modern culture, describing it thus as, “The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized…” (Reiff 13, 1987)

It comes as no surprise that the inherently violent conditions of Nietschian moral discourse have had an adverse impact on the human condition. Corresponding to the perceived increase of freedom and autonomy in modernity is a characteristic anomie, anxiety and isolation for the modern self that arise with the recognition that, in Victor Frankl’s words, “self-actualization is not possible without self-transcendence.” That is, human potential cannot fully be achieved apart from community. It is to address this void, that Reiff assigns the ‘anti-religions’ of modern art and science which, “[aim] to confirm us in our devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” (Reiff 10, 1987)

Modern art and architecture suffer with the modern self. Held to no standards by which to be judged, aimed toward no ideal to be achieved, ignorant to the best achievements of collective civilization, the anti-religions reveal the inherent limitations of emotivism. The anti-religions, thus relived of the duty of ethical reasoning and guided by the anti-cultural predicate, rely upon the emotions and the appetites for subjective self-validation. The emphasis on instincts over reason celebrates mediocrity over cultural achievement, and indeed by definition there is no shared recognition of ‘best’ in emotive culture. “The would be instinctual Everyman and his girl-friend are the enlightened ones now…” (Reiff 20, 1987) This emphasis on instinct partially explains the tendency of modernists to champion the work of vernacular craftsmen over that of the classical masters.

Burial_of_PhocionCompelled to innovate, the modern artist is limited to his/her own imagination. The modern denial of traditional authority removes an entire dimension from the pallet available to modern artists and architects.  As Vincent Scully has observed, “Human beings experience all works of visual art in two different but inextricably interrelated ways: empathetically and by association. We feel them in both our bodies and in terms of whatever our culture has taught us. Modernism at its purest fundamentally wanted to eliminate the cultural signs if possible – hence abstraction.” (Scully 225). The spare construction of Johnson’s “Glass House” illustrates the aim to shed any cultural associations that would, by definition, make communal references to betray the unique example of the “House”.  Further, the Glass House, as with much modern art and architecture, is entirely regressive. Its form, however abstracted, alludes to a historical reference point, available at least to the artist, yet the act of abstraction limits what cultural content, if any, can be shared with the future. Kelly’s comment above suggests that art and architecture, through their embodiment of the laws and norms of a culture, play an operative role in tradition as a cultural ark, a durable witness to future generations. The temporal character of modern architecture, suggested by insubstantial construction methods and materials, reveals another attribute of the modern self. It is in denial of death or any concept of the afterlife. Indeed, the solitude and anomie are amplified by the perceived isolation in life and in death.

By abstracting these cultural associations, modern art and architecture thus become entirely self-referential statements about the artist or designer who created them. They are the material of the anti-religion of self-worship. Collect as many of them as one would like, but the aggregate will likely be as uninformative as the single example, about the specific place, people and purpose they were built to serve. Moreover, the self-referential features often fail to engage surrounding neighbors and urban context, to say nothing of the particular meaning of any one place. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, to mention another paradigmatic piece of modern art and architecture, represents the culture of Bilbao perhaps as much as the “Glass House” does of Connecticut. Indeed, if it were not for the difference in scale, the two could exchange locations. They share in the universality of ‘uniqueness’. In a similar manner, the modern self is a ‘man without a country’, bereft of the roots of a traditional culture to inform his person, his communal role, his vocation. The generic quality of American suburban sprawl represents, on a larger scale, the implications of the transient modern self on the formal order.

In contrast, traditional architecture, as with the traditional self, is conceived in terms of community, not only in the present, but of all time, past, present and future. They are citizens in Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” In the Aristotelian teleological cultural framework, institutions exist to represent the law, which itself represents the timeless character ideal of the human telos. Reiff states,

To adjust the expression of impulses to the controlling paragon, or character ideal, defines the primary process in the shaping of our inherited culture; the arts and sciences define the secondary process, in which exemplary modes of action are extended further, into a central moralizing experience, thus transforming individual into institutional action.” (Reiff 16, 1987)

Traditional art and architecture are two such institutions that serve a didactic, poetic role in addition to their formal purpose, and in so doing are entirely oriented on the community rather than the self.  The Western classical canon of architecture, with a meaningful grammar, syntax and rhetoric, represents a formal language that has been in use for several thousand years to express a building’s role in the sacred order of the community. Indeed, through its horizontal relationships with surrounding context and an engagement with the vertical of authority, traditional buildings participate in the cultural matrix much the same manner as the traditional self.

The relationship between traditional architecture, the polis and sacred order is wonderfully illustrated by the fourteenth century frescos of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, often collectively referred to as the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” The frescos are located on the walls of the Sala di Nove, the principal meeting room for the Siena’s chief magistrates, and serve the purpose to explicitly recall the role of authority, the moral boundaries of right and wrong, and the social and formal implications of “Good”, or virtuous, and “Bad”, governance. In the “Allegory of Good Government”, all of the participating members have a hand on a golden rope, which threads itself through the composition to represent comprehensive participation in the network of authority.  The Palazzo Pubblicco, itself, in its siting, massing, and architectural character communicates its role in the hierarchy of sacred order. It is the focal point of the Campo, the principal gathering space of the community, and it is linked to the Cathedral, the local seat of sacred authority, through one privileged processional route. Commenting on the frescoes, Scully summarizes the relationship between architecture and community:

All human communities involve an intense interplay between the individual and the law. Without the law there is no peace in the community and no freedom for the individual to live without fear. Architecture is the perfect image of that state of affairs…Architecture is fundamentally a matter not of individual buildings but of shaping the community, and that, as in Paris, Uruk, or Siena, is done by the law. (Scully 229 )

In traditional moral discourse, it is the law, as it represents the character ideal, which integrates and organizes the community into a community with a common view toward the ends, or telos, of human life and the means, or virtue ethics, through which human potential can be realized toward that end. Thus, traditional art and architecture are restorative in their role of reinforcing the sacred order to give purpose and meaning to life.

The Glass House is now a museum and within fifty years it will begin to disintegrate. It is difficult to tell whether the House or the culture it represents will last longer. Indeed, House has already required a significant rehabilitation. With such minimal structure, the building has little defense against the elements. In its design, the traditional solutions for shedding water, resisting gravity, and providing shelter were abstracted away in favor of making an innovative statement about subverting the old order with art. When the gaskets fail, the glass breaks and the beams begin to rust, it is not difficult to imagine the Glass House as ruins. Even if the building is attentively maintained to its original design specifications, with the replacement of sealants here, and a new window there, the building does not stand much of a chance to last against the adversity of natural elements. The modern self is in a similar predicament, precariously poised on the brink of social and psychological disintegration. Modern “self-help”, drawing upon self-focused solutions, cannot escape the framework of the modern problem to provide a cure. What we need, therefore, are stones for the Glass House. For, if as the assorted pieces of the House fail, they were replaced with more durable, natural materials such as stone and heavy timber, the Glass House, like a Japanese temple, may last into eternity. Then again, in so doing, it would just be a house.


MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1984.

Rieff, Philip. Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987.

Rieff, Philip. Jonathon Imber, ed. The Feeling Intellect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991.

Smith, Norris Kelly. Stuart Cohen and Stanley Tigerman eds. “Crisis in Jerusalem.” The Chicago Tribune Competition, Late Entries, Vol. II. New York: Rizzoli Press. 1980

Scully, Vincent. “Afterword,” The New Urbanism: Toward and Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc. 1994.

Vitz, Paul C. “The Problemmatic Self.”

Time for change: Reforming the CNU annual congress by Matthew Lambert
July 2, 2009, 6:55 PM
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: , , , , ,

Over the past 3 congresses, I have progressively attended fewer and fewer sessions, opting for direct discussion with friends, colleagues, and complete strangers.  In one such discussion, at an open space1 session, a number of us expressed our growing discontent with the format of the annual Congresses.  The Congress has become too obsessed with the number of sessions that are on the schedule and in the pursuit of scale have become less personal and quite a bit more confusing.  This article will analyze some of the problems with the existing format and position an alternative.

To preface the analysis and detailed explanation, it must be understood that this idea is not the property of any individual per-se.  Instead it was born in discussion at open space, and later deliberated upon in a following session and further refined through careful study and critique.  Folded in are some of the values that are upheld by many CNU members, which are particularly prevalent among the members of Next Generation of New Urbanists (Nextgen).  These can be summarized as: openness to new and challenging ideas, openness to new voices, compassion for those uninformed or misinformed, and a desire to advance the profession through the synthesis of ideas and pursuit of tangible goals.

The Premise

The question posed: what if the congress was run like a charrette?  Perhaps one from left field, but when analyzed by means of intentions, the proposition shows its validity.  Groups and firms run charrettes in radically different ways; who is to say one method is superior to another?  However charrettes clearly exhibit a shared and concise intention: bring all stakeholders and professionals with any input on a given topic together at a table to get shit done.  Charrettes are no nonsense.

Certainly the intention of charrettes mirrors that of the greater CNU, which reaches out to a multitude of professions and invites them to collaborate in the pursuit of a better built environment.  Therefore the premise, at its roots, mirrors that of the CNU at large.  How this premise translated into a conference setting, addressing a diverse audience requires careful explanation.

Motivation, however, must be universally noted: charrettes succeed as a model because they include within the whole a number of tangible goals in the form of deliverables.  Assembling a table full of stakeholders will result in nothing if a clear direction and product is not understood as an outcome.  All year members debate within the forum of email listserves, but with relatively few time-sensitive or even tangible goals.  The congress, in addition to a goal of education, should strive to gather these minds to focus upon and propose solutions to the problems, at many scales, facing the world today.  This is the idea of the initiatives, but we must admit than many stagnate or could simply be better served with the time their proprietors have with each other and like-minded, and often influential, individuals.

To further define the scope of participant and scope of presence, it must be understood that the member base and attendee base of the CNU congress is not singular.  Congresses have to deal with newcomers, young professionals, experienced and established professionals from many fields, founders and early adopters, developers, municipal officials, non-profit group representatives from across disciplines, and many officials from governmental entities.  There is no one format to suit all attendees, and therefore a multitude of stimulating environments best serves the whole.

The Model

With many charrette styles, the model may be a point of contention.  The mother of all charrettes, however, clearly performs perfectly: the Mississippi Renewal Forum.  At its height of activity, the forum performed spectacularly with over 200 people in 18 teams as well as a large contingency of roamers.  The charrette, run by the CNU and including many of the contributing professionals of the CNU member base, covered topics from social integration, coding, transportation, recovery architecture, regional planning, environmental issues, and urban planning for a variety of different cities, towns, and villages, all in a single room venue.  The proposed model simply accelerates many of the aspects of the forum and organizes them to deal with all of the topics handled at a typical congress.

The spatial and functional distribution of the forum is similar to the model being proposed, and must be understood in detail.  At the center of the forum ballroom, a clear path ran the length of the space.  To either side of this spine, teams addressing specific topics or sites had full working environments.  Along the spine, just before the working spaces, teams would pin-up their current work.  Many attendees were government officials or volunteers unfamiliar with the process but interested in being involved.  The pin-up space allowed these people access to all of the current ideas being generated and allowed teams to collaborate with each other.  Drawings and documents on the pin-up boards oriented viewers who, if interested, would enter the working space and engage one or more of the designers.

For those working, ample opportunity was available for individuals to roam around other teams’ products and engage colleagues in discussion and analysis.  While they were roaming, production at their stations would continue.  Throughout the day, ideas of each group would be presented from station to station for those who were interested and at such a volume that those working could hear.  Individuals who did roam from station to station acted like bees, pollinating as they touched each project with the ideas of other groups and those of their own.  In addition to this wealth of information sharing, if one group encountered a problem they needed to be solved by someone elsewhere in the room, they spared no time in searching them out and including all of the necessary stakeholders in conversation.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum model holds many lessons, many of which have been summarized here, that form the underlying basis for the model being proposed.  In addition to the physical products and density of information and information sharing produced, the role of media in the event poses and additional opportunity.  At the forum, a whole media outfit focused upon communicating to the public many of the ideas being discussed and proposed in real-time through numerous media formats.  Without concrete goals in mind, communication would have been impossible.  In the context of a congress, reporting may take place, but it is rarely able to reach a diverse audience.  By following a charrette model, with adequate goals and deliverables, communications are able to find many spins and markets.

Congress Program

Congresses have become devastatingly complex and over-scheduled.  Denver, for instance, hosted over 70 sessions, excluding the 101 and 202 sessions on Thursday and some sessions on Wednesday.  This resulted in, as has been common as well in the past, a confusion regarding which sessions to attend.  Often there are conflicts in personal time scheduling when two interesting topics are presented simultaneously.  This is not the fault of topic time-slot allocation, but rather it comes down to overcrowding.

Within the congress program, each session falls into one of 6 general categories.  I analyzed all of the sessions from the past congress in a spreadsheet and categorized them by topic (analysis following this article): coding, affordable housing, development, transportation, environment, and urban planning.  Some topics overlap, which should be expected, and there were a few outlying topics as well.  When further analyzing the session distribution, it is clear that many topics repeat themselves; perhaps due to necessity in over scheduling, and those people presenting two aspects of one topic are often not in the room together—very much unlike a charrette.

In addition to overlapping topics, the number of sessions and presenters packed into the schedule eliminates any possibility of productive question and answer sessions.  Speakers barely have time to cover their topics, and those participants who wish to learn more are left without an option.  One session that I attended this year broke that mold by quickly covering the topic basics and assembling into circular discussion, much like open space, to work towards a productive goal.  Most others, however, consistently exceeded their time slots, barely allowing more than two follow-up questions.  Clearly programming reform must tackle over-scheduling as well as attendee participation.


Addressing a proposal for a new congress model requires an explanation of the minutia of a given day at the conference.  Rather than begin with a diagram of the space, as most architects and planners would, we will walk through a typical day.

• 9am – 10:15am  Pecha-Kucha  re:This Morning

12 presenters comprise the hour-long morning session.  Each presenter is allowed 20 slides, which are set to automatically change every 20 seconds.  Within the session duration this allows for 12 presenters or 2 per topic.  These presenters are among the Team Leaders within each general topic.  They will take this time to inform the audience of the topics they wish to sponsor in discussion through the day and the goal they have for their discussions.  Goals are formatted as deliverables, meaning that leaders must focus later discussions based upon the premise presented and produce tangible results.

• 10:45 – 1:00pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Attendees move from the grand ballroom through the central open space and into either a topic room, six in total, one of two lectures, or participate in an open space session.  The convention space directs attendees through the central commons between all tasks.  The commons is a large open space where information is posted, food and coffee is served, and discussions, impromptu and organized, take place.


Each topic room is outfitted with pin-up boards, a central table to which chairs are oriented, and one projection screen.  Topics are headed each day by a different group of team leaders, of whom there are at least two per day.  Multiple team leaders are necessary so one is always present and the other one or two has the opportunity to attend other sessions to learn, share ideas, or to break off into other related or unrelated discussion groups.  The leader moderates the discussion and may also present topics or ideas for discussion.

Pin-up boards within the rooms are to be filled with graphics of ideas for discussion, examples, or in-progress work.  Much of this information currently makes up the slide presentations within concurrent presentations, which, once all pinned up next to each other, can be discussed in a comprehensive manner.  The attendees are welcome to participate in the discussion openly, or may begin sub-discussions within the room or just outside in the commons and open space sessions.

Team leaders have set forth goals to direct discussions, and they are to moderate towards those goals or modify their goals to better align with the changing conversation.  Attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate, to change topic venues as they see fit, and to start their own discussions in the open space between rooms.  Notes and outcomes of conversations are posted on boards outside of each topic room within the open space area.

The Commons and Open Space:

The commons occurs in the central area of the conference, what would be called the 100% corner in urban planning.  This is the area where all action occurs because the layout of the topic rooms, lectures, bookstore and trade show, and food and bar require people to traverse this area between events.  Consider this the central plaza, the market square.  In past congresses, this has been perhaps the most productive area yet has not been capitalized upon.  In this proposal two important elements insert creativity into this space: open space sessions and pin-up boards from each topic room.

Typically the congress commons occurs haphazardly in the largest open areas most directly adjacent to the largest lecture halls.  Here attendees run into colleagues and friends, and make important network connections through the vast web that is the social structure of the congress.  This past year, the bookstore location inhibited this interaction, which a few people communicated to me when discussing reform.

To take advantage of the commons, as it naturally occurs, the conference must spatially orient to encourage interaction and program it with ideas, information, and spaces designed for group discussion.  Pin-up boards, outside of the topic rooms track ideas, proposals, images, and other media being discussed or produced in the topic rooms.  This is the influx of ideas and information.

At the center, open space occurs in areas demarcated simply by a circle of approximately 20 chairs and a small sign-post.  The allocation of discussion topics occurs as it does typically, in which people simply write a topic of interest, pick a time slot and location, and pin-up it up on the open space calendar.  The calendar, as we learned in Denver, must be central in the commons.  At each open space the discussion topic is posted on a sign-post for the duration of that topic.  The timing of the resulting discussions is designed to begin new sessions during the lecture interim period when the most people are in the room.  This allows discussion participants to reach out to their social network in order to include them in conversations.


Concurrent with topic discussions, two lecture spaces operate with selected presenters and topics.  These lectures are given the proper time necessary to devote to each topic as well as ample time for questions and discussion.  Many of the compressed sessions in typical conferences are covered in topic rooms and should be pre-empted in the morning Pecha-Kucha.  Lectures are therefore highly selective and in-depth.  Within this time period, up to 4 lectures may take place between the two lecture spaces, which provides ample time to each lecturer, questions for attendees, and a highly refined selection of topics.

• 1:00 – 2:30pm Lunch

Long lunch breaks foster discussion among peers in relaxed environments.  Scheduling of short lunches simply invites atrophy of attendance in the sessions following.  Suggestions for dining locations should be publicized and topic groups may plan for specific locations, encouraging more personal, small-scale discussion.  As with each part of the conference, no one session or meal or discussion group is mandatory, however each is open to new perspectives.  NextGen’s attractiveness is a state of mind, which is open and non-judgmental.  This lesson needs to propagate throughout the congress schedule and discussions.

• 2:30 – 3:30pm Pecha Kucha re:This Afternoon

The conference gathers once again for a quick-fire session describing what has been discussed through the morning per topic and what the goals are for afternoon discussions / workshops.  Here team leaders describe progress, and hopefully also communicate the ways in which their intended topic path has deviated due to the mornings’ discussions.  This serves as essentially a group pin-up session and teaser for follow-up discussions.

• 3:45 – 5:30pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Afternoon topic sessions and lectures proceed in the same manner as morning sessions and lectures.  The topic rooms may be more serious as team leaders attempt to fulfill their goals for the day.  If topics of daily discussion require more time, they can move into open space the following day or synthesize with the next day’s discussions.

  • 5:45 – 7:30pm Keynote

Each night a true keynote presentation wraps up the days’ events.  Lecturers from outside of the CNU are invited — influential people who should be brought into the general discussion.  Gladwell, Florida, and Pollan are three examples of outsiders who should be engaged in our conversations.  There are countless others who can serve to highlight the two or three days of focused lectures that are hosted, each of which should allow for plenty of discussion.  Currently attendance at plenary sessions has been dwindling.  I attribute this to a lack of interest in the topics being presented and often in the presenters being featured.  We need to hear new viewpoint that may be controversial.


Continuing Education:

In my opinion, the lowest on the totem is the attendee simply interested in CE hours.  Of course this is a necessity to be fulfilled, though nothing that I would consider as a contribution beyond that of financing.  Each of the concurrent lecture rooms is programmed to provide CE credits for each session.  Those wishing to fulfill CE requirements have a choice of two concurrent lectures during 4 slots on a given day.

Passive Participants:

Many attendees, due to their given nature or intimidation by the level of discourse, wish to listen, take notes, and learn.  I believe this model will serve this group very well.  Each of the concurrent lecture sessions will allow for an in depth study of a given topic and ample time for discussion to follow.  Additionally each topic room will host both high level discussion and a large enough constituency of mid level participants to allow for stimulating interaction.  Viewing the work and theories of leading practitioners pinned up around the room and listening to productive discussions are perhaps some of the best tools for learning.

Lecturer Equals Attendee:

The role of lecture assignments often allows presenters to attend a congress on their company’s dime.  To accommodate this group, we ask them to be team leaders, and to present during the Pecha Kucha sessions in the morning and afternoon.  They perform the task of presenting, however they also give back to the congress through increased participation.  Knowing the nature of many of these lecturers, they simply wish to present engaging ideas and incite conversation, and attendance is often simply a perk.  This forum benefits the presenter, presenter’s firm, and the congress as a whole.  Each presenter / team leader has a greater presence as they are organizer and authority for a much longer period, tasked to collaborate and achieve goals, and gain insight and experience from fellow leaders and attendees.

The Uninitiated:

Communicating the desire of openness in conversation and welcoming new voices eases the integration of new and young members.  Additionally, by allowing people the freedom to peruse pinned up material at their own pace, encouraging them to ask questions if not to a whole group, then to peers on a smaller scale, and providing small discussion groups in open space, new and young members feel welcomed and able to voice their ideas and ask the questions they may be embarrassed to during large lectures.

The Old Guard:

They have accrued a mass of knowledge on all of the main subjects in discussion and can contribute valuably.  Two formats allow differing old guard personalities to flourish: the long lecture format with discussion and the smaller topic based group discussions.  Concurrent and continuous subject matter allows this group to float, choosing those topics that interest them, or pollinating each discussion.  They also are provided with the forum of full lectures with productive question and answer sessions and the ability to attend other full lectures and participate extensively.

The Middle Ground:

For all other members, considered here as the middle ground, the opportunities in discussion, team leading, and production are substantial.  By conducting the congress at more intimate scales, new connections may be more easily initiated.  Break-offs from main groups is welcomed for tackling sub-issues or in pursuing new issues altogether.  A leveled playing field of discussion greatly increases the opportunities any individual may have for contribution and recognition.


The Model:

Over two days I sketched and refined a symbolic model configuration for this type of congress set-up.  Though diagrammatic, these points are incredibly important: foot traffic must be contained, directed, and funneled through a central, wide corridor; locate anchors on either ends of the central corridor, preferably along two axes; the central space must be ample enough to handle the foot traffic, pin-up space, and impromptu and scheduled discussions.

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Application in Atlanta:

To further develop this idea, I took the conference center configuration in the Atlanta Hilton and tested the functionality.  Though the layout doesn’t lend itself to a perfect diagram, it may function appropriately and led to the realization that we still must provide at a minimum one large lecture and keynote space, which may be programmed as the principal lecture hall.  A hall such as this helps to balance the rest of the program and reduce the required size of the remaining group spaces.  The result of the topic rooms, open space, and small conference room are illustrated below.  The trade show, bookstore, and main lecture space have not been modeled, however they have been included within the program space.

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

This overview shows the commons and open space at the center with topic rooms to the sides and the small lecture hall in the background.  In the space not illustrated just below this image

Illustration of a typical open space session

Illustration of a typical open space session

Open space groups are comprised of a small set of individuals who are interested in discussing the topic proposed and posted.  Those not interested or who lose interest are encouraged to move to another discussion, topic room, or lecture space.

Typical discussion room layout

Typical discussion room layout

Discussion rooms are the heart of the productive conference.  Ample space should be provided to pin-up discussion materials and for people to work as a large group or to break into sub-groups within the space.  The large table space may remain as such or be spread into smaller working groups as part of the whole.

Small lecture room

Small lecture room

The typical lecture hall remains as an important element within the congress.  Its programming is taken extremely seriously.  Each session intends to draw a diverse audience and cover topics in depth.


The premise of this article is to question the way that CNU congresses are currently run and organized in light of the diverse needs of the congress membership.  This particular proposal has been worked out in detail, beyond what can be described here.  Open space comments regarding this idea can be found on the CNU website.  Debate and proposals are welcome. I only ask that you push aside shock and prejudice to evaluate this idea and its motivations.

1 For those unfamiliar with Open Space sessions I’ll briefly describe them:  Open Space begins by allowing everyone present to propose discussion topic.  Topics are introduced and then compared for conflict or similarity with other proposed sessions.  The resulting discussions are scheduled in time slots throught a day.  Each discussion takes place as a small group, typically between 5 and 15 people, where a moderator keeps the topic flowing and ensures that all participants have the opportunity to contribute.


Matthew Lambert is Director of Technology and a Project Manager at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.  He is also an editor of Living Urbanism.

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