An Interview with Alex Lehnerer

Brendan Crain interviews Alex Lehnerer, author of Grand Urban Rules, which explores the history of contemporary urban form and code through an examination of the 115 rules that guide development in the fictional, Atlantis-esque city of Averuni.

Alex Lehnerer

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In his new book Grand Urban Rules, University of Illinois-Chicago professor Alex Lehnerer explores the history of contemporary urban form and code through an examination of the 115 rules that guide development in the fictional, Atlantis-esque city of Averuni. In this nimble volume, Lehnerer presents case studies from cities across the US, Europe, and Asia to create a broad overview of the easily-overlooked mandates, guidelines, and regulations, ranging from the straightforward to the outright bizarre, that have shaped and continue to shape our cities. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the author after seeing him speak on the book at Chicago’s Graham Foundation.

Brendan Crain: Where did the idea for Averuni come from?

I created Averuni because I wanted to make the experience more immediate for the reader, so the book is not just an inventory of rules. Through these 115 examples, going from one page to the next, a mental image should materialize through all of these case studies. The code in the book is a kind of psuedo-code. It’s not a comprehensive thing; you probably cannot build the city of Averuni by this code, but you get a kind of faint idea of what the city might look like, and thereby the city can exemplify the operational performance of these rules.

When you were coming up with Averuni and creating the code, had you planned in advance to focus on the U.S. and Western European cities, or was that something that just happened naturally in your research?

That’s something that I get asked often, especially in Europe, where they are a little skeptical of the American City. But I think somehow the American city is the one city type, to generalize, where we can see, in the past, lessons about where a lot of cities outside the U.S. are headed now, and where the problems on the capitalist or more liberal side of urban design are. In a way, planning and zoning are the great exports of the U.S. There is virtually no city in the world now that doesn’t have a zoning code, and that comes back to the U.S. Many of the most widely-accepted rules in urban planning, they started in New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco.

In the book, you talk a lot about the push and pull between public and private interests and how they have impacted urban planning over time. Do you think there is one side that has been more influential, historically?

Yes, I would say the private side. The notion of public space in the U.S. is a bit of illusion; the same can be said of Europe, to a lesser extent. Here you have this concept of privately-owned public space; these are places where the public can go, but they are small, private pieces. The role of the urban designer is to try to create consistency across this urban fragmentation. Chicago is a very green city, for instance, but it is partly because when you walk down residential streets, every private yard has a tree in it; if you put all of those yards together, it is greater than Lincoln Park. In a way, then, the city’s largest park is private, and is a result of the city’s code. That’s probably the biggest challenge for an urban designer, to control the private space in some way, or to design, almost, the private sphere.

You address, in the book, the fact that rules get a bad rep for being restrictive, but you also talk about how they create their own kind of freedom. Can you expand more on that idea?

I think the common sense is that rules are deterministic, but i find that what is really deterministic or limiting — something that’s designed to evolve, with multiple stakeholders — that is a plan. I like to say that plans are to be drawn, and rules are to be played. If you draw a plan, you want to be in control 100 percent, but rules merely set up a kind of relational behavior between single entities. Rules make sure a certain quality is achieved, but then the rest is open to interpretation. In a way, a rule is very specific in its goal, but there are lots of ways to achieve this goal or the quality you want to have. I really admire how the cities cope with their limited interaction capacity. City authorities are worth looking at, not in terms of their bureaucracy but in terms of how they are able to adjust their controls, with the building codes or zoning. In terms of the operational business of architecture and urban design, as an urban designer, and having done large-scale projects, that we can learn a lot from how cities adapt to uncertainty.

Are there rules that you find particularly instructive in your own work, or any rules that you find especially interesting?

The rules that interest me most are the ones where there is a kind of negotiation taking place. There is the famous example of the plaza bonus in Manhattan, where private developers can build higher if they include public amenities in their project. That’s where we get these privately-owned public spaces from. There is a kind of bargaining, or mediation taking place which, in the best cases, can be very productive.

Then there are rules that I like because they are just so weird. Part of the reason that I wrote this book is that I’m captivated by irrational standardization. Like with London view management, where views of St. Paul’s Cathedral are protected; these are rules that try to preserve ephemeral qualities, and they wind up fetishizing them. But when you limit behavior, it challenges people, and they say “where can I find the loophole?” It’s different than just trying to just break rules for the sake of doing so; it’s a kind of active interpretation that can create fascinating results.

“Context” is close to being a four-letter word in some architecture and urban design circles, so I’m interested to get your take on the relationship between rules and context.

I think context is one of the most important things. But it has to be worked with in a way that it’s not forcing designs to conform. If the context is only limiting you, like if there’s a brownstone here so the next house has to be a brownstone, that’s something I would object to. But generally, saying “context doesn’t matter, I do my own thing,” that is totally naive. In urban design, finding the rules that you like and don’t like, and then figuring out which ones you want to twist or reinterpret, or speculate on, that is, for me, the biggest inspiration. Without context, I don’t know how to design, actually.

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Tags: new york citychicagobuilt environmentinclusionary zoninglondon

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