“I find past, present, and future entirely inseparable.” An Interview with Architect and Urbanist Elizabeth Moule
by Lauren Weiss Bricker, Ph.D., Pasadena, CA
In anticipation of the release this fall of the Classicist No. 15, focused on Southern California, the ICAA is pleased to share an exclusive interview with Elizabeth Moule, partner of noted Pasadena firm Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists. Winner of the 2015 Arthur Ross Award for Community Design and City Planning among many other awards, Moule & Polyzoides was founded in 1982 “to address the most critical challenge of our time: creating timeless and sustainable buildings, campuses, neighborhoods, and towns for current and future generations.”
Ms. Moule is a cofounder of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a national organization aimed at integrating aesthetic, social, environmental, economic, and policy aspects of urbanism, and is a national leader in environmental sustainability, having designed one of the greenest buildings in the world, the Robert Redford Building for the National Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica.
Ms. Moule is interviewed by Lauren Weiss Bricker, Ph.D., professor of architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pamona and director of the College of Environmental Design Archives-Special Collections. Stay tuned for the publication of the Classicist No. 15 in October, which includes two projects from Moule & Polyzoides.
Lauren Weiss Bricker: How is your office structured? When projects come into your office, what is the process for deciding who might take the lead on a project?
Elizabeth Moule: Our work is just about half architecture and half urbanism and Stefanos and I do both. The determination of who does what project is based more or less on [specific] interests, when things come in, who’s free, who might have a heavier travel schedule, those kinds of things. We work on some things together and some things we work on by ourselves. In any event, Stefanos and I are both very hands on, being involved in every single project.
Lauren: Considering the book on Lutyens in your library and knowing what I do about your practice, would you say that research, history, and understanding contexts is a very important part of your design process?
Elizabeth: I was trained as an architectural historian. I have an undergraduate degree in architectural history from Smith College. Afterwards I chose a graduate school that had a very strong architectural history program, Princeton. I also travel a lot because it’s not until you see things firsthand that you really understand them. For instance, I know the work of Lutyens because I’ve probably seen every single building by Lutyens over the years, as a very deliberate study project.
I’m currently designing a new town center building at Alys Beach, I’m drawing as much on my research of riad courtyards in Morocco as I am the work of Lutyens. I draw from a big repository of ideas and places that I have been fortunate to see firsthand over the decades.
I think part of being a well-educated human being is understanding what came before you, what’s happening now, and what you imagine for the future. I find past, present, and future entirely inseparable. That is also why we have a bias in our work towards the public realm. It is the public realm itself that is a repository of the past, present, and future.
Lauren: You’ve mentioned that the charrette process is a vitally important part of your design process in your urbanism projects. I believe you characterized it as “essential to understanding what the community needs.” Do you also see it as the architect’s obligation of service to their clients?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think there’s an ethos of service that comes with being an architect. I enjoy being an architect, but I’m not in it only because of my personal excitement about design. I believe it’s important for an architect to address the current needs of society. Architecture has formal characteristics, but it’s not only about formalism. I suppose this might be a reaction to my excessively formalist schooling. But it also comes from taking to heart Princeton’s motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
My views about service are completely intertwined with my love of traditional buildings and classicism, as a continuous tradition. I never believed Le Corbusier’s idea that the very condition of modernity was defined as a rupture in history. Traditional buildings are so resilient because they’re beloved by so many people. Only about 15% of the population is interested in modern architecture. That is fine, but that’s 85% of the world that’s being underserved.
It’s my sense that it is critical to reveal traditional architecture and urbanism’s unique capabilities to solve various problems - social, economic, environmental, etc. The studio I am currently teaching at Yale for instance, Addressing the Refugee Crisis: Building in the Eternal City of Rome, is all about having students learn that the best way of welcoming and settling newcomers is to learn how to devise timeless place-making. So, notwithstanding the fact that there are people from Libya, Nigeria, Syria, and dozens of other locations that may be coming to settle, to me it’s all about making a place that’s distinctly Roman. And as it happens, Rome and its mythic founding associated with the famous twins, Romulus and Remus, has always had a dual identity - that of its particular locality and that of its colonies, many of which were African. The studio focuses on the very important element of service that characterizes the role of the architect. The objective is to learn how to make a place that will serve both unique current needs and those for centuries to come.
As it happens, modernist urbanism and modernist architecture have had a checkered history of settling people and building community, particularly the poor and the vulnerable. Look at the banlieues in Paris or “slaburbia” in the exurbs of Stockholm. They are the very definition of apartheid and a source of social unrest in Europe. We live in a time when we face significant problems: environmental, social, political problems, to name a few. Architecture and city-making is the matrix by which these can be resolved. I believe that architecture and urbanism can be that fulsome.
At the same time, making absolutely exquisite places is the most important thing we can do as architects. It is essential to make places enduring and lasting. There is an important environmental dimension to that: we ought not just willy-nilly use up natural resources. Instead if we build once, whether it’s recycled a la Rome or preserved over the ages, we get a lot of longevity out of things, conserving resources. Creating places that are widely beloved is an act of environmental stewardship.
Lauren: The project site is the part of Rome that was originally built as the Olympic Village in 1960, correct?
Elizabeth: Yes, Luigi Moretti and Adalberto Libera built the village and we have learned that it was planned to be temporary. It was a modernist housing scheme, highly influenced by the Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, with most of the buildings raised up on piloti. Today it is profoundly underutilized. It has a tremendous amount of open space that is mostly used for cars. As a gigantic parking lot, it is antithetical to anything Roman where most people walk. It’s a totally degraded site, populated with buildings that are abject failures when it comes to making community. It has some fans, which I recognize, and I’m quite fond of the other work of Libera and Moretti in Rome. The studio is a provocative critique of modernist city-making.
Lauren: Were you able to meet with any of the organizations involved with resettling the Syrians or other refugees?
Elizabeth: Yes, we went to a refugee camp. I took the students there to one just outside Stazione Tiburtina where we met a lot of refugees. It is important to note that Italy’s current political environment is very anti-immigrant and nationalist. But I tend to take the long view. Even if that’s an unpopular position now, Italy has a declining population and in order for it to reestablish itself economically, it’s going to need some more people. Given that Rome has historically been a colonizing, conquering power - not only in Europe, but also in Africa – it has, to a considerable extent, been made by North Africans. It’s a particular irony that now there’s some repugnance for settling current populations from former colonies once welcomed. Going back to a dual identity - being a place of people, each of whom has two histories, is quintessentially Roman and, it seems to me, Rome’s future solution.
In any event it’s an aspirational project. Its success relies on making an entire neighborhood that serves both current Romans and future immigrants through slow absorption and assimilation.
Lauren: I can see how many of the lessons learned in Rome could be applied to other places.
Elizabeth: Well that’s the idea. Rome’s history of recycling and reusing is one that can be applied to other cities. It is a project of analogy. I’m hoping that my Indian students will use this approach in India with very Indian solutions. Or my Argentinian student will work in her country with very Argentinian solutions.
Lauren: You’ve touched on the issue of the architectural community’s attitude toward traditional design, and its endless enthusiasm for modernism. I wonder if you might have some additional thoughts about how to open up the conversation about traditional architecture so that it becomes more positive.
Elizabeth: What we’ve done in our practice is try to demonstrate that there is a wide expression of language first of all. Our approach aims to deepen the character of places, their unique identities and nuance. I’m tired of places that all look the same. While International Style modernism is most responsible for this phenomenon, I think you could also say the same thing about a lot of traditional architecture when deployed as a bad generic traditionalism in suburbs and more recently as a new kind of generic mixed-use, high density building in center cities. I think that’s just as noxious. People want to live in whole places that they think are highly distinctive, differing by culture, climate, geography, topography, materiality, and unique histories.
In my view, it is very, very important to use traditional architecture to address political, social, and environmental concerns in a wide variety of scales and programs. I think this allows folks to see traditional buildings in new ways, breaking away from a stereotyped view that traditional architecture is stodgy, retardataire, or elitist.
Lauren: I totally agree with that, and it’s quite an interesting subject – how to acknowledge that traditionalism is not stagnant, but is ever evolving. I wonder if this is one of the approaches that you were taking.
Elizabeth: An understanding of classicism, which I most appreciate, was put forward by Alexander Tzonis. It is that classicism, from the beginning, has been the most resilient over time because it is a language that is the most adaptable and the most changeable, not because it’s singular with narrow rules. You have to give it it’s due. No other architectural language has had that longevity. Its qualities of manipulation and malleability make it highly desirable and endlessly interesting.
Because I have a deeper societal concern about making places that are welcoming - where people are comfortable and neighborhoods are serving them well - I also appreciate classicism and traditional architecture’s attribute of conferring compatibility from building to building, as different as they might be. Compatibility is something more than aesthetic. I think it is about signaling to a newcomer that they’re welcome. Adding to existing places ought not be like jumping into a swimming pool like a cannonball. Rather, it’s about wanting to be a part of something bigger than one’s self.
Lauren: I know you have been very interested in sustainable issues and have co-authored the “Canons of Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism.”
Elizabeth: Stewardship of the environment has always been at the heart of my attitudes about shaping the physical world. I’m just as interested in the landscape as the built world. My father is a very strong environmentalist, and I was raised an environmentalist. My biggest problem with suburban sprawl is the environmental degradation.
In reflecting on previous movements to address environmental issues, to offer solutions to this degradation and to increasing CO2 emissions, I was struck by the environmentalism of the 1970s, largely defined by Ian McHarg, as a movement to restore ecology. This was a legitimate position to take, but it was silent on resource conservation, the heart of what we need to do to reduce CO2 emissions and reverse climate change. Moreover, it is resource conservation that is at the heart of making great places. We make places compact to conserve land, flora, and fauna. At the same time, we reduce land consumption to make beautiful places.
We are starting to see climate change due to the creation of cities and towns dependent on the automobile and its emissions. With that being the case, New Urbanists are very much at the center of the solution. This is because we’d been advocating making places walkable and transit oriented and making buildings that are more conserving of their resources.
In 2007, I summoned my good friend Hank Dittmar, who was at the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment at the time, enlisting him and Stefanos for help in creating the Canons. They were adopted by CNU in 2008 as a companion to the Charter of the New Urbanism. Since then, I’ve been urging this movement to take more aggressive action with respect to climate change, hosting and organizing a number of forums, summits, roundtables. This is my biggest current interest at CNU, second only to the creation of beautiful places.
Lauren: These values seem to be central to the planning ideas that one associates with New Urbanism such as walkability or scaling-down blocks.
Elizabeth: In my mind it always was, and in fact that was what drew me to be a co-founder of New Urbanism. I’ve always thought that making cities and conserving nature are two sides of the same coin. CNU is in fact an environmental organization. That is not necessarily a view that is widely held, but it is intrinsic to New Urbanism. So creating the Canons was a way to show our colleagues and others why that was inherently so, and what’s more, what we could do to make CNU even more responsive to sustainability issues. As a result, the Canons go into water issues, food access issues, and clean air issues - pushing for the conservation of all of those resources.
As land use planners we are involved with influencing all of these issues. There’s an interesting book by Paul Hawke called Drawdown. It’s a ranked listing of the things one can do to reduce CO2 emissions and climate change. I can’t remember how many are in this book, but let’s say there are 100 things: every single one of them, with the exception of maybe ten, are all squarely in the wheelhouse of building and urbanism. So, it’s just essential that as leaders of progressive planning ideas, we are at the forefront of drawing down emissions.
Lauren: In an interview with Emily Talen (Professor of Urbanism, University of Chicago), you discuss the question of diversity in planning and architecture. Isn’t this another issue inherent in the values of New Urbanism?
Elizabeth: I think it is. By the way, when Emily and I were talking about diversity, we were talking about making places that were diverse, not necessarily places made by diverse people or for diverse groups of people. I think that places ought to be made by women, people of color, not just men, but what we were really talking about – and this comes to the idea of things being place-based – is that we don’t make places that are all the same everywhere. We make things that are responsive to the unique locales in which they are situated. Then there is diversity with respect to whom you serve. When you’re looking at something like housing, the singular demographic of two parents, one male, one female and three kids and maybe a grandmother really no longer exists. The places we make today have to be responsive to a very wide group of people - to do otherwise is to do a disservice to the people whom we need to serve.
Lauren: Could you discuss specific projects where you have taken the community’s temperature about what it desires?
Elizabeth: We’ve been working in Arizona for many, many years – maybe about 25 years as a matter of fact. We started working at the University of Arizona and, in the early years, on a new town called Civano in south Tucson. We were brought into Civano by a group of people that called themselves the 100 Pioneers. They were people who had come together and who wanted to make an environmentally sustainable community. They had purchased the land and were looking for help creating this unique community. In this case, the mandate came from the ideals of this group of people. This utopian idea is quite beautiful and quite brave of the people who wanted to make this town. So that was one way that we took the community’s temperature if you will.
Lauren: I’d like to hear how you work with a community.
Elizabeth: For the most part, in respect to a generalized framework, what we like to do is to hear from the community about what they like about their community and what they don’t like about the community. For instance, we did a project in Lancaster [California] to redesign all of downtown Lancaster Boulevard. So we sat down with the people who lived there, people who were shop owners, people on the city staff who’d worked over the years dealing with a failed place. What we learned was that on the Boulevard people thought that cars drove too fast, that fire trucks barreled down there, that their stores were closing, that the place was too windy, it was too brown, it was too gray, it was dusty. It’s not dissimilar from someone living in a single-family house desiring a renovation letting you know what they hope to accomplish - saying do this, do that. We want this, we like this. So essentially, in Lancaster we thought the main objective was to bring people back to Lancaster, to downtown Lancaster Boulevard, to make the environment more palatable, to make it greener, to make it prettier, to shut down the winds, to slow down the traffic. We all wanted to make it the same heart of the community that it was when it was founded which was, by the way, as a real western railroad town from the turn of the century - a surprise to anyone looking at its sprawling suburban condition today.
So, in a series of charrettes, we gave them a couple alternatives of what that might look like. They were so excited that we ended up doing those charrettes, the design, the documentation, and the construction, all within one year. They were so enthusiastic; it was extraordinary. And I think to this day they’re still quite happy about it, since among other things, it has brought so many businesses back, created new tax revenue, and a real place for the town’s diverse population to gather for all kinds of events.
Lauren: Might we talk about Los Angeles? I believe you’re a native Californian.
Elizabeth: Yes, I was born in Santa Monica. My father was in aerospace so we moved around a lot following his career. I grew up in a time when he was shifting from space exploration to the defense industry. I spent most of my childhood here with some time in the Midwest and on the east coast. At this point, I have lived in Southern California most of my life. I love California for its natural beauty, its stunning buildings and towns, its progressive ideals, and for my dear friends living here. LA is vast and its learning curve is long largely because Los Angeles is not really just LA; it’s a constellation of 88 cities. LA is what I call the stuff that’s in between everything else. Living in one of these 88 cities is a more intimate and enriching experience. In Pasadena one can really become involved in the community, know its leaders, and effectuate change.
Stefanos and I have written a lot about Los Angeles and its history, trying to dispel the idea, perpetrated by Reynor Banham in his Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), that Los Angeles has no history. Of course Los Angeles has history that goes all the way back to the Indians and the Spanish, but I don’t disagree that it can be hard to find evidence of that. In fact, as we wrote in The Five Los Angeleses, LA was first settled by the Indians and then, based on a larger settlement of eleven Mexican families, it was established by the Spanish in 1781, laid out according to the land planning guidelines called the Laws of the Indies promulgated by King Philip II in 1573. It was called "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciuncula.”
Its next phase of growth, what we call the Third Los Angeles, was propelled by Anglo Americans who came via the transcontinental railway. It’s understandable that people think that Los Angeles has no history, because it’s been razed and remade, razed and remade. Yet, there is still some evidence of some of those other times and places, those other Los Angeleses. The Fourth Los Angeles is the era of the introduction of the automobile and our infamous freeway system that spawned suburban sprawl. The Fifth, the one in which we are currently immersed and ourselves shaping, is the era of town and neighborhood reconsolidation, newly organized around transit.
So I am a history lover in Los Angeles, a definitely contrarian position. And I think there are some places in Los Angeles that are some of the most beautiful places on the planet. And we have some wonderful architecture and landscapes, the work of people like Reginald Johnson, Roland Coate, and Gordon Kaufmann (the authors of this building) or the work of Wallace Neff. You may know our office building was designed by Wallace Neff. It was his own office and his only commercial building. We’re interested in the work of Myron Hunt, Robert Farquhar, Sylvanus Marston, Garrett Van Pelt - the list goes on and on. I’m also enamored with the work of landscape architects like Beatrix Farrand, Florence Yoch, Edith Council, Lockwood deForest. Los Angeles continues to surprise me. I continue to learn from it - it’s a place that I find very generative. Of course some of its very best places are beautiful, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and towns like Pasadena.
Lauren: To cite one fairly recent Los Angeles example, I was interested in Plaza La Reina, in Westwood.
Elizabeth: A lot of our work is for real estate developers, like Plaza La Reina. And I’ve developed a number of projects, all infill housing. It really comes out of a critique of the dearth of housing between the single-family house and the high-rise. Our critique started with primary research on courtyard housing, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes around LA. When we started working on the Downtown Los Angeles Strategic Plan thirty years ago, we identified a whole range of building types that could be readily used to re-stitch together neighborhoods through compatible infill. They have been here for some time, people have simply forgotten about them. They include those I just mentioned and range from bungalow courts, townhouses, side yard housing, villas, something we call the two-four-six (a hybrid of walk up and elevator-accessed buildings, named for its stories) and mid-rise “alphabet buildings.” A lot of our work in Southern California is remaking housing from these types, what others have recently dubbed the “missing middle.” Plaza La Reina is one - a two-four-six. We’ve done lots of these kinds of projects in Pasadena, some more in Hollywood and Rolling Hills. This is a housing shortage solution that transitions easily between single-family houses and higher density corridors.
Lauren: I had the opportunity to visit Vista del Arroyo. I think that’s a very successful project.
Elizabeth: That’s a property I developed as well as designed. That’s one of my favorite projects. You probably know, the property was the old Vista del Arroyo Hotel. It was the kind of hotel comprised of a grand large structure surrounded by bungalows like the Coronado or the Huntington. After the war, the whole thing went belly up and the federal government took it over. They turned the grand hotel into a federal courts building, but they really had no use for the bungalows. So those bungalows sat, going fallow for lack of use. They were significant buildings, designed between 1920 and 1938 by well-known architects, Sylvanus Marston, Garrett Van Pelt, and Myron Hunt, eight being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Claire Bogaard (Founder, Pasadena Heritage) and Sue Mossman (Director, Pasadena Heritage), both friends, had said that if it was the last thing they were going to do, they were going to save the bungalows. Then somehow or another, they became available and we had the crazy idea that we would help Pasadena Heritage with this big goal and we would save them.
We thought it would be a lot of fun to become developers ourselves so we could, among other things, really appreciate what developers do and become more useful to future clients. We jumped in and took over the individual bungalows and restored them. We also added more new building – so it’s a real meshing of new and old. Sometimes we added on to some of the existing buildings. Sometimes they stand alone. It’s pretty diverse - as diverse as the original bungalows. You really can’t generalize about them. We shaped the new buildings to create courtyards of various sizes centered around lush mature trees on the site.
The project is close to Old Pasadena, easy walking distance to Colorado Blvd. It drops down the hill underneath the Colorado Bridge, down the arroyo, so there are lots of interesting conditions within the site. There’s a more urban part at the end of Grand Avenue close to Colorado Blvd. and there are areas that become more naturalistic close to the arroyo. We used the arches of the bridge as gateways into some of the deeper parts of the site. As someone who aspires to work in Rome, I quite love the monumentality of the bridge and wanted to weave it into the scheme. Unfortunately, it came on the market right as the recession was coming around. I think it’s done well, made from beautiful materials, but it wasn’t the grand financial success we were hoping for. I regard it now as a charitable contribution to the city.
Lauren: Approximately how many units are located in the Vista del Arroyo complex?
Elizabeth: If I recall, there are 45.
Lauren: One interesting area of the complex includes stairs that lead to a shared patio space. I asked the residents if the patio works well. For example, are there problems if someone wants to barbeque? The residents said no. They find it’s very harmonious.
Elizabeth: That’s because every single unit has a shared courtyard space, but also has its own private space whether it is a terrace, back yard, small patio, or deep porch. The private space is where they are going to barbeque. Because we live in southern California, we love gardens as much as we love buildings. We think that people should have open spaces that are highly usable. They should be able to be out on the patio with ten of their friends. So when we make a balcony or a porch we’ll make sure it’s deep enough to put a whole dining room table there, to really furnish it properly.
The shared courtyards are really for quiet uses that favor harmonious relationships. That’s something we’ve studied pretty carefully – the sociology of how people use space. If you had only two people sharing a courtyard, there is likely going to be conflict. When you get a several families sharing it, people start to care for, use it, and respect it. Yet with a much high number, everyone abandons it. So there’s a real sweet spot.
Those shared courtyards are not so much for active use; they’re much more for passive uses - to walk through, perhaps sit and read a book, enjoy the bubbling of a fountain. We do want to get together, but they shouldn’t have to. I do believe that one of the reasons we all love courtyards so much is that they’re places of repose and quiet. Particularly as the city – any city - becomes noisier and denser, people want to retire to their homes. So we’re always looking to balance some kind of shared sense of community with the desire to retreat, to get away to one’s home and feel that it’s private and quiet.
Lauren: I think that’s a beautiful way to end the conversation.