Oh, Those New Urbanists


Location Fort Greene

Rent $1,700 (market)

Square feet 750 (second floor, 19th-century brownstone)

Occupants Georgeen Theodore and Tobias Armborst (architects/urban designers)

A red glow comes from the brownstones at this time of night. Your stone steps are pink. Yes, I’d love to sit on the terrace. These drinking glasses, so wide and low! [Georgeen] They’re from Barcelona. [Tobias] We took about half a year to find just the right apartment. [Georgeen] When we were in Cambridge and knew we wanted to live in New York, Tobias said, The only thing I want is a terrace. Of course Tobias grew up . . .

Where the Rhine and the river Düssel conjoin, in Düsseldorf, with his sculptor parents in an art nouveau house . . . [Tobias] It was more Gründerzeit, late 1800s, a very rich period when all cities grew. [Georgeen] No, It was kind of art nouveau, a new period of flourishing. Here, on the terrace, we have a view of the Masonic Temple, it has this faded glory. We see the little red blinking antenna on top of Brooklyn Tech, feel the waves coming out. The G train sort of rumbles underneath. There are all these different systems pressing up against one space, the urban intensity of things. [Tobias] We have a beautiful caterpillar. It’s in that box. [Georgeen] It’s turning into a butterfly right now. [Tobias] It was in our dill plant.

Tobias, you just helped your firm design four ferry landings on the East River. Georgeen is working on a master plan for a Rutgers neighborhood study, doing some work in Savannah. It seems everyone is an urban planner today! [Georgeen] We are urban designers, not planners. [Tobias] In the United States, clearly, planning is thinking about dividing land to sell it. In Europe, it’s different because the land was initially owned by kings and churches. [Georgeen] That’s a little unfair description of what planning is in the U.S. A main tool of planning is zoning—how much you set on one block, what you set back. It is about separating incompatible uses. Years ago, skinning cows would be put separately because of the filthy conditions that compromise quality of life. [Tobias] The modernist idea of urban planning was to separate the functions. Cities crowded people, so, go to the country. [Georgeen] The first thing you see in one of Corbusier’s houses is a washbasin—to cleanse yourself of the city. [Tobias] Now people are going in the opposite direction.

Your design company, Interboro [with Dan D’Oca and Christine Williams], was a winner of the L.A. Forum’s Dead Malls competition. You proposed a future for a 1970s mall in Fishkill. Dan said you are all more interested in how city life emerges without big plans, endogenous development, recognizing that things form, build off of each other, out of mess is where the good things emerge. He said Jane Jacobs believed in the importance of mess. You know, Rem Koolhaas wrote about this steaming garbage dump in Lagos, Nigeria—the dump being “the lowest form of spatial organization”—and “on its surface lived a community. . . . This was the dump as housing . . . ” [Georgeen] Koolhaas was a writer before he was an architect. I think we’re not as much into mess as Dan but what we’re excited about are the little things that have their own logic, building on that. In the Dead Malls project, we saw flea market vendors using their trucks to create roofs. There’s a certain logic to that, a beauty in the myriad ways people make do. [Tobias] There was a Chinese laundry, the only one of the stores left over in the mall and, outside, a bus stop for people going to Atlantic City. [Georgeen] Both functions coalesced. [Tobias] This laundry guy could sell the bus tickets just because he was the only guy on the site. [Georgeen] But then there were all these empty parking spots because the mall was dead—a symbiotic relationship. So many who do urban design try to create new worlds. [Tobias] Like the New Urbanists . . .

Dan said they don’t see what’s exciting about the suburbs and they’re “no fun.”