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Train Moves New Urbanism Forward

Welcome to Celebrity Architectural Boxing. In this corner is the reigning champion, the New Urbanism. (Cheers.) Although he looks older than his years, this youngster is a good citizen when it comes to walkable streets, parks, open spaces, human scale and contextualism. (Yay!!) On the other hand, he has suffered some defeats in his bouts with style. At times a golden haze of nostalgia descends over New Urbanism, like a scene out of "The Natural." (Boo-o-o-!!!) In the other corner is the recently toppled champion, Modernism, now spoiling for a comeback. (Jeers.) Mod is a fighter known for brains, high-mindedness and a taste for emerging building technologies. (Yay!!!) He has it all over other fighters when it comes to theories and manifestoes. (Yay!!) But Mod has some weaknesses, too. He can be self-important, indifferent to nature and landscape, ignorant of his surroundings and rude to his neighbors. (Boo!!!)

Shake hands, fellahs, and come out swinging.

If that is the current state of the style wars (and, give or take a few I.Q. points, that is pretty much how it stands) then how do we classify a building like the Del Mar Gold-Line Station in Pasadena? Local architects Moule & Polyzoides designed the building, and Urban Partners of Los Angeles, whose principals are Ira Yellin and Dan Rosenfeld, are the developers. The project clearly is a product of the New Urbanism and has a richness of detailing that would distinguish it from the products of the International Style. Design principals Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides are among the founders of the Congress of the New Urbanism, and Polyzoides is the current chair of the organization. But this is not a traditional set of buildings. This is a building about urban complexity. Polyzoides, in fact, does not see a contradiction between Modernism and New Urbanism. Modernism, he has said in conversation, was not conceived as a style, per se, but as an attempt to grapple with new problems. The problem, in this case, was to design a transit-oriented development that will be inviting to the public at large, and even provide a pathway to Pasadena's Central Park, while providing comfort and privacy to several hundred residents in the three-acre project.

The project must also incorporate and find a new use for the historic Santa Fe Depot, which has occupied the site since the early 1930s. In design, the project is divided into four separate buildings, which are composites, in differing degrees, of four traditional building types: tower, courtyard housing, loft housing, and a typical apartment arrangement with units lining either side of a hallway. The boldest gesture in the design is to straddle the railroad tracks so that trains run straight down the center of the project. The train travels through the center of a plaza, which is an active social space with parallel sidewalks lined with light standards.

Although the designers do not describe it as such, a plaza bisected by train tracks carries powerful associations of old railroad stations and rail platforms. The frankness of the train rolling through the project, rather than being relegated to the side as if it were some evil to be shunned, is one of the great virtues of this design. Here, the project is like a theater. There is a sense of drama to the arrival and departure of the train, which makes the train seem important. The Del Mar station is also an act of city-making that addresses the city on several scales. The surrounding context is tall, 100-year-old industrial buildings. The architects' response is a tall building, which moves up to seven stories at the c

enter of the project, plus an assertive, place-making tower at the important intersection of Del Mar Boulevard and Arroyo Parkway. The exterior of the loft buildings--cement board and large windows--echo the industrial character of surrounding buildings. In addition to the lofts, the housing at Del Mar Station consists of "stacked flats," including studios, and one- and two-bedroom units, which are concentrated in the midrise buildings toward the center of the block, near the tracks. The housing is notable for providing interior courtyards for the privacy of residents. Another notable Pasadena project, the mixed-use Paseo Colorado, does not set aside courtyards or other open spaces for residents only, but obliges them to use the same spaces as the public. Even though apartment dwellers may wish to use public spaces, they also need private or quasi-private spaces of their own to provide the sense of protectiveness and non-intrusion.

Like all true New Urbanist buildings, the experience of the pedestrian is paramount here, and the Del Mar station provides a fine sequence of spaces and events for a person on foot. The pedestrian enters the project via a wide "paseo" on Arroyo Parkway, which is lined with loft housing with front stoops. After entering the plaza at the center of the project, visitors can board the train, or wait for the train to leave, and keep walking west. At this point, they enter the old depot building, which has been renovated as a street-level retail building; additional ground-level shops face the depot on either side. Walking straight through the depot, they reach Central Park, an Olmsted-style park dating from the 19th Century.

Unlike a number of earlier attempts at creating transit-oriented developments, the Del Mar station is a convincing piece of city-building that looks inward and outward at the same time. It animates the streets on three sides and the interior with pedestrians, and adds excitement to the simple act of walking to the train, which indeed should feel both inviting and important. So, is this complex Modernist or Neo-Trad? It is both and neither. The Del Mar station is modern in its directness, its flexibility, in its willingness to let the design problem dictate the shape of the building. It is New Urbanist in its insistence on the integrity of the street, the mirroring of the surrounding urban scale and its respect for the pedestrian. At this point, style is secondary.

There is a wonderful quote attributed to Voltaire in the recently published Charter of the New Urbanism: "I like all the styles except the boring kind."

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