Tysons Corner's Chaos Hardly Translates Into 'Messy Vitality'

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 9, 2006

Which has more "messy vitality," Reston Town Center or Tysons Corner? And what kind of "messy vitality" do we want?

In last week's Washington Post, business writer Steven Pearlstein offered an answer by comparing these two Virginia edge cities. Acknowledging that Reston Town Center is neat, orderly, dense and pedestrian-friendly, he nevertheless asserts that, with its national retail chain stores and scrubbed appearance, it lacks sufficient grit and "messy vitality." By contrast, he praises the messy vitality of Tysons Corner.

Tysons Corner is undeniably messy, and one can find a certain kind of suburban vitality inside its shopping malls. But describing Tysons as a place of "messy vitality" is an undeserved compliment and a misuse of the term.

"Messy vitality" can refer to physical characteristics, matters of aesthetic design and form. However, it more commonly describes economic, social and cultural characteristics of places with a rich mix of contrasting uses, retail trade and civic amenities. Messy vitality implies demographic diversity and round-the-clock activity in public streets, squares and parks. It implies an environment where walking not only is enabled but also is a stimulating and enjoyable experience.

Tysons is hardly the latter. With its hodge-podge, placeless pattern of structures and parking, it is visually incoherent, inimical to pedestrians and horribly congested by traffic stuck on a woefully inadequate road network.

At the same time, a newly built urban environment like Reston Town Center, rationally planned with a densely developed street grid, attractively landscaped and walkable, neither ensures nor precludes messy vitality.

Physical and non-physical characteristics of messy vitality are not necessarily interdependent. Neighborhoods and buildings that look physically messy may lack economic, social and cultural vitality. Conversely, places that are not messy architecturally may embody messy, non-physical vitality.

The term "messy vitality" gained favor as an urban design aspiration in the 1960s and 1970s. This was attributable in part to philosophies and principles espoused by Jane Jacobs in her book "Life and Death of Great American Cities," by Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi in his book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," and in "Learning From Las Vegas" by Venturi and his partners Steven Izenour and Denise Scott-Brown.

Jacobs criticized urban renewal policies of the era, when presumably blighted urban neighborhoods were condemned wholesale, razed and then replaced by new, more homogeneous housing serving the middle class. She argued that many such neighborhoods actually were vital parts of historic urban fabric and socially viable communities worth saving.

Jacobs saw messy vitality as an intrinsic, evolving, positive characteristic of cities, the result of historic socioeconomic forces at work within densely developed environments. This is why she worried that creation of single-use districts or enclaves, whether the result of urban renewal or suburban zoning ordinances, would produce sterile communities with little vitality.

Venturi and his colleagues challenged the basic ideals and appropriateness of aesthetically purified architecture and urban design. They urged architects not only to accept but also to embrace popular taste. With garish neon signs and lavishly decorated, fantasy-themed hotels and casinos lined up downtown and along the Strip, what better symbol of messy vitality than Las Vegas? In reality, the right kind of messy vitality cannot be achieved solely through physical design. However, flawed design theories, or ill-conceived public policies regulating land use and urban design, can impede achievement of desired vitality, messy or otherwise.

During a recent visit to Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, I saw clear examples of messy vitality enabled and messy vitality denied. Amsterdam's canals flanked by narrow, walkable streets and densely packed buildings unquestionably promote messy vitality. Rotterdam, substantially destroyed during World War II, has been rebuilt with wide boulevards and vast, amorphously shaped plazas. Little messy vitality can be found there.

Tysons Corner today exemplifies an urban setting whose form, at all scales, was determined by flawed planning theories and obsolete land use regulations. And its severely compromised form is totally antithetical to achieving the sort of messy vitality associated with other urban areas in metropolitan Washington: parts of downtown D.C., Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, Ballston and Clarendon, downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring.

If Fairfax County succeeds in its effort to retrofit Tysons Corner with a new plan calling for new major and minor streets, new civic spaces, more diverse uses at higher densities, and transit, it will join the list.

Reston Town Center is not yet on the list because it is still relatively young. With continued growth and increased functional and demographic diversity, it too could join the list. Whatever happens, its ultimate success as an urban place, and its ability to rival other urban places in messy vitality, will not be hindered by its urban and architectural form. On the contrary, its physical form will prove to be a vital asset.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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