When Robert E. Simon Jr. was building the new town of Reston in the 1960s, his middle initial might have stood for "esthetics."
How things looked: the colors of townhouse doors, the rake of roof lines, the choice of plants in open space -- all were given high priority by Simon and his planners.
Everywhere in town, it seemed, there were individual touches by a discriminating hand. At the highrise Heron House of Lake Anne, for example, pots of geraniums were standard, built-in features on each balcony -- a bit of color to soften and brighten a towering mass of concrete and brick.
More than 15 years later, Simon is still concerned with esthetics, but he also has a pragmatic view of the current problems in the building.
"Esthetics is a very low priority in housing today," said Simon, who is no longer connected with Reston and is building on a smaller scale in upstate New York. "It still has a high priority for public buildings. But for shelter, the priority is to get back to the point where housing is less than 20 percent of a family's budget."
On a recent visit to Reston, where he has his family, friends and an enduring relationship with the Reston's children's center, Simon, as always, was a fount of provocative opinions.
Because of the care that marked his development of Reston (trees, for example, were saved during construction as if they were an endangered resource), Simon was the darling of environmentalists.
"Environmentalists have latched onto catch-words," he said " 'Don't disturb the environment,' they say, 'retain the environment.' The single most glorious example of inanity is the federal law that strip-mined areas have to be restored to their original contours. That means perpetual motion -- you'll never stop because as one hill is restored, another has to be cut down.
"There is also the kind of environment opposition you get in flood plains. They are sacrosanct. You can't build near them, because if you do, it's said, you'll disturb the ecology. But if flood plains were as sacrosanct when Reston was planned, this house (on the edge of Lake Anne) could never have been built."
"In East Fishkill, in exurban New York, where Simon is currently working, residents want to preserve their low-density atmosphere.
"The town has 50 square miles and only 15,000 people. There is only one multi-family project in the town -- just 47 units. We had to go to court to get just six houses per acre. They wanted the town as it always was. They didn't want those people coming in from the Bronx and Harlem.
"It is selfishness," Simon went on, warming to his subject. "It's the old thing -- I'm aboard, pull up the gangplank."
On the subject of house design, Simon thinks major changes are needed.
"If I were building on a large scale today, I would make bedrooms very, very small. A children's bedroom would be about six feet by eight feet. There would be a doubledecker bunk, closet and a place for a desk. I'd take all the space saved and put it in living space. Instead of a living room or family room, I would have communal space where different people could do different things."
But why aren't houses designed with those kind of ideas?
People who want to buy a house have a preformed idea of what they should get for their money. Most buyers are anxious to have their success displayed. To those buyers, small bedrooms would say they are being short-changed."
Though he is a person of many opinions, Simon does not like to comment publicly on what his successor as Reston's developer, Gulf Oil, did before it bowed out last year in favor of Mobil Oil.
Nonetheless, he was asked to make a tour of post-Simon Reston, and once the trip was underway, the opinions came easily.
On a visit to one recently built cluster of townhouses, he said, "Kids are playing in the street. "It's significant, there's not a better place to play."
At a community shopping center, where there were hardly any visitors despite mild weather, Simon lamented: "This is a disaster area . . . . This place should be humming. You take desperate measures -- clean out the offices and put in retailing space. Go out and find the best restaurant. Give them a percentage of the deal, instead of straight square-footage charges. That's not philanthropy, it's traffic building."
He stops outside a bakery. "The space is too big," he says, sizing up the shop through a window. "Look at all those empty shelves. And look at the clerk, she has to take too many stops to go from the counter to the shelves. If a store needs 3,000 square feet, don't try to sell it 4,000 square feet. Use that space for a store that will generate more traffic."
Leaving the shopping center, he offers a final thought that might well be a first thought for most planners: "Nothing should be built that doesn't work."