Letter from the Director

Dear Colleagues and Friends of the Center,

I arrive here at Princeton as an architect scholar who has built his career practicing across the civic and cultural spheres. The last decade of my career was spent in Chicago, researching American urbanization, and crafting visions for its future. The Center for Architecture Urbanism and Infrastructure (CAUI) was established here at Princeton during that same period, and in that time the global awareness of urbanization has grown. No longer must everyone be told or convinced that we live on an urbanized planet. Urbanism is a more popular topic than ever, and we can credit organizations like CAUI for spreading the news. Despite its success, as CAUI’s newest Director, I must insist that our work is not nearly done.

The urbanized world is struggling with a paradox: The widespread allegiance to pro-growth policies on one hand, and the need to mitigate the effects of urban expansion on the other. Municipalities have become obsessed with the pursuit of quantities. Economic development, property values, tourist dollars, and population projections have become the dominant measures of urban progress. As urbanization accelerates, reductionist planners and engineers are working hard to “solve the problems” of urban growth by focusing their attentions on increasingly isolated phenomena. This new urban century has seen a renewed belief in technology as the cure-all, led by the smart cities and resilient urbanism movements. Smartness and resiliency have been positioned as the respective sword and shield of contemporary urban planning, yet I suspect that the underlying mindset of these approaches may be as symptomatic of our growth-induced crises as they are curative.

Reductionist planners tell us that the path forward is forged by solving easily identifiable and quantifiable problems, isolated in time and space. Yet urbanism is not a problem to be solved. Urbanism has never been easily identified. Urbanism is perhaps impossible to quantify. And urbanism can certainly no longer be isolated. Urban environments are complex, adaptive, open systems and therefore fundamentally irreducible. Urban transportation, energy, resources, inequality, culture, history, real estate, politics, planning, or design cannot be productively understood in isolation from one another. Therefore our most ambitious thinkers and creators must take collective charge. As Director of CAUI I believe and insist that there are still alternative possibilities to reductionist planning. We have a world-class executive committee with representatives from Architecture, History, Civil Engineering, Creative Writing, Art History, Sociology, and Economics. I will meet with them in early 2019 to discuss new transdisciplinary projects, teaching initiatives, programs, and external partnerships. We must dare to be visionaries. Despite data, software, and sensors that predict our inevitable ends, the future has yet to be written in policies, plans, books, models, films, exhibitions, and manifestoes. As a center of urbanism based within the School of Architecture, we will heed Princeton’s motto “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” We will not be reductionist in thought or action. We must embrace the complexity of current realities in order to project inspired and intelligent future worlds. It is my hope and intention that CAUI will dedicate these next years to supporting urbanists from all disciplines in these efforts.

Marshall Brown
Director, Center for Architecture Urbanism and Infrastructure and Associate Professor of Architecture

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CAUI Director, Marshall Brown and "Holy City" project for Chicago