Stefanos Polyzoides on Traditional Urbanism

Want to learn why modern cities are designed for cars and how to build beautiful walkable cities? Read on.

Stefanos Polyzoides is co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the architecture firm Moule & Polyzoides. He is Dean of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.

Stefanos has helped Porta Norte by refining the Code, revising plans, designing the town center, and mentoring the development team.

You can watch the conversation here.

Henry: Welcome, Stefanos. It is great to work with you in Panama again.

Stefanos: It’s always great to work with you and your excellent team. Let me start by saying that you have an exceptional Master Plan, designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ).

Why is Panama City built for cars and not for people?

The car had massive adoption in the 1920s, and that started the modernist movement. That is why modernist principles are car-scaled, not human-scaled. Those principles were born in the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM).

Panama imported sprawl from architecture firms in Miami. Thus, it introduces the urbanism of Miami, which is the most car-dependent urbanism in the United States. Panamanian leaders — even though they studied in great universities — have copied the wrong ideas. They have built a “modern” city that is comfortable for cars, but uncomfortable for people.

Suburban Sprawl in Miami
Sprawl in Miami

They have also built modernist buildings that look the same anywhere on Earth. They don’t respond to climate and disregard local culture. They have the same cold glass façade in the arctic, desert, and the tropics.

Old modernist buildings don’t age well. In some ways, that is why their price per square meter is much lower than those of Casco Viejo. Despite all this evidence, the majority of architecture schools still teach these ideas.

On the other hand, you have traditional towns responding to climate, culture, and public needs. The human race has built beautiful cities for thousands of years, with fewer resources. We must learn from them and continue the evolution process. Later, I will show you how.

What should be the inspiration for Porta Norte and Panama?

Humans understand that traditional urbanism works. Our ancestors have left us a rich legacy. We must learn from our past and use that information to create better places.

People love traditional urbanism. That is one reason why France and Spain are the most visited countries on Earth. People like to walk. It is no coincidence that tourists always go to walkable, traditional cities.

One great thing about traditional architecture is its flexibility. It adapts to new needs. For example, residents may use the same ground floor as a home, a shop to sell cookies, or an office to start a new business. Buildings evolve with people.

For inspiration, you must study the architectural DNA of Panama. By DNA, I mean the history of pre-car cities. You can explore Sevilla, Cartagena de Indias, and Casco Viejo.

Let’s talk about each one. 

In Sevilla, you can learn from the roots of Hispanic architecture in Spain’s warmer climates. Most of the ships that came to Panama started their journey from Sevilla. Sevilla’s architectural language influenced Casco Viejo; that is why they are similar in style. You can go to other beautiful cities of Andalucia like Málaga, Granada or Córdoba. Also, study different epochs in architecture like colonial, medieval, renaissance, or baroque. 

Sevilla Street

Cartagena de Indias is a majestic city where you can learn a lot. Let’s not forget that Panama originally was a forgotten province of Colombia, so it did not have a sophisticated architecture. Study it. It is only one hour away by plane. You will find a much wider variety of architecture with a tropical climate.

Street in Cartagena de Indias
Cartagena de Indias

Casco Viejo is small but beautiful and has the most abundant legacy of traditional architecture in Panamá. It was forgotten for decades and was on the verge of demolition. In a way, this was good because people living there had no money to demolish buildings or renovate them into modernism. It bought time to put in place rules for preservation. Renovations for all public spaces and most buildings are finished. The change is so dramatic that it has the most expensive real estate in the city. It has started a revolution in real estate.

Street in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo

In Porta Norte, you should use Casco Viejo as your main source of inspiration. You are adopting the slogan “El Nuevo Casco Viejo”. That is brilliant because you are learning from the best of the past to produce a better future.

Street in Porta Norte
Porta Norte

Go to these places and study their squares, streets, buildings, construction techniques, etc. After that, you will have a much richer vocabulary and a more sophisticated language.

Something I enjoy is that Porta Norte is that it is a direct response to a classic new urbanism question:

If Casco Viejo works and has the highest real estate values in Panama, why not build more?

What advice would you give architects?

Stefanos Polyzoides with Edward McGrath
Edward McGrath and Stefanos Polyzoides

The purpose of listening to Mozart is not about glorifying him but celebrating the human race. When you hear the 9th symphony, do you say, “oh my God, Beethoven was a genius?” No. The first thing you do is take a deep breath and think, “my God, how could I be a human being and not know this?” It elevates the culture. 

It’s the same thing in architecture. I help create a building or a neighborhood, but I’m going to die in 20 years. I will leave behind a great legacy for humanity. We do this for our fellow humans, descendants, and other people who live 50 years from now. Everybody needs to understand themselves as being part of a grand obstacle race.

The second thing is that architecture is not independent of its setting. It is about responding to the context of a larger urban whole, whether it’s a neighborhood, a district, or a block. You need to understand architecture in the context of a block and the space between them. Architecture is dependent as opposed to independent of the world around it.

If you understand a city block, you will never design the façade and the back the same. You will know that buildings define public spaces.

You need to study how older buildings have responded to nature by making them comfortable in cold, warm, dry, or humid climate.

If you understand that architecture is dependent, then you can look at the Casco Viejo and say, “What am I learning here that’s special?”

How do you design traditional architecture?

The wrong, superficial, and quickest way of doing it is to copy a style like Mediterranean or French. This technique may succeed in the hand of a brilliant architect, but it often looks fake.

Let’s go over the order of decisions to design a building:

  1. Define the type: Know whether it is housing, offices, retail, a combination, etc. Let’s say it is a housing project.
  2. Study the context: Analyze the climate, fauna, flora, and what is going on around the lot. Use the topography as an advantage for parking, or to create views.
  3. Locate the parking: Parking is the first constraint. You need to hide the parking well. Try to put it on the lower side of the lot to reduce excavation.
  4. Locate the façade: It should be next to the main public space, such as a street, a plaza, or a park. The outer walls should follow the property line in a way that defines the street. You must be aware of the inside and the outside at all times.
  5. Define the shape: The building may vary in stories within the lot. Make the building increase in height if there are views.
  6. Revise private and public space: Make the buildings accessible from the outside. They should react to corners. When you follow the property line, it will be easy to form courtyards on the inside.
  7. Choose a style: After all this, now we are ready to give this building a style. You should have inspiration from local traditional architecture, so the style reacts to the local climate.
Henry Faarup, Stefanos Polyzoides and Edward McGrath

Refining the Plan

After you design this building, you can use it as a model to design other lots.

When you walk around Casco Viejo, you must study the decisions made for each lot. You will begin to see patterns. You will learn that buildings are human-scaled and that their shape reacts to public spaces and nature.

It all ties together in a language that is derivative of the culture and climate. You’re not repeating Casco Viejo. You’re getting inspiration and interpreting it to transform it into new designs. It is about the evolution of language.

We can enhance our language by studying towns, buildings, and construction techniques of the past. Architects must see themselves as being part of the local language. The language of Casco Viejo is not the end of the Hispanic architecture.

Now, let’s be specific.

You need to observe how walls, columns, and rooms are logical components that emerge from the human body to provide function, comfort, and beauty.

Traditional buildings in the tropics have overhangs and balconies to protect pedestrians from the rain while giving outdoor space to residents.

Architecture in Casco Viejo
Balconies of Casco Viejo

One example is the windows. The height in windows is equal to the length between your waist and your raised hands. This way, you can call someone by waving your hands and hinge your upper body outside.

To show you what I mean, look at Mediterranean roof clay tiles. They were formed around a log or the maker’s thigh, resulting in their semi-cylindrical shape.

Materials are locally sourced to ease maintenance. Materials have a manageable size so that one person may build or fix anything.

We, as a society, have forgotten how to build this way. We must relearn this art. 

What is the role of public spaces?

Public spaces let people get together and advance their culture. There are two kinds: natural and human-made public spaces. 

Natural public spaces are rivers, mountains, greenways, etc. It is where wildlife thrives. It is for connecting with nature in its raw state. They are places where humans can reset by hiking or just contemplating nature.

Río María Prieta in Porta Norte
Riverwalk, Porta Norte

Human-made public spaces are plazas, parks, squares, etc. It is where humans get together; they are the living room of the community. In them, they can do art, music, festivals, play, and be more active in civic society.

Plaza Fundadores in Porta Norte
Plaza de los Fundadores, Porta Norte

In Panama, Casco Viejo has the most human-made public spaces. It is no coincidence it has the most vigorous culture in Panama. Public spaces lead to the evolution of culture within a community.

Right now, there are crimes against humanity on the edges of Panama City. Developers are clearing forests to build suburbs without public spaces. They are building car-oriented developments with parking in the front of buildings. In those suburbs, people will have no room for interaction or connecting with nature. Their residents will end up with an unhealthy lifestyle, a weak sense of belonging, and a dull culture.

In Porta Norte, you have a beautiful forest. Due to heavy rainfalls, you will end up developing around half of it. You also have many pedestrian plazas. The best of all is that you connect them to form a network of public spaces. 

You have a high quality of natural and human-made public spaces. These public spaces, combined with dense urbanism, create a vibrant place. Porta Norte is the kind of urbanism that should be at the heart of the new urbanism.

What is your advice to Porta Norte?

You have a remarkable master plan, leadership, and guidance. You work hard to build this place and are also pursuing this at personal economic risk — so you have skin in the game. So I am confident it will succeed.

One of the crucial questions to address is: how to avoid mistakes? 

Your most important task at this stage is assembling great people to contribute. Get developers who understand that it is not about them in the short term, but about them and others in the medium and long term. Ensure that architects get inspiration from the places we talked about and make them read the Code of Porta Norte.

Everybody must understand that the first steps are the most important ones. If you do it wrong, people will come to Porta Norte and say, “Is this what they meant?” And not like it. If you do it right, you will have an urbanism people love, gain ambassadors, and the development will speed up.

One promising thing is that Porta Norte is in the middle of a developed part of the city. It has significant people around it and a major highway going next to it. That means you can have a mixed-use pedestrian town center built there. 

Charrette of Market Plaza Porta Norte
Designing Market Plaza Porta Norte

You must also build a school in the beginning. Between the mixed-use town center and the school, you will have two anchors of attraction. With this, it will be much easier to convince people that there’s life here, and they should be part of it.

It is difficult to build these many buildings well from the start because it is Panama’s first time. I am here to help you with this.

You need a lot of guidance in the first phase, less on the second, and in the third one, you are by yourselves. It is like learning how to bicycle. You get extra wheels, and somebody helps you climb it and ride with you. Then you ride alone and take off the wheels. After some time, you ride to school by yourself. I am here to help everyone become the authority they need to be to get this right.

What is the future of Panama, and how does Porta Norte fit in it?

Projects like Porta Norte will redefine living in tropical cities and refine citizens’ desires. It will enable an active civic life and a healthier relationship with the environment.

I have worked in Panama for over a decade, and I know at least six new urbanist projects. Together, they are inspiring more walkable real estate developments.

It is depressing to live in a world that does not know how to build well. Gladly, humans have recognized their mistake and are changing cities from cars to people. It is hard to think beyond our lifetime, but these changes are slow and may take over 100 years.

Panama City’s car-oriented growth made the city chaotic. We are here in the middle of the city with a horrible view of the “modern” city, dreaming of a romantic traditional town.

Porta Norte is an integral part of the expansion of the city. Fortunately, the backward modernism movement has not trapped you.

As I have seen in other countries, Porta Norte will awaken the market with its traditional planning. It will excite young people and be very successful.

You have been a great mentor. Thank you.

You can watch the video of the conversation below: