Firms Use Nature to Rethink Suburbia

Event: Architectural League Emerging Voices Series
Location: The Urban Center, 03.05.09
Speakers: Shane Coen — Principal, Coen + Partners (Minneapolis & NYC); Derek Dellekamp — Principal, Dellekamp Arquitectos (Mexico City)
Organizer: The Architectural League of New York

Mayo Plan #1 (left); Tlacolula street rendering (right).

(left) Coen + Partners; (right) Dellekamp Arquitectos

Suburban development isn’t typically associated with innovation and specificity, but Shane Coen and Derek Dellekamp want to change this. At the first of this year’s Emerging Voices series at The Architectural League, the two firms discussed their successes and shortcomings in their efforts to re-examine suburbia.

In Rochester, MN, the Mayo family (of Clinic fame) asked landscape architecture firm Coen + Partners to create a new residential development on its former 220-acre farm. Forced to work with a banal street plan, following the typical curvilinear cul-de-sac model already approved by local authorities, the firm developed a landscaping strategy grounded in the site’s history and ecology. Five-foot-tall grasses were introduced throughout the development to erase property lines, while trees, fences, and house plots were situated along innate linear axes to give residents new ways to experience their natural surroundings and interact with neighbors. Coen worked closely with Altus Architecture and Salmela Architect to design 120 contemporary, geometrical homes based on the area’s traditional agricultural buildings.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, Dellekamp Arquitectos is designing a new suburban community consisting of 1,000 low-cost social housing units. Working with a very tight budget, the firm reconfigured the generic floor plan used for these kinds of developments, responding to Oaxaca’s sweltering climate by maximizing shade and providing cool breezes. Cars are moved from their privileged position in front of a house to a shared site nearby, freeing outdoor space for family use and allowing for the creation of inner pedestrian streets. In a friendly nod to Oaxaca’s lively traditional architecture, each house is covered in vibrant bands of contrasting paint.

Dellekamp’s Oaxaca development is currently in construction, but Coen’s Mayo project has stalled. Although the plan has been widely praised in the design community, the Mayo family and its conservative community decided that they wanted their neighborhood to be more traditionally suburban. Coen’s lesson? “Never try to talk a family into doing anything.” With some perseverance, however, Coen will hopefully revive his strategies elsewhere.