When Robert Orr ARC ’73 began his presentation at the Saybrook College Master’s Tea yesterday afternoon with photographs of outer space from the Hubble telescope, students exchanged confused looks, as they had been expecting a presentation on architecture, not astronomy. But soon it all made sense.
“These pictures of asteroids and planets are beautiful from far away, but the closer we get to these things the more we realize that they are places we would not like to be,” Orr said.
Orr used these images to help illustrate his theory that human comfort is more important than aesthetic originality in architecture.
Orr and his colleagues from the Yale School of Architecture moved to Florida after graduation and began to put together the early tenets of the movement that is now referred to as “new urbanism.” He said they worked on building communities such as Seaside, Fla. and Celebration, Fla, with an emphasis on the density of the neighborhoods and the narrowness of the streets to create a feeling of community.
“We were really fed up with the mindless myopic extension of the human environment across the landscape,” Orr said. “Nobody knows anybody in a spread-out neighborhood whereas in a tight environment, you really have an opportunity to get to know your neighbors.”
Orr cited the Yale campus as a great example of good urban design because all the classes, restaurants, and residences are in close proximity. He said instant community is formed in a close environment, which is determined by the quality of the architecture.
“The one thing that humans have that no other animals have is language, the ability to put a thought from my head into your head, and if we can facilitate that, we can create a community,” he said.
Orr blamed the development of wide streets and spread-out towns on the fact that most present city planning is scaled to cars rather than to people. He said no street should be wider than 10 feet across because people drive more safely on narrower streets.
“With this mindless interest in cars, towns don’t feel as close and neighborhoods are being torn apart,” he said.
Ideally, Orr said he would like the communities he builds to cater to all incomes and ages because he thinks it best not to separate out groups of people. His firm, Robert Orr and Associates, which is located in New Haven, has worked on projects in Fair Haven and other nearby communities.
“When we isolate low-income housing, we create an environment for bad things to happen and make the people who live there feel like they have no hope,” he said.
About 30 people attended the talk, many of whom had no previous architectural knowledge.
“I have never taken an architecture class before, but I am intrigued by the idea of urban planning and [Orr] made a lot of points that I would not usually come across,” David Griswold ’07 said.
Saybrook Master Mary Miller said Orr’s speech was particularly appropriate because New Haven is a city of such urban fabric. On a smaller scale, she said Saybrook College is a perfect example of the density of the buildings in a small area creating community.
“Over the years, it has been interesting to watch architects who have had some connection with Vincent Scully [’40] all thinking about how we live door to door and space to space,” she said.
Lina Lee ’07 said she was surprised by what Orr said in his presentation because it seems to go against many ideas she took for granted.
“I always assume that everyone wants and needs more space, and I had never thought about it the other way around,” she said. “Orr’s visual presentation that demonstrated the changing of neighborhoods over time was interesting and helpful, definitely something you don’t see every day.”
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