Reluctant 'New Urbanist' Fred Koetter has German roots but hails from Montana, is married to Susie Kim, an architect from Korea, has offices in London and Boston and teaches at Yale. His equally international practice of around 70 staff, Koetter, Kim and Associates, grew out of Boston in 1978. 'We began the practice without clients,' he says. 'We were doing research on the city and identifying projects within the city that were in a way typical of the conditions in other cities and how cities were affected by transportation.'
The practice drew grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and from developers for its initial studies and ended up exploring specific development areas. That led to ideas for schemes, exhibitions, and then finally commissions - one for the centre of Chattanooga, Tennessee, another a development of a site near mit for research and development offices. In 1988, the practice was invited to take part in an international competition for Canary Riverside in London. It won the masterplanning job and while in the capital, was asked to prepare studies for other sites in East London - a scheme for the Blackwall peninsula, some studies around Limehouse. With all this Olympia and York work, an office in London seemed a necessity. kka London opened in 1989, and the practice's headquarters for Scottish Equitable in Edinburgh followed. It has proved a 'useful extension' to work done in the us on schemes around the world including China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
But what has really fascinated Koetter and fired his contagious enthusiasm has been urbanism and the city. Branded an 'incandescent intelligence' and 'Mr Plan rather than Mr Elevation' by Colin Rowe, with whom he wrote the famous Collage City, Koetter is a thinker about cities and the way they form. He shows a preference for the human-scale and buzzing urban areas, as opposed to the 'self-referential' building unaware of its context and history, and the effects on the city of the automobile: 'You gotta be able to get a newspaper without getting in a car.'
He is a fanatical urbanist, devoted to his overriding belief that the ideal is dense, mixed-use, complex and rich, with a viable sense of place. 'Today there's a lot of differences of opinion and controversy about what constitutes a good city,' he says. 'There's always an ethos that because of technology, because of communication, because of aspects of modern life, it suggests a new form of city. So for the past 100 years architects and urbanists have been imagining what the new city might be like.'
While most of these things have been 'interesting', he feels, they haven't been resolved with any great success, because many of the projections are visions which are 'urbanistically not very complex'. Even the British New Towns were 'sound conceptually', but in contemporary terms were not 'market-tested' and remained unpopular among those who lived there.
'The complexities aren't related to the qualities of urban life. We're interested in how some of these conditions of twentieth-century life relate to the conditions of urbanism. By that I mean twentieth-century conditions that have had a big impact on the city.' He cites the automobile, because it has radically affected the form and nature of cities, and communications technology: 'I don't think it's nearly as invasive as the automobile but because of communications many activities are no longer as place-sensitive as they used to be. Increasingly in the us, and probably in Europe, people work anywhere. For some people that means the form of the city as being a dense centristic thing no longer has any meaning.'
Far from stretching our sub-urban areas yet further, he conjectures, it might actually lift the popularity of the city and increase man's desire to be gregarious; to liberate: 'It could very well be that information technology, paradoxically, might recondense or reinforce more dense and elaborate versions of urbanism. If you can live anywhere, that means that you're free, in a way. So do you want to live out in the suburbs somewhere? In the us the average suburban family has 2.5 cars so you can't do anything without getting in your car and driving somewhere. Would that be your ideal life if you could live anywhere? No, maybe you'd want to live in Cannes. It could be that people may opt not just to live on mountain-tops but to live in interesting cities, urban environments. Most in their fanciful modes say yes, there's going to be a new form of city and we can't understand it yet but our environmental requirements are going to be radically different than they've ever been before, but you've still got to have lunch, you've still got to have your shoes repaired - the details of everyday life are still the same, that's for sure. The automobile has had an incredible impact on the city, but I don't think it is as coarse and as invasive, so as one who likes cities I'm interested in the possibility that these technologies will help reinforce some of the interests of actual urban life.'
In that sense, Koetter admits he is a traditionalist. 'If you say that dense, packed, multi-use places are traditional, then yeah, I'd say I am.' He recalls that 10-15 years ago mit was using computers to research sustainable settlements, trying to find out what the form of a sustainable community might be. The results looked remarkably like a medieval town - close proximity, contiguous construction (buildings sharing building materials, party walls and having the maximum internal volume). 'I don't know if that's traditional. All I know is that as we look towards further draining of non-replaceable resources we're going to be looking at an era where we have to look at the more judicious use of materials and resources. In the past that was the natural way to build because technology was limited - people would build in close proximity because you didn't have to walk as far. You could find one of the futures is an interest in denser development. What's happening in the us right now is that suburbs are extending themselves to the point where they're no longer sustainable. They're stretched to their limits. Now we're seeing pockets of density in the suburbs which could be the beginnings of a new pattern of denser, more complex development.'