Stefanos Polyzoides plans to make cities more livable

The gig: Architect Stefanos Polyzoides is a godfather of the hugely influential movement in architecture and urban planning known as the New Urbanism. All those suburbs that decided to put in little downtowns and walkable areas? The whole loft thing? Infill development that puts condos in empty lots instead of sprawl out in the exurbs? Credit Polyzoides, his wife, Elizabeth Moule, and a small group of colleagues for co-founding the influential movement — and Polyzoides for giving it a name. Today the couple speak and write widely on the topic. They also run a thriving Pasadena architectural firm responsible for such diverse projects as the Del Mar station in Pasadena built over the Gold Line tracks and the civic plan for downtown Los Angeles.

The reason: Polyzoides, who was born in Greece, watched with sadness as development trampled beautiful old buildings in his beloved Athens when he was a child. “I grew up watching the city of Athens being absolutely destroyed through redevelopment,” Polyzoides said, “from a beautiful city to an absolute jungle.” Moving to Los Angeles as a young man solidified the impulse: Here was a city of lovely little neighborhoods that was letting itself decay or be paved over, even as its suburbs were sprawling for more than 100 miles.

Getting started: Fleeing political violence in Greece in the 1960s, Polyzoides came to the U.S. to study engineering. But at Princeton he found himself in the middle of a bubbling cauldron of ideas about cities. “I got a scholarship to study in Princeton and landed among a most remarkable number of great teachers,” he said, including such architects and scholars as Michael Graves and Kenneth Frampton. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at Princeton, and then taught there and at USC while also establishing an architectural practice. He and Moule married in 1988 and became business partners two years later.


No McMansions: Polyzoides believes that architecture should not just be about who can design the fanciest or wildest-looking building. If human beings have the obligation to leave the world a better place than they found it, designing the buildings and communities in which we live can play a huge part. “Architecture is not an aloof and isolated subject,” he said. “It belongs to a very time-honored human enterprise of building cities and coming to grips with nature. If you see architecture that way, it is never isolated. It is never insulated. It is never a subject by itself.”

New Urbanism: The Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization with about 3,100 members, was the first to articulate many of the ideas that now pervade planning in many cities. Started by Polyzoides, Moule and four colleagues in 1993, it was a reaction against urban sprawl as well as the so-called urban renewal movement of the 1960s, which had led to the bulldozing of historic neighborhoods such as Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill.

Projects: Polyzoides and Moule are working on a new plan for downtown Fresno, along with a plan for 7,000 acres of neighborhoods around the downtown area. They’re doing another plan for the portion of East Los Angeles that is under the jurisdiction of L.A. County. They’re also designing a new residence hall for Scripps College in Claremont.

Pet peeve: The wholesale destruction of older communities in China, as that country’s economic development continues to explode. “I’m scandalized at the way the Chinese are throwing away their roots,” he said.

Love and work: One fuels the other, Polyzoides said. The 64-year-old lives with Moule and their three children in Pasadena, where they reside on the grounds of one national monument, the Hale Solar Observatory, and work in another, an office designed and formerly used by famed architect Wallace Neff. “It is very unusual to be married to a brilliant person who is on the same journey with you,” he said. “To be able to share not only your personal life but your professional life — it’s a remarkable thing. I couldn’t be half of who I am without this personal relationship.”