Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth

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Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

Architect and urban planner

Born in 1950 in Bryn Mawr, PA; daughter of an architect and a landscape architect; married Andres Duany (an architect and urban planner), 1976. Education: Earned undergraduate degree in architect from Princeton University, 1972; Yale University, M.Arch., 1976.

Addresses: Office—Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, 1023 SW 25 Ave., Miami, FL 33135.


Began teaching architecture at the University of Miami, 1976; worked for Miami firm Arquitectonica, c. 1976-80; founded Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, 1980; dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, 1995—.

Awards: Co-recipient of Vincent J. Scully Prize, National Building Museum, 2001.


Architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is one half of a two-person revolution in American town planning. With her husband, Andres Duany, Plater-Zyberk has pioneered the "New Urbanism" movement, which urges local officials, regional planners, and architects to jettison the cookie-cutter suburb, the exclusive gated community, and the McMansion in favor of more pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented residential spaces. Plater-Zyberk and Duany are best known as the designers of Seaside, the Florida town used as the fictional setting in the 1999 film The Truman Show, but it was merely one of more than 200 immensely successful communities their firm had helped create, each with their own design vernacular. "The fence, the walkway, the screen porch," she listed in an interview with Smithsonian writer Phil Patton, "create an elaboration of ceremony. You have a choice of realms ranging in increments from the public to the most private."

Born in 1950 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Plater-Zyberk grew up in nearby Paoli. Her parents were immigrants from Poland, where her father had been an architect; her mother a landscape architect. At Princeton University in the late 1960s, where Plater-Zyberk studied architecture, she met Andres Duany, who is of Cuban heritage, and the pair met once again when both were enrolled at the Yale Graduate School of Architecture by 1972. They wed in 1976, not long after finishing the prestigious graduate program, and soon took dual teaching posts at the University of Miami in Florida.

Plater-Zyberk and Duany were affiliated with the prominent Miami architectural firm Arquitectonica, known for its fresh new designs that drew upon Miami's Art Deco past, but were becoming increasingly intrigued by larger urban-planning issues. A developer named Robert Davis approached them about designing a new town he was hoping to create from a parcel of land he had inherited in the Florida Panhandle. Plater-Zyberk and her husband put together a plan that encouraged more of a sense of community and contact, rather than elevating the ideals of individualism and isolation. All houses, for example, were located within walking distance of commercial area. Newer building materials, such as vinyl windows and aluminum siding, were prohibited. Houses were required to have a front porch, and the property a picket fence—though homeowners had to come up with their own design for the fence.

Construction began in 1982 for what would become the town of Seaside, Florida, and though it was considered somewhat experimental at the time, real-estate prices continued to rise steadily for its parcels over the next decade. It became a phenomenon and even a tourist destination, and in 1999 Hollywood arrived to use its pastel, picture-perfect streets as the setting for The Truman Show, which starred Jim Carrey as a man who learns that his entire life is a fictional television show.

Seaside became the most well-known of the projects done by Plater-Zyberk and Duany's eponymous firm, founded in Miami in 1980, but it spawned a number of new projects across the United States. These included Charleston Place in Boca Raton, Florida; Kentlands, Maryland; Blount Springs, Alabama; and Middleton Hills in Middleton, Wisconsin. As she explained in an interview with Index magazine's Peter Halley, many of the new communities are located in the southern United States, because "in the North, government is usually organized by township. In the newer Sunbelt states, it's organized by county. Townships are characteristically small and inexpert, and they don't have enough money to spend on things. The officials are almost always volunteers. The county structure is usually far more professional and forward-looking."

Plater-Zyberk does not design houses; instead other professionals adhere to her firm's residential architecture guidelines, which usually specify an updated version of older American styles, like Victorian. The communities she plans often feature such attributes as narrower streets, which slows driving speeds, and a commercial center within 1,300 feet, which studies had shown was the maximum distance that an average person will walk to a store rather than drive.

Plater-Zyberk and Duany were hailed as visionaries in the mainstream media early on, with a 1990 People magazine profile asserting that "in the '90s, when their plans come to fruition, they will be recognized as the most influential American town planners in decades—or ever." In 1993, Plater-Zyberk took part in a conference with other architects, urban planners, and similar cohorts, out of which arose the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). The group set forth the principles of the movement, and advocated "mixed-use" development over the "singleuse" zoning rules that most American suburbs had deployed since the 1950s. This meant that areas could have both residential and commercial districts, enabling those who lived there easy access to stores and possibly even their workplace, in contrast to the current standard, which was biased toward cars and drivers.

Many of these principles were laid out in Plater-Zyberk's 2000 book, written with Duany and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. She has been a vocal opponent of the gated community concept, which restricts access to residents only. "There are lots of reasons why they shouldn't exist," she told Halley in the Index interview. "There's the idea of exclusion. And there are traffic reasons. The gate dictates that you're only going to come and go by car. Gated communities always let out onto the big roads, so there are no smaller interconnections."

Since 1995 Plater-Zyberk has served as dean at the University of Miami School of Architecture, to which a new generation of future architects interested in the New Urbanism movement have flocked. She founded the school's master of architecture program in Suburb and Town Design, and serves as director for the Center for Urban and Community Design. In 2001 she and Duany were co-recipients of the Vincent J. Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, named after their onetime Yale professor upon whose ideas the New Urbanism movement was built. She predicted that movement toward more pedestrian-friendly communities "will intensify," she told South Florida Business Journal's Darcie Lunsford. "One big thing that bothers people is traffic congestion. Until we start reorganizing the bigger picture so that we don't have to do so much driving, the conditions we complain about in our cities and suburbs are only going to get worse."

Selected writings

(With Andres Duany and Jeff Speck) Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, North Point Press (New York City), 2000.



Architecture, January 2002, p. 27; July 2003, p. 23.

Florida Trend, July 1992, p. 32.

Index, June/July 2003, pp. 56-61.

New York Times, January 7, 2001, p. 7.

People, Spring 1990, Special Issue, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly, January 31, 2000, p. 88.

Smithsonian, January 1991, p. 82.

South Florida Business Journal, September 25, 1998, p. 3A.

U.S. News & World Report, March 20, 2000, p. 64.

—Carol Brennan