Should architect stick to buildings or is their remit much broader, extending to strategic influence over the city itself? In an era of vast cities and ever growing urbanisation this is a critical question.
Tina Perinotto’s recent article (16 August 2018) raised a number of strategic issues for architects. While the article was prompted by ructions within the Australian Institute of Architects, more important was the deeper story about the strategic role for the AIA and architects – issues relevant also to the related professions. Perinotto spoke to a number of leading practitioners asking for their views on these questions.
Interestingly all four architects interviewed referred to the importance of the architect’s role in city making in one form or another; “public domain, public space, population and infrastructure, architecture and the city, and the need for architects to have a louder voice in shaping our cities”.
Why “city making”?
What is driving this shift from the traditional remit of buildings to the advocacy of so-called city making? We are not just talking about urban design or placemaking in the narrow sense of places in and around buildings but the city itself. Is it the very noticeable city scale changes we all see around us?
Alexandros Washburn (an architect), former chief urban designer at the New York Department of Planning and author of The nature of Urban Design noted, “Urban growth today is upon us at a scale the world has never experienced, and we need transformation faster than we can produce it” [i].
Much of this results from the vastly increased impact of global capital on cities; one just needs to look at the number of economists who have written on cities [ii].
How is this changing the architect’s role, or is it? Is it actually a change or are architects regaining the confidence to speak about cities after the widespread rejection of disastrous
Post war impacts of misunderstood City Visions such as Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse [iii] or even Wright’s sprawling Broadacre City, even if they no longer have the confidence to propose schemes that are really provocations or manifestos?
Architects have written about the city since Vitruvius, and this continued throughout the Renaissance and 19th century, though in a very practical way. These were all dense urban cities, pretty well an “urban construction” or collection of “urban artefacts” as Rossi would describe some 80 years later.
From City Making to City Planning and City Remaking
As the city industrialised to a scale never before seen, and public transport enabled the spread and separation of functions, reformers such as Ebenezer Howard proposed social models rather than architectural ones. Geographers at the turn of the 20th century such as Patrick Geddes described regions and conurbations. In fact, the profession of planning emerged from this and drew on a wide range of non-architectural backgrounds including biology, with an emphasis on predicting and managing growth.
City making had moved in scale to city and region planning, and perhaps from design to managing.
While Howard’s Garden City envisaged quite traditional self-sufficient “towns in the country”, the advent of affordable private transport enabled a step change in personal mobility for a city of commuters.
Architects including Corbusier combined the images of industrial engineering and individual private mobility. Funded by the motor vehicle and aircraft manufacturing company Voisin, the Voisin Plan for Paris was in effect a massive transport interchange combined with a new architecture and urban pattern.
It was a singular top down vision, developed during the Depression when there was very little real work for architects; more a manifesto than a project. Arguably though its piecemeal and unplanned application has and perhaps continues to cause much destruction.
Return to City Making
Rossi in the mid 1960s returned to the more traditional “city as architecture”. This was largely ignored in the US, UK and Australia as The Architecture of the City [iv] wasn’t translated
into English for another 16 years or so. His architect’s Architecture of the City expressed much of what was lacking – making the city in the sense of construction, not abstract
diagrammatic planning – immensely attractive to architects.
Australian architects such as Thalis and Cantrillstudying in Europe in the 1980s rather than the more common US were influenced in this way. From their university teaching and
research emerged Public Sydney [v] – city research much as Rossi may have seen it. Drawings rather than the more abstract theories; “Rather than pursuing the temptations of utopian
visions, the experience of physical reality animates urban culture. Sydney’s form, like that of almost all cities is shaped primarily by its accumulation of public projects” [vi]
Rise of Metropolitan City Governance and Influence
Washburn and others [vii] viiargue that the role of the urban designer is more one of “influence” rather than more traditional “control” role of the architect with respect to designing a building.
This requires a significant shift as successful city scale transformation requires the alignment of finance, politics and design in the experience of Washburn, or planning and politics as Bishop explains in his case study of Kings Cross renewal, London [viii].
So unlike other design processes, urban design is done under the constant pressure of finance and politics – or to put it more crudely – money, politics and design.
As city making becomes increasingly complex with many participants, professionals, government, finance, community, we return to our question; what exactly is the architect’s
contribution – design, influence, or a combination of both; and who is the client?
The Resilient City – A Mosaic of Scales
Sydney architect and environmentalist Rod Simpson believes that a liveable city is a resilient one; “Acknowledging that there is no single definable, desirable end state means moving
beyond the ‘predict and provide’ approaches of the past”. Simpson conceives the city as a system of systems working together at multiple scales, that makes up the “mosaic of the
He also believes it’s possible to imagine a “re-energised” community sector, that could bridge the current divide between individuals and large-scale institutions.
For Simpson, the connection between the more fine-grained and localised concerns of urban design and the metropolitan scale other is the necessity to make the city as liveable as
possible. Like Washburn, Simpson notes that “without an understanding and conscious engagement with governance and the mechanisms of power and control, that were an
essential part of Jacobs’ reflections and activism, urban design is rendered superficial.”
William H. Whyte (1980) makes this distinction:
“Placemaking is not the end product, but a means to an end. It is the process by which a community defines its own priorities. This is something that government officials and self-proclaimed placemakers ignore at their own peril.”[x]
If our profession (and those related) desire a meaningful and strategic role in city making, then perhaps we need to work at the macro and micro levels of influencing and participating in governance, economics, and metropolitan scale design, as well as designing and constructing city scale projects respectively.
[i] Alexandros Washburn, The nature of Urban Design, Island Press, 2013
[ii] Glaeser (Triumph of the City ), Moretti (The New Geography of Jobs)
[iii] to be fair to Corb, he proposed mid-rise housing as well as high rise business towers
[iv] The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi, 1966 (Italian original), 1982 (English edition, MIT)
[v] Public Sydney, Drawing the City, Thalis and Cantrill, HHT & UNSW, 2013
[vii] Peter Bishop
[viii] Planning, Politics and City making, A case Study of King’s Cross, RIBA Publishing, 2016
[ix] The Apolitical Basis for Planning, New Planner September 2018. PIA NSW
[x] (PPS, 2016) Rod Simpson and Rob Roggema– How to design Sydney’s Third City – unpublished chapter
Philip Graus FAIA, MPIA, is an architect and urban planner with experience in practice and research. He was previously a director of Cox Architecture. He is currently director, Western City at the Greater Sydney Commission and Chair, North Sydney Design Excellence Panel.
Contribute to the debate at email@example.com