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Questioning the strategic role of architects in city making

Model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City displayed at MOMA, photo: Michael Hession
Model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City displayed at MOMA, photo: Michael Hession

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.

city making Ville Radieuse

Ville Radieuse by Le Corbusier

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

city”[ix].

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

[vi] Ibid

[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 editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

8 Responses to “Questioning the strategic role of architects in city making”

  • Philip’s article brilliantly builds on a growing realisation that cities are not things to be ‘designed’ per se, but moving feasts of power, money, politics and simply making progress. It lets the sun in on a few things…

    Architects and many others in the field often quarantine themselves to their site (as their clients expect), making statements with almost always flimsy contextual analysis (usually well intentioned) to build the case for their building. This is very frustrating for me as a civic urban designer in government.

    What I really appreciate about the article is the importance of understanding the process of governance in our cities, that is isn’t linear, and that civic design – that is, designing things for all not just a few – is still problematic. Our streets and public spaces are the cornerstone of democracy – this isn’t new, as outlined by Philip, yet connection of private building to public street is still one of the biggest problems we face in our cities.

    Great article. I’ve had it sat open on my screen here for a few days now….

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Great and thoughtful discussions Philip, and your conclusion draws on the political economy that is the city, and thus our remit as architects is to understand this political economy; combining the ‘practical with the poetical’ (Karen Stein). However, there is more!

    Huge new factors impinge on the city now, the most potent being the question of “Whose City is it?”, carefully unpacked by Leonie Sandercock in her “Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century” We are almost post-everything, certainly approaching post-multi-culturalism judging by an anti-immigration discourse bubbling up at the moment, with, on the other hand, calls for the professions to understand designing for diversity – the ‘dilemmas of difference’- socio-cultural differences – as a necessary part of the architect’s and urban planner’s role. Thankfully I say. The modernist and even post-modernists theorists have left us in paralysis.

    I trust you Philip together with Helen O’Loughlin with your roles in the Greater City Commission will tease this tension out successfully.

  • George says:

    I think this article once again reinforces the view that the built environment sector is so incredibly siloed and that the governance between these professions is hideously broken, if not non existent. It’s just not about how architects get involved with city planning, but how this sector further builds its relationships with the engineers, surveyors, planners, builders, developers etc. Same goes for these other professions as well. In an era where the free market rules, this lack of coordination between the different professions leads to outcomes that lacks any real strategic merit, any purpose, in some cases any love or spirit.

  • Another architect source on cities is P.F.Downton “Buildings and Cities for a Changing Climate” CSIRO Publishing.
    In the coming period of increasing natural hazard events (peri-urban and urban flood, wildfire, earthquake) the architect centred design approach both to resilient buildings, services and city layout in readiness, and ability to define ‘red zone’ hazard areas after the event are becoming profession based new foci.
    2003 Canberra, 2015 Adelaide northern peri-urban, as well as overseas events give us pause for thought about the adequacy of past practices for survivable urban development thinking.

  • Great article Philip !

    Hi Chris, I dont think you can put Barangaroo and Central Park in the same equation in relation to this article.

    My understanding is that the Masterplan for Central Park went through a very very rigorous Urban Design Process and City of Sydney were instrumental in ensuring this delivered quality public space.

  • Ross Blancato says:

    Thank you Philip for articulating the primary point that a city is a complex set of interrelationships between a myriad of stakeholders. In my view, no single strategic plan will ever satisfy those often competing interests. Perhaps we need to look at a series of guiding principles or tests to measure against and satisfy when strategic plans for making (remaking) cities are proposed. Eg: Do they improve liveability, do they improve the environment, can they be financed, are they affordable, what is their expected economic life? Even then, there will be debate but ultimately, political leadership is required.

    I agree that Architects should be more visible in this debate – but equally the views of developers need to be considered. They are the risk takers and agents of delivery and have a lot to contribute. Like architects and other professionals, not all developers are good at what they do, but I would argue that the vast majority of professionals in this field are well intentioned, passionate and skilled. And we need them to transform our cities. Great though provoking article Philip.

  • Andy Jarman says:

    Their appears to be a proven need for a ‘senior’ discipline to lead groups of disparate specialisations.

    I had hoped Urban Design would have produced these people, but unfortunately entry into this job title does not need to include any significant breadth or depth of practical experience in practical City development.

  • A good article about the scale of design by architects from a chair to a city but missing is the shift away from governments to be the master planners towards the private sector undertaking very large scale mini cities (like Central Park, Barangaroo, Ivanhoe, Melrose Park, Oran Park etc). Governments now have less money to provide the amenities and the public spaces so the urban designer / urban planner is evolving as a discipline to work on big mini city urban or even greenfield projects driven by the private sector.

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