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City design is never a simple matter of cause and effect

When designers start taking all the blame for social ills with multiple causes, it is time for a reality check, writes Paul Finch

The Boston Marathon bombing brought into sharp focus debates about urban design and the extent to which architects can affect the way we live. Before the explosions, we saw the use of the city for a mass event based on what is now called ‘active design’.

However, discussion moved onto urban terrorism after the attack, with memories of 9/11 invoked. From what I saw and read, there was little suggestion that you could design streets and buildings to cope with what happened in Boston. We have all learned a lot in the last decade about the foolishness of believing that fortifications do anything other than encourage terror in places that are not fortified.

Some might remember the predictions after 9/11 that we would never see glass buildings again, and that underground car parks would be a thing of the past. Of course neither has been the case. It is true that the first dozen storeys of the Freedom Tower in Manhattan will resemble a battered castle wall, but that is perhaps understandable, given its symbolic significance. It is surely the exception that proves the rule.

Design can sometimes make life easier for those intent on bombing their way into history, but it is not responsible for their behaviour in the first place. I would argue that the same is true of active design: it can enable and encourage, but it does not, of itself, result in people walking and running rather than sitting at home eating crisps. There is a little bit of me (no sylph) which silently shouts ‘Eat less!’ when the health propagandists start blaming architects for obesity epidemics.

When designers themselves start taking all the blame for social ills with multiple causes it is time for a reality check. In the 1970s, the great commercial architect, Richard Seifert, said architects were to blame for the UK housing ‘crisis’, partly the result of a rash of ill-designed tower blocks. This claim to universal responsibility placed the profession at the centre of the universe, ignoring the role of national politicians, contractors, councillors, housing administrators, and all the rest of those complicit in the complex matter of housing failure. It is no different today.

Another aspect of the great causality debate is the justifications that now have to be made to generate funding for civic projects such as parks and street improvements. Instead of parks being regarded as beautiful, civilised urban features, in which citizens can enjoy nature, they have to be seen as essential elements in the fight for fitness, this functional justification supported by dubious statistics about how they make people feel better (unless they have just been mugged).

Similarly the idea of decent street paving becomes part of a functional agenda involving health and safety, the evils of motoring, and the needs of joggers. It is rather like the justifications for Modernism, which started in the same way (soleil, verdure, espace) as matters of urban hygiene. Later, the argument switched to function and why form should follow it. The high-tech architects used engineering efficiency as their watchword, while more recently the latest validation of the contemporary is the useful concept of sustainability, which neatly encapsulates much of those previous validations.

In truth, the civilised city and decent buildings are a good in themselves, requiring designers who can make things look good (for want of a better phrase). The Victoria and Albert’s decision to keep flying the flag raised by Design for London, mysteriously abolished by the Mayor, is a welcome sign of an interest in the design habitat in which most of the world’s population will in future live their lives. Free from terror, we hope.

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