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Designing for London - Kieran Long and Colin Bloch on the Urban Design Scholarships

As the AJ/RPS Urban Design Scholarships programme draws to a close, Kieran Long and Colin Bloch explain the ideas behind it

Kieran Long, editor, The Architects’ Journal

The Urban Design Scholarships programme was born out of two firmly-held convictions. First, that urban design skill levels in this country are far too low. Second, that architects are the best-placed people to fill this gap, if only more of them would participate.

Together with two fantastic partners, RPS Group and Design for London, the AJ created the Urban Design Scholarships to address both of these concerns, selecting three individuals to receive hands-on experience of working on an urban scale. Our partners were ideal: RPS Group has experience of urban design throughout the country at a wide variety of scales in a multi-disciplinary context; Design for London, the London  Development Agency/Greater London Authority’s design office, is the most forward-looking public sector urban design office in the country. Both offered unique perspectives on the urban design debate in the UK.

The programme lasted one year, from the first call for entries to the exhibition’s opening. In that time, the three ‘scholars’ – Alicia Pivaro, Joe Morris and Fiona Scott – have put their all into various tasks and projects set by Design for London. They share an unconventional way of using drawings and graphics to represent their ideas, far from the ‘arrows on maps’ model of urbanism that is all too familiar in this country. There is also a realism to their work; a willingness to look at the unvarnished reality of the city and work with it. This feels utterly appropriate.

It is still true that urban design is not as good as it should be in this country, but I hope that the Urban Design Scholarships have helped in some way. The AJ has tried to raise the profile of urban design within the profession, and in the course of those efforts, three important voices have been added to  the debate about urbanism in London and the UK.

 

Colin Bloch, director, RPS

When we initiated the Urban Design Scholarships, we shared the AJ’s view that architects should be encouraged to work in urban design, or, as Design for London put it, ‘come on, you lot!’

Reviewing the quality and quantity of  the scholarship applications, the enthusiasm for urban design, particularly among younger architects, was clear. Architects will find that, as urban design becomes increasingly important and moves further up the development food chain, those who also practice urban design will secure an earlier and more influential role. I am surprised still to hear the question, ‘who should write the design and access statement?’ Architects, of course.

Whereas architectural practice in the recession has been slowed and stalled, the higher design streams of masterplanning and urban design have grown in some areas, as clients increasingly see that this is where value is most effectively created. For RPS and, I believe, other broad-spectrum practices, urban design has proved to be the most resilient discipline during the recession. The downturn has allowed the urban design sector to step into the limelight, as others retreat into the off-stage shadows. Hopefully this will endure as stage lights are switched back on again, and no longer will urban design be the back-room Cinderella decorating left-over spaces. I hope it will lead the process, driving the architecture of cohesive and meaningful places.

The work produced by the first AJ/RPS Urban Design Scholars exceeds expectations in its originality, thoughtfulness and thoroughness. I am sure that, for each of them, this experience will not be the end of an interest in urban design.

The mentoring provided to the scholars by Mark Brearley and his team at Design for London, despite being a busy office during a difficult time, has been committed, expert and consistent.

An exhibition of the AJ/RPS Urban Design Scholarship winners’ work will run until 22 May at London Metropolitan University, 40-44 Holloway Road, London N7 8JL

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