Best practice makes perfect, if we don't forget the exceptional
Today sees the launch of the Urban Design Compendium, a best-practice guide commissioned by English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. Providing practical guidance on assessing and achieving quality in regeneration and development projects, the publication covers issues such as density, energy efficiency, landscape, transport, access and the public realm. It is thorough, well written, user-friendly and illustrated with a range of projects which make it abundantly clear that the powers behind this report have no intention of dictating on the subject of aesthetics. An impressive piece of work - and one which will, presumably, be dismissed as hopelessly out-of-date within a few years.
The authors are relaxed about this, presenting the compendium as a milestone in an ongoing body of work as opposed to a finished product. As well as a cheery acknowledgement of its built-in obsolescence, the guidance is issued with its own health warning. It speaks of the dangers of a publication such as this one becoming too institutionalised, citing the example of the original Essex Design Guide . Pioneering in its time, it was adopted by planning departments and developers to the extent that planning permissions were won on a 'deemed to comply' basis, with scant attention to the quality of the design. Using the guide as a tick-box exercise may help to prevent ill-thought-out projects from seeing the light of day, but it is also likely to encourage complacency among architects, developers and planners.
In setting out the rules which govern good writing - never use a long word where a short one will do, never use a foreign phrase if you can think of an everyday equivalent, and so on - George Orwell advised that any of the rules should be broken in order to avoid saying something 'outright barbarous'. Poor architecture, like poor writing, cannot necessarily be combated by rules which advocate clarity and common sense. And there is no guidance at all which can encourage the exceptional.
One of the most valuable services provided by the Urban Design Compendium is to formally enshrine the principle that no amount of guidance can substitute for imagination and talent. One rule which always holds fast is that genius breaks the rules.