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Blueprints for the burgeoning city Mastering the City: 100 Years of City Planning in Europe At the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam until 5 April

Review

Eight black-and-white, banner-sized photographs of bewhiskered and serious men float over this exhibition; below there are historic plans for 24 northern European cities from Letchworth (1903) to Greater Berlin (1910) to Moscow's Genplan (1935) to Almere near Amsterdam (1977). At the end of the hall is the bird's eye view of Hendrik Christian Andersen's utopian (and very American) International World Centre of 1912. Half of the exhibition space displays the current plans for two capitals, Greater Paris and Berlin, and two 'agglomerations', Randstad and the Ruhrgebiet. All this is to commemorate the 100th birthday of Cor van Eesteren, the author of the 1934 General Expansion Plan for Amsterdam and president of ciam from 1930-1947.

So this is both a historical review of northern European town planning and a reflection on where we are going, with a bias toward the heroic role of the town planner. And yes, the answers are here too in all their historic and masterful simplicity: 'The city is dead' (Rem Koolhaas, 1995); 'A city is a dramatic event in the environment' (Gordon Cullen, 1961); or, rather more eloquently, 'Town and Country must be married and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation' (Ebenezer Howard, 1898). This exhibition is as much about the process of town planning as about towns and urban regions.

Mastering a city is what Albert Speer set out to do in his 1938 General Bauungsplan for Berlin, with its green wedges determined by landscape architect Willy Schelkes; and if it is civic design you are interested in, the big, current 1:500 model of the centre of former East Berlin is the object to observe. This shows the Bundesrepublik reinterpreting the city and imposing its image, just as Richard Paulick's 1950 plan for 'The Centre of New Berlin' required demolition of the old Kaiser's Palace in order to create Marx-Engels Platz.

But the direction of this exhibition is more to that newer, looser concept, the 'edge city' or urban agglomeration represented in current plans for Paris/Ile de France, the Ruhrgebiet and Randstad. It is debatable whether places like the relatively depressed towns of the Ruhrgebiet, or even the far wealthier Randstad, really fit the Californian concept of the edge city, but 'network city' does adequately describe some of their characteristics (and authorities such as Peter Hall and Marc Auge are drawn upon to describe them).

In Holland such debates have led to a questioning of the idea of the Green heart at the centre of Randstad, while by contrast in the Ruhr area the role of the Emscher Park iba is avowedly to reconstruct the landscape of declining industry together with the ecology of the River Emscher basin. 'Landscape, together with infrastructure, has become a decisive factor in the design of the contemporary (European) city,' is how Harm Tilman concludes his accompanying essay.

A heavyweight two-volume catalogue (available in English - nai Publishers, Dfl165) extends the content of the show in sections covering the Scandinavian experience, city region planning in Belgium, Germany, Britain, France and Holland, and eastern bloc cities - Warsaw, Kiev, and Moscow (1910- 35). This is a source book that all planning libraries should buy.

The very graphic displays make it clear that some planners really like to draw - Peter Shepheard, for instance, with his aerial view of the Lea Valley park proposal in the 1944 Greater London Plan, and Tony Garnier with his colour-wash drawings of Lyon. But are planners effective, and how do you measure that? Should cities be representations of political power, or places of justice and humanity and freedom - or what?

And what if there is no planning? At the beginning of this exhibition there is a diagrammatic map of north-west European cities representing their connections, their functions and their relative importance measured by 'some 26 socio-economic factors' - yet the most important city, London, barely figures in the post-1970 coverage. What a telling omission that is. Robert Holden teaches at the University of Greenwich

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