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Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modelling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory By David Grahame Shane.Wiley-Academy 2005. 344pp. £26.99

At a time when every second architect is adding 'and urban designer' to his or her letterhead, it is good to be reminded of how rich a body of urban design theory exists.

It is sad to reect, though, that very little of it has much of an impact on urban design practice, and probably little of it is studied on most urban design (let alone planning or architecture) courses.

David Grahame Shane's book has its origins in his many years lecturing on urban design in the UK and USA, and it is none the worse for that. But its subject is the complexity of cities, and that is difficult to theorise about. Shane knows the futility of designing as if the future were predictable and as if any city authorities were in a position, by themselves, to build their vision.

Shane focuses on three recurrent urban structures or organisational patterns: the armature, the enclave and the heterotopia. The armature is something like a traditional European street and the enclave a traditional public square.

The heterotopia is a special form of enclave that contains exceptions to the dominant urban form. Shane identifies three types (heterotopias of crisis, of deviance, and of change) and describes how they can change from one to another through the unstable processes of urbanisation.

His theorising - inspired by Kevin Lynch, among others - is sometimes exhilarating, though relating it to the real world is seldom easy. For example, Shane describes 'heterotopias of crisis' as 'sacred or forbidden places reserved to individuals who are in a state of crisis in relation to the society in which they live'.

Yet surprisingly the example he cites as 'the ultimate crisis heterotopia' is the British pub.

If that is his experience, he should look for a more relaxing place to drink on his visits here.

Recombinant Urbanism, as the title's reference to genetics suggests, is an attempt to splice together many strands of urban design to strengthen the emerging field of enquiry.

Shane hopes to provide 'useful strategies' to designers and other participants in urban processes ('urban actors', in the jargon) in 21st-century network city. That city is, he notes, 'a wired and mediated environment that comprises sparsely populated landscapes as well as hyperdense, global city nodes? a hybrid patchwork of past environmental traditions and cybernetic, informational environments'.

Much of what passes for urban design today fails to respond to that new world.

Too many practitioners just go through the motions, applying standard solutions without any real understanding, analysis or design. They are unlikely to read Shane's excellent book.

But we might hope that the academics and students who do, will help develop theories that can shape for the better the 21st-century urban world.

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and author of The Dictionary of Urbanism

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