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Farrell's belief in the value of the urban masterplan

Brian Edwards reviews...

Sir Terry Farrell was on fine form at the British Council for Offices (BCO) annual conference in Edinburgh. Besides conducting a workshop on the business benefits of physical masterplanning, he led a large group of delegates around the streets of Edinburgh. The architect-knight strode magisterially around the financial quarter he had created, stopping to make a point like a politician on an election trail. All looked bright in Terry's garden.

There were deeper messages, like the need to orchestrate the plots, both physical and political.

Masterplanning, he said, was spatial, but its effects were economic, social and cultural.

How to decide priorities depended, he suggested, on the balance between public realm and private estate. In Edinburgh, public authorities take the lead and cultural value dictated to developers. But where it is left to the developer, few see the financial rewards in good urban design. In fact, since masterplanning allocates space for the public realm, it can oppose the interest of private gain.

Farrell sought to convince BCO delegates that masterplanning was in their interests. It helped to protect their investment by adding value to the area inside the plan and outside its boundary. He used Festival Square - Edinburgh's new financial district around his own conference centre - as an example.

The decision to put the conference centre at one end of the site had created opportunities for new buildings whose value had risen both because their proximity to the civic neighbours and as a result of the orderly, well-proportioned urban geometry of the plan. The area is prosperous (some vacant shops apart); at its edges regeneration was speeding ahead (such as BDP's Scottish Widows HQ).

The message fell on receptive ears: many of the BCO's clients have benefited in Birmingham's BrindleyPlace and elsewhere from masterplan-led urban renewal. The precursor to the approach in the UK was Skidmore Owings and Merrill's Canary Wharf masterplan (1984) which, in spite of Olympia and York's difficulties, stands today as a pocket of urban quality in Docklands'mediocrity.

Farrell was quick to talk of the importance of time and space as key dimensions to successful regeneration. Time provides the means for the footprint of the initial plan to grow into a complex web of economic, social and cultural life. The role of the masterplan was to structure the space of the forest into rides, glades and clearings rather than fill it all with trees. To Farrell, masterplanning was a form of wealth creation. It did this by recognising the power of urban design to direct capital towards sound ends. The masterplan is the script for the participation of all the players - street artists and jugglers as well as the financial institutions.

Farrell talked about his heroes: Colin Rowe's Collage City; Robert Venturi, whose responsibility towards the 'difficult whole' put to shame the 'product design architect of our age'; and Frank Gehry, who should be recognised as an urban designer and a placemaker in the grand manner.

The BCO annual conference took place in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, see page 16

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