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Lost in transit

review - Urban Forms: The Death and Life of the Urban Block By Philippe Panerai et al. Architectural Press, 2004. 222pp. £24.99

In the great land grab that is urban regeneration, a particular planning problem recurs:

can odd-shaped pieces of land be treated as blank canvases for the placing of new forms, or should a grid of some kind be superimposed? This leads to a further problem: if a grid is okay, are there good rules to blockformation that should be applied?

In the regeneration game, such questions have tended to be settled pragmatically, with dire results for stitching the new into the old.

The blank-canvas approach at least overcomes that; however, soi-disant planners display a palpable blankness when their block sizes are questioned. Planners never majored on that issue here, but in Germany, Italy and France academic research has fed into the planning process (which in the UK seems more like a branch of estate agency and, therefore, profoundly anti-historical, if not anti-intellectual). This book won't change the current practitioners of the bleak arts of planning but it should become required reading for every student who intends to go anywhere near the subject.

Urban Forms began publishing life in 1977, and this translation includes two new chapters, the latter not to be found in the most recent French edition. The meat of the book is four case studies: Haussmann's Paris, London's Garden Cities, the expansion of Amsterdam (1913-34), and Ernst May's New Frankfurt. Discussions of Modernism, exemplified by Le Corbusier and recent planning practices, complete the book.

While this list may appear old hat, the authors bring refreshing and ingenious perceptions to every page as they chart the decay of urban blocks towards the free-standing object of Modernism. Via some sharp structuralist boxes they show how streets have become mere corridors of transit instead of social spaces. 'Whether it is pre-existing or originates from a new layout, it is the street that distributes, feeds, and orders development. [A] dialectical relationship between street and built plot creates the tissue.' That is their subject - the urban tissue or matrix that increasing hordes travel to Europe to enjoy, and which parts for the monumental buildings. Together, the monument and the tissue enable us to read where we are in cities; but, without streets, the buildings that guidebooks depend on would be simply an incoherent jumble.

Clear thinking about cities seems to depend more on balancing the interest groups, however defined, with planners and architects suggesting that they can really sort out whatever intricate solution is required.

In this book we have the processes and the tools laid down very clearly.

David Dunster is professor at the University of Liverpool

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