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OUR CITIES MUST NOT BE SACRIFICED BY THE BLIND AND OPINIONATED WHO TALK ENDLESSLY ABOUT AVENUES, CITY BLOCKS AND 'PUBLIC SPACE'

OPINION - WILL ALSOP

There is an awful lot of talk around at the moment about masterplanning, urban design and planning. This has given impetus to an emerging army of consultants who are battering their way through public procurement exercises in order to secure work. Architects, landscape architects and some engineers have all embraced this area of expertise; but is this a good thing?

There are some warnings.

For example, the area around Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz in Berlin was the subject of much public debate and consultation after the Wall came down. The public meetings were interminable and led up to a competition, the winner of which created the basis of what we see here today - which is boring, clinical and lacking in any edge. It is here that we see the downside of urban design as administered by a director of planning who firmly believed in the city block idea, pandering, with no creativity, to an unfounded perceived public requirement.

I observed a blind application of a planning dogma in the city that ultimately failed to live up to the extraordinary opportunity, on a world scale, that the Berliners had until the early 1990s.

A similar warning may be heeded in Toronto. The waterfront, which has been subjected to much scrutiny and 'best practice' (sic), fails to attract people and certainly does not engage with the emotional and experiential passions that people respond to.

In both cases we can see the arrogance of the masterplanner rise above evolution as a necessary component for place making.

Our cites must not be sacrificed by the blind and the opinionated who talk endlessly about avenues, boulevards, city blocks and 'public space' as though they can't break out of this vocabulary. It is a good example of how process can be constrained by language.

Planners often talk as though buildings do not matter. In fact, I heard one illustrious practitioner say exactly this at a recent conference. This is someone who then proceeds to go on and design buildings in his own masterplans which we can see would clearly benefit if he thought architecture was important.

The relationship between the ground and the objects (buildings) is critical.

We ignore it at our peril.

The process involved with masterplanning is of vital importance. In fact, at the outset of a project it is better to start by designing the conditions in which a conversation might occur.

The spirit and openness of the procedure is vital. The whole period of working is like a voyage of discovery on a ship that can house a number of people. The eventual course charted is plotted by many, which gives common ownership. The guiding into the port of destination is the job of the captain and the pilot. In my experience, the community is concerned with identity and uniqueness of its area. It is appropriate for the urban designer to report back in terms of 3D representation in order that people understand the implications of the collective vision.

The idea that the buildings themselves do not form a part of their concern is far from the truth. The success of our future places lies in being able to make possible futures visible, and current masterplanning practice seems to ignore this.

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