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Reform or revolution?

NEWS - How do you make the city a wondrous place to live? This was the challenge to architects at the Revitalising the European City conference last week. Austin Williams reports

The Revitalising the European City conference at the RIBA last week was organised by The Architectural Review to discuss 'how to heal urban sores and scars'. An impressive array of architects lined up with a brief to focus on 'the crises that face almost all European cities: pollution, deracination, decay, congestion, disintegration and destruction'.

Fortunately, no one took this depressing itinerary as their starting point.

David Mackay, of Spanish architectural practice MBM Arquitectes, started off with an overview of Spain's radical history, concluding that 'democracy is in crisis and we need a revolution in our cities'. By this he meant a 'true' partnership between public and private sectors; recognising that the public was the 'only partner which will defend the inheritance of the past and of the future'.

Mackay's presentation ranged from Salerno to Newham. His exposition of Max Taut's Eichkamp housing development in Berlin from the 1930s was well received, describing how housing can be made more humane by introducing the urban into the suburban and using a variety of architects on any given scheme.

In a strangely reformist twist, he concluded that basic design issues can make a real difference and act as stepping stones to major design changes. His message was that 'we should do the easy things first'.

'We need to tear down all ugly box buildings and never build on unspoiled land again, ' was Oslo architect Neils Torp's message. Celebrating the spaces in between buildings, he advocated that 'architects show humility when designing'.

Next, flown in especially from Moscow, Meinhard von Gerkan, partner in Hamburg architectural practice von Gerkan & Marg, outlined several different stages of urban design: reparation, conversion and 'combining uses'. Proclaiming that 'every part of every building is part of the city', he displayed an impressive array of buildings from the 75,000m 2Berlin railway station to proposals for an island off Shanghai. To revitalise the city, he said, 'we need to develop connections in time and space'.

In his relaxed but authoritative contribution, Renzo Piano stated his enthusiasm for his profession and for architects' 'insane conviction that they can change the world'.

Documenting his work at Potsdamer Platz, London Bridge Tower and the New York Times building, he conveyed a need to 'add vitality' to cities while 'making sure that the revitalisation of historic centres doesn't end up demolishing everything'. Transparency, permeability and public access were his key themes, although he concluded with a plea to sort out the periphery - 'we must stop the explosion of cities and start the implosion'.

Recognising that there are not many places to build tall buildings in London, he repeated other speakers' advocacy of building on, and over, railway land. At the end, AR editor Peter Davey, who chaired the conference, was so impressed that he admitted to being 'almost convinced' by Piano's London Bridge Tower design reasoning.

Davey, who handled the proceedings with consummate ease - interested in all the speakers without ever being sycophantic - introduced Sir Nicholas Grimshaw as 'someone that I had always thought of as a builder of tall buildings in the country; but now he's come to town'.

Sir Nicholas spoke about 'giving something back to the community', although it was not spelled out what this should be. He rejected the notion that architects should 'design buildings to fit into their surroundings; they should be simply designed as well as they possibly can' but pledged to 'fight tooth and nail to avoid too many areas of grand planning'.

Sauerbruch Hutton partner Louisa Hutton talked through the design of the GSW headquarters in Berlin, one of the first projects to be built during the reconstruction of the city in the 1950s. She concentrated on the historic, political significance of its location and the design which, she said, combined 'found fragments of the city'. The existing tower structure, for example, was originally intended to be demolished until it was realised that retaining it would help 'reintegrate' the whole project into its context.

Unfortunately, Adriaan Geuze, landscaper and urbanist from Dutch practice West 8, had to be relegated to the end of the proceedings because of the ubiquitous Powerpoint gremlins (apparently his CD had been corrupted while passing through customs). As it turned out, he managed a witty, upbeat discussion, name-dropping a variety of famous personalities - from Yuri Gagarin to Elvis- which entertained with interesting imagery but failed to illuminate.

The only drawback, which had been identified by Piano earlier in the day, was a lack of theoretical insight into the debate about cities, relying instead on aesthetic realisations. Are cities really in crisis? Is there such a thing as a typical European city, and what generalised lessons are there to be learned from this discussion? These may be issues for another day. On the positive side, this was a rare masterclass in thoughtful urban architecture.

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