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Our towns and cities need a little magic

The product of Will Alsop’s imagination might be a step too far, but our towns and cities are still in need of a magic touch

When a local authority in Britain wants a ‘vision’, they appoint someone they consider to be a madman/mystic. Croydon is the latest, giving Will Alsop the job of reimagining the ’60s town centre as a carpet dotted with dolly-mixture buildings.

In the press material, Croydon talks about meeting Alsop in his studio, with him smoking cigarettes, drinking wine and allowing his mind to wander and ‘create’. In a blizzard of mixed metaphors, Alsop is painted as a magician. Under the heading ‘Alchemy’ the authority writes: ‘Alsop has taken up [the] baton of dreams and run with it – moving the dreams, through a process of design and research, towards reality.’ This baton sounds remarkably like a magic wand to me.

Why is it, in these pathologically risk-averse times for public clients, that the urban scale needs irrational visions? One cynical hack in this office suggested that making these visions outlandish means that it’s much easier to dismiss the plans later. If it’s just a ‘vision’, then no-one can hold you to it, or expect too much.

I think this irrationality is an admission of a need for something more than the measurable, a longing for identity rather than solutions. This trend is also demonstrated by one of the other dominant forms of urbanism in this country – Prince Charles-inspired New Urbanism. This attempts to give shape to dreams of an 18th-century Arcadia, an instinct far too strong to dismiss as whimsy.

The worrying thing is, Alsop might be one of the few architects in the UK any good at these big-picture visions. The development director of a prominent Urban Development Corporation I met this week told me that he was thinking of commissioning a Dutch architect to carry out a large-scale plan, because he couldn’t think of anyone in the UK to do it.

I think this desire for magic is a good sign, an admission that city-making begins in the imagination. It should also encourage architects – who better than this profession to come up with visions? But we might all have to become a bit more in touch with our supernatural sides first.

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