What is a masterplan? At its simplest it remains an abstract pattern of movement, land use and a list of limitations. This is usually not understood by anyone. The world is full of such plans, some implemented, some forgotten and most simply bastardised so as to make the initial exercise pointless.
The resurgence of the masterplan is a relatively recent thing. It re-emerged due to the invention of urban design. Misnamed Post-Modernists, such as Charles Moore, became interested in influencing the wider area around projects. Architects were commissioned to design places as well as objects and 'context' became a buzzword for objectors, planners and designers. An interest developed in inhabiting the streets, and it was at this time it was realised that the streets and the squares were uninhabitable. For too long, the traffic engineer had reigned, unfettered, apparently by any notion of public consultation, as they continued to try to fight the long battle of squeezing more and more vehicles into smaller and smaller areas. So the emergence of a work practice that accents the quality of life and experience is to be welcomed by us, but how do we evaluate the vast range of approaches that currently exist?
Early attempts at masterplanning were dogged by a quasi-public consultancy practice that tended to produce an apparent request for solid traditional values. More of what we know, and 'nein danke' to the brave new world of the Modernists. Fired by the outbursts of Prince Charles, our towns and cities looked destined to dwell in some historic soup that would eventually stifle innovation and creativity. This was a two-fold problem. On one hand, there was little or no experience of what consultation meant and on the other, a mistrust of genuine artistry, on the grounds that beauty cannot be explained.
Today, the uncertainty that surrounds the act of urban design is better but not perfect. I still see beautifully coloured plans that thinly disguise a lack of vision.
The better plans engage the public as a means of discovering a future. It is necessary to spend time with the local interest groups, not simply to ascertain a 'wish-list'of things they would like, which is usually dull and uninteresting, but to allow an air of 'the possible' to be recognised and explored. This is called vision. Few institutions and local authorities use this word. There are notable exceptions, such as Yorkshire Forward, the Regional Development Agency, which has in little time made a great impact on the region's view of itself. There is a future, and it could look like this! Compare its attitude with the London Development Agency, which has not made the connection between inward investment, quality of life and design.To it, this is simply an expensive distraction from the 'real world'of business and money.
Urban design still has a long way to go. The nature of the proposition must be experiential. It must be capable of talking about event, to surprise and delight, and that is why at my studio we call it 'big architecture'.
The plan of a district or area can be viewed as one building and should be felt in the same way as the work for a single edifice. It is hard but necessary to be radical and to allow the public to enjoy the idea of celebrating their own individuality. Only urban design that includes the buildings and how they work will do. My plan for Manchester Millennium Village does exactly that. Unfortunately, many who judge prefer the abstract diagram.
Relax. If architecture and urbanism are an art, which they are, not everything can be explained, but it can be enjoyed - by all.