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Designs on the city

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City Transformed: Urban Architecture at the Beginning of the 21st Century By Kenneth Powell. Laurence King, 2000. 255pp. £45.00

'That's just the sort of development our cities need today, ' said a passing urbanist. He had noticed City Transformed on my desk, open at the first illustration. The familiar picture by Gustave Dore showed, in the words of the caption, a 'nightmarish view of an overcrowded London slum'.

The visible elements of that nineteenthcentury nightmare were the sky, black with smoke, and the extreme overcrowding. The houses, on the other hand, if they were still standing today in their corner of inner London, would be changing hands for half a million pounds each and appearing as illustrations to articles on sustainable urban form.

Do today's architects have something better to offer? Kenneth Powell's introduction to City Transformed confirms that architects and planners first have to learn the mistakes of the recent past. 'It is the acceptance of diversity - the reassertion of the heterogeneity of city life - which characterizes the new urban architecture, ' he writes. 'Today, the task is, in effect, to recreate the dense, mixeduse city of the past.'

Powell is well qualified to show how that can be done. Unfortunately, his publishers have not made the job easy for him.

The book describes and lavishly illustrates what are, for the most part, large-scale developments, based on masterplans by famous architects for sites owned or controlled by single organisations. It is a valuable catalogue of 25 of the biggest urban projects of our time, such as Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, London's Canary Wharf, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, Paris' Seine Rive-Gauche, Ho Chi Minh City's Saigon South and, more modestly, Dublin's Temple Bar.

'The new urban architecture is not about appearances, ' Powell writes, 'but about substances, about a holistic interaction of aesthetics, politics and finance.' That poses a problem for what is, essentially, a picture book. The controversies about how the 25 projects were designed, financed and politically fixed are largely absent.

To know whether any of these examples of 'new urban architecture' will fulfil Powell's hopes for them, we need answers to some basic questions. Is the development well connected into the city's patterns of movement? Does its design create streets and other public places that people will choose to inhabit? Will it prove adaptable to the inevitable social, economic and technological changes? Who are the likely winners and losers?

Architectural photographs do not give many of the answers. That leaves the masterplans, to which City Transformed gives a great deal of space. These plans may have communicated something at the stage in the planning and design process for which they were drawn, but the message of many of them is hard to discover. In most cases their indecipherability is made worse by the lack of a key.

Looking at buildings out of context tempts us to regard urban architecture as being synonymous with single developments that are big enough to have a significant impact on the city. Powell joins in the celebration of Bilbao's new museum: 'Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim has demonstrated the power of a single 'object' building to transform the fortunes of a city (or even a region), ' he writes.

Such encouragement of architectural solipsism would be dangerous even if it were true, but Powell suggests elsewhere in the book that it is not. In describing the city's new metro and Abando transport interchange, he notes: 'The renaissance of Bilbao is founded not on isolated monuments but on an integrated development strategy that stresses the importance of infrastructure to the regeneration process.'

Powell writes in his introduction that 'architects are the makers of the cities of the future and civilisation is literally in their hands'. The big developers are already signed up to that. What is not clear is how the profession's skills and insights can be applied to transforming the small-scale, everyday environments that are just as important to our cities' future.

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group

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