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Goldschmied calls for sustainable cities

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Marco Goldschmied last week became the first riba president to incorporate multimedia into his inaugural address, in which he argued that sustainability was the most important issue for architects as the new century approaches.

Speaking in a lecture theatre at the riba packed with names such as Lord Rogers, Lord St John of Fawsley, Sir Michael Hopkins and a number of past presidents, the new incumbent peppered his speech with entertaining clips from popular films, maps, and images. The clips, from films like Metropolis, Bladerunner and Independence Day, were a fitting accompaniment to questions he posed about personal visions of the twenty-first century city and how urban areas might change with the rise in the use of information technology.

But it was Goldschmied's emphasis on sustainability which formed the bedrock of the speech, which he set against a picture of intense global population growth and an 'era of unprecedented urbanisation.'

'I am proposing that the riba will initiate, in conjunction with the World Bank, a worldwide programme calling for visions of the sustainable city, its biology, its law, its infrastructure, its design, its land ownership,' he said. 'There will be many models and we need many models. Models rooted in the local culture, or an older version of it, or a completely new and radical one. There is nothing more important for us to do if we want to contribute to the work on which visions of the future can take shape.'

Perhaps conscious of the ambition of the task in hand, he quoted Pascal: 'A peculiarity of imagination is that the great visions take as little time and trouble as the little ones.'

The worldwide need for 'sustainable, elegant and intelligent' shelter has never been greater. The Asia Pacific region, he told the audience, had an urban population of 250 million people in 1980, 550 million today, and is forecast to have one billion by 2020. China, meanwhile, is building 600 cities the size of Bristol. Meanwhile the rise of e-commerce has meant that traditional forms are fast disappearing from the high street as home deliveries and Internet access become the norm. The worst scenario was to emulate such cities as Mexico City or Pheonix in Arizona, 'probably the least sustainable' city. Architects have a 'duty' beyond the individual projects to participate in this 'human debate', bringing their vision, energy and intuition to work 'for mankind.' He added, 'The profession does not deserve to survive unless it does. The planet will not survive if it doesn't.'

For its part the institute, said Goldschmied, had to try and reinforce the status of the architect and prevent the public from thinking 'anyone can do architecture with a planning form, a project manager, a bit of mdf and some diy videos.' Moreover, it had to concentrate on four key issues: to support, lead, communicate and focus. It had to support the practice of architecture, lead in the dissemination, communication and education of all on architecture in its widest sense, communicate with the many audiences who have a say in the built environment, and focus on 'the cutting edge of architecture, beyond today's problems to the needs of mankind in 10 or 30 years time.'

There was a barbed attack on planning and planners, when Goldschmied criticised the 'heritage thought-police' in many planning offices and painted a picture of a discussion if plans for the pyramids had been submitted today. Planners would have called the facades monotonous he said, and doubtless asked for the addition of some dormer windows.

And on the subject of education, Goldschmied suggested that the it revolution could mean a move away from building-based education centres and libraries towards distance learning. However, curricula must not be allowed to 'dumb down' the vocational aspect of architectural education so it became a general arts course.

The move towards more specialisms was the key, since issues were now too complex too allow architects to pretend they are all things to all men. The profession needed to follow the medical profession where doctors encourage and recognise post-graduate specialisation in a wide range of topics. And sustainability was the greatest specialism to adopt of them all - even aiming to transcend the tendency to build our way out of all problems. 'I believe universities have a major role in encouraging such research' he said.

The speech, which at 49 minutes was considerably briefer than that of Goldschmied's predecessor David Rock, was televised by a production company hired by the institute, along with vox pops from invited commentators. The riba said that it would be used in future for marketing purposes.

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