Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) is best known for the creation of Seaside, the Florida resort that has become emblematic of the values of the New Urbanism movement and famously provided the set for The Truman Show. The profile of DPZ rocketed last year when it fronted a team of New Urbanists involved in masterplanning devastated areas of Mississippi and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In September this year Andrés Duany captured the imagination of the UK media when he ran an 11-day workshop in Inverness to draw up a masterplan for a new settlement, to be called Tornagrain. Duany's debut in the UK came about because DPZ has always had strong links with the Prince's Foundation.
Following Katrina, the Prince of Wales sponsored the foundation's Ben Pentreath and transport expert Andrew Cameron, who worked for 10 years on the layout and street design of Poundbury, to participate in the reconstruction.
The practice, led by Duany and his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, was set up in 1980. It has about 50 staff (architects, landscape architects and IT specialists), three offices in the USA (Miami, Washington DC and Charlotte), and a number of satellite organisations in Europe and Asia. It is currently working on 70 projects across Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, often on regional strategies.
The proposed Scottish new town, on land owned by the Moray estate, will occupy a 223ha site south of Inverness Airport on the main A96 route to Nairn. It will take 30 years to build and will house 10,000 residents. Tornagrain is one of several new schemes aimed at providing homes for a projected regional population growth. Terry Farrell is working on plans for a new settlement at Whiteness to the north and the Earl of Cawdor is planning an extension to the west of Nairn.
The distinctive feature of the Moray estate proposal is its design process. DPZ is using the method of public consultation which they define as a charette. This is a public consultation process with a difference; the significant principles of a proposed settlement are drawn up in a protracted public workshop in which all of the relevant consultants and stakeholders are brought together under one roof. Members of the public are invited to participate in the process in any way they choose - and their local expertise is considered a crucial part of the proceedings.
It is a fusion of politics and planning.
This kind of charette is not new to the UK. Practice John Thompson and Partners has been running public design workshops, much like Duany's process, in the UK and abroad for over a decade. Enquiry by Design is a similar process promoted by the Prince's Foundation. However, in an age when public participation in the national political process is at an all-time low, the concept of the charette is currently being embraced with new enthusiasm.
The Tornagrain charette involved 28 consultants camping out in Inverness' Drumossie Hotel and running a packed programme of workshops and presentations to the public.
The design team included 10 DPZ staff, mainly architects and urban designers; three Scottish architects (Niall Murphy from ASL in Glasgow, Mark Sidgwick from LDN in Edinburgh and Lachie Stewart from ANTA in the Highlands); an ecologist;
Scottish landscape architect Horner + Maclennan; two cost consultants; a utilities expert; and three transport experts. It also included two consultants from Germany, the Prince's Foundation's Pentreath and Paul Murrain - formerly of the Prince's Foundation and probably the UK's best known advocate of New Urbanism.
DPZ also had two consultants working from the USA.
For the client the investment in the process of the charette was significant. Consultant Turnberry, which was acting as a client's adviser, worked with the Moray Estate for four months prior to the event, compiling studies of other towns, socio-economic material, a transport study, ecological research, landscape and archaeological surveys, and studies on land engineering looking at sustainable drainage and topography.
The week before the charette, DPZ and consultants visited Belgravia, Hampstead, Poundbury, Edinburgh and Dunkeld. This early intensive investment made the process costly. 'It appears to be very expensive, ' says Murrain. 'But then there is a considerable output in 11 days and you can talk to the chief planner and sort things out in six days that it might take two years to resolve under normal circumstances.'
Day one of the Tornagrain charette consisted of an opening address by Jim Mackinnon, the Scottish Executive's chief planner, and a mass tour of the site. Meetings with local planners, Scottish Water and highway engineers followed. Throughout the period the design team gave pin-up demonstrations to locals.
The mid-term and final presentations were attended by more than 100 people. At the end of each session the group drew up action points, which informed the next day's work.
DPZ's team has now returned to the US to develop the plans. The client will visit them to discuss the detail of the scheme and in October they will be presented with a full report which will provide enough material to produce a planning application. The current proposal includes a controversial plan to shift the existing A96 to the top of the site so that it runs along the edge of the airport business park. This would mean the principal street through the new settlement could be turned into a traffic-calmed boulevard.
DPZ proposes a strong urban core to the settlement, which will be close to the business park, and all the facilities required by the business park, such as shops and restaurants. The proposal is a fusion of two options discussed throughout the process.
At the heart of the charette is a temporary studio, a suite in the hotel with sheets of paper everywhere and a soundtrack of buzzing electronic erasers. 'We find the design work is still best done through drawing. It suits the nature of a charette; you are responding to inputs in real time, ' says Senen Antonio, the DPZ business development director managing the Tornagrain charette.
'You have got to be able to react quickly to anything that comes up. We are CAD savvy but drawing is a lost art.'
Those involved in the charette liken the experience to their student days - late nights and passionate debates. For many of the participants, the process of a charette is closely linked to the product. 'Process and product have a lot in common. It is about negotiating conicting freedoms. From a professional point of view the process makes you more relaxed and willing to think about sharing rather than competing, ' says Murrain.
His position is supported by Niall Murphy, attending his first charette, who says: 'The process was very adaptable and uid.
I was surprised at how quickly it embraced ideas thrown up by the local people and how it stopped being adversarial.'
While some argue that the charette is a forum in which architects are forced to relinquish any sense of egotism, it does rely heavily on Duany as the ringmaster. 'There's a certain set of skills necessary to lead a charette, and Andrés' skills are exceptional, ' says Murrain.
One of the high points of the Inverness charette was the mid-term pin-up process. Duany talked for an hour-and-ahalf in a style reminiscent of both a stand-up comedian and an evangelical preacher. He talked about the diversity of opinion within the design team and was keen to stress that Tornagrain will not look like Seaside. 'Perhaps the first generation will look like Mackintosh. In 30 years' time we will have got it right - we will develop a new vernacular, ' he says. The architectural language that will develop will be the outcome of working with many different architects.
The images produced at the end of the charette suggest that Tornagrain will be populated by whitewashed houses that evoke the atmosphere of a Cumbrian village circa 1939. It's the Highlands equivalent of Seaside; it's romantic and projects an idealised view of rural traditional living. There may be debate and disagreement among the network of people brought together at the charette, but they all seem to agree on certain principles.
One is that traditional house forms, tweaked a little to allow for modern lifestyles, are best.
When asked how he could be sure future developers would not ignore his plans, Duany said planning permission would be conditional on a commitment to the masterplan.
'When we produce a masterplan it comes with a set of deliverables and there is a regulating plan. It is about form and density, it will define the character of development.' Delivery of the masterplan is now the big challenge for the client. DPZ's role in the next stage of the process is not yet clear.
'There is always a risk of PCDS (post-charette deficiency syndrome), ' jokes Antonio. 'The codes are critical. We can set out what will happen and then there is predictability.'