As John Montgomery, managing director of Urban Cultures pointed out, we 'don't do' Modernism any more in cities. Those official masterplans for brave new worlds inspired by Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse have been cast aside to make way for concepts such as the 'Evening Economy', 'Primary Attractors', 'Diversity of Primary Uses', and 'Stationary Activities'. This kind of jargon implies the impossibility of an overall, integrated framework for organising cities, and the desirability of parcelling out the urban fabric among private commercial developers trading 'culture' as a form of planning gain.
Montgomery, who produced the development framework for Temple Bar in Dublin, gave an impression of being motivated by good intentions, but didn't declare any interests at the V&A's conference, describing himself as a town planner. He did however attribute importance to small interventions in the process of urban regeneration, such as cake shops and low-key spots in which to sit and do nothing, and suggested that the Lottery was to blame for encouraging a blind faith in major projects. He was explicit in his criticism of 'crass commercial operations', notably in the leisure industry. But the lack of any attention to more fundamental issues such as waste management or controlling the housing market was disturbing.
Miffa Salter, by contrast, purported to have a self-critical awareness of the assumptions about urban culture embodied in the Urban Task Force Report on which she worked, but she asked too many rhetorical questions without going into any points in depth. Stressing the importance of a democratic process in 'redefining cities' for the future, in which citizens become active participants rather than passive customers of cultural infrastructure programmes, she acknowledged that it is not always 'possible or plausible' for consensus to be reached. Hence the questions of who is a citizen, and whose culture we implement, are potentially unanswerable, leading to an impasse in the resolution of conflicting interests and thus in the restructuring of the urban fabric.
Significantly, Salter identified an advertising campaign by a multinational clothing company as an emphatically positive sign for the future of cities. Gap's campaign, bearing an image of streets with the slogan 'Urban Planning', reveals, she believes, the emergence of a new concept of the city as a good in which everyone can share. An alternative interpretation might be that it shows an awareness on the part of Gap and other high-street stores of the extent of their influence in shaping the city of the future in their own image, displacing local cultures. In this interpretation, the 'Gap effect', as one might call it, is very much part of the redefinition of cities as monocultural entities responsive solely to a very limited age-group with disposable income and a particular consumer profile.
'An Urban Renaissance? The Visual Arts and Urban Regeneration' was organised by V&A Education and took place at the Science Museum, London, on 5 February