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Planners provide insight into Brave New World

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All of a sudden one was gripped by an inkling of how a 1930s Hollywood director must have felt when a censor blustered in, explaining how he was going to help turn the director's movie, profoundly affronting as it was to the community's sense of decency, into one which was not. The occasion for this feeling was a Royal Fine Art Commission seminar on the place of design in planning education, brought on by listening to senior planning officers outlining their day-to-day work.

Nice, articulate, architecturally trained and probably family men, their underlying presumptions were chilling. Here, amid the elaborate Georgian panelling of St James's Square, was Animal Farm, Eastern Europe before the fall of the wall and you wondered, despite the assurances of Lord St John of Fawsley, whether or not the commission's secret agenda was to begin a wholesale inspection of the planning system itself. One speaker from the floor cautiously hinted at this, but since almost everybody's job depended on it not happening, the idea was not pursued.

The official line on the seminar was that, in the course of its many dealings with local authority planning departments, the rfac had come to the conclusion that there is a skills gap, as it rather coyly described it, among development-control officers. The gap is, of course, in the area of aesthetics, of understanding design. Since few planning courses even touch on this topic, the general proposition was that introducing it into courses might be a good idea. Comments from the invited audience indicated some sympathy for the notion - combined with uncertainty about how design could be slipped into the crowded curriculum demanded by the rtpi. Despite a lot of talking around this topic, that was plainly going to be that, especially when an ex-cathedra pronouncement from an elderly rtpi council member firmly put the stoppers on any re-evaluation of its curriculum.

Most of the morning speakers suggested, as one way round this, introducing combined planning-architecture courses. Apparently, enough students want to pursue the schizophrenic course of developing as a creative designer at the same time as learning how to be a policeman of profoundly uncreative and frequently absurd planning guidelines. But in light of established positions in the room, you felt the combined-course route was a drop in the ocean - especially when a chief planner revealed that planners with architectural backgrounds invariably were put to work in conservation teams.

What was not discussed was how much design content a course would need to have the desired effect in later local-authority professional life. Was it to take the form of having planning students actually design things, or simply attending lectures about good and bad taste? And, whichever was chosen, would this have the remotest useful influence on the attitudes of planning graduates in the field?

The two striking contributions of the day came from the Bartlett's cerebral Michael Edwards, who thought the question should have been how the planning system could be a facilitator of higher standards in architecture, and from Ted Cullinan who, realising that his audience were all planners, abandoned the formal topic and gave a bravura talk about the shallowness of the planning concept of 'fitting in', and the wonderful qualities of contrast in the urban scene.

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