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Skill in simulating the future city

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Representation of Places: Reality and Realism in City Design by Peter Bosselmann. University of California Press, 1998. 242pp. £28

Recent correspondence in The Architectural Review has discussed the unreal world of architectural photography, with particular reference to the absence of people and the presentation of buildings as purely abstract forms - a debate which also took place in the aj two decades ago (aj 25.7.79, 1.8.79). But if the architect's, or architectural journalist's, post facto depiction of reality is manipulated and distorted in the cause of pr, what of the representation of future reality, the images of urban or architectural designs to be consumed by lay people?

We are all familiar with the perspective artist's sun-filled fantasy peopled with carefree figures, which carefully omits any contextual reference. This reminds us that design is very much a business and must be sold and presented in the best possible light. The artist's perspective is often akin to a tv commercial - entertaining but not to be taken seriously. Accurate plans and elevations of course reveal the true project, but these are incomprehensible to many lay people.

Professor Bosselmann's book confronts the problem of how planners and architects represent the future 'reality' of design proposals and how their professional agendas influence that representation. In a fascinating historical introduction, Bosselmann describes how our two major methods of representation evolved in the Italian Renaissance: the experiential, exemplified by Brunelleschi's development of scientific perspective, and the conceptual, deriving from Leonardo's rediscovery of surveying and cartography. These 'inventions' have influenced our depiction of existing and future urban forms for 500 years.The first led to photography, cinema, tv and digital imaging; the second to photogrammetry and town planning.

At the same time these methods enabled the designers to serve the power elites running society: maps had obvious military applications, and the planning and control of future urban developments was of prime interest to rulers and politicians. 'But power and the potential to work on large- scale projects came at a price: gradually, conceptual representation removed the designer from the reality of the site - not only from the physical, or ecological, reality, but also from political, economic, and socio-psychological reality.'

This is illustrated in an analysis of how Wren and others' conceptual replanning of London after the Great Fire (based on a highly inaccurate map) conflicted with the realities of land ownership and power, contrasted with Baron Haussmann's successful intervention in Paris 200 years later for an autocratic regime using sophisticated surveying techniques.

Accounts of the planning of Barcelona and Vienna lead on to Camillo Sitte and the Arts and Crafts/Garden City movement, which attempted to include emotional and ecological aspects in its representations - giving rise in turn to the Modern Movement's reaction to this, and Le Corbusier's all-pervading images of cold, functional, zoned cities of the future (often employing devices such as axonometrics and bird's-eye views, which symbolised the god-like power assumed by Modernist planners). Later, in the 1960s and 70s, with the rise of community action (and the pioneering work of Kevin Lynch), different means of organising urban planning evolved, which enabled residents to participate in the process to some degree.

But whether employing maps or perspectives, until recently the methods have been static, even though there is some discussion in the book of how a sense of movement, which is the key ingredient in cities, can be achieved by multiple drawings or photographs scanned quickly in sequence.

The bulk of Bosselmann's book is taken up with various descriptions of the new methods of representation made possible by computer technology and animated simulation techniques, which can also integrate the conceptual or abstract aspects of planning (statistics, economics, density, zoning) with the experiential (visual depictions of mass and texture, spatial and psychological effects). Thus reality, or virtual reality, can now be much more accurately depicted. Or can it? Such sophisticated technology can equally be manipulated by politicians, developers and designers keen to sell the product or concept. In fact the apparent realism of these simulations increases this potential.

The antidote to this is offered by impartial agencies such as Bosselmann's own planning simulation laboratory at Berkeley. Computer models can be developed without any pr intent, which show the real effects of what is proposed. At the same time designs can be endlessly modified to show possible alternatives. The results are at present fairly crude but, as techniques developed by Hollywood 'special effects' designers become available, this will improve. Bosselmann doesn't discuss the cost of this service but it has apparently been used in the us to combat intrusive road or commercial proposals.

The danger with these computer simulations is that everything will be pared down to the bland and inoffensive. Would Wright's Guggenheim Museum have been approved if a simulation had been available, asks Bosselmann, or Gehry's? The new ways of representation may be appropriate to general strategic planning, housing densities or questions of environmental impact. For the impressive monument we may still have to rely on the talents of the top designers.

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