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The street is the key to urbanism

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Having attended the 'Burghers in Suburbia' seminar at the aa on Dutch housing and planning, I was struck by how much importance many of the speakers gave to the notions of urbanism and collectivism, while almost completely failing to understand the nature of either. There were vague ideas that urbanism is an issue of density or scale, and that collectivism is created by producing buildings with communal space. But only Frits Palmboom seemed to understand that the essential element of urbanism and collectivism is not the building or the landscape but the street.

Many of the projects shown concerned themselves almost exclusively with manipulation of floor plans and plot, creating inaccessible enclaves - ironically the very antithesis of urban collectivism. As if this weren't bad enough, the one urban typology which has been proven to deliver liveable cities - the row house - was derided as being unimaginative and boring. The fact is that the perimeter block, of which the Dutch row house is one manifestation, is the basic dna of towns and appears in all human settlements. Whenever designers try to move away from it, the result is less successful or even unsuccessful urban spaces. If this sounds boring, take a look at New York, Edinburgh, Venice or Istanbul - all made of perimeter blocks.

There is nothing wrong with architects being modern and innovative, as long this is tempered with an appreciation that this may not always work as expected - one has only to look around to see the disastrous results of so many previous 'innovative' solutions. But all is not lost. There is a body of architects and urban designers in this country and abroad who are not afraid to learn from the past. In the us the New Urbanism movement is well established. In the uk a number of urban design practices have been quietly producing excellent work, and a number of leading architects (such as Cullinan, MacCormac and Hopkins) have been working for years in a style which I would consider as deriving from pre-Modern forms. This is not historicism - it is simply learning from previous experience. Perhaps what is needed is a new phrase to be coined which will remove the stigma of using existing forms. Post-Modernism is too tainted a label. Pastiche is a dirty word. Neo-Arts and Crafts? It's not exactly catchy, but it may accurately describe the work of those who may cite Mackintosh as an influence, or who want to design a perimeter block without having to apologise for it.


Wolverton, Milton Keynes

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