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Utopia mislaid

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The Modern City Revisited Edited by Thomas Deckker. E & FN Spon, 2000. 258pp. £27.50

A century ago the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham coined the slogan 'Make no little plan', and megalomania became an occupational risk.

Andrew Higgott's chapter on post-war Birmingham in this collection (which derives from a Docomomo conference) cites a participant in a planning symposium before the most recent reconstruction, who reflected on the city's regrettable tendency to think that 'the large comprehensive solution to its problems was always preferable to the smaller, more subtle gesture, the intervention which shifted relationships with what was already here.'

The happiest contribution describes the most modest plan. Judi Loach explores QT8 - the district of the Eighth Triennale, started as the centrepiece of that exhibition in Milan in 1948 and designed by Piero Bottoni. Since its completion in the '50s, historians have ignored it, and yet, 'unlike many contemporary avant-garde schemes, it has aged well and become a desirable residential district. This alone would suggest that it merits further attention.'

At the opposite extreme, Rob Docter discusses current efforts to make the vast Bijlmermeer development in Amsterdam more attractive to its residents, reflecting that 'the ideal city of the 1950s and 1960s has become today's ghetto'.

John Gold pieces together the various MARS Group plans for London from 1933-42, thanks to his foresight in interviewing participants years ago and exploring their files. He finds that there was no consensus in the group, reminding us that:

'Quite simply, paper is cheap; it is not obligatory to think through every implication of the resulting design before picking up the drafting pen.' The same thought applies to the 1920s debate in the USSR between the Constructivists and Disurbanists, meticulously excavated by Catherine Cooke in her account of 'Cities of Socialism'.

Le Corbusier's dislike of the corridor street is explored by James Dunnett, while John Allan describes Lubetkin's brief - and bruising - spell as architect-planner for the New Town of Peterlee.An international focus returns with Thomas Deckker's contribution on Brasilia.

The city was conceived one night in 1956 when Oscar Niemeyer entertained President Kubitschek and, to clinch the deal, 'Niemeyer, with a group of friends, designed and built in 10 days the first construction in Brasilia - to be Kubitschek's provisional presidential residence, and gave it to him, staffed with cook and butler, as a present.'

As for Lucia Costa's chosen plan: it was drawn at the last minute, freehand, on five small pieces of paper. Costa was, however, faithful to the slogans of CIAM and its Athens Charter, and 'by rigidly separating functions, did not allow for civic spaces'. As a result, explains Deckker, 'the lack of any public realm in Brasilia means that the city is virtually impenetrable for the outsider and offers very limited scope for the inhabitants themselves'.

In the US, the ideologists had little influence.

Frank Lloyd Wright envisaged a future of maximum dispersal and predicted that 'America needs no help to build Broadacre City. It will build itself, haphazard.' Paul Adamson describes the suburbanisation that ensued.

In his afterword, Allen Cunningham, chairman of Docomomo-UK, fears that our urban future 'is increasingly projected in terms of remedial operations rather than visionary concepts'. Well, it depends on whose priorities are reflected in our remedies.

Colin Ward is co-author with Peter Hall of Sociable Cities (Wiley, 1998)

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