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The art of city-making is not about conforming to regulations

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The beauty of a successful masterplan is that its merits cannot be destroyed by bad buildings, writes Paul Finch

Last week the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) published a not-so-novel discovery: that UK homes are some of the smallest in Europe. You might think that is because we have no minimum sizes in our Building Regulations, and abolished the Parker Morris standards in the early 1980s.

Apparently this is all wrong. The reason our homes are so small is because of the planning system, says the IEA, the argument being that, were there fewer restrictions on construction, then the market would have to compete on the quality of its product, thereby increasing the chances of dwellings getting bigger and better.

As it happens, in the case of London the mayor has introduced minimum space standards which are considerably bigger than Parker Morris (I call them Parker Boris). The result? New homes in London are now getting bigger again. I wonder if the boffins at the IEA have spotted this, or whether they think it is an illusion. Nothing would surprise me.

It was a relief to leave London and head to Singapore for the seventh World Architecture Festival, where quality of design and, indeed, thought and discussion is generally in good evidence. This year’s conference theme, about how architects and architecture relate to cities, was decided a year ago, but might have been prompted by a new book, The Fabric of Place, produced by Allies and Morrison and published by Artifice last week. A collection of short essays by members of the practice, including old hands like Paul Appleton and Robert Maxwell and new faces like Alfredo Caraballo, have been selected and edited by Bob Allies and Di Haigh, both of whom also contribute, along with Graham Morrison. Although the examples of masterplanning and urban design cited are work by Allies and Morrison, there are enough references to precedent designs and ideas to make this far more than a practice monograph.

In fact, the book would serve as a good introduction to any architecture student interested in place-making, whether at the scale of an English village, an Olympic Park or King’s Cross (still only 20 per cent built out, by the way). Observations about vistas, density, heritage and so on are amply illustrated in a kind of master-planning pot pourri.  Though they do not claim this, the book provides evidence that one advantage of architects making cities, or pieces of them, is because they are able to think three-dimensionally.

The beauty of a successful masterplan is that its merits cannot be destroyed by bad buildings. Unfortunately, good buildings can do little to redeem poor place-making, though they can improve the immediate environs. There are inevitably aspects to a masterplan which have little to do with the formal qualities of an architectural design - for example transport, water and sewerage. But they are matters for a general design approach and this may be where architectural thinking has been under-rated. Not since Derek Walker at Milton Keynes has a British architect been handed responsibility for such a significant piece of city-making.


Sometimes the contribution can be of a more political nature. For example Richard Rogers, one of this week’s WAF keynote speakers, had a profound influence on the election campaign of Ken Livingstone when he became London’s first elected mayor. The London Plan, as Livingstone acknowledges, would not have happened in the way it did but for Rogers, and the plan lives on in a not so very different way under Johnson. It was Rogers’ Architecture and Urbanism Unit at the GLA which started the work of researching minimum space standards for homes, now translated into Parker Boris. IEA, eat your heart out.


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