Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Urban Design is a Waste of Time

This somewhat provocative statement came to me yesterday as I sat through a thoroughly arresting evening seminar on research in to micro climates around tall buildings, which now largely seems to focus on how to get at least a beam or two of natural light down on to your cappuccino. Clearly this is a case of tail wagging the dog.
Indeed, the tangible products of a gamut of urban design initiatives over the last forty years seems tiny, I can think of one in the London metropolis, Paternoster Square, and that under Royal patronage. The rest of the city just dances to the music of cash tills. Such is the way of the late capitalist metropolis, everything is reduced to money; any fool can see that, so it must be just dim wits or dreamers who insist on so called 'Urban Design' and thrill to the provision of tiny ice rinks surrounded by champagne bars. In this context my view that the most significant piece of 'urban design' of the last half century is Forum Shopping in Caesars Las Vegas looks a pretty salient one. Even it probably has an ice rink to accompany it's many champagne bars by now.
In 1962 even the progenitor of Paternoster Square, who I would gently suggest might be Colin Rowe, decided that because his students were simply not up to the intense formal manipulations involved in the design of actual buildings they might be better off doing urban design, and they kept doing it until he retired in 1990. To think that of students at Cornell in 1962 is rather salutary. What has been the effect of those students on the American city, huh? One look at Denver or Houston would have you claiming your tuition fees back.
Actually I'm being a little mean on that presentation yesterday, since it's political message was strong: when the city of London extends itself on to Bishopsgate Goods Yard with umpteen gleaming, empty, twenty story plus skyscrapers, the shadows will be cast as far north as Arnold Circus, a picturesque, but poverty stricken enclave, so throwing the already poor in to further darkness and debt. And what can we do about it? Precisely nothing, because it would threaten the god of Moloch, 'Job'. These days I suspect even energy efficiency is offset, not unlike pension funds, globally.
All this makes Prince Charles look pretty good; Royalty looking at least better than corporations (councils having been rendered totally ineffective) when it comes to running the planet, being relatively parochial and genuinely concerned for the land beneath one's feet, the green and pleasant, and so on. How can I possibly be saying this?

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