thoughts on our urban future

What Makes a City?

Last night, Ximena and I attended a lecture by three members of Archigram at the Building Centre.  While there are many different things that could be said about the talk, there was one point in particular that stood out to me and that I decided I wanted to discuss here.  Dennis Crompton used his part of the talk to speak about how he felt that it was the activity of people that created and defined a city, not the architecture.  To illustrate this point, he showed two different examples.  First, was a short video of a flashmob clogging event in a crowded shopping street.  The next were images from public activities taking place on the terraces of the Southbank Complex which he designed over 40 years ago (as in the picture to the left).

Now Crompton tried to make a point, that a city doesn’t happen without the event.  And that actually, it is the event and the people that make the city.  This was then somewhat countered in discussion by Sir Peter Cook but I thought it was an interesting and significant issue for urban designers to understand and also to take a stand on.

Crompton explained how when he designed the Southbank terraces, he had envisioned how they would be used by the public.  In fact any good urban designer will know that our drawings are frequently populated with happy strolling people and children with balloons.  It’s par for the course to think about out work in the context of use.  After all, what is the built environment if not a platform for human use?  So that’s fair, we can all probably agree so far.

But the disagreement may start to happen as you start to try to understand what is more important.  Or which came first?  The people or the place?  I fully understand the notion that there can be no place without people, even if the place is a people-less construct now, if it was built by people it has a similar ethos.  However, I find myself distraught over the consideration that there can be a place without props.  Think about it- what do people do when they gather?  They manipulate their environment to enhance or facilitate their activity.  Even at a most basic level of pulling up logs to sit around a fire, the people have fundamentally changed their environment, or in other words, they have shaped their environment.  They have made a mark upon the land.

This was interesting to me as I mused even further back, to my very first architecture class at the University of Virginia called Concepts in Architecture and taught by Robert Vickery.  His opening line to 25 years of fresh faced architecture newbies was to ask them, “What does it mean to make a mark upon the land?”

Although marks may be transient, I struggle to think of any human activity of gathering or place making that is not also complimented by something physical.  What is Burning Man without the vehicles and the constructions and the plan?  What is New Years Eve in New York without Times Square?  What is the March on Washington without the Mall?  What is the June Fourth Incident without Tienanmen Square?  What is the Olympics without a stadium?  What is a pocket park without a pocket?  What is a street party without a street?

These things are intrinsically linked.  There is most certainly a ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality when it comes to many designers.  But perhaps that is not so wrong.  After all, they may be able to envision possible uses, they may be able to design places to facilitate assorted activities, and they may also design spaces that spontaneously erupt into unplanned uses.  But the point is, once a space is designed and left to grow and evolve on its own, it is most of the time now outside of the remit of the original designer.  But I don’t think that makes that designers input any less relevant.

Cook discussed how modern living has changed the nature of human activity and gathering.  Perhaps we are all so connected so often, that instead of the large gatherings we now crave the smaller, more intimate experiences.  And this leads me to another important consideration.  Place and people are not static.  They are fluid and dynamic.  What holds true today may not hold true tomorrow.  With people, this is easy to illustrate- first they are here, then they are not.  A nightspot is the most popular social point in the city, and two years later it might be closing.  But what about our more lethargic built environments?  The club may change but the building may remain.  This results in two ideological differences in thought.  Either the buildings and the built environment provide a slow moving structure which rapid paced human activity hangs upon.  Or the buildings and the built environment move so slowly, and are so intractable that they become insignificant and energy and focus is better spent elsewhere.

Yes, these positions are extreme, and while I want to say that maybe the truth lies somewhere in between, actually, I’ll come right down firmly on the side of the structure.  The built environment provides a critical structure to human activity.  Without it, the activity would mean less, or would perhaps not even happen.  The structure of the city may inspire unintended activities, but these happy accidents should no more be credited to the people than to the buildings, for what is humanity and its inventions if not forever adaptable?

While I do agree that many architects or designers don’t give as much consideration as they might to human activity, or they try too hard to control or prescribe human activity, I believe that their creations and intentions are intrinsic to creating the city.  These things work in a delicate balance of need, inspiration, and opportunity.  People who have a desire for an activity will seek out a place to have it, and if no space is readily available or apparent, they will make the physical space to accommodate their need.  Likewise, a place can be built with all sorts of opportunities for various human activities and yet it needs to somehow tap into and engage with that fickle population to ensure that those opportunities are expressed.  But equally a place may inspire activity through it’s physical opportunity where perhaps there had not been an awareness for that activity beforehand.

This is getting very circular now, I think I’ll draw to a close.  Suffice to say, I don’t think that Crompton was necessarily wrong, but I do think he was being a tad provocative.  I understand and believe that it is the human activity and life that supports public spaces well beyond their creators, but I would not go so far as to say the nature of those spaces are irrelevant or unimportant.  Quite the opposite, in order to ensure that they last and continue to have meaning they must be designed to be useable and adaptable, as well as attractive and probably durable, and for that, you need a good environment and for that, you need a good designer.

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