Urban Designspeak

Since its publication in 1971, Danish Urban Designer Jan Gehl’s “Life between Buildings” has become the bible of Urban Design. Like Gideon’s bibles finding their way into hotel rooms , Gehl’s book is at every town planning department in the western world.

It’s been reported that as a young architect working in the suburbs he and his wife, a psychologist, had many discussions about why the human side of architecture was not more carefully looked after by architects, landscape architects and planners.

This may sound laudable and the worldwide success of his practice, including 2009 pre-earthquake advice in Christchurch, is testament to the receptiveness of Councils to his message.

But I can’t help thinking of visits to great cities like Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Venice and New York. These are cities where the ’human side of architecture’ was indeed looked after by architects.

None of these cities seem to have had the benefit of Urban Design advice.

The profession of architecture is becoming marginalised, by the new kids on the block, the Urban Designers. They are more and more calling the shots about how our cities should look.

Terms like ‘contrast’ and ‘variety’, are being replaced by terms like ‘consistency’ and ‘cohesion’.

The worry is that Instead of a city being a ‘library of buildings’, ie. vibrant and interesting, it risks ending up looking something like Brasilia, Canberra or Milton Keynes.

Architects compose elevations, rooflines, express horizontality or verticality, and break up bulk in their building designs. We fit buildings into city streets and public areas using skill and imagination. It’s part of the job.

Urban Design is, like Interior design, a division of architecture, and not a separate discipline as some of its disciples advocate.

There is an unfortunate emerging tension between the architects who represent the clients, (those people who put up the money to actually build the buildings) and the urban designers who are hired by the Councils.

We need to work together in a constructive non adversorial manner.

Gehl director David Sim explained at a Christchurch public meeting recently that the rebuild is ‘all about people’ . This is a self evident statement to which I would add the rebuild is ‘all about people and buildings’.