What is it about architects and urbanism?

Combining two pieces originally written for Building Design Magazine David Rudlin tries to explain to architects the difference between architecture and urban design.

No so long ago I sat listening to an architect teaching urban design in one of our architecture schools. He started promisingly by showing a site which I recognised as being one of URBED’s. However he ruined it almost immediately by then imposing a caricature of a plan (not ours) over the site and saying; ‘this is conventional urban design it is not what we do in this department’. He then showed a short film clip of one of the small squares in Manhattan, teaming with people, buskers and a craft stalls before announcing that this was the sort of urban design that they taught in the department. The next few hours were spent looking at student work with beautifully rendered CGIs and photomontages, looking very much like that square in New York. Except that the people, buskers and craft stalls were photo-shopped rather than being real and many were in shown in locations where such urban vitality would just never happen. 

This is something that students do all of the time – almost as if writing a script for the places they are designing: ‘You will live here, set up a business in this co-working space, drink your macchiato in this cafe, your children will skip home from school along this route, while you stop to admire the work of local artists and contribute to participatory design exercise before relaxing over a pint in a craft brewery run by nice young men with beards’. 

Architects in practice may not write the script quite so blatantly but all those CGIs and photomontages with children chasing hoops across lively public squares while multi-ethnic people mill around, shops and cafes throng with customers and somewhere in the background an outdoor cinema screen is showing something arty – are essentially doing the same thing. They are creating a fantasy about how a space will be used that bears no relationship to reality. Anything is possible in these idyllic narratives and I admit that even an old sceptic like myself is not immune to their seduction.     

The point is that this urban vitality exists because of those boring old conventional urban design rules. You need a permeable hierarchy of streets and spaces, you need a certain density and mix of uses, you need some sense of urban enclosure, you need passive overlooking, active ground floors etc… to generate the people and activity that makes such spaces so successful. 

The problem is that architecture schools tend teach their students to design buildings as objects. You very rarely see degree shows in which the main project is a building shoehorned into a city street with party walls on either side. You are much more likely to come across buildings as beautiful jewels surrounded by nothing. This presents a problem in teaching urban design in architecture schools because students can’t easily shine in the way that they need to get the best degree. 

these rules are hard-wired into us as a species of walking talking monkeys

This is also true of the profession – the architect news-feeds that I get on my computer every day are full of buildings as sculptural objects in splendid isolation. Many architects tend to treat urban design in the same way; masterplans that start with the building and work outwards to the plan or sometimes treat the entire masterplan as if it was one enormous piece of architecture. Urban design works in the opposite direction – the plan comes first, then the public realm and the infrastructure, then the lots and plots, each with their rules for how they can be built. So dull! 

Nobody likes rules, particularly when you are being creative, and architects are taught quite rightly to question and challenge rules. They seem to see the rules of urban design like the Paladian rules of classical proportion, something that is interesting but essentially outdated and irrelevant to modern practice. This is not helped by all of those Poundburyesque masterplans with their strange mix of medieval and Georgian design that give the impression that urban design is a profession set on creating a pastiche of the past. 

But there are rules that architects can’t ignore – the rules of structure and gravity, of course (skyhooks aside) but just as important are the characteristics of us as humans. This is why we have the Vitruvian Man or Corbusier’s Modulor. Even the most radical architecture is scaled to our needs as humans to move around, to climb stairs, to live and work in comfort, to have access to light and air etc… The rules of urbanism are no different, except they relate to our behaviour collectively. How we move around, how we react to each other as friends or strangers, how we live as communities while maintaining our privacy, our need for constant stimulation, the scale of spaces in which we feel comfortable, the distance at which we can recognise people etc… This is the point that Jan Gehl has been making for most of his career, these rules are hard-wired into us as a species of walking talking monkeys, they are not stylistic or reactionary. If you ignore them you will end up with dull lifeless places however many people you photoshop into the drawing.