Underpinning all Kafkaesque planning bureaucracies is a fear of freedom that generates aesthetic frigidity
Architectural imagination faces a paradox: on the one hand, the global majority now live in cities and witness breathtaking urban expansion from China to Brazil. On the other hand, architecture seems to have little to contribute to this phenomenal growth. Gone are the times when architectural vision drove urbanisation and gave it a sense of societal purpose.
Modernism played a significant part in re-imagining the city of the 20th century. But while the Modernists’ narrative declined, their methodologies of abstraction and repetition have become the default model for shaping cities today alongside the dominant idea that how a city develops should be determined by capable technocrats.
Planning systems differ significantly around the world, but the one thing they have in common is a paternalistic attitude towards citizens and their ability to decide how they should live. In some places this even extends into regulating the minutiae of daily life; not only how cities should be shaped, but how citizens should behave. While some planning departments obsess over the uniformity of colour of picket fences, others negotiate absurd ideological divides about the placement of rubbish bins. This Kafkaesque status quo is a far cry from the heroic image of planners as the guardians of progress.
There have been various critiques over the decades of this top-down process but the response has broadly focused on involving the public in the process of decision-making through consultation and the new-agey mechanism of ‘stakeholder’ involvement. But, so far, very few voices have argued in favour of giving people the real power to shape their cities by granting them the freedom to build without being constrained by planning and its restrictions. Yet this is precisely what we need today: the freedom to build, giving people the power to shape their cities directly.
At a conceptual level, the freedom to build would allow us to imagine alternatives to the way we have been conceiving of cities for nearly a century. There can be no truly new architecture or urbanism if we are still operating within the closed parameters of planning and its systems of control. At best, we can get glitzy one-off buildings designed by starchitects while the vast majority of what we are building remains the product of Modernist abstractions. The form of the city itself remains paralysed.
Liberating building from these restrictions will produce a more anarchic context in which the possibilities for innovation are much greater. Throughout most of history, people possessed the freedom to build before the formalisation of planning codes from the 19th century, but most didn’t possess the resources. Today we are at a point where our material development is at a stage that can allow hundreds of millions to have the resources to build, but most are not permitted the freedom to do so.
‘The idea that architects or planners know better how people should live is deeply patronising’
There is a widely accepted pernicious assumption that works against any suggestion of greater architectural liberty. It argues that giving people the freedom to build will inevitably lead to worse cities and architecture. The taste of the populace can’t be trusted; we need to protect them from their lack of appreciation for good architecture. But this is an absurd proposition; it infantilises non-professionals and basically argues that they cannot make the right choices about how they want to live. The idea that architects or planners know better how people should live is deeply patronising.
Much of this, in practice, is a form of snobbery. Architects need to stop thinking of themselves as the arbiters of good taste. Stylistic concerns should not become the veneer through which our ‘expertise’ is defined. When given the freedom, what people will build will most certainly not conform to our aesthetic preferences but it will create the parameters for how we imagine new forms of architecture, new technology and new aesthetics.
We can take a lesson from the American painter Robert Rauschenberg who said: ‘I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.’ Today we miss that spirit of sixties’ optimism and its celebration of everyday life appreciating beauty in machine-produced objects.
Abolishing planning and granting people the right to build freely will usher in true democratisation, away from the control exercised by both planners, who are shackled by their own arcane processes, and developers who are accustomed to predictable standardised repetitions. In this, citizens don’t have a real say or choice, and in most cases can only influence the process of development through negotiation processes and negative demands. In many places this contributes to even more mediocre architecture, as the lowest common denominator becomes the norm.
The prospect of a loss of control is destabilising for bureaucrats, architects and urban designers alike but, unlike planners, architects can benefit significantly from such a transformation. We tend to protect our profession today by claiming a form of monopoly over taste and aesthetic choices. However, if we were to embrace the freedom of abolishing planning, we would have far fewer constraints and our scope for re-imagining radical new architecture would expand. We could stop obsessing about the surface treatment of buildings and begin to imagine different spatial and tectonic possibilities that we rarely contemplate now.
When most people think of self-building they tend to think of shabby, cheap and tattered buildings not of elegant and innovative architecture, but this doesn’t have to be the case. If construction were to be liberated from the constraints of our current planning paradigm, prefabrication would allow intense experimentation with forms of architecture that are engineered and built to much higher standards.
The prospects are thrilling: houses that could adapt and change over time by using expandable modules, lightweight, efficient and innovative designs that could allow architecture to break away from conventions - it is certainly a bleak indictment of the profession that many houses are still being built by placing one brick over another, much like builders did thousands of years ago. But even more so that residential architecture in particular is still designed as a series of extruded diagrams of spatial relationships that offer very little space for innovation.
The prospects for new urban forms are equally exciting. Neighbourhood types that haven’t been permissible until now. We could conceive of vertical villages made up of plug-in prefabricated housing, cooperative quarters in which people choose where and how they want to live, and versatile new forms that sit somewhere between urban and suburban. Once the monopoly of planning and the way its abstractions control cities are broken, we would have endless scope for innovation that satisfies our needs and aspirations.
By abolishing planning and introducing the freedom to build, a new form of pop architecture will emerge and we could create the genuine conditions for a total re-imagination of what the city looks like. They will most likely not look like the self-indulgent, slick, mock-organic architectural imagery we have become accustomed to in recent years but they will be far more radical and destabilising for architecture and cities. Let’s have the courage to embrace change not frigid aesthetic exclusivity.
By London-based illustrator and designer Charlie Davis