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Battle of Ideas: Master Planning the Future

This compelling debate at Barbican examined 21st century urbanism but failed to acknowledge the overarching hegemony of capitalist neoliberalism

Hippodamus of Miletus, the famous ‘father of urban planning’ and supposed inventor of the gridded city, was a figure who provoked a good deal of controversy among his contemporaries. This was not necessarily because of the formalism of his plans, but because in a field of squares, all of which are alike, the question of where to locate the agora was an acutely uncomfortable one. In other words, when a man imagines the entire city from nothing, creating all possible urban interactions in one stroke, the place for politics is not at all clear. How are the citizens to assume ownership of the city? How are they to feel a democratic engagement with its processes, if its very space is simply handed to them readymade? The paradox of the masterplanned city is its intent to resolve everyone’s life and every activity, thereby designing out the possibility of an unpredictable future. But this unpredictability is core to the human drive to make cities. We need to believe that, tomorrow, anything might be possible.

This question of the role of the individual in shaping urbanity − to what extent masterplans can be imposed on a population, and whether they can ever be truly participatory − formed the backbone to the Battle of Ideas debate, titled ‘Master Planning the Future’. Hardly surprising, it was not a question that could be answered definitively, although the fast and furious exchange of opinions was entertaining and very telling about the broader historical condition in which it occurred. This condition might be summarised briefly as the Eastern tendency to build big (best results come from the top down) versus the Western faith in the wisdom of crowds (the best results come from the bottom up). The mistake would be in thinking this was merely a question of financial capacity − that China is on the economic ascendancy, while a languishing Europe and America have to do more with less − quite the contrary, the battle lines were drawn as unambiguously ideological.

Farshid Moussavi made the excellent point that masterplanning as a concept is inherently flawed from the outset, since we cannot know over what timescale our plans are best applied. If a masterplan is implemented rapidly it runs the risk of not being realistic about the future needs of the city (and not simply answering its short-term crises); alternatively, a very long-term
plan is almost necessarily diluted as unforeseen changes render portions of it no longer desirable. Most of all, Moussavi argued for incremental planning, with built-in feedback loops and circuit breakers. This type of plan shouldn’t be conceived at the scale of infrastructure, in which buildings play the role of infill, but should start from the scale of the building itself and examine the capacity of architecture to influence its surrounds through indirect means. In this scenario the design of affordances outside what is called for by the architect’s brief (as with the introduction of a public park to what was a port terminal at Yokohama) becomes very significant.


A bridge over the Yangtze towers over the rural remnants of Chongqing, like Piranesi’s engravings of peasants squatting in the ruins of Rome — but thrown into historical reverse

For Theodore Dounas, associate professor of architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University, the West’s inability to successfully implement large-scale plans in fact stems from the people’s loss of confidence in politics and the entire political process of city making. Whatever the Chinese might think about their government (which was a hotly disputed point), they allow it to exercise incredible power in the urban realm. Conflict over state redevelopment, Dounas argued, mostly comes down to a fight over compensation, and not the raison d’être of the plan itself. This is because the Chinese recognise the basic intent, that even colossal scales of planning are ultimately intended to improve the lives of everyone. The fact that over the last 30 years China has dragged more than 200 million people out of poverty and introduced them to a metropolitan consumerist lifestyle is testament to this goal.

Speaking more directly to Moussavi’s position, Malcolm Smith, the director of Urban Design at Arup, pointed out how infrastructure-led planning can find a compromise between the two extremes of determinacy. A project like the Channel Tunnel might be predominantly a rail connection between two cities, but it offers unexpected opportunities for third parties to capitalise on its sphere of influence − the 2012 Games, Smith suggested, were in part a consequence of strategic thinking about how to maximise the effectiveness of infrastructural development. This general optimism about piggybacking on specific projects was not one shared by Penny Lewis, who only needed to mention HS2 to underline how sceptical she was about economic benefits from masterplans of this type. In the West, there is a profound distrust of any monumental, utopian or wilful project larger in scale than the Boris bikes. This is because of our extreme anxiety about plans that could in any way be perceived as anti-democratic, fascist or authoritarian. By consequence, we have developed a preoccupation with informality, which we confuse with transparency and equality.

On the whole, it was a fine event, chaired expertly by the implacable Austin Williams (who penned the previous review). However, while
it fulfilled a certain critical role, it failed to be clearly propositional − no participant tackled the elephant in the room concerning masterplanning. Irrespective of whether a project is in the East or West, when discussing politics, culture, ‘placemaking’ and various other factors, it can be easy to forget that today they are all subsumed by economics. Regardless of location,
all contemporary projects operate in an identical financial context, that of late capitalist neoliberalism. This is an economic model that is not at all risk averse, and which has its own philosophies designed to justify both spatial and social inequality on an unprecedented scale. Therefore, when we assess the agency of the architect, engineer or planner, it is not enough to consider their work alone − we must also appraise the degree to which any project facilitates alternatives to these hyper-stable, but unjust, social power relations.


Venue: Barbican
City: London
Dates: 19 October 2013


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