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Farshid Moussavi: Planning is an art form

Farshid Moussavi

Whether a city’s planning system is projective or reactive has a profound influence over its architecture

Going through the UK planning process can be very trying for architects and clients as decisions are made ‘case-by-case’ by individual borough planning departments. The system is exposed to unpredictable factors: the sensibility of the planner in charge; the discussions that the department has had about adjacent sites; any previous relationship the department has had with the client; the politics within the planning committee; and so on. Without a masterplan to guide it, a long negotiation ensues between the planning officers and the architect (and their planning consultant) until an option is approved or the proposal is dismissed entirely. Obtaining permission in the UK has indeed become an art form in itself.

It is true that planning departments confront a great challenge in deciding how to regulate design in urban environments built mostly by the private sector. New York has a similarly negotiated planning process for large sites considered to have particular public significance or impact. However, on smaller sites, zoning and design guidelines created by urban designers who work for the city govern building envelopes, massing and facades. If you follow the rules, no approval is needed (‘as of right’ development). In these cases, architects/clients have clarity about the requirements; while the design guidelines protect the public’s interest.

Paris has a design-led planning system which has been refined ever since the 19th century when Haussmann devised a coherent urban system that could be built by countless developers. With the exception of the ‘light and air’ zoning of the 1960s, design guidelines continue to be created by architects working for the government as urban designers in the City Planning Department and the Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR). These then facilitate individual planning applications with parameters that are not dogmatically rigid, allowing architects some flexibility in their solutions.

Within such guidelines, contemporary architects have managed to be quite innovative, working with given alignments, density and light requirements but testing new materials and forms. In the case of new development areas in France, an architect is similarly appointed by the city as an urban designer to develop an area masterplan; they are then retained as coordinating architects for several years to supervise and give guidance on all individual planning applications for sites within those masterplans.

The UK and French systems are diametrically opposite. The French system is projective: architectes-urbanistes draw up masterplans to inform decisions made subsequently for each site. The UK system is reactive: there is no holistic vision going forward, and applications are decided individually. In the projective model, as the planning officers are advised by their architecte-urbaniste, they can take the position of design negotiators. In the reactive model, the planning officers must act as Feng Shui masters and divine the dynamics of a given site solely grounded on past decisions. As in any stare decisis legal model, this curbs future thinking and encourages the retroactive and conservative.

Regardless of which system is adopted, a ‘bridge practice’ is needed to ensure that planning decisions about individual sites are informed by a vision for the city: not just form, the insulating skin and site specificity. To this end, the previous UK government set up CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), comprised of architects and engineers, to review each planning proposal from the perspective of design; however the current government has cut all its funding. In the UK a bridge is therefore needed more than ever to make explicit, as part of the planning process, the three-dimensional implications of written policy and make the case for a robust urban form.

I personally really enjoy the UK system: it is not ‘projective’ but it turns the city as an idea into a permanent construction site. However it is at its best when planners with design acumen (such as Peter Rees) engage confidently in the process, creating a productive dialogue leading to both better architectural design and stronger visions for the city. Otherwise, just as architects have planning consultants as their advisors on planning matters, planners need urban designers as their advisors on design matters. An urban designer or urbaniste in every planning department could become the advocate that makes the balance between the case-by-case concerns of planners and architects’ projective imaginations.


As a seasoned competitor and frequent judge, Farshid Moussavi gives her opinion on Architectural Competitions


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