What are the conditions for good urban landscape design?

Edmund Bacon, in his 1974 book on Design of Cities, interpreted Rome's spatial plan in essentially geometrical terms (an axial movement system). Historically, it was created WITH temporal and spiritual power to symbolise these qualities. Are they still the necessary conditions for good urban design? No living planner or designer has the 'powers' of Sixtus V and Urban VIII. Is this why we are making such disappointing cities?

What are the social, political and economic conditions in which urban landscape design is most likely to flourish? I very much hope my answer to this question is wrong, but here goes: “in cities where an enlightened king was guided by spiritual beliefs”. Why should this be so? (1) Without temporal power, urban design is scarcely possible. (2) without spiritual power, objectives are likely to be short term and non-idealistic (3) short-term commercial and military objectives benefit rulers and disadvantage peoples. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed “Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms?”. “It is not victory that is precious but defeat. Victories are good for governments, whereas defeats are good for the people. After a victory, new victories are sought, while after a defeat one longs for freedom, and usually attains it. Nations need defeats just as individuals need suffering and misfortunes, which deepen the inner life and elevate the spirit.”  The great urban designs were made in periods of faith and monarchy Beijing from 1293-1912, in Isfahan under Shah Jehan, in Rome under the Popes and in Paris under the kings and emperors. What comparable successes can be claimed by the faithless democracies and autocracies of the twentieth century? The great powers of the modern world suffer from not having been defeated in great wars.

Image courtesy RTSS

15 thoughts on “What are the conditions for good urban landscape design?

  1. Christine

    Gosh Tom there is a lot in that. Certainly Popes and Kings have the advantage of seeing the ‘bigger picture’ and the capacity to be able to act large. The value of their vision, it might be surmised may have varied? Certainly Hitler had some grand visions for Europe, but they weren’t generally aesthetically desirable ones. Speers says the Cathedral of Light is the only design which stood the test of time. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Speer ] Given the contemporary concern with lighting in environmental design he could well be right that this was his most influential work.

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Hitler seems to be an example of autocratic power without the guidance of spiritual power. Goebbels, who ought to know, thought Hitler was “deeply religious but entirely anti-Christian.” I would put contemporary Chinese urbanism in much the same category – and perhaps most twentieth century urbanism. It has not been a resounding success!

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  2. Christine

    It is possible that there are two procurement related problems which need to be addressed to achieve good urban projects apart from finding brilliant and inspirational designers:

    1) an appropriate scale with the ability to affect the macro linkages into the project (ie remember the previous blog discussion about using the national canal system, archealogy and the art of Henry Moore as strategic factors to rejuvenate Castleford).
    2) the capacity to identify factors which impact on the ongoing success of the project post the procurement phase (ie remember the previous blog discussion about the causes of the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe project, which was attributed to modernism but in fact rested with the Federal funding model).

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Sadly, I think that a brilliant and inspirational designer is far from being a sufficient condition for good design. The client, the client’s objectives and the relationship with the client are crucial. I do indeed remember the Castleford discussion and agree that the lack of macro (local) linkages was a key problem. It is also true that many good projects ‘die’ in the post procurement phase. But hanging far above these ‘minor irritations’ looms the problem of how societies can achieve good urban design without kings and popes. The best suggestion I can come up with is the appointment of a group of ‘city fathers and city mothers’ with near-plenipotentiary powers to take important decisions. They should be chosen for their ‘goodness’ and ‘wisdom’, not for their professional qualifications or for their ability to climb greasy poles.

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  3. Christine

    Hmmm, Tom does this mean ‘the ability to climb greasy poles’ is in opposition to ‘goodness’ and ‘professional qualifications’ is in opposition to ‘wisdom’?

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  4. Christine

    It is a little difficult to make out quite what the two sides might be. One side looks like a conventional portrait, while the other has buildings and perhaps some other features?

    So is Richard Rogers in the postmodern sense of ‘and/both’: good and wise and good at design with the ability to climb greasy poles? If so London would be fortunate to have his services in urban design. Does a Baron-ship give you the necessary ‘plenipotentiary powers to take important decisions’?

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Do democracies provide sufficiently plenipotentiary powers for good urban design? Alas, no, but thank goodness they don’t. As Churchill remarked: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947) . As discussed elsewhere on this blog, I think Rogers is a good architect but a bad urban designer, And as an aspiring socialist I think he should have responded to the offer of a barony with ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Then he could be on the list of people who have declined a British honour Churchill, for example, declined the offer of becoming Duke of London..

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  5. Christine

    Maybe Richard Rogers is still aspiring to become a socialist!

    Perhaps the dichotomy between socialism and capitalism which began with Marx is misconceived? Maybe we are in a post-Marxian period and need a whole new economic theory on which to build philosophical discussions about the nature of society?

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes to all those questions – and maybe human nature and socialism has certain incompatibilities. As they used to say ‘if a man is not a socialist at 20, he has no heart, and if he is still a socialist at 30, he has no head’.

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  6. Tom Turner Post author

    The arguments, which are not mine, would be that (1) young people are more warm hearted than older people (2) older people have more common sense than younger people.

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  7. Christine

    You bring up an interesting question of whether it is best to be ruled by your heart or your head or some combination of the two?

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Both, and more. The great man advised that “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.” Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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