I went to see an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of a company called Building Design Partnership. I admire the fact that the founder, an architect, deliberately set out to avoid celebrity by not using either his own name or the word ‘architect’. Instead he established a collective of specialists to design and deliver large-scale buildings. The strategy was unusual but it worked and the commissions began to flow in. Over time they grew in scale so that the work is now international and includes not only individual buildings but also complete environments such as airports, campuses, green housing estates and city regeneration projects.
Their achievements are impressive, as is the exhibition where examples of projects are represented by intricately crafted models, professional photos and beautifully rendered drawings. In the presentation everything looks at its best: even the scaled-down people who inhabit the models and drawings look cool and their little cars, lightly distributed around the tree-lined, uncongested roads, seem trendy. Everything is perfectly ordered, clean and functional: architecture has been re-named ‘building design’ and large, complex projects ‘master-planning’.
That same evening I went to a meeting at the Town Hall to hear the police Superintendant report on his progress towards keeping on top of things in our city centre. He spent a lot of time describing how he had structured his force – as if it had only recently occurred to him that it needed a structure. I found this disconcerting until I realised that he is continually discarding previous structures that have either failed or outlived their effectiveness in a fluctuating, dynamic situation.
The city has many stakeholders and their interests often conflict. That evening there was much discussion, for example, about that part of the night-time economy which generates income from the sale of alcohol (and other drugs) and, to the disturbance of many residents, results in noise and disorder in the streets into the early hours. This is one of the issues that keep the Superintendant and his force very busy.
His load would be considerably lightened if a little master-planning could be applied to this state of affairs. If all the late-night drinking places were in zone A and all the residents lived in zone B he would need fewer cops to sort out the problems between them. Actually it would simplify many peoples’ jobs if such a logistic heaven were to become reality but, alas, it is too late. The city didn’t have a conceptual master plan and no amount of retrospective planning will ever compensate for that.
But all is not lost; there are schemes abroad to build new cities from scratch – the Master Planners’ dream-come-true. If they ever build one conveniently situated for me I would like to live in it for a while - just to see if they got it right and, of course, to check out how long it takes for all the model people and cars to get jumbled up.