Is there still a role for architects in city making?

The runaway evolution of urban growth means they will have to find new ways of contributing

Architects have to expand their role. So said the panel of leading architects, from left: Ma Yansong, Elizabeth Diller, Amanda Levete, Sarah Gaventa (chair), David Chipperfield and Odile Decq.
Architects have to expand their role. So said the panel of leading architects, from left: Ma Yansong, Elizabeth Diller, Amanda Levete, Sarah Gaventa (chair), David Chipperfield and Odile Decq.

The New Urban Agenda is a grand idea for our urban century. Adopted at the Habitat Summit last autumn, the agenda set up a new UN template for cities everywhere. The document includes 175 bullet points to guide urbanisation over the next two decades. Rather than seeing the city as the cause of global problems, it interprets it as the source of solutions. The agenda reads between a utopian vision and an urban recovery manual.

At this level of geopolitics, it is difficult to imagine the role for an architect. Utopian thinking, after all, is supposedly dead. But the main author of the agenda, Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, sees it differently. Clos came to London to describe this vision at the RIBA International Conference, Change in the City, on 4 July. He opened the event with a speech that candidly urged architects to ‘read between the lines’ of the agenda and to find more meaningful ways of taking responsibility for designing and planning cities.

This conference, themed ‘Change in the City’, addressed the UN global strategy through the role of the architect in city making. The RIBA approached it, against the current backdrop of uncertainty, with an optimistic attitude towards internationalism. And to my mind it became apparent that the global must also be interpreted and imagined simultaneously with the local.

Across five panel discussions, the different forms of architectural agency were central: the architect as an agitator, community organiser, entrepreneur, mediator or policy maker, to name a few. This  was explicitly confronted in an all-star panel of architects, chaired by Sarah Gaventa, that included David Chipperfield, Odile Decq, Elizabeth Diller, Amanda Levete and Ma Yansong.

Among these practitioners, between their footings in London, Paris, New York and Beijing, there appeared to be a collective understanding that architects have to expand their agency. Chipperfield proposed that they should think beyond the red line of a physical site and challenge their design brief, a notion supported by the other four. Diller called for more direct engagement with policy making, Yansong wanted more critical visionary thinking, Decq recommended an integrated infrastructural approach and Levete wanted investment in buildings with a stronger social purpose. In broad terms, they were suggesting the intimacy between the architect and the city be rekindled.

At the same time, it was curious to hear Diller describe the ‘architect as powerless’. To some extent, this was reinforced by Chipperfield’s suggestion that ‘a masterplan is urban planning without vision…  it is infrastructure that has surreptitiously replaced urban planning’. He used London as an example where the city’s distinct form has lost its shape because of a diminished role for urban planning and an agenda of deregulation. It would appear, in these comments, that the architect is unaccountable as well as abstract in city making. Alternatively, it might mean the architect has to devolve from the traditions of the discipline to find new ways to define it.

Indeed, the definition of the city in the popular imagination as the ‘European city’ may no longer be appropriate. After all, the more customary notion of the city, as discussed at the first Habitat Summit in Vancouver in 1976, must recognise the runaway evolution of urban growth as well as urban culture globally. While Decq described the radical urban transformation of Medellín as something other cities can learn from, it seemed a missed opportunity that this panel did not have more representation from the southern hemisphere. The following panel, involving Suzanne Hall, Jo Noero and duo Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner (practitioners from Cape Town and Caracas), offered a valuable critique of the preceding discussion.

While Levete suggested taking on entrepreneurial, self-initiated projects, this form of practice has been established and honed by Brillembourg and Klumpner for the past 20 years. Additionally, it is Noero’s belief that the social purpose of his architecture and his association to the city has never faded. Both Noero and Diller, although they expressed it differently, were calling for architects to strengthen their generalist role. Like a medical general practitioner, architects must understand their local urban environment and have a duty to design as well as care for it.

In a sense, when Noero stated that ‘the only public space is the street’, where all possible forms of urban life exist along its edges, he provided an important starting point for architects to deal with the New Urban Agenda – even if the word ‘street’ only appears three times in this utopian document. The street, providing the lens to understand the city and its urban dimensions, is where a possible role for the architect should be defined.