How to Save the City-Dweller

Andrew Saint

  • Cities for a Small Planet by Richard Rogers
    Faber, 180 pp, £9.99, December 1997, ISBN 0 571 17993 2

‘Cities that are beautiful, safe and equitable are within our grasp.’ So says Richard Rogers at the end of this reworking of his Reith Lectures of 1995, and we must do our best to believe him. Suppose, however, that the lecturer had pronounced instead on another of the basic building-blocks of society – the family, for instance. We might admit that he was right to exhort us, but we should know at once that he was a moralist and a preacher. And our unregenerate selves would remember that families reflect the good, the bad and the inconsistent in human nature. Must it not be the same with cities, where most of the race now dwells?

A heart-warming side to the culture of cities is its idealism. Not content with building heavenly Jerusalems, people try to construct real ones, with eccentric, even sinister, but always fallible results. More’s Utopia, with its Platonic stress on the other-worldliness of nowhere-land, is forever being transmuted into Eutopia, the place to live the good life, which social and architectural reformers rally round to invent. This year marks the centenary of Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, perhaps the most humane blueprint ever set down for new communities. Go today to Letchworth, the first Garden City and fruit of Howard’s urbanistic fancies, and what do you find? A pleasant, peaceable place, with pockets of architectural imagination – in truth, an English town much like any other. Time, in the guise of the universal levelling forces of modern transportation, employment and consumption, has ironed out Letchworth’s utopian creases.

There are new reasons these days for being totalitarian about the world’s conurbations, and Cities for a Small Planet makes the most of them. With a quarter of a million people moving to live in cities every day (the near-equivalent, as Rogers puts it, of a new London every month), we cannot not act. Laissez-faire will not do, for the crisis of diminishing resources and increasing pollution refuses any more to be gainsaid. Incontinent, incompetent urbanisation is the biggest culprit. The problem begins at home, not in Latin America or Africa or China. We use cars too much and will not get out of them. We fail to turn off the lights. We live in smaller and smaller family units, profligate of energy, because we can no longer stand being so close to one another. Most of us (and this is as true of South Africans stuck in townships as it is of affluent Americans) want individual houses with gardens – in other words, the suburb or low-density city. It is like sin: we are all guilty and we know it, but we have no intention of stopping. Back comes the preacher.

Who then should the preacher be? Must we have one at all on the text of the modern city? For over a hundred years we have had statisticians, doctors, sanitarians, engineers, economists and, now, ecologists setting out how city-dwellers in the developed world might be saved. So healthy, cosy and, above all, busy have these wonder-workers made the majority of us, that our cities are joy and freedom compared to savage, noxious, Georgian London, Imperial Rome, or even (it is too probable) Periclean Athens – here touted once again as an urban model. No wonder that a quarter of a million cluster in daily from the developing world’s arduous and lonely countryside to join the party. The fact that most modern cities look ugly and cruel, and contain a visibly miserable underclass, hardly matters. They work better than the places people are leaving. The difficulty is that now, not only the millenarians but also the urban professionals tell us the party can’t go on.

So we must have ‘the vision thing’, and architects such as Richard Rogers are there to proffer it. The relationship between architecture and urbanism is less straightforward than you might think. It does not follow that because you can put up a vibrant building like the Pompidou Centre and pack it with people, you can or ought to do the same for a city. In a city you are dealing with the complete pattern of human life, about rest as well as movement, about ordinariness as well as excitement, and on a far larger scale and to a far looser brief than in any one building. City-planning is not in the first instance something visible. It becomes so when, economic and transport and social investigators having done their darnedest, someone has to draw a line on a map. If the architect doesn’t do it, the road engineer will, putting his own rigid and barbarian priorities first.

Since the Industrial Revolution, architects have mostly been bit-part players in the creation and extension of cities. It is the Seine Prefect Haussmann, for instance, not an architect, who is rightly credited with the transformation of Paris. This is now obscure to us because, between about 1900 and 1975, architects more or less took charge of European and American urbanism. Between the world wars, orderly planning seemed the answer to everything, and architects volunteered to bestow it on cities. Such was their faith in the beneficence of their diagrams, however, that they lost touch with the reality of urban change. Tending to interpret cities through the design of housing, they persisted in selling the sweetness and light of Ebenezer Howard, filtered latterly through the distorting lens of Le Corbusier. Cities and neighborhoods were neatly cut up and zoned, with lots of light and air and grass between the buildings. Low-density new towns were created on virgin soil, at immense trouble and cost. All this as a reaction against the filth, disease and density of the Victorian city. It took an unconscionable time for architect-planners to shake off this policy of purgation: to tumble to the growth in office employment, for instance, or to grasp that urban manufacturers tend to be many and small, not few and large, or (more controversially) to kowtow to the private car, and adjust their plans accordingly. By the time they had done so, physical planning was at the miserable nadir of its reputation. In Britain, it has still not recovered.

Compare this with the new urbanism of Richard Rogers. Discarding the clumsy battering-ram of the old planners, he invests the contemporary city from any number of angles. As a roving scaremonger operating on a planetary scale, Rogers wields the statistics of ecological doom, warns us of our precariousness and galvanises us to greater ingenuity. As an urban sociologist and Blairite civics professor, he tells us that we deserve improved public spaces in which to be better citizens and disport ourselves. Finally, as an architect, he pleads for a higher profile for his profession, more competitions to jolly us along, more smart buildings in city centres. Designing new cities is out. Instead, Rogers invites us to pep up the old ones, taking as our cue the kind of grands projets which he and other architects belonging to the small club of international megastars relish building. The projects he shows us – most of them by the Richard Rogers Partnership – are largely ones in which admirable efforts are made to grapple with the issue of designing buildings and places that are economically sustainable.

If Cities for a Small Planet smacks more of eloquence than of system, that in part reflects the breadth of canvas a Reith Lecturer is asked to cover. But it also indicates the renewed marginalisation of architects in urban planning. It may seem otherwise. Do stars like Rogers not bestride the world, presiding over the layout of city extensions, airports and grands projets? Have Paris and Barcelona, to name but two, not earned income as well as prestige from a monumentled policy of urbanism? Certainly; but to argue from monuments to cities as a whole is to embrace a questionable trickle-down philosophy of planning. On anything larger than a building, the architect-stars are usually flown in as consultants to lend lustre and offer a vision, which the locals may pick up and then drop. One such recent scheme, the Richard Rogers Partnership’s project for the Lu Zia Sui district of Shanghai, is illustrated here as ‘a compact polycentric sustainable urban development based on an integrated framework of public spaces and transport systems’. It could have achieved, Rogers claims, a potential energy saving of 70 per cent over conventional development. But in the end, the Chinese did not care for it. We ought to have been told why, because that is what city-planning is about. If a scheme of any magnitude and social significance is not embedded in civic policy, it will sooner or later fall. The problem of planning is a problem of government.

This Rogers realises when he devotes a chapter to the city he knows and loves best: London. He has been here before in A New London, knocked out jointly with Mark Fisher before the 1992 Election to ginger up Labour policy for the capital. The things Rogers advocates are still the same, but they sound more hopeful because now some of them may actually happen. He begins with government: London must have one, like everywhere else, as a token of self-respect. In the current fashion, he sees this government not as an organ of true popular representation but as a slim-line, Giuliani-style, executive mayoralty, charged with tackling the city’s backlog of strategic planning problems and ‘giving it a voice’ on the international stage, where cities have in part supplanted nation-states as a focus for economic competition.

So far so good, but it is all too easy and oligarchic. To reverse the damage caused by current transport policies in London, an aim here set out with crystal clarity, will need either huge government hand-outs or a revenue-raising authority with powers and boundaries far wider than seem to be envisaged. More than to mayors, it boils down to fundamental powers for local or regional government. The lifeblood of English city government has been drained out: nothing serious will be achieved until it gets a transfusion. In urbanism, you quickly touch bottom.

Rogers quotes Brian Anson on London’s predicament: ‘London, like so many cities, has an internationally known core, an inner ring, and an outer ring tending to a green belt. Whilst the city’s core suffers from problems of pollution and congestion it is the inner ring in which the poor and disadvantaged are trapped ... This is the powder keg of the city. Nearly all city planning of recent times has concentrated on the core. This is an enormous fallacy and possibly a recipe for disaster.’ After that, where does Rogers’s discussion lead but to the core? To be specific, to the intractably tidal Thames, the renaissance and rebridging of which he (like so many) sees as the key to some species of permanent cultural jamboree for London.

The reasons for this focus are simple. The banks of London’s river have hosted several of Rogers’s own recent ‘urban interventions’, from luxury housing now rising in Battersea through the wavy-roofed envelope for the South Bank Centre (a mistake, now aborted) to the Millennium Dome, a project poised at present between sublimity and risibility (but lay your bets on its ultimate success; all big buildings get loved in the end). There is nothing wrong with starting from what you know; and the Dome, after all, lies not at the core but in Anson’s inner ring, and comes with a proper, preconceived transport infrastructure attached (marking it out from the rest of Docklands) and with regenerative housing planned close by. Nevertheless, this concentration on exemplary projects reveals that the new style of architectural planning is reactive rather than ground-breaking; it follows where others have anonymously led. The Dome is there because the infrastructure is there, not the other way round; that is the difference with Lu Zia Sui.

For Rogers, far from being icing on the infrastructural cake, the grand projet becomes the new generator in urban planning. What this way of thinking really tells us about is the economics of leisure, the commodification of culture and the tourist dollar in cities of the developed world; that is why these projects command political support. But such brutal truths are too coarse for the palate of most architects, bringing them too closely into line with the heritage industry, which Rogers for one heartily and irrationally loathes. Instead, they have built up an edifice of theory about public space and interaction as the key to the good civic life.

Cities for a Small Planet is one of many places where this theory goes the rounds. It is an odd blend of old and new, mixing old-style admiration for the classical agora and public square, sentimentality about the Parisian street-café (with due homage to the voyeurism of Baudelaire as mediated through Walter Benjamin), and an uncritical hurry to endorse Richard Sennett’s anxieties about the collapse of public life and modern man’s retreat into privacy. What all these cultural interventions in the urban core are meant to deliver is ‘ “open-minded” places’ where ‘we are readier to meet people’s gaze and to participate’; where couch-potatoes are pressed into a gamut of high-minded activities, ranging from ‘heated exchanges of views in cafés to listening to Birtwistle in a concert hall’. The crowds that pack city centres ‘long for genuine public life’, says Rogers. I wonder. What they mostly want is bread and circuses.

It is an old architectural ploy going back forty years (to Jane Jacobs’s spirited defence of Greenwich Village in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Willmott and Young’s Family and Kinship in East London) to praise the virtues of street-life and exalt some elusive form of civic value in order to puff the high-density city. The corollary is that the suburb must be denigrated as alienating, banal and uncivilised. Such a sociology is wrong, injurious and to some extent a nostalgic fake. The suburb in one form is what most people want and in another form where most people end up. Poor suburbs are what the quarter of a million daily immigrants into cities have to make do with. Better suburbs are where the populations of city cores (still leaking out everywhere; inner-city gentrification and regeneration are statistically small movements) head to. It is where most people living in modern conurbations spend the longest, most meaningful and most social parts of their lives, indulging in graver activities than their duties to their employers or mere getting and spending. There they walk dogs, till allotments, tinker with bikes and cars and even visit their neighbours. Architect-planners need to wake up to the worth as well as the plight of the suburb, and serve people, rich and poor, where they find them.

The ecological crisis could be the last throw for the compact-city buffs. It is plain enough that only a trivial minority are ready to give up the freedom and flexibility offered by the car for the aesthetic excitements and café-chatter that Rogers holds dear. There is a great deal of humbug about this. On your next journey with children, with old people, with things to lug about or multiple destinations to get to, consider whether you would really sacrifice the convenience, control and privacy of your car even for inconceivably better and cheaper public transport: the odds are that you wouldn’t. The damage you know you are doing to the sky and to other people’s lungs makes you think you just might. But it would take political guts of a kind that modern psephology makes well nigh impossible to force you onto the buses. Suppose next that the problem of polluting car fuel is solved; the experts may well sort it out, just as they sorted out the draining and cleansing of the Victorian city. What price then the compact model of city development?

Rogers could probably live with that. For the iconic mode of architecture to which he gives pride of place has no necessary link with city cores and central business districts. Many cultural institutions and smart offices flourish in splendid, even suburban, isolation. The popularity of the space before the Pompidou Centre, where Rogers’s ideas about urban planning seem to have started, has less to do with the transparency or thrill of Piano and Rogers’s creation than with the activities it houses and with the pedestrianisation of that already crowded, Covent-Gardenish piece of Paris. Lloyds of London, with an open square across the road from it, doesn’t draw the same throng.

As an architect, Rogers naturally knows most about buildings. In the end, the touching and impressive thing about Cities for a Small Planet is not his zeal for replanning our cities, but the technical tenacity with which he demonstrates his commitment to a sustainable architecture, in whatever environment, right or wrong. He cannot always do so, for as an architect in the market he must serve his client; buildings by the Richard Rogers Partnership do not come cheap. But for a number of prestige projects, he has gathered round him the talented creators of today’s smart architecture – not just architects, but computer experts, structural and services engineers, and environmentalists. In relentless pursuit of the sustainable imperative, together they craft ingenious and pioneering designs (those illustrated here are for the Law Courts at Bordeaux and for the Tokyo Forum) which save light and heat and recycle air to the point where buildings of the hugest scale promise to become all but self-sufficient. In technical tours de force of this kind, Rogers retreats from his self-appointed role of moralist and prophet, and becomes once again the architect in his time-honoured role, the team-leader in imaginative construction. Having inspired and worried us all, he may now return with honour to the drawing-board.