Most masterplans are never built but, once they are, they can last for ever – even if the name of the masterplanner is quickly forgotten, writes David Rudlin
I have just been reading Matthew Green’s excellent book Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages. It tells the story of places such as the medieval city of Dunwich, once one of the busiest ports on the east coast that fell victim to coastal erosion in the late middle ages.
He says in the introduction how easy it is “for cities towns and villages to fall foul of the historical process and sink into oblivion”.
And yet is that true? The reality is that human settlements are remarkably resilient, the ones that disappear are very much the exception. As a town planner and urban designer this is a comforting thought. The places we design are likely to be around for a long time.
There are streets in Jericho that have existed for many millennia, but even in London Bishopsgate and Shoreditch High Street are part of the original Roman road leading to the river crossing built when the city was founded almost 2,000 years ago.
This can even be true of the functions of a street. Steven Johnson in his book Emergence talks about Via Por Santa Maria in Florence that has been a centre for silk weaving for a thousand years.
There are streets in Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham and half a dozen other places that were conceived on the table-tennis table that sits in the centre of our office
In that time the city and its culture have changed beyond recognition, the buildings have been replaced many times over, but the street and its silk weavers remain. Architecture is ephemeral, urban design is eternal!
There are streets in Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham and half a dozen other places that were conceived on the table-tennis table that sits in the centre of our office. It is where we used to do our communal design sessions pre-covid and where those streets were sketched and argued over on layers of tracing paper, then plotted on CAD, printed out and sketched over once more.
In recent years we have been doing the same process on Miro boards that work surprisingly well, but it is great to get back to our table-tennis table.
Our plans were subsequently argued-over again with transport engineers and planners worried about parking, bike lanes, bin trucks and street trees. Once agreed, the streets were defined in regulatory plans and street sections. They were specified in design codes and subject to detailed design by public realm designers eventually being enshrined in a planning consent.
Then came the uncertain process of implementation. Our office has worked on more than a hundred plans but only a handful have navigated the vagaries of this uncertain process to the point where they actually get built. But those that did could last for ever, or as near as dammit!
What does not endure is the authorship of the masterplanner. Only last month I read in the pages of this journal about the Port Loop site in Birmingham where I was told that Glenn Howells had taken over the masterplanning from Maccreanor Lavington. Yet this was a site that we masterplanned - I shouted at the screen!
Admittedly it was ten years ago and the planning permission that we secured was for the land owners, before Urban Splash were appointed. But the scheme is progressing on the basis of that planning consent and the plan still looks very like the one for which we were shortlisted for the 2014 Urban Design Awards. And yet we are long forgotten and indeed, when I claim a degree of authorship, I sense that people don’t believe me or think I am exaggerating.
Architects are taught to push boundaries and question rules and clients are tempted to cut corners and bow to commercial pressures
To be fair Glenn did a masterplan for the site prior to our involvement, sites like these are subject to multiple masterplans and there is a degree of randomness to when the music stops and things actually start to be built.
This is the thing about urban design: it is a discipline largely carried out in absentia. We do our plans and write our codes as an instruction manual to be used after we have left the stage – clients very rarely see a need to retain us after they have secured outline planning.
The design teams that follow rarely feel bound by our instructions. Architects are taught to push boundaries and question rules and clients are tempted to cut corners and bow to commercial pressures. It is often said that the outline planning consent is the high point for any plan, after that it is all downhill.
Buildings are easy enough to ascribe to their architects but masterplans have many authors and the team that designed the plan that got built are quickly forgotten. But in a millennia, subject to pestilence, famine and rising sea levels, if the city still exists, then the street will probably also be there.
David Rudlin is principal and a director of URBED (Urbanism Environment and Design), chair of the Academy of Urbanism and an honorary professor at Manchester University