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Guest blog by Hank Dittmar, Panel Member

This week’s launch of Sir Terry Farrell’s review culminates almost a year of dedicated voluntary work by Sir Terry and his team. As one of eleven panel members, I am pleased to have contributed to the report, and to have this opportunity to contribute some further thoughts.

There were several breakthrough moments in the panel’s discussion that make this report one worth taking FAR down the road, as Sir Terry has said. One memorable point was Sunand Prasad’s contribution regarding heritage and the modern movement. He made the point that when it is time to conserve modernism, it becomes clear that history can no longer be seen as a series of discrete projects as has been taught for the last sixty years. After all, the modern movement is nearly 100 years old, and throughout that time other movements have continued and new ones have flowered. So rather than a break with the past, we can now have a dialogue with it, using that which is useful and embracing the useful new as well.

That took the panel away from issues of style and toward a discussion of design as being about place making. The emphasis on place and its importance for economy, quality of life and resilience moved the focus from solely architecture to embrace the other design disciplines that shape the public realm: especially landscape architecture, planning and engineering. This reflects a growing realisation that sustainable cities and towns cannot be delivered through disciplinary silos, but rather through collaboration and integration. Architects may drive this integration, but so might planners or councillors. Making great places requires moving away from the sequential approach to design, where each disciplines adds a layer to an integrated, more holistic approach, where professionals work together with communities to compose a street or a square or a new neighbourhood or urban quarter.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the way that planning is done in this country. The Review correctly points out that most planning is reactive in nature, and consists at the plan making stage mostly of fairly abstract policies and at the development control stage the power to say “no” rather than the ability to shape. Commenters on the Review have noted that planning is now more of a social science than a design discipline, and this stands in stark contrast to my own education as a planner within a school of architecture. Moving toward proactive planning will require a change in emphasis, a shift in resources, and bringing design back into the plan making process.

Panel meeting in TF flat

Much debate at panel meetings went into education and awareness building about good design, and many felt there was a need to demonstrate the value of good design. Others correctly pointed out that CABE had spent the better part of a decade on research and hortatory pieces about design, and the the gulf between the public and professionals was as wide as ever. From this emerged the idea of urban rooms, showcasing the plan of cities and towns and of designers giving back some time to helping educate about place, identity and place making.

I rather wish there had been less emphasis on designers talking to people and more emphasis on designers listening to people. I have always found that residents know what they value about their communities, and that the best results come when designers try to help build on those aspects that people already value and understand. There is a growing civic movement in this country learning the tools of localism, and they need to be engaged more than they need to be educated.

Focusing on place doesn’t mean that architecture is not important, and the group felt that much could be done to improve architectural education. Others will likely comment on this, but for me there is an imperative to make architectural education more practice based, and more about building, project management and facilitating design processes.

While an emphasis on place brings design of streets, squares and parks to the fore, buildings frame and enclose the public realm, and they can enhance people’s experience or detract from it. Understanding that the experience of a building for a pedestrian is different from that of a motorist, or of someone viewing it on the skyline means designing at different scales. For the pedestrian the first two storeys are most important, and up to six storeys the building still frames the street. Buildings that are designed as shapes often lack the bottom-middle-top definition that Louis Sullivan called for, whether they are parametric or emulating kitchen appliances.

The Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment is a timely look at an important part of our country’s creative economy, and one of our most promising exports to an urbanising world. Over 6.3 billion people will be living in cities by 2050, and this is not only a huge challenge to house and feed them and find work for them, but a huge opportunity to create a more sustainable future. We are positioned to help the global urban and sustainability challenge because of our unique offering of skills in sustainability, advanced engineering, urban design and architecture and heritage. The government needs to promote these skills abroad, rather than promoting avant-garde design, 20th century transport planning and outmoded ideas about zoned communities.

Sir Terry has asked the panel to continue to dedicate some time, along with the key professional associations and bodies, to ensure that the recommendations of the review are carried forward to industry, to the professions as well as to government. While the review was commissioned by Under Secretary of State Ed Vaizey of Department of Culture Media and Sport it will be important to continue to engage the Department of Communities and Local Government as well.

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