‘Geographers’ versus architects: two cultures

Serious dialogue at the highest academic levels between leaders of the two disciplines is called for to clarify the boundaries of responsibility of their respective fields.

August 1, 2016 21:10
3 minute read.
MISSING THE trees for the forest, city planners are increasingly allowed to smother architects.

MISSING THE trees for the forest, city planners are increasingly allowed to smother architects.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

As if the fact that practical engineers, permitted by Israeli law to build buildings up to four stories tall, weren’t harmful enough, “geographers” have by now taken another big bite out of the architects’ employment opportunities.

More and more positions in municipal, district and national planning and building departments and committees, including the most senior ones, are today taken up by geographers, graduates of degree programs in city and regional planning and environmental design offered at five Israeli universities. A very substantial chunk of these secure and influential jobs that had previously been assigned to architects are now theirs. This is no small matter as architecture is the least rewarding of the professions when it comes to return business, the relatively small number of commissions putting unusual stress on architectural firms in the private sector, making the profession somewhat insecure.

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But the problems geographers in the public sector pose for architects are not just about jobs, but far more basic. To place the problem in its proper perspective, we need to go back to the famous 1959 lecture given by British scientist, novelist and civil servant C. P. Snow: “The Two Cultures,” where he explained that the whole of Western society was split into two cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities, and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Here too, albeit on a much smaller scale, we are faced with two distinct cultures, geographers stressing the quantitative, architects and urban designers the qualitative. Here too, there is a total absence of dialogue.

For generations, architects have been taught that city planning, urban design and architecture are one – interdependent disciplines, inextricably intertwined, and that separating them from one another is harmful to all. They justifiably ask: “Who are these geographers, totally lacking in aesthetic sensibilities and visual training, knowing nothing of architecture and urban design, who are reviewing our plans and telling us what to do?” Architecture and urban design are also arts, of which these geographers have not the faintest idea. Simply stated, in the hands of geographers, Paris, London and Rome could never have come into being. Of spatial sequence and the importance of organized complexity in design they know nothing; three-dimensional thinking is beyond their reach.

Whereas the design studio has always been the very heart of every faculty of architecture the world over, it seems to architects that geographers are utterly incapable of design.

Though there can be little question that in certain key areas such as large-scale land use planning and programming geographers have the upper hand, their knowledge of the infinite intricacies of physical planning is sorely limited, bereft of understanding on fundamental issues concerning the relations between the physical and the social. Among the very destructive results of this situation has been the formation of municipal, regional and national planning policies by geographers, based on their severely limited abilities. While all can agree on the need to increase urban residential densities, for instance, there are very serious questions as to how this may be accomplished without causing undue damage to the public realm. The nationwide plague of free-standing residential towers over the past decades, blind to the specifics of site, climate and culture, as if they were the only way to build, can in large measure be attributed to them.

At the very least, serious dialogue at the highest academic levels between leaders of the two disciplines is called for to clarify the boundaries of responsibility of their respective fields, finding ways in which they can best work together. Tel Aviv University, being the only Israeli university comprising faculties of both architecture and geography, would be a good place to begin. Such a dialogue is urgently needed, especially now, when our planning apparatus, for example, The Committee for the Planning of Priority Areas in the Ministry of the Interior, led by geographers, is presently under great pressure to approve large-scale housing plans, which needless to say will have tremendous impact on our country’s future.

The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.

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