The growing gap between architecture and urban planning

A city must be far more than a mere compilation of individual buildings, however remarkable.

bialik building 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bialik building 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the 1960s a young architect applying for work in Eero Saarinen's office might be asked, to his surprise, to draw an elephant. Today, most likely, he would be requested to list the computer-assisted drawing and design programs he is familiar with. In a world where a new international global culture is gradually but steadily supplanting cultural identities that over centuries have been based on established geographical boundaries, more and more architects are jet-hopping to building sites around the globe. The accumulation of capital has led to building on a far larger scale. Building technology has spiraled. New and far more plastic possibilities have opened up in the wake of the digital revolution. Architects are being faced with a host of new challenges. Drawing and designing by computer have severed that age-old and miraculous connection between the hand and the mind which began with the earliest cave paintings. We now have, for the first time, a great many architects who no longer know how to draw. Gone forever are the beautiful and delicate colored pencil renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the ink-line vignettes of Le Corbusier, to take but two examples from the not too distant past, drawings which clearly and remarkably expressed the very philosophies of their makers. Instead we are today often confronted with ice-cold, virtual 3D images built up of elements taken from some "menu." While the computer has cut laborious drafting time at least in half, this has had serious consequences. The patient, searching labor of love that had characterized the work of the architectural profession over generations is now, for the most part, a thing of the past. The power of the tool over the product is everywhere evident. The major emphasis has shifted to speedy production. That's where the money is. This being the case, thoughtfulness, sensitivity and even real design talent are often quickly cast aside. The computer enables the duplication of building plans at the touch of a key. Thousands of designs made up of similar or identical elements of a deadly conformity have been the predictable result. A new breed of "superstar" architects has developed, as if architecture were just another form of entertainment. Younger architects, quite naturally attracted to the new possibilities, are in a mad rush trying them out, the only problem here being that precious few among them possess the necessary discipline and talent enabling the handling of complex formal languages. There is, of course, no doubt that computer-assisted design is here to stay. Surely it can be put to better use. LARGE-SCALE BUILDING projects pose formidable problems for the architect. We know that time works against large projects that go up quickly. More often than not, they wind up sterile, lacking that sense of life found in areas built up over time, where old and new co-exist side by side. History, memory and context are, after all, important human necessities. One of the most difficult problems to be overcome in large new residential developments, for example, is the problem of repetition with its concomitant deadening and dehumanizing effects. Given the choice, where would you choose to live - Har Homa or the German Colony? And so far as giant single structures such as sports stadiums are concerned, reconciling mass-scale with human scale is far from an easy task, rarely accomplished. Without the right degree of organized complexity, organic diversity, call it what you will, projects die. Variety really is the spice of life. Every architectural concept has an equivalent urbanistic one. Spaces exterior with respect to buildings are interior with respect to the city. The real life of any city takes place on the ground plane, at the level of the street, the plaza and the park Without this basic understanding Piazza Saint Mark's in Venice, the Capitol in Rome by Michaelangelo or Haussmann's Parisian boulevards would never have existed. PRACTICALLY OBLIVIOUS to their immediate physical environment, most of the new architectural icons offer little or nothing in the way of thoughtful urban space. Some are of giant proportions. Others, such as architect Norman Foster's "Egg" in London, appear as alien presences. Many stand alone. Dictatorial regimes, more than others, have the capacity for rapid and sometimes ruthless action. From Beijing's Olympic Green, driven by image, to Dubai's artificial paradise, Manhattan Instant, bordering on insanity, sensitive urban planning is a rare commodity indeed. Formal experimentation incorporating state-of-the-art techniques should always be given much room, but mature restraint is a prerequisite for working in an urban context. Few works need shout "Here I am." And while a single building might be outstanding, it is the structure of an entire city that demonstrates the level of organization of its life in any period. A city must be far more than a mere compilation of individual buildings, however remarkable, or self-contained plans. With little understanding of its relation to the past or its route to the future, the life of any given period will be lived aimlessly. Can anyone doubt that in our time, short-term thinking predominates almost exclusively, resulting in the present lack of unity. Although technology progresses in some ways, in others it tends to separate itself more and more from humanity. Lacking a dynamic balance between technology and human existence, technological advances may pose a threat to contemporary cultural forms and social structures. Architects and designers are the only people who stand precisely on this middle ground. We are told that today you can build anything. Anything goes. Given the present climate of opinion, when the fashionable, the luxurious and the global are so very much sought after and so severely damaging the intricate and delicate fabric of the city, it is critical that architects manifest their creativity responsibly. Architecture, urban design and town planning must again be made one. The writer is a Jerusalem architect and town planner.