Book Review

Designing Change

Professional Mutations in Urban Design 1980–2020
Eric Firley

Regula Lüscher’s Foreword to Designing Change could not be more relevant to this issue’s topic. Trained as an architect, working as an urban designer and teaching the subject, she is now a politician, Senate Director of Urban Development of Berlin. She has strong ideas on the profession and is certain that it has to change.

Eric Firley has collected interviews with 12 urban designers under the umbrella of the book’s title. In his introduction he explains where he comes from: he sees changes in city development as the result of socio economic forces. ‘We are just less aware of how intrinsically political every process of city making is’. He wants to know more about urbanism, about urban design practice and its future. The body of the book is an edited version of conversations with 12 notable urban design practitioners from Europe, North America and China, each one accompanied by three of their projects summarised and illustrated.

Each chapter or conversation has a theme. Thus, Chris Choa of AECOM deals with reconciling opposites: core vs periphery, global vs local, European vs Chinese urban cultures, architect vs planner, although a number of other issues are broached as well. French urbanist Bruno Fortier on the other hand confronts the expansion of cities with the concern for and idealisation of nature, and focusses on continuity in traditional French urbanism. Paola Viganó, whose career combines academic research and practice has a formal and intellectual approach to urbanism which she sees as working across various scales and as a ‘tool of research’. She refers regularly to the ‘territory’, a concept not often found in Anglo- Saxon planning literature but one which reflects a specific approach.

Liu Xiaodu, a Chinese practitioner who studied in the US and now teaches there, has a cross-cultural point of view and is able to critically evaluate both the American and the Chinese approaches to urban design; he offers inter alia interesting definitions of urban design and discusses hyper-density, adaptation to climate and property speculation in the Chinese context.

The conversations with New Urbanism's high priestess Elizabeth Plater-Zyberg concentrate mainly on zoning, the basis of most North American planning, legalistic and rigid, and in need of challenging. This, she and her partner Andrés Duany did by elaborating their own codes based on the relationship between buildings and the public realm.

There is not enough space here even to summarise and to do justice to the seven other conversations with Finn Geipel (Berlin), Adriaan Geuze and Winy Maas (Rotterdam), Djamel Klouch (Paris), Dennis Pieprz (Boston), Albert Speer with Michael +Denkel (Frankfurt) and Wenyi Zhu (Beijing).Each one of these deals with one particular subject within the overall framework of urban design.

The questions asked of each individual are different and personalised, although certain themes are recurrent. Firley is not just interested in the theories and practice of urban design, but also in the operation of the practices themselves, how they deal with their finances, what is their economic model, how they negotiate and present their schemes, what is their interaction with politicians, etc., and he wants to understand the personal development of his subjects. Importantly he also discusses the future of the city as well as of the profession, in the context of a frequently changing agenda that increasingly incorporates societal and environmental issues.

The book is over 500 pages long and very dense. It contains a huge amount of interesting information and commentary but nobody is going to read it from cover to cover. It is full of quotable sections and lessons for all of us, but it may have been useful to edit it down to get more of the essence of each of the contributors which often gets lost in this conversational format. A good reference book but one that could be made more accessible in a different format.

URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 151 Summer 2019

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Designing Change  Publication Urban Design Group
NAI Publishers
Reviewed By
Sebastian Loew