Awards Finalists

The City as a Tangled Bank

Urban Design vs Urban Evolution
Terry Farrell

In this book, Terry Farrell argues that because cities evolve in response to complex influences, architects and designers who seek fixed answers in built forms and impose them on the city, would do well to revisit their ways of thinking and working. The book is a call to arms for this change in professional attitudes, albeit illustrated with insightful anecdotes, illuminating diagrams and some evidence, many drawn from his own projects.

The book has nine chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, but their signposting capacity is limited, being only milestones in the narrative. The narrative is better presented through themes set out in the conclusion, which may be seen as advice towards a ‘more developed understanding of planning’. Farrell calls for designers to immerse themselves in the city, to draw inspiration from nature and its forms of organisation, to develop an understanding of urbanisation and the role of designers in it, to recognise that the principal role of the urbanist is connecting and communicating in order to ‘master the chain reactions’ from invention to application of urban innovations, to pay attention to what he calls ‘the DNA of habitat’, patterns of human occupation that may explain physical form, and to be alert to how identity is built over time. He sets out a ‘call to advocacy’ for designers to act as if the place was their client.

Built environment designers are magpies, gathering a range of ideas, precedents and stories, selectively adapted to construct, or ‘post-construct’, their design proposals. The best designers fashion a coherent, rich, enjoyable and often surprising case for their design. Farrell writes this book as he might weave a case for a design proposal, so that the ‘evolution’ of the title is merely the main one of many motifs that he collects to argue, exhort, advise and share insights and knowledge from a successful. Clear definitions of concepts are not always present, and language is used more to sweep the reader along towards conclusions, than to incisively clarify how ideas such as ‘emergence’ or ‘complexity’ can help designers design. The reader chances upon a story here and a diagram there, as if there were delicious little snacks hidden in the pages, which quite successfully distract from the lack of concise argument.

This is a book to be dipped into, rather than to be used as a foundation of a theory of urban design. I think it succeeds because it continues to raise some of the issues all architects, planners and urban designers need to be reminded of. While it does not say anything truly groundbreaking, experienced urban designers are likely to identify with Farrell’s points, and those new to urban design might gain an insight into the practice of urban design.

URBAN DESIGN 133 Winter 2015 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 133 Winter 2015

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The City as a Tangled Bank Publication Urban Design Group
John Wiley and Sons
Reviewed By
Louie Sieh