1. Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, London, Phaidon, 2008, posted on www.urban-age.net
2. Richard Burdett, Tony Travers, Darinka Czischke, Philipp Rode and Bruno Moser, Density and Urban Neighbourhoods in London, London, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2005, posted on www.lse.ac.uk
3. Global Cities, London, Tate Modern, 20 June to 27 August 2007, exhibition curated by Ricky Burdett, posted on www.tate.org.uk
4. Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, Cities - Architecture and Society, 10th International Architecture Exhibition, 10 September to 19 November 2006, directed by Ricky Burdett, two volume catalogue, Venice, Marsilio, 2006
5. Paul Finch, 'Welcoming the inevitable', editorial in 'Cities, Architecture, Society', a Venice Biennale edition of The Architectural Review, September 2006, p 19
6. Ricky Burdett, quoted by Marcus Fairs, 'Ricky Burdett', Icon, Number 29, November 2005,
7. Pasqual Maragall, foreword in Towards an Urban Renaissance - Final Report of the Urban Task Force, London, Spon Press, 1999, chaired by Lord Richard Rogers, p 5
8. Richard Rogers and Richard Burdett, 'Let's cram more into the city', New Statesman, 22 May 2000
9. Ian Abley and Jonathan Schwinge, Manmade Modular Megastructures, Helen Castle, editor, AD Magazine, January-February 2006, Chichester, Wiley-Academy
10. Fumihiko Maki, with Masato Ohtaka and Jerry Goldberg, Investigations in Collective Form, St Louis, Washington University School of Architecture, 1964
11. Jennifer Taylor, The Architecture of Fumihiko Maki: Space, City, Order and Making, Basel, Birkhauser, 2003
12. Reyner Banham, Megastructure - Urban Futures of the Recent Past, London, Thames and Hudson, 1976
13. Ricky Burdett, 'Ricky Burdett's White Paper', Principal Voices, CNN, 2006
14. Ricky Burdett, quoted in Edwin Heathcote, 'Living for the modern city', Financial Times Online, 21 August 2006, posted on www.ft.com
Cities can't create a better society
In answer to the question above - NO! Cities can't promote social justice and greater equality. No kind of city can improve society.
It is not at all surprising that architects and planners, or their academic groupies, want to design cities. However they tend not to discipline themselves, and often go further to make '... a normative argument about what the city ought to be,' as James Heartfield puts it in his review of Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic's The Endless City. (1) These professional idealisations of invariably bounded cities are imagined to change society for the better. None will work as politically intended.
The deterministic conceit on the part of architects and planners is a dangerous and recurring myth. Which architect and planner with a social conscience would not at some time hope that they could improve everyone's lot through their day job? Yet that effort to imagine a model city can so easily turn impatient, and become a passionate desire to impose an ideal spatial plan on society. Socially minded architects and planners need to be held in political check for the good of everyone else.
Ricky Burdett epitomises the sort of well funded academic that manages to articulate the deterministic ideas of architects and planners, which in his case is the high-density-fits-all notion of what a city should be. It is not surprising that architects prefer high density development, because that is the market in which they earn their fees. Yet the professionally lucrative ideal of a publicly transported and "walkable" city dependent on elevator cars rather than the kind that run on roads is given voodoo powers by mystics like Burdett. In Burdett's planning books urban densification by architects creates community alongside a sustainable society, economy, and environment.
Burdett may deny he has made a fetish out of densification. He may academically argue through well funded research programmes stretching over several years that '... density does not, of itself, account for positive or negative attributes of particular urban areas. Other factors are crucial in determining how such places are judged.' (2) However his arguments tend to reduce to planning policies advocating higher urban densities.
Burdett is an adviser to the mayors of London and Barcelona on urban design issues, as well as an architectural adviser to the Tate and the BBC. He is director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics, with their hugely influential Deutsche Bank-funded Urban Age project that resulted in The Endless City. This follows from Burdett's Global Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern over the summer of 2007, (3) where London was contrasted with other major cities, and found lacking in population density. This was very graphic, but told us nothing except that London could, in theory, be packed and stacked to a higher density, like Cairo or Mumbai. Pinnacles of social justice and greater equality.
The densification of London is now planning policy, and no longer a mere academic theory. The Tate exhibition was a reworked and much smaller version of Cities - Architecture and Society, the 10th International Architecture Exhibition that Burdett curated for the Venice Biennale in the autumn of 2006. (4) Promoted by Paul Finch at the Architectural Review without regard for the specifics of history on the back of the medieval adage that "Stadtluft macht frei" - that town air makes a person free. (5)
Old adages allowed to float in time - data presented as urban theory in an effort to justify densification policies. Burdett told Icon before the Venice Biennale: 'The visual manipulation of data Im very interested in that. Like what Bruce Mau did with the Rem Koolhaas book [S,M,L,XL, 1995] taking dry statistics and turning them into something visually exciting. Like the fact that 50% of the worlds population lives in cities; that in 20 years it will be 75%; that 100 years ago it was only 10%. That is quite a story to tell, but you have to make it visually rich so you can put it on the wall rather than in a book.' (6)
Curating the Venice Biennale has not of course stopped Burdett putting the same statistics into The Endless City, in his long run effort to replicate densely packed models of discrete cities everywhere. A theoretical project that Burdett turned into planning policy through his work for New Labour on the Urban Task Force in 1999. The UTF report that Burdett produced, Towards an Urban Renaissance, came with a foreword from Pasqual Maragall, a former Mayor of Barcelona, who argued for an '... understanding of human space as a network of centres of different size and density.' (7) Maragall almost managed to argue against the UTF's pro-densification slant, after which Burdett asserts:
'The more Im involved with urban issues, the more Im aware that the great masterplan is more or less useless. Because by the time its adopted and implemented, its out of date. An urban grid like Barcelona has a certain flexibility and resilience; a messy urban grain like London is another model.' (6)
Vintage Burdett is his 2000 New Statesman essay Let's cram more into the city. Written with his UTF chairman and friend Lord Richard Rogers, the well known egalitarian, never pausing to doubt about the moral virtue of "cramming", their message is blisteringly simple. 'Suburbs are wasteful: they waste land, they waste energy.' (8) The question exercising Burdett and Rogers since the late 1990s was repeated at the Tate: How can cities accommodate Billions of new urban dwellers? The answer as always is that "we" should cram the "Billions" in for their own good, and for the sake of the planet. Burdett is in "We".
Speaking for socially concerned architects and planners Burdett reduces the political matters of global, national, regional, and ultimately local population growth to finding a human storage solution. When Burdett asks "How do you design a city?" he answers:
'You create a basic structure with a few columns, load bearing walls and some windows but you can do a lot with it.' (6)
This is too literally a "framework" for development. He recognises, as many architects and planners have done, that urban structures can be planned and engineered to stand for centuries, and will more or less accommodate a range of infrastructural, architectural, and behavioural changes. While it is possible to treat the city as a process of composition, or as an arrangement of grouped variations on themes, Burdett seems to like to think of the city as the constant refitting of a structured continuity.
Burdett is not the first to do this, and won't be the last. (9) Yet no matter which design strategy is adopted the built environment is going to be incidental to more pressing political and economic issues. The well worn city-as-an-inhabited-structure design strategy corresponds to just one of three interelated ways of planning architecture for growing populations best articulated by Fumihiko Maki, (10, 11) but not of improving society.
The expert attempt to design better arrangements for human accommodation is a recurring one, with the megastructural discussion from the 1950s, exhausted by the late 1970s, by the time Richard Rogers completed the Centre Pompidou. (12) Once beautifully designed attempts at accommodating populations are overwhelmed by real world factors professionals get frustrated. It is not much of a step for supposedly socially concerned architects and planners to see population growth as the threat to their ideal cities of the future. When all politics comes in shades of environmental green, there is little to resist the anti-human conclusion being drawn. More people are imagined to threaten the planned working of beautifully designed cities, and the planet.
It matters that people have freedoms to live in ways that probably will not suit architects and planners. It is a politically active population that promotes social justice and greater equality, not the structures or spaces of cities. Only society can improve society. Burdett will not allow society to shape itself in ways that cannot be politically and economically contained in space. 'Ultimately, the shape we give society affects the daily lives of "people on the street" in the most direct and tangible way.' (13) Burdett means the shape "We" give society when speaking as champion of the poor on www.principalvoices.com, supported by CNN, Fortune, and Time. He is clear about his intentions:
'What I'm trying to do is not to diminish the importance of architecture - but to place it in a much wider context. Architectural decisions have deep social implications and what I have been trying to do at the LSE is to link the physical with the social.' (14)
He succeeds in conflating the physical with the social to make the case for deterministic policies of urban containment and densification. While claiming an interest in social justice and greater equality he prepares to cram billions of people into extant city boundaries, as if the planet were over-populated but the world's cities were not nearly dense enough.
Curse Burdett's club of environmentally obsessed social improvers, who have organised themselves into a "We", convinced they know what sort of city is best for everyone else.
Ian Abley 17.05.2008
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