Planning Paradise

A precondition for starting a significant architectural intervention is to define a project in consultation with those parties involved in its implementation (the government, the local municipality, private investors, developers, construction companies, planners, designers and architects).’ This preamble to a recent international conference on ‘architectural interventions and transformations’ is typical for an ‘all-inclusive’ way of thinking about processes these days. Plans and policies are no longer defined and implemented by a few specialists;they are developed with all stakeholders (another popular contemporary notion). All parties? The user/consumer/resident, usually the subject and victim of intervention, is conspicuously missing from this description.

When the post-war, large-scale,top-down planning machinery began to increasingly malfunction in various political systems, ‘the market’ was allowed to resolve it.From a certain level of prosperity, it is assumed that demand leads to supply.Everyone ensures they have enough of what they need and politics need only concern itself with protecting the weak, security and (international) competition.Society need not and can no longer be made. Indeed, citizens determine for themselves what they want.This has considerable consequences for the role and position of the architect.Aldo van Eyck once described the role of the architect as helping to provide someone with a roof. (He added, ‘which is no easy task.’) The practice had been for architects to simply propose what users might want. Yet Van Eyck’s description is increasingly becoming the norm.The growing portion of individual clients in home construction is giving rise to a direct relationship between designer and user which until recently, at least in the Netherlands, was largely lacking. In addition, here and there in Europe and the U.S. a radical form of citizen influence is being experimented with on a small scale whereby budgets for urban development are determined by neighbor hoods, districts or villagers themselves.The (municipal) government merely facilitates what is decided locally.

This means that the architect is unexpectedly called upon to be capable of presenting futures, a faculty which he had largely appeared to have lost in our consumer society of commodity logic.A neighborhood is perfectly capable of choosing between a day care center and a café as an addition to a service packet, but for the restructuring of a factory complex or obsolete housing some help is indispensable.

These are issues which are completely marginal on a worldwide scale.A substantial part of the planet’s population continues to provide for their own housing and everyday environment; the other part is almost entirely provided housing.The annual Chinese production of cities does not take this kind of subtle arrangement into consideration. However, marginal isn’t the same as meaningless.The search for new balances between governments and their populations in determining what can and must be yields future models which are needed badly.This is true not only in planning paradises such as the Netherlands and western Europe.Permitting local populations in post-conflict areas input into redevelopment is likely to contribute to avoiding future conflicts.And in those areas where the authorities now dominate, increasing prosperity along with the increasing political independence and individual responsibility of the citizenry to see to their own needs and desires will compel the creation of different relationships. Hardcore social engineering may have fallen from grace (as a term, for as a practice it is still on the table), the market does not solve every problem.An additional challenge is to make that long-lasting, but that’s a subject for another time.

Design New Futures!