Book: Cities for a Small Planet by Richard Rogers, edited by Philip Gumuchdjian Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99
Metropolitan lines; Stephen Bayley wants to live in a Richard Rogers city (eating Ruthie Rogers food). In the meantime, hang on to the Escort
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator. With Terence Conran he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which evolved into the Design Museum. Stephen writes a regular column for The Independent on Sunday’s Travel section, and contributes features that have previously covered anything from travelling through Japan via the iconic Shinkansen, to the artisans of Florence and driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Sicily.
Saturday 13 December 1997
The great thing about cities is not how awful they are - with their crisp packets, dog shit and diesel - but how wonderfully well they work considering that putting 10 million aggressive hominids into close proximity and inviting them to engage in serial acts of competitive individualism, whether for jobs, schools or parking spaces, could not be considered a reasonable idea. Put rats in claustrophobic circumstances and they become homosexual, murderous and cannibalistic in no time at all.
Instead, humans find ingenious solutions: underground car parks, Chinese take-aways, one-man buses, cycle lanes, tall buildings. I love cities because of the way their subtle, dense and complex structures merge power with style and function and beauty. To see a busy traffic intersection from the air is exhilarating. The formal beauty is breathtaking and the fact that, in the general order of things, the traffic flows so freely and so reasonably without grave interruptions or efforts is a thrilling testament to human fastidiousness, ingenuity and decency. As Le Corbusier said of New York, the modern city is "a magnificent catastrophe".
But it would be stupid to ignore the problems which Lord Rogers addresses. Half the world's population now lives in cities and by 2005 it is estimated that fraction will have risen to three-quarters. And while it is true that every midtown Manhattan resident longs for a place in the Hamptons as surely as every Independent reader probably pines for Wiltshire, our need to escape the gravitational pull of the city is simply evidence of our urban maturity. On the other hand, be warned that the entire rural populations of India and China, give or take a recalcitrant 100 million or so, are just waiting to slip the surly bonds of subsistence peasantry and go live in a high-rise with an office job and a parking space.
If you factor in some alarming statistics, sourced by Rogers from Herbert Girardet of Middlesex University, the future prospect becomes positively apocalyptic. Every year, London, to give an example, consumes 110 supertankers of oil, 1.2m tons of timber, 1.2m tons of metal, 2m tons each of food, plastics and paper and lbn tons of water. London's digestive system then dyspeptically exhausts 15m tons of rubbish, 7.5m tons of sewage and 60m tons of carbon-dioxide.
While Metro London covers less than half a million acres, it draws on the resources of 50m acres. Imagine similar figures applied to Shenzen and Calcutta, then Rio and Jakarta, and you can see that the planet will soon be overwhelmed by a necrotising plague of garbage, toxic waste and general-purpose crap.
Richard Rogers's solution is well-mannered, classic, humane, Euro-modern. Le stile, after all, e l'uomo. Rogers is one of the great creative figures of the second half of the 20th century, a unique hybrid of hedonistic Italian heritage with cool British professionalism. His own buildings - the Centre Pompidou, Lloyd's, the Court of Human Rights - are among the most significant monuments of contemporary civilisation. Their audacious concepts, meticulously engineered and detailed, have given a unique spin to their particular urban locales. In the case of the Pompidou, it was the stimulus for the rebirth of a vast and sordidly neglected quartier of Paris and can probably claim to be the most popular modern building on earth. Thrilling stuff.
What Rogers wants to see in the cities of the future is more beauty and less waste, more intelligent use of natural resources (the slovenly neglect of London's river is a personal obsession), resource-efficient buildings, advanced public transport, public spaces and free exchange of information. He seeks city-planning which undermines traditional assumptions about rigid hierarchies, replacing them with structures that positively stimulate diverse, democratic systems.
Of course, like Peace and Love, it's hurrah for all of that. No reasonable, no civilised, individual could deny allegiance to Rogers's insistence that to survive with decency we have to be more responsible about the built environment and, whatever our political style, altogether less short termish and money-grubbing. But wisdom, they say, is not knowing what we should do, but what we should do... next. How, then, to reach a position where our cities are no longer vast, anarchic, dirty, expensive and frightening engines of filth?
I'm a little wary of Rogers's belief that much can be gained from consultation and from pedestrianisation. All the evidence I know about great buildings and great cities is that they do not come about following plebiscites at the Drop-In Centre nor from excluding traffic. Great buildings, including Rogers's own, tend to arise from the dogmatic perseverance and bloody-minded commitment of talented individuals possessed of the unfaltering conviction that they know best.
As for traffic, while there's no question that the use of the private car should be stringently controlled by eye-watering taxes and made to look ridiculous in contrast to sublimely efficient public transport, these longed-for changes are some way off. Besides, moderate volumes of traffic give animation to city centres. Does anyone believe that Oxford's Cornmarket has been improved since it was shut to traffic?
My preferred route to the ideal city of the future is suggested not so much by Rogers's theories of planning in general, but his attitude to building design in particular - something almost neglected in this book. While the culture which formed Rogers was firmly based in the deterministic modernism of the 1930s, his own philosophy has rapidly evolved. He admires the anti-rational but exhilarating architecture of Will Alsop, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind.
Rogers now sees that modernism is not a style; it's an attitude. He writes that: "We must build cities for flexibility and openness, working with, not against the now inevitable process whereby cities are subject to constant change. As homes, schools, entertainment and work-places become less defined by their single function, one basic structure, linked to a common network, can accommodate learning, work and leisure. Aesthetics are all but freed from the association with the function that the building encloses. The building system itself - its craftsmanship, responsiveness and beauty - is fast becoming the dominant criterion. The aesthetics of response, change and modulation have replaced the fixed order of architecture."
In other words, let's keep on redefining modernism and continue to build better buildings which make the most of all contemporary possibilities. Better cities will inevitably arise from this careful and responsible process of continuous renewal.
I'm not a laissez-faire planner. Town-planning is one of Britain's great contributions to world culture. I am also a great admirer of Rogers's architecture and achievements, not to mention his personal style. I want to see better designed, cleaner, safer, more vital - most of all, more modern - cities. I'd certainly like to see more Richard Rogers buildings wherever I go. But I'm cautious about holistic city design.
Certainly, more than 100 years ago, Camillo Sitte's City Planning According to Artistic Principles was a benign influence on the Garden City Movement, but it was a short step from Letchworth to the less delightful Wolfsburg and then Mussolini's hilarious EUR, Sabaudia and Latina. The Ideal City has forever been a preoccupation of civilised thought and Richard Rogers now takes his place in a list of opinion-formers which includes Plato, Cicero, St Augustine, Dante, More, Francis Bacon, William Morris and H G Wells. I'd personally like to live in a world designed entirely by Richard Rogers (and especially so if his wife were in charge of catering). But while we contemplate with delight the coming of this Utopia, let's not forget that litter is a sign of vitality and wealth; while a G-reg Escort is, for many, a means of individual liberation.
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