Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Master Planners

A building culture was replaced with a development industry, leaving the landscape culture-less and with no particular sense of identity. This took place despite the evidence that a building which has a unique history and has been fitted to someone's life, as opposed to speculatively produced, generates market value for that property. (Alexander, 1975) (1)

Just read this proposition, which is coming up in June in the States:

The Island Plan, as approved by the States of Jersey, will indicate Regeneration Zones. The initial Regeneration Zones will include the East of Albert Areas, the Esplanade Quarter, the Airport and other St. Helier Regeneration Areas. The Island Plan will also include a mechanism to designate future Regeneration Zones where it is felt appropriate.

The Masterplans providing the details of each Regeneration Zone will be approved by the Minister for Planning and Environment, following consultation with the Regeneration Steering Group, as set out in the diagram overleaf. (2)

This is all about changing "The Waterfront Enterprise Board" to "The States of Jersey Development Company Limited" , and giving it a much vaster remit, and probably vastly increased expenses and salaries. If States Properties are held in the States Portfolio, and rented out, then the money goes back into the Treasury.

With the Waterfront Enterprise Board, the land owned by the States on the Waterfront Area, has become a WEB asset, which includes the Liberation Bus Station. This means the income generated by rental charges on Connex goes into the coffers of WEB, and no doubt helps to pay the staff and the Managing Director all those juicy bonuses. Of course that means the States has to increase its subsidy to Connex, and this means that the States is subsidising WEB. We can no doubt expect much of the same to be developed Island wide, with not just a Masterplan for the Waterfront, but wonderful new projects to justify the drain of expenses consumed by the "The States of Jersey Development Company Limited".

Can we really afford all these "Masterplans"? Karl Popper critiqued political masterplans and utopian thinking in his "Poverty of Historicism", and this has been taken up by Christopher Alexander for environmental design.

Karl Popper launched a fundamental attack on the notion of master planning. Living in Vienna during the 1930s, he was horrified at the deaths of those who fell victim to fascist and communist theories of historical destiny. As these tendencies grew into Nazism, Popper concluded that neither science nor politics can establish general laws about what is right for society. He therefore rejected "blueprint' planning in favour of a "piecemeal' approach in which there is no defined end-state (Faludi, 1986). Many social and natural scientists, reflecting on the twentieth century's ghastly experience with totalitarianism, have supported Popper's line. Christopher Alexander, who also lived in Vienna during the 1930s, extended the argument to environmental design. He developed a powerful case for incrementalism and for having a planning process instead of a master plan. With master plans, "The totality is too precise: the details are not precise enough' (Alexander, 1975). It becomes like filling in the blanks in a child's colouring book. Master plans make each user feel like "a cog in someone else's machine'. They tell us what will be right in the future, instead of what is right now. This results in expensive projects, riddled with mistakes. As master plans tend to be obsolete before they are complete, society is better off without them.(3)

An example of the alternative approach is given by Tom Turner, who is  an English landscape architect and garden historian teaching at the University of Greenwich in London.

The Crystal Palace is an interesting example. It began not with an architect's master plan but with the development, by two gardeners, of the ridge-and-furrow glazing system. Loudon's and Paxton's inventions made it possible to build glazed roofs and walls. A barrel vault was added when the building moved from Kensington to Sydenham. This unconventional procedure resulted in the most brilliantly original building of the nineteenth century. But the details came before the plan.(4)
I think it is time for a rethink about what constitutes "good architecture" and as importantly, how it is developed and formed, in order to produce something better than a Master Plan, and look at the best modern thinkers in architecture, rather than relying on those who - if the Hopkin's Masterplan is anything to go by - produce fixed, static, and fundamentally dead designs.

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