Urban Design and Contemporary Buildings

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Contemporary Architects are constantly pushing the limits when designing buildings and are going against leading Urban Theorists in how new developments should relate to their surrounding context and how urban design principles should utilised to create reinvigorated urban spaces.

The extent at which Architects and Designers are defying the surround context to design buildings can be seen as problematic and has led to the surroundings being perceived in a negative manner. Such as when the historical aspects of the urban setting are being subjected to contemporary buildings, can these buildings coincide to provide a positive impact and how do they sit side by side with each other as old and new but still provide the fundamental aspects of urban design (Tomback, n. d: 5) ?

Traditional urban theorists such as Kevin Lynch, Gordon Clutch, Jane Jacobs and Christian Alexander and many more, who are designers and writers have documented and provided theories on how urban spaces should be interpreted for urban design. Urban Design is a process used to make places better for people which otherwise would have been produced (Carmona, Tiesdell, Heath & Oc, 2010: 3).

The Essay will focus on how contemporary designers such as Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Will Alsop and Zaha Hadid and more have created buildings which have become accepted in the urban scene because they provide positive effects. To understand how contemporary building designers have provided positive effects on the urban scene is the use of the main principles of urban design which are people, places, politics and economics (Carmona, Tiesdell, Heath & Oc, 2010: 3). Using case studies from various contemporary buildings which have been perceived as misunderstood due to design can be used to examine how these building have created positive impacts in terms of awareness to the surrounding area and have therefore been accepted into the urban scene.

Urban design principles are being used to create successful buildings that are connected to their contextual surroundings. But contemporary buildings by designers are using urban design principles but are not considering the context but in doing so they are subsequently producing positive effects in reinvigorating the urban scene.

Due to the fact that in the past century technological advancements have led people to become increasingly mobile, while cities are not and are stationary. Cities have to constantly seek method to gain attraction for economic benefits, they do this by sharing their history and cultural heritage to provide a better sense of living and work environment to attract investors. Councils strive to put their towns and cities on the map by using the guidance of urban theorists to obtain an urban design vision (Cousseran et al, 2006: 31).

Iconic buildings are being designed to gain the lead in this competitive race for attention by using contemporary buildings to enhance the prestige of the city. Designing Iconic buildings can increase the cities reputation through gaining an increase in population, new investments and an increase in tourism leading to economic regeneration. Such was the case in Venice in the Renaissance era by attracting all the architects, artists and craftsmen they were able to construct monuments and artworks which led to commercial prosperity and being known as “the city in love with itself” (Cousseran et al, 2006: 31).

Contemporary buildings are being designed in cities to create better investment environments to show that they mean business. They are also using urban spaces to create awareness, leading to some contemporary designers to seek urban design projects (Cousseran et al, 2006: 31). Economic advantages for designing using contemporary building designs are key components to the appeal of contemporary designs in the urban scene.

Therefore, architecture in contemporary terms is not only thought of as economically viable or for economic gains. Contemporary buildings are used to symbolise wealth and aesthetic beauty in the urban environment, they are iconic sculptural exhibits for the public, something that people can mass and flock towards and to make natives proud.

The success of the Guggenheim Museum in Balboa (figure 1) designed by Frank Gehry was due to its contemporary design and has shown what contemporary architecture can portray to reinvigorate the urban scene. The building design put one of the largest cities in Spain on the map, during a time of economic and social decline. The positive outcome of the Guggenheim Museum in balboa has in turn inspired towns to mimic and create reproductions of Bilbao’s success, leading to what is now known as the “Bilbao effect” (Cousseran et al, 2006: 31).

The Guggenheim Museum has for the surrounding region created better prosperity for the city. In the 1980s Bilbao was suffering from rapid social conflicts and violence, leading to many companies withdrawing investments and leaving to other more prosperous cities. The government decided to that it required a regeneration project to improve the city (Cousseran et al, 2006: 31).

Receiving international excitement and positive reviews instantly projected the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao into global headlines. The tourism industry boomed bringing in 800,000 to 1,000,000 people in annually of which 90% were from outside of the country. The economic impact of the Guggenheim Museum which required $124.8 million in funding has continuously paid this back many times over, leading to the council being able to improve the urban scene by developing new hotels, transport systems, function halls and public gathering locations such as parks, cafes and public artwork and sculptures. The “Bilbao effect” came into effect thanks to Frank Gehry, to the general public this may not be significant but to urban planners, politicians and Museum art directors it means the transformation of cities by creating new social/cultural buildings to attract residents, tourists and investors (The Art Newspaper, 2007: 1).


Figure 1:Guggenheim Museum - Bilbao (User:MykReeve, 2005)

Although Frank Gehry was internationally successful for the use of contemporary architecture in the urban environment, there have been cases where Frank Gehry’s work was not initially accepted. Not all contemporary architects are critically appraised on their contemporary building designs. There are cases where contemporary buildings are met with controversial criticism.

Much like Frank Gehry’s contemporary building the ‘Nationale-Nederlanden’ in Prague (Figure 2) and his own home in Santa Monica (figure 3), which were met with criticism. The Nationale-Nederlanden in Prague is also known as the Dancing House because of its unique shape, dimensions and form. Controversy about the building was due to the fact that locals in the surrounding areas of which the building was constructed, occupied a historic urban background with buildings being of 19th century neo-renaissance style and they disliked the difference in contrast. After 10 years of arguments over the contemporary building, modern Prague is now celebrating the controversial building as being an iconic building which is attracting people. It was even awarded the honour of being the final gold coin in Prague for a series known as the “10 centuries of architecture” in 2005 by the Czech National Bank (Dancing House, Prague, n.d). Even Frank Gehry’s home in Santa Monica was met by criticism due to its various forms and the use of materials which were disliked by the neighbouring residents for not fitting into the surrounding context. The building received the twenty-five year award for being a building which has stood the test of time by the AIA. After the years of success, people are visiting the home like a tourist attraction (Frank Gehry House, n.d).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Case_danzanti.jpg File:Gehry House - Image01.jpg

Figure 2:The Dancing House – Prague Figure 3:Frank Gehry Home – Santa Monica

(Quinzani, 2008) (User:Cygnusloop99, 2011)

Even though these building were controversial at the time they were constructed due to their strong contrast with the rest of the urban scene over time they have been able to move past these discrepancies, which has in turn led to more positive effects on the urban scene by creating a more active and thriving environment. The success of the Guggenheim Museum and acceptance in Bilbao was to do with the combined overall planning by the city authorities which worked hard on the development, because they were think about the future of their city (Klingman, 2007: 248). The same can be said about the Dancing House (Nationale-Nederlanden) in Prague, even though the building was met with criticism because of its design the first President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel who lived near to the building was a known contributor and played an active role in getting the building constructed. The building was accepted by 68% of the residents and was allowed to commence into a construction phase, the building is now Prague’s foremost example of contemporary modern architecture and is frequently visited by tourists (Bridges, 2011: 552).

There are many contemporary architects and designers creating contemporary architecture which seem to have no relevance in the traditional urban environment. But these designers are able to use urban design principles, which are people, place, politics and economics to positively enhance the surrounding urban space. I used Frank Gehry for my case studies in this essay to show that as a leading contemporary architect his buildings consider the urban design principles but through using iconic forms. Not always are his designs met with positive responses because of the undoubtedly strong contrast to their surroundings but they do create positive urban spaces and over time they can become accepted into the urban scene.


The Art Newspaper., (2007). The “Bilbao Effect”: from poor port to must-see city, available at: http://www.lord.ca/Media/TheArtNewspaper32-33Museums.pdf [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 1.

Tomback, D. H., Contemporary architecture in urban historical context, available at: http://www.ehhf.eu/sites/g/files/g1439326/f/201407/Workshop 2.pdf [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 5.

Galinsky.com., Dancing house, Prague. available at: http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/dancinghouse/ [Accessed 3rd January 2015].

Timeout.com. Frank Gehry House., available at: http://www.timeout.com/los-angeles/things-to-do/frank-gehry-house [Accessed 3rd January 2015].

Klingman, A,. (2007). Brandscape: Architecture in the Experience Economy, available at: http://contemporaryurbananthropology.com/pdfs/Klingmann,%20Beyond%20Bilbao.pdf [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 248.

Bridges 2011: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture, (2011). A Brief Review of Frank O. Gehry and

the Nationale- Nederlande Building, available at: http://archive.bridgesmathart.org/2011/bridges2011-551.pdf [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 552.

Carmona, M., Tiesdell, S., Heath, T. & Oc, T.(2010) Public Places – Urban Spaces, 2nd edition.[online] Elsevier Ltd. Available from: https://www.dawsonera.com/readonline/9781856179041 [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 3.

Cousseran et al, (2006) Urban Design Futures.[online] USA & Canada, Routledge. Available from: http://www.tandfebooks.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/doi/view/10.4324/9780203601723 [Accessed 3rd January 2015], pp. 31.

Figure 1, User: MykReeve (2005) TheGuggenheim Museum Bilbao, along theNervión Riverin downtownBilbao [Photograph]. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_R._Guggenheim_Foundation#mediaviewer/File:Guggenheim-bilbao-jan05.jpg (Accessed 3rd January 2015).

Figure 2, Quinzan, D,. (2008), [Photograph]. Available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Case_danzanti.jpg (Accessed 3rd January 2015).

Figure 3, User: Cygnusloop99 (2011) Frank Gehry's house in a posh area in Santa Monica. It is built upon an old house, with new elements added into the frame. [Photograph]. Available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gehry_House_-_Image01.jpg (Accessed 3rd January 2015).