Emerging Concepts In Urban Design Cultural Studies Essay

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This paper is concerned with the origins and structural manifestations of the effect of the two post modernist approaches to urban design referred to as neo empiricism and neo rationalism. The former can be considered a retreat into the past and the latter is a practical and rational way of dealing with the world as it exists around us. They grow out of two opposing philosophical concepts, that of rationalism and empiricism. The contrast of British thought and French thought. The source for the discussion is Geoffrey Broadbent's Emerging Concepts in Urban Space and Design. Although described as far less visually effective than Gosling and Maitland, it nevertheless serves as a useful introductory catalogue of recent urban design theories and is based on a clear philosophical framework (Lloyds Jones & Roberts, 1996).


In order to understand the concepts elucidated in the twentieth century by the neo empiricists it is first necessary to look to the philosophical approach to the empirical approach to understanding the world around us that was proposed by thinkers such as Francis Bacon and David Hume in the late seventeenth to mid eighteenth century during the period commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. This can be considered to be the maturing of early modern western thinking following the Renaissance period, which fought to throw of the yolk of irrational medievalism in the preceding centuries.

In its simplest form empiricism can be described as knowledge gained by sensory experience, building up a reference library of past experiences with which to compare new (Broadbent, 1990). Like many philosophical systems they end up by a process of reductio ad absurdum arguing such ridiculous positions as Hume's assertion that nothing exists if no one is there to see or hear it (Broadbent, 1990). Such anthrocentric obsessions with man as the pinnacle of creation hint at an underlying medievalism that one could argue is inherent in much philosophical theory and is only a little way along the path that considered Jerusalem to be the centre of the universe.

This focus on the sensory experience inevitably led to the emphasis on aesthetic experience and beauty, or as Addison said, the Great, the Uncommon and the Beautiful (Broadbent, 1990). The two stages of experience are the immediate and the secondary, the direct and the contemplative. There is an element in this architectural approach that can be considered to fall into what Scott refers to as the romantic fallacy (Scott, 1980).

In order to gain an understanding of what the structural manifestations of the neo empiricist approach to planning and architectural design is in such a short study it is best to look at a single development that comprises a multiplicity of structures. An example of Neo empiricism in post World War II architecture is the rather saccharine and ersatz development at Port Grimauld. Located on the gulf of St. Tropez and developed on an ongoing basis since 1963 the concept was developed by Francois Spoerry (Broadbent, 1990). Although the development has been described as "the most hopeful and significant architectural planning achievement of our time" (Broadbent, 1990, p.234), it is a contrived and backward looking development that sums up so much that is wrong in architectural design. It typifies an approach to architecture that is stuck in the medieval era and prioritises chocolate box soft focus external aesthetics over rational functional approaches to the living area of the built environment. It is rather like leaving Europe and finding oneself thrust in to Las Vegas. One only has to drive a short distance to St Tropez to understand the difference between a real Provencal town that has developed organically and been extremely well developed and restored to understand the synthetic nature of the Port Grimauld development. It is true that it is far cheaper the purchase apartments in Port Grimauld that in the surrounding towns and villages of the French Riviera, but that in itself shows how the market has decided its true value.

In its defence it does, by creating a series of artificial fingers of land projecting into the Mediterranean Sea, provide almost all the apartments with waterfront mooring. However this clearly artificial geological form is then over-laid with an attempt to create the quintessential southern French village with varying styles and sizes of houses. It is perhaps its saving grace that the target market is the nouveau riche euro trash that have, going by their general dress sense, no appreciation for authenticity or taste. Although Williams Ellis rather sycophantically describes it as "captivating" and Broadbent believes that Spoerry transcends the artful and contrived look (Broadbent, 1990), one has to wonder if they have ever actually visited the site, or the surrounding area.

In order to see the wrong turn taken by the empiricists one only has to look at the famous photograph of the Barcelona Exposition in 1929. Behind the clean lines and wonderful fusion of sparse clarity and well-chosen materials fused into a functional and beautiful whole stands the medievalist revival structures of the Pueblo Espanol. It is this ersatz synthetic rejection of the nascent modernism that condemns this whole philosophical approach of urban design base on neo empirical lines. It is rather laughable that Broadbent feels able to describe such Disneyland aesthetics as "serious architecture" (Broadbent, 1990).


Rationalism by contrast, as codified by Descartes is suspicious of the vagaries of human sensation and experience. He preferred the modern to the medieval (pg 82). He was aware that although little villages can be charming, as they grow into large urban conurbations the same aesthetic has to give way to the practical. In contrast to the absurd end point of empiricism, Descartes could understand that whether he was awake or asleep a square still had four sides (Broadbent, 1990). Following the philosophical definition, it fell to marc Antoine Laugier to translate them into an architectural aesthetic, which he did in his Essai Sur l'Architecture in 1753 (Broadbent, 1990).

The later developments that grew from Rationalism were in essence an attempt to create utopia and draws on the thinking of such luminaries and Marx and Engels. In the field of architecture and urban design it led to the work of Jenneret, Oud and Rietveld. The neo rationalist ideal, born in Italy in the early 1960s and espoused the likes of Rossi was known as Tendenza. Its purpose was to create volumetric forms to physically define the social utopia that was being developed intellectually all over Europe (Broadbent, 1990). It is rather strange that Broadbent finds it worth mentioning that that the movement was able to fuse both Marxist and American concepts of planning (Broadbent, 1990)., as if ideas cannot be integrated and adapted to multiple and varied situations. It seems something of a starch to claim the modern movement as a whole wanted to destroy every built structure and start again. In the context of urban planning there is indeed a need to remove previous structures in order to remake the city, but it does a disservice to scholarship to make quite such absolutist statement, particularly with no source to back it up (Broadbent, 1990).

Although many of the architects commonly referred to as neo rationalist have fallen back on a rather minimalist neo neo-classical style the root of their approach is to be found in such purely modernist buildings as the 1924 Schroeder house in Utrecht by Geritt Rietveld. Examples given by Broadbent, such as Ricardo Bofill's Les Arcades du Lac owe a clear debt to Oud's housing development at Wiessenhoffsiedlung in Stuttgart. Unfortunately he feels the need to apply the rather contrived veneer of classical pediments and saccharine Romanesque arcades, something not do at Murralla Roja. It is unfortunate because the formal layout is very beautiful and effective but the rejection of pure form and function that was so well developed in the 1920s is unfortunate. The Schroeder house is one of the finest examples of holistic design ever created. There is a sublime balance and complete integration of the formerly disparate elements of the external form, internal fluidity of the internal spatial layout through the use of cut outs a moveable screens and stylistically homogenous furniture all integrated into a unified living environment.

Although now seen as a revival of classicism and a rejection of modernism in its more brutal forms that were heavily influenced by Jenneret (Le Corbusier) (Broadbent, 1990), it is only as a result of the groundbreaking developments in the 1920s and 1930s and beyond by the modern movement that it was really possible for the integration of classical approaches to city planning as seen in both the ancient world and in the renaissance city planning of Italy. The cities of the past were not of the same order of magnitude or a product of the machine age. It was the integration of modern materials and the stripping down of the elaborate decoration that had encrusted the pure classical style during the baroque that architects from Oud to Mies van der Rohe must be credited with and which allowed people such as Rossi to take the directions that that they have. In fact one could argue that that Rossi's Modena cemetery is as brutal as it is classical.

Leon Krier is one of the architects who feel the need to tack ridiculous pediments onto buildings as if that is going imbue a tower block with a Greco Roman aesthetic (Broadbent, 1990). The obsession with substituting genuine architectural design with the over use of triangles and simplified pediments if the bane of the built environment and was particularly prevalent in the 1980s. Mercifully more corporate commissions are of the nature of Norman Fosters Gherkin in London. What is more interesting about the neo rationalist approach is the use of neo classical planning rather than the obsession with the external decoration of the antique which does little more than highlight the death of originality on the architects part rather than provide continuous visual link with the perceived glories of the Roman Republic.


The rather arbitrary division into two general approaches is rather problematic. For example one is forced to question the inclusion of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Neo Empiricist section when he take such a rational approach to fusing form and function in the way the visitor to the space is drawn around the building.

As has been seen the two approaches to special design come from two different strains of thought and looking at the world. These approaches are employed to varying degrees all over the world, but draw their origins from Bacon and Hume in Britain, and Descartes in France. The national characteristics still can be argued to follow the same traditions. Britain is backward looking and obsessed with the past and resisting change, a concept referred to as Nimbyism (an acronym for not in my back yard), where as France modernises and develops practical solutions on a broad societal level, this holistic approach has led to that nation, along with much of the continent having far superior urban and interurban transportation systems. One only has to look at London being rebuilt after the Great fire on a medieval city plan again, whereas the French destroyed much of the medieval centre of Paris and under the direction of Hausmann built a functional and liveable city of boulevards and apartments. Britain prefers to preserve every picturesque village, and so the Eurostar train crawls through the south east of England before speeding through France. One could argue that the fundamental division between the two approaches is in the age old split between neo classical order and neo gothic romanticism.