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15 October 1997

Model Cities

Austin Williams, from the Urban Research Group, reports on a backward-looking vision of the future

At the Labour Party Conference in September, Tony Blair proclaimed that although Britain may never be the biggest nor the mightiest, 'it can still be the BEST'. I was reminded of this bravado by architect Terry Farrell, in a recent lecture. He was speaking at Newcastle University on the 200th anniversary of the birth of local architect Richard Grainger, who created so many of Newcastle's grand streetscapes. 'Newcastle', Farrell said, 'might never again be a major industrial city, but it could become a model city'.

Terry Farrell is the masterplanner of Newcastle's GBP170 million Quayside regeneration and architect of the GBP54 million Millennium scheme for the International Centre of Life at the city's south-west corner. With a wealth of experience behind him, from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, he is an acknowledged authority on urban planning and design.

Although he has often fallen foul of Prince Charles and the more staid traditionalists, Farrell paid tribute to the great urban architects like Grainger, for their understanding, vision and rigour.

Grainger and his peers, like John Dobson, created Newcastle's distinct urban geography to reflect the growing confidence in the city's manufacturing and trading position. Civic buildings, grand vistas and edifices to the new mercantilism were the result. Farrell's message, simply put, was that if the economic and social dynamism of the past gave rise to such harmonious urban design, then by remodelling the city in the image of these exemplary urban forms we might once again encourage social and economic dynamism.

Concerned at the fragmentation of the city he contends that correctly planned cities can engender their renewal. Farrell pointed to the increased investment and the explosion of development taking place in the city to make his point. It only seems to have taken one or two major building projects to draw in private investors and public grant-funders, eager to capitalise on the development zone. From the Baltic Flour Mills to the Centre for Life and the Architecture Centre, Newcastle's development scene is certainly booming. Notwithstanding the fact that these schemes are the result of Millennium Commission or Development Corporation aid packages, Farrell is carried away by the prospect that 'culture is now the real engine that will drive cities into the future'. Paradoxically, the cultural forms he seeks to promote have arcane historical references. Recognising that past town planners 'got it right', he wants to replicate that sense of history. And to a certain extent, he is right. That there has been a neglect of a humane urban scale within the city is unfortunately true in the piecemeal way in which cities are 'planned'. His advocacy of narrow streets, pedestrian areas and street activity is charming and, many would argue, not without merit.

In advocating that 'cities can be driven by their heritage' he stated that 'if nothing is happening at all, at least it [the built environment] will be there for the next generation to do something with'. This cautionary view of the future was confirmed when he joked that 'neglect is a great conserver', pleading that we should leave well alone in some areas of the city.

Farrell is certainly no reactionary. The most exhilarating aspect of his speech was his forthright conviction for massive integrated development projects. A masterplanner cannot afford to be modest. Given testimony by his splendid selection of slides, Farrell definitely wants to create monumental architecture which will make an impact on the city. But by presenting 'urban context' as a narrow understanding of the built environment and human interaction within it, Farrell indulged in a crude deterministic belief that the built environment creates society. To this end, he proposed that we need an 'architectural icon for rejuvenation'; the architectural equivalent of the Feelgood Factor. He argued that the success of Newcastle United (sic) gave the city a sense of purposeful identity and therefore other means of generating civic pride should be encouraged. But having to invent an icon is surely more akin to erecting a totem; an act of desperation rather than of confidence.

In conclusion, he looked around for examples which detracted from that sense of pride and civic responsibility and his main bugbear was that the dominance of the car has destroyed cities; that we must realise the 'value' of the railway system. Indeed, he described the car as an 'anti-urban' technology inasmuch as it fragments the urban landscape by a network of roads. 'People will look back in 100 years and ask: "What were those people doing, tearing cities apart for a mode of transport which had almost had its day?".'

His wealth of experience in China and Hong Kong confronts him with his biggest paradox. While admitting to being an urbanist, and recognising the potential in the phenomenal expansion of the cities in SE Asia, he is concerned that their growth might be unsustainable, confronting the world with 'great energy problems'.

'It will be difficult for the West to say "don't", because we have already got what they want, but Third World problems are a problem for all of us through global warming and the depletion of energy resources, which are not infinite.'

For a man who has originated some wonderful architectural and urban icons, his message of caution and tradition was a sad sign of the times.

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