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Alain Bertaud Reveals What Really Shapes Our Cities in His New Book “Order Without Design”



That Alain Bertaud proclaims himself an “Urbanist,” staunchly refusing the title of “Urban Planner,” should come to no surprise after reading his latest tome Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. In it, Bertaud calls into question the traditional role of a planner, which, as he points out, often results in harm to cities through over-planning.

If it is not sophisticated plans, tediously drawn up by urban planners, that determine the shape of cities, what is it then? As Bertaud thoroughly demonstrates in the book, it is markets that are truly responsible for how a city is formed and how it functions.

The book is broken into eight chapters that explore themes such as Affordability, Mobility, Alternative Urban Shapes and Utopias. But, throughout them all, its aim is to look at cities both through the lens of the urban planner as well as the economist.

He points out that while urban planners are the practitioners, or technicians, in the realm of city design, economists are actually a necessary part of the decision making. It’s the economists, after all, who better understand markets.

Bertaud illustrates, very visually, how markets physically shape cities by demonstrating how tall buildings in central business districts are perfect manifestations of market forces. Despite the additional expense of constructing extremely tall buildings, as land prices reach a peak, so must the height of our cities’ buildings.

An image of Shanghai’s business district Pudong also aptly demonstrates how buildings reach heights of creativity through competitiveness in building design. Yet another example of supply and demand at work.

While it’s difficult to point to an example of an entirely master planned city, Bertaud contrasts experimental cities that at one point had master planning in their scope with locations that have evolved more naturally over time. He compares places like Brasília in Brazil, famously planned by Lúcio Costa with buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer, and Chandigarh in India, planned by Le Corbusier, with the organic urban sprawl of cities like Mumbai and Shanghai.

By examining the highly-designed cities, it’s easy to see how over-planning leads to repetitiveness in the landscape as well as inefficiencies in operations. For example, in the 1950s, Chinese city planners mathematically calculated building spacing and heights with the goal of achieving minimum light requirements.

The plan was for at least one bedroom in every apartment to have a minimum of one hour of sunlight on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. While seemingly a great step forward for humane living standards, this absurd metric had an unforeseen implication — that building height and spacing should be based, in part, on a city’s degree of latitude, which would of course impact the angle of sunlight at different times during the year. Without realizing it, Chinese planners had implemented a new universal building code that essentially implied that building densities should be higher in a lower latitude place like Phoenix than in higher latitude locations like New York City. This case is just one of the many unplanned-for implications of master planning.

Perhaps it’s a surprise then that Bertaud himself was a one-time modernist. Indeed, taking some time off from his Beaux-Arts architecture studies, he once hitchhiked all the way from Paris to Chandigarh, where the founding father of Modernism, Le Corbusier, was working on a legendary master planned city, to be completed in 1951.

Le Corbusier’s driving thesis at the time, as Bertaud dreamily remembers, was that “design can solve every city issue.” But it was precisely during this exotic city planning experience that Bertaud began to see cracks in the theory.

The newly established capital of the Punjab state was inhabited, in great part, by a new class of bureaucrats, and these were the people who the city planners designed the landscape for. In the end, the place was so master planned, Bertaud notes, that “you would know from a person’s address exactly what the person’s job and status were.”

But it was in the slums where Bertaud found that life ran more smoothly. It was there that supply and demand took over to shape the city. It was where local inhabitants determined how many, and what types of, businesses were required for the city’s operations. Barbers, garment suppliers, tailors, food markets, you name it — it was to the slums that Bertaud would retreat in order to sustain his life in Chandigarh.

After that point, Bertaud took a different spin on his trade. “At the end of the day, Modernist design is just an aesthetic preference,” he proclaimed during my recent interview with him, while bringing up an extremely vivid example, once again from Le Corbusier. “Le Corbu liked the ramp,” he says. He incorporated it into many designs, including the iconic Villa Savoye in France and, as Bertaud points out, he “rationalized his designs.” But, in reality, as was the case with buildings like the Secretariat Building in Chandigarh, the ramps were built after the buildings, and not necessitated in any way. “So, totally fake,” as Bertaud noted.

In the book, Bertaud is staunch in his belief that the loyalty of the urban planner should be not to the physical form of our cities, but rather to the efficiency of them. He outlines three major tenets of an efficient city: firms and households must have the freedom to stay put or to migrate at will; travel within the city must remain fast and cheap; real estate must be sufficiently affordable that it does not distort the allocation of labor.

Two out of the three of those tenets center on mobility. Indeed, Bertaud dedicates an entire chapter to the topic, and perhaps not surprisingly, our conversation naturally took this course as well.

He pointed out that, despite many other beneficial aspects of cities, their major functions are as labor markets. Without efficient mobility, people are not even able to get to their jobs, let alone move frequently between jobs to keep the job market humming.

Throughout the course of his career, Bertaud has often been asked to review city plans; he says that a common theme he sees is a mapping of housing over jobs with the aim of arriving at perfect mobility. But this is not sustainable and does not solve the problem. After all, the job market is constantly fluctuating. Entire industries die out and new ones are formed continuously.

Instead, the answer lies in rapid and efficient transportation. He points to a 450 kilometer-per-hour train that’s been operating in Shanghai for some 15 years and looks forward to a future where such — currently still overly-expensive — technology will be streamlined for regular commuter usage. Or a fleet of modern rickshaw-like mini-busses that take you directly to your door at the end of a workday, which are being test-run in the suburbs of Tokyo. He insists planners should be more focused on solutions like these.




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OPINION: Canadian architects are taking on the world



Donald Schmitt is Principal of Schmitt Architects.

On Monday, Lincoln Center announced that my firm, Diamond Schmitt, would lead the transformation of its David Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra.

Canadian architects aren’t just winning more work beyond our borders; we’re designing iconic work for a few of the world’s pre-eminent institutions. KPMB Architects was selected by Boston University for their new Center for Computing and Data Sciences. In October, Hariri Pontarini Architects won the RAIC International Prize for their extraordinary Baha’i Temple of South America in Santiago, Chile.

So what gives here?

Aren’t Canadians supposed to finish out of the medals?

Certainly, the remarkable growth in our urban centres has helped. There are more buildings to explore design ideas on, and more architects are delivering environmental and built form innovation. But the most creative architects from elsewhere also see Canada’s growth as an opportunity for them too. Foster and Partners and WilkinsonEyre from London, 3XN and BIG from Copenhagen and Snohetta from Oslo are all transforming the Canadian landscape.

There was a time when Canadian architects feared this competition. But now, we welcome excellence from anywhere because it makes us stronger competitors everywhere. In fact, our profession is stronger, more diverse and confident than at any time in many decades.

But I believe we do well globally because our northern home gives us a clear-eyed perspective; our landscape may be vast, but so is our diversity. We’ve learned to use the forces of technological, environmental and social change to create more livable, useful spaces – especially public places and institutions.

There’s something else uniquely Canadian that gives us a competitive edge, though. An architect is often viewed in the popular imagination as a lone wolf, single-handedly wresting design from stone and metal, delivering a singular vision against all odds. While this is often indeed true in the United States and Europe, for my colleagues at our offices in Toronto, Vancouver and New York, the best evidence of what beats the competition are ideas built from multiple viewpoints. For us, teams work.

We shape the team as an ensemble of gifted players, each skilled in their own right, but more certain to achieve an elegant solution because that idea can be nurtured and perfected far better by the interplay of the virtuosi.

Canadian architects shine with institutions that have demanding design programs, complex circumstances and the need for high performance. For example, many firms here have emerged as leaders in environmental performance because foundational work by the National Research Council in Ottawa drives our designs to achieve dramatic energy savings and zero-carbon building performance.

Another factor in our architects’ global success is the work we’ve done here at home. The work of MJMA Architects in exemplary community facilities across Canada led to their winning Johns Hopkins University’s Recreation Center. We were on Lincoln Center’s radar because of our innovative concert hall for L’Orchestre Symphonique in Montreal.

Lincoln Center is one of the most famous arts complexes in the world. But we unlocked its Rubik’s Cube of uninspired and under-performing public places at Geffen Hall applying the lessons learned in our transformation of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. Its re-imagined lobbies, animated by the warmth of Canadian wood, activated by community use over the day, connected the artistry of the NAC’s performers to the community inside and out.

A decade ago, Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia saw the Four Seasons Centre in downtown Toronto. He understood that a single hall can have a modern design, great sound and sightlines – and be built on budget and on time. The result was an invitation for us to compete for the New Mariinsky. We won that competition, and now “there simply isn’t a better place to stage opera in Russia," according to Kommersant, a leading journal.

Our winning Geffen Hall is certainly gratifying. But it shouldn’t be surprising that Canadian architects are consistently winning big commissions abroad.

In the bruising world of global design competitions, expertise is table-stakes.

What the world is insisting on is a set of values that celebrates collaboration and straight dealing, and an eagerness to use design as a competitive advantage.

Yes, the world needs more Canada, now more than ever.

(to see the images, you'll need to click on the link above. It may be paywalled, not sure)

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