Why Cambridge is beating Oxford in the planning race

Oxford’s housing crisis is down to its inability to plan for growth. Cambridge on the other hand is actively engaged with urban expansion, says Ben Flatman

The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge have long and distinguished histories as architectural patrons. But while Oxford may be leading 2-0 in this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist, when it comes to planning the wider built environment, Cambridge is now widely regarded as being well ahead of its old rival. The reasons are complex, but at the heart of Oxford’s current housing crisis is its longstanding inability to effectively plan for growth.

When measured by cost relative to average local wages, buying a home in Oxford is now more expensive than in London. Development in and around the city is constrained by large areas of much-loved meadow and parkland, as well as a restrictive green belt. The city understandably works hard to protect its heritage and environment. Popularity and success breed their own problems, and the appeal of Oxford as somewhere to live and work is now among its biggest challenges, as it struggles to accommodate the huge demand for housing.

True to the city’s history of “town and gown” conflict, Oxford University and the council have long found it impossible to build the necessary long-term consensus about how and where to expand. Back in the 1920s, it was the university, seeking to preserve the semi-rural quality of central Oxford, which blocked plans for major housing expansion, pressure for which was largely coming from the booming Morris car plant in Cowley.

Now, due to the renewed success of the city’s economy, some postgraduate researchers find themselves paying as much as 60% of their annual incomes on rent, and the university is desperate for new housing. Meanwhile, almost 50,000 people travel from outside to work in Oxford each day – a city of just 150,000 inhabitants. Although the university and the city now get along much better, they still struggle to build enough housing to meet the demand from academics, and the wider population. Oxford, which some commentators argue needs 32,000 new homes by 2031, managed to build just 60 new homes in 2014.

Oxford, which some commentators argue needs 32,000 new homes by 2031, managed to build just 60 new homes in 2014

In contrast, Cambridge has been making long-term strategic plans for its growth and expansion for decades. In the 1970s, just as industrial policies and long-term plans were becoming unfashionable at the national level, Cambridge began actively encouraging its academics and research scientists to form spin-off companies, and provided places for them to do this, in dedicated business and science parks around the city. Thanks to this long-term strategy, and the excellence of the university’s research, Cambridge is now a global leader in the technology and bioscience industries.

To meet existing and future demand, Cambridge University is now actively engaged in a major urban expansion, to provide housing for the staff upon which the university and its proliferating business and tech community will depend. The £1 billion North West Cambridge expansion will include housing and facilities for 8,500 residents, with schemes designed by the likes of Maccreanor Lavington and Sarah Wigglesworth.

Not all the fault for these contrasting narratives lies with Oxford. While Oxford is surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside, Cambridge’s flat, fenland setting, makes it (marginally) less contentious when it comes to planning expansion. Also, whereas Oxford has to deal with four neighbouring district authorities, Cambridge only has to work with one – South Cambridgeshire. As is apparent all over England, lack of regional strategic government often prevents intelligently managed growth. There is little requirement and few incentives for the surrounding local authorities to work with Oxford, and so they have largely refused to engage in a wider discussion about how to manage the city’s need for new housing and growth. Ultimately, the long-term consequence is likely to be a lot of poorly planned new housing foisted on the surrounding districts, whether they like it or not.

The situation in and around Oxford is emblematic of Britain’s failed planning system and lack of long-term strategic thinking. On one level, both Oxford and Cambridge are victims of their own success, and are struggling to address the housing and transport challenges that confront any thriving town or city. The principal difference lies in the far-sighted, joined-up strategy that Cambridge University and its partners in local government and business have applied to these very predictable problems.

For years the UK national government has been afflicted by an ideological aversion to proper long-term strategic planning, and has actively obstructed local government from engaging in sensible planning for housing and transport. The result across much of the country has been stunted growth and missed opportunities to create well-designed and sustainable new communities. With Oxford graduate Theresa May now promising a new industrial policy, increased infrastructure spending and a radical solution to the housing crisis, she might do well to take a closer look at how Cambridge has planned for its own success.

Birmingham’s planners display a shocking lack of care for their city

Just months after the bulldozers moved in to demolish John Madin’s Central Library, Birmingham is facing another blow to its already dire reputation for conservation. This time, the city is scrapping three of its own conservation areas, including one that covers a cluster of arts and crafts houses in and around Barnsley Street. The loss of heritage value in these areas, which has led to their re-designation, has often been exacerbated by the inaction of the city council itself.

The city’s planners seem to have enthusiastically approved the demolition of a large section of the Barnsley Street area to make way for a depressing-looking “care” home. Andy Foster, author of the Pevsner guide to Birmingham, says the city’s planning department “either isn’t interested in conservation, or doesn’t know what conservation is”.

In 2014 the Kerslake Review made a damning indictment of Birmingham City Council, highlighting its silo culture and deafness to dissenting and external voices. Not much seems to have changed since, but it wasn’t always like this. After the massive destruction that afflicted the city in the 1960s and 70s, there was a brief respite to the demolition. Under the leadership of Sir Dick Knowles from 1984, Birmingham briefly forged a path as an early British pioneer in cultural regeneration. Symphony Hall was built to accommodate Simon Rattle’s ambitious plans for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the city took radical steps to reinvigorate its streets and key public spaces.

As the Kerslake Review acknowledged, “30 years ago Birmingham City Council was at the cutting edge of innovation in local government”. A long tradition of not having a senior city architect was reversed when Les Sparks was appointed director of planning and architecture in 1991. During this period the city woke up to its past mistakes and actively sought out those dissenting voices from outside. The 1988 Highbury Initiative, attended by Will Alsop and Terry Farrell, helped to set clear priorities for planning and development that made a major contribution to the city’s future direction.

A combination of intelligent planning and enlightened developers led to the creation two contrasting but equally successful schemes in the shape of the Custard Factory and Brindleyplace. The former helped kick-start Glenn Howells’ young practice, and the latter included Levitt Bernstein’s IKON Gallery, and a jewel-like café by CZWG.

The Custard Factory continues to thrive as a rare example of the creative reuse of a former industrial building in Birmingham. Meanwhile, many of the lessons learned at Brindleyplace were adopted and developed further by Allies & Morrison in their masterplan for Argent at Kings Cross. Sadly, rather than raising the design bar within Birmingham itself, this period in the city’s history now seems to stand as a stark reminder of how poorly the city has been managed since then.

So what explains the currently rudderless direction of the city? Andy Foster sees the current trajectory as a return to form, with Birmingham adopting its default approach to planning. “Any development is good development” seems to be the city’s mantra, while the quality of the wider urban landscape is largely forgotten. Tellingly, organising the next trip to Mipim appears to have become the extent of the council’s long-term planning.  

Birmingham desperately needs better leadership and management. But it also needs a prouder and more ambitious vision for its built environment. The autodidact Dick Knowles owned a shelf full of Pevsner guides, but there is little to suggest the city’s more recent leadership has had any genuine interest in architecture. The recent Big City Plan was a well-intentioned attempt to set a new trajectory, but seems to have lacked the strong underlying urban design principles, and perhaps the critical external voices, that helped make the Highbury Initiative a success.

Too often fixated on big projects, Birmingham needs to refocus on the finer grain of the city. Its local neighbourhoods desperately need nurturing to help release their potential. Many struggling cities around the world have successfully transformed their fortunes by realising the value of their own existing built environments. Entire cultural economies have been incubated and flourished within the types of post-industrial landscapes that used to define the rich texture of much of central Birmingham. And countless communities have thrived within the context of well-designed historic housing. Valuing what’s left of its sadly diminished built heritage might be a good place for Birmingham to start turning things around.

What ‘taking back control’ means for architects

A sense of lack of control is a common concern in our globalised economy. Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign was the invitation to “Take back control”. Advocates for Brexit argued that the pooling of UK sovereignty in Brussels meant the electorate had lost control of the political process, and that this had contributed to growing disillusionment with domestic politics. If, as the Brexiteers claim, leaving the EU is about redressing this perceived democratic deficit, then we must now also examine how we govern ourselves within our own borders.

The UK, or at least England, has one of the most centralised systems of government in the developed world. Successive Conservative and Labour administrations have concentrated ever greater power in Westminster. Our cities and towns have been largely stripped of the powers to raise taxes, borrow, invest and innovate. Civic leaders are subjected to the humiliation of going cap in hand to unelected Whitehall officials to beg funding for even the most modest project. For decades, the latent enterprise of Britain’s cities and regions has been stifled by draconian centralised spending limits, and the dead hand of the mandarin class. Scandalously, control over dispensing taxpayers’ own money has largely become the sole privilege of central government ministers and their civil servants.

Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country

The vote to leave the EU is therefore both a challenge and an opportunity that architects must confront. It is no coincidence that the emasculation of our local government – including within London itself – has been paralleled by a declining role for architects in the public life of our towns and cities. Communities stripped of the power to run their own affairs, and micro-managed by central government, have little motivation to engage with the critical discussions concerning their built environments from which so much of the quality of everyday life is derived. 

The new prime minister promises more control for ordinary people, and surely this must translate into real devolution of power from Westminster to the country at large. Architects should take advantage of this moment to agitate for a renaissance in local accountability. And the government in Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country. Active and engaged communities are essential to the creation of sustainable and high-quality spaces.

Theresa May has spoken of her desire to speak for those struggling to make their way in modern Britain. Housing is the most obvious and immediate area in which Britain needs to take urgent action. Local communities require the freedom to build housing that meets their needs. Similarly, Whitehall must relinquish control over our often shambolic public transport systems, where it can take longer to travel from Oxford to Cambridge by train than it does to get from London to Paris. 

Brexit has been met with dismay by many architects, but now seems inescapable. The profession has to engage with the debate about the form that Brexit will take. If some seismic shift in the UK is occurring, then it also opens up new possibilities. Ever since Thatcher, architects have been pushed further into the margins of public life, often reduced to stylists for developers and investment products. Most architects aspire to create spaces of real human value. We now need to influence a post-Brexit vision of Britain, where we are able to play a full role as enablers of both social and economic good.

John Madin was first a victor, then a victim of Birmingham’s identity crisis

How does an architect respond when many of their most recognisable built works are threatened with demolition? This is the situation that confronted John Madin, the leading Birmingham modernist architect, during his own life time. Madin proudly defended his Central Library right up until his death. He argued that not only was it a perfectly good library, but that it was also financially and environmentally wasteful for the city to replace it with a new one, on a cramped site, just a couple of hundred metres away. Sadly, the long-running campaign to save Madin’s building finally came to an end this year, as the city’s ever-busy demolition crews moved in to do their work. As Madin predicted, Mecanoo’s new library now struggles with huge debt repayments and recently slashed its opening hours.

Although he didn’t live to see it, the demolition of his library means that few of Madin’s major works now survive. Several of those that are left are also under threat. In a city as bereft of good modern architecture as Birmingham, losing so much of Madin’s legacy is a tragedy. Many of the most significant modernist buildings from a key period in the city’s history have now been systematically destroyed.

Some will wonder what this pattern of destruction says about the city and its relationship to the built environment. To be fair to Birmingham, it seems unlikely that the civic grandees have been singling out Madin. Birmingham has a long history of destroying its best architecture, going back decades. Despite Joseph Chamberlain’s Victorian city having once been seen as a global model for good urban governance, this has never prevented subsequent council administrations from seeking to erase all evidence of it. In the Thirties, Charles Barry’s King Edward’s School was replaced by an Odeon cinema (not even a good one). And in the Sixties and Seventies vast swathes of Victorian Birmingham were bulldozed to build the inner ring road. Pugin’s Bishop’s House made way for more asphalt, although St Chad’s Cathedral itself was miraculously spared. Now once again the best architecture from an entire architectural era has been almost erased.

The town should not, with God’s help, know itself

Joseph Chamberlain

The real reason for Birmingham’s obsession with self-destruction is probably more mundane than any pathological dislike for good architecture. It’s difficult not to see Birmingham’s fixation on rebuilding itself as partly due to an underlying lack of self-confidence. The city seems perpetually embarrassed by the perceived failings of its urban fabric. As urban designer and long-time Birmingham commentator Joe Holyoak has observed, whenever a new development is proposed, the city is prone to making “facile comparisons… with places in London in order to justify its existence”. A new shopping centre is invariably referred to as “Birmingham’s Covent Garden”. Meanwhile, Birmingham’s actual Victorian markets were of course bulldozed in the Seventies.

Over time, the addiction to knocking things down and repeated attempts at reinvention has actually come to define what Birmingham stands for. Upon embarking on an ambitious period of urban development in the nineteenth century, Chamberlain prophesied that, “The town should not, with God’s help, know itself.” Birmingham still seems rather uncertain of its own identity even today. Ever since Chamberlain, each new generation of leaders has sought to use wholesale demolition and rebuilding to usher in a new and better city. Creative reuse and adaptation of old buildings is largely anathema to Birmingham’s developers and planners. By constantly promising to sweep away the “old” Birmingham and start again, they have established a tradition of endless cycles of almost frantic rebuilding. As a consequence, one of the city’s most recognisable qualities is its impermanence. You often sense that what is being built is only provisional and not expected to be there for very long, as the next wave of reinvention will be along shortly.

Most recently, Future Systems’ Selfridges, Mecanoo’s library and AZPML’s New Street Station all have a similar light-hearted but throw-away feel to them – the best examples of a surface-obsessed architecture that doesn’t seem to plan on being around for long. Seen in a positive light, this feeling of transience can sometimes give the city a sense of optimism and dynamism. Parts of this ever-changing cityscape now resemble the informally planned and frantically evolving cities of South East Asia – although sadly without the sunshine.

The city’s most notorious planner, Herbert Manzoni, was actually a civil engineer, with a background in waste water management. He also had little time for the city’s old buildings, and from the Fifties onwards he set about sweeping them away. John Madin was one of those who benefited most from that previous period of creative destruction. His own library replaced a much-loved Victorian building which was demolished to complete the ring road. Perhaps, then, the fate of Madin’s buildings is the only fitting end to the work of any architect brave or foolhardy enough to work in the city whose motto is simply “Forward”.

Dispatch from Jamaica’s urban frontline

What happens when the built environment becomes a literal battlefield, and how does a city recover?

On the corner of Church and Tower Streets in Downtown Kingston stands a memorial to the hundreds of Jamaican children who have died in tragic and violent circumstances. It is a poignant reminder of the persistent violence that has blighted the city for decades. Kingston has a rich, albeit deeply conflicted history and culture but, like many cities marred by violence, Kingston’s reputation has become a major obstacle in attempts to bring about urban transformation. In Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, a sprawling epic set against the tumultuous Kingston of the Seventies, one character suggests that “Jamaica never gets worse or better, it just finds new ways to stay the same”. With outdated infrastructure, poor housing and violent crime still constants in the lives of Downtown residents, it’s not hard to understand where this view comes from. Well over 50% of Jamaicans would like to emigrate, according to recent polls. The peaceful general election in February this year suggests Jamaica is now in a period of political stability that could pave the way for a long-awaited urban revival, if it can confront and overcome the legacies from its past.

As the capital city of Jamaica, Kingston has the potential to be a key driver in the country’s longed-for renaissance and its historic and crumbling Downtown presents obvious opportunities for conservation led-regeneration. The challenge of trying to bring about positive change in a difficult urban environment is one that architects have struggled with for decades. What difference can architects make in a city blighted by poor governance and a reputation for violence? Jamaican architect Patrick Stanigar has addressed these questions over many years and is also profoundly aware of how history still defines the challenges of modern Kingston. Stanigar arrived in Jamaica at a time when simmering political tensions were about to explode into destructive urban conflict. Born in Jamaica and schooled in the US, he returned to the island in the early Seventies. He remembers a city where the conversations of privileged “Uptown” Kingston residents were still often shot through with the fear of poor black Jamaicans “rising up”.

The Kingston that Stanigar describes had been profoundly influenced by slavery. Jamaicans are proud of their multi-ethnic heritage, but the toxic legacy of colonialism still runs deep. It is sometimes difficult not to see the extreme violence and inequality that blight swathes of Downtown as partly a product of the city’s history and as a key thread that connects today’s Kingston to its past. The physical fabric of the city betrays the profound and unresolved race and class divisions that persist almost two centuries after the abolition of slavery. The city is roughly divided into two parts. Downtown is predominantly poor and black, with many residents living in dire poverty, and where accusations of police brutality are common. Uptown is more ethnically mixed, often lighter skinned, and if it weren’t for the steel grills over every window, might pass for affluent US suburbia.

In the post-independence period, Kingston’s built environment became even more profoundly politicised and contested. During the Cold War, like so many cities in the Caribbean and Latin America, Kingston became a battleground in one of the countless proxy wars between the superpowers. Jamaica’s two main political parties allowed themselves to become pawns in the wider geopolitical struggle, and cynically employed their gang-like enforcers to pursue electoral advantage through violence and outright corruption. From the Sixties into the Seventies the built environment became one of the key battlegrounds in this struggle. Housing in particular was used by the political parties to divide and control the Downtown communities.

Parts of West Kingston, close to the harbour, had been slum areas from when Kingston was first established in the late 17th century. In the Sixties, the predominantly Rastafarian slum area of Back-O-Wall was forcibly cleared and replaced by what was to become the notorious Tivoli Gardens. The project was the brainchild of the young Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MP, and future Prime Minister, Edward Seaga. Tivoli was actually intended as a model community, with new social housing and services, but its success was fatally undermined when the housing was almost exclusively allocated to supporters of the JLP.

In the Seventies, under the leadership of the People’s National Party’s (PNP) charismatic Michael Manley, Jamaica attempted social democratic reforms to address the enduring inequality that saw Kingston home to some of the worst slums in the Caribbean. Many more new housing schemes followed, this time for the benefit of PNP supporters. These “garrisons” became no-go zones for supporters of the opposing parties. The resulting resentments and divisions were cynically exploited by an increasingly corrupt political class, and helped create profound communal and physical ruptures that continue to fester up to the present day. Like other cities torn apart through violence, both physical and invisible dividing lines can still sometimes dictate no-go areas for members of different communities.

The repercussions of these policies have resonated through the decades, including the notorious “Tivoli Incursion” in 2010, when pressure from the US forced a reluctant JLP government to send in the military to extract their erstwhile enforcer, “Dudus” Coke, from Tivoli. More than 70 people died in the ensuing violence. Graphic images were beamed around the world, reinforcing the city’s already dire reputation for urban strife.     

Having worked with the communities of Downtown Kingston for several decades, Patrick Stanigar’s career has closely followed the city’s recent history and also reflects evolving attitudes to urbanism. He designed one of the largest public housing projects of the Seventies at McIntyre Lands (or Dunkirk, as it became known). For Stanigar, the project was a chance to help bring about desperately needed social change. However, as many architects have found, the good intentions of social housing can easily be undermined when the allocation of housing is politicised. Stanigar later designed a new conference centre for the harbour front, in a more conventional “urban renewal”-type scheme. His later work became increasingly focused on small-scale community-led housing improvement projects and issues relating to tenancy rights and land ownership.

Stanigar strongly resents the stereotypical views of downtown Kingston. After years working among its communities he believes that all the people of Downtown have ever been looking for is a way to survive. But that doesn’t stop him believing change is essential. “I think absolutely everything needs to change”, he says of Downtown Kingston. The new government has announced Jamaica is to become a republic. Will this mark a decisive break with a troubled past? Or will Kingston just keep on finding new ways to stay the same?

Thanks to the EU, architects can work in more places than ever before

The UK has always had an ambiguous relationship with the EU. It was not an original signatory to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and was twice barred from entry by Charles de Gaulle. When the UK did finally join the European Economic Community in 1973, amid economic turmoil, it was widely seen as an act of expediency – a marriage of convenience rather than a love match.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this rather loveless relationship the UK has actually had a huge influence on the current shape of the EU, particularly in terms of the single market and the massive eastward expansion after the fall of Communism.

There are some within Europe who actually see the UK’s critical detachment and underlying scepticism as invaluable and healthy for the wider EU debate. In contrast to the French model of dirigisme, Britain has consistently pushed for economic liberalisation and, during his recent “renegotiation” with other EU leaders, David Cameron won a renewed commitment to complete the single market in services.

These negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world

Thanks to a number of EU directives, architecture is one services market which is already very open. UK-registered architects are free to work or register anywhere in the EU and public projects over a certain size must be tendered openly in OJEU.

Now, according to Ian Pritchard, secretary general of the Architects’ Council of Europe, there are new opportunities opening up for architects further afield. In 2017, as part of wider EU free trade agreements, British architects can look forward to mutual recognition of qualifications with Canada and South Korea. And by the end of the decade the world’s largest free trade treaty, TTIP, could see a similar agreement in place with the US.

While many UK-registered architects already work abroad, these negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world, on a relatively level playing field with local architects. Although significant barriers may remain in terms of visas and work permits, the logic of these liberal free trade negotiations also points towards increasingly free movement of people.

There are vital issues at stake, not least those of sovereignty and Europe’s response to globalisation. Many would question the free market principles on which the EU’s single market is built, while others see the EU itself as the best guarantor against the worst excesses of rampant globalisation.

However for decades, despite a sometimes testy relationship, the UK has helped lead the debate on the future direction of the EU, including promoting close relations with the US.

Brexit potentially puts all of this at risk and, although the UK is arguably well placed to negotiate its own bilateral trade treaties, nothing is certain for a Britain outside the EU.

The current and potential future benefits of staying together are relatively clear. What is uncertain, and would remain so for several years, is the long-term impact of divorce. If a break-up is where the UK is heading, it would be a risky step into the unknown.

Interview with Neil Denari

This interview with Neil M. Denari, director of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) in Los Angeles, was conducted by Ben Flatman, architecture student at the Bartlett School in London, just prior to SCI-Arc’s recent move from Playa Vista to Downtown Los Angeles.

SCI-Arc is an independent school of architecture founded in 1972 by architect Ray Kappe together with a small group of teachers and students who were seeking a radical alternative to the conventional system of architectural education. Established as a place for invention, exploration, and criticism, the school quickly developed an international reputation for experimentation in architecture and grew from a spontaneous collective of 44 students to a more established institution of about 500. Neil Denari was appointed as the third director of the school (Ray Kappe and Michael Rotondi being his predecessors) in June 1997, after a year long search that spanned the globe resulting in the review of 60 candidates. Neil Denari, 39 at the time, was chosen to lead the school over an older generation of more established architects, thus reasserting SCI-Arc’s tradition of youth (Thom Mayne of Morphosis and Eric Owen Moss, as twenty-something avant-guarde architects, both taught at the school when it first opened) and its flexible and experimental approach.
In an interview with Nicolai Ourousoff, Los Angeles Times architecture critic, dated August 17, 1997, freshly-appointed Denari already sets forth some very clear ideas about the role he expects SCI-Arc to play in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. The decision to move the school’s premises from a rented industrial building in Marina del Rey to a permanent home in the heart of Los Angeles is a very important accomplishment after few years of directorship and an extremely significant action at an urban level, a model for the future development of downtown.

At the annual AIA/LA awards ceremony on October 25, 2001 SCI-Arc was honored for “the strength of your courage and depth of your conviction in ‘walking the talk’ of urban renewal. By relocating this renowned laboratory for architectural exploration into the heart of our great city, you have given new purpose to an extraordinary building, and made a significant contribution to the launching of a new life for downtown Los Angeles.”

SCI-Arc’s new home at the Freight Depot was dedicated on Friday, November 30, 2001.

Paola Giaconia

BEN FLATMAN: Both your predecessors as director, Raymond Kappe and Michael Rotondi, wanted SCI-Arc to be part of the city and not just in the city. Does SCI-Arc’s move to Downtown LA enable you to lay claim to finally having achieved that objective?
NEIL DENARI: Well, the short answer is yes. When Ray started the school he wanted it to be a school that was connected to the community. But that had an open definition. He never really saw the school as an enclosed, collapsed, self-referential kind of place, that would be removed from practice- in fact as you know, all the faculty practice. And so I think that there are these two different SCI-Arcs. One that has always been connected to the community and one that is this a sort of quasi-art school; as long as I’ve been here I’ve wanted to see those distinctions removed, or at least see that they don’t compete with each other. Now that we are in Downtown, it’s really going to galvanise the whole mission because we’re here and we’re now much more connected to city politics and the forces that shape cities and projects. We’re really going to be defining ourselves as one of those forces and not just feeding off of them.

How did you come to be director of SCI-Arc and did you always see yourself pursuing a path in academia parallel to your professional career?

The way I began teaching was not very conventional. When I finished school I worked for a mid-sized office in New York and the owner of the firm was the dean at Columbia. I had no aspirations to teach- none. I was always very much committed to just being an architect and then following my path towards developing my own ideas in my own office. However, I was invited up to some reviews at Columbia when I was quite young, just 28, and then they offered me a studio. This was after having worked at the office for three years, so I sort of said ‘okay, I’d like to give it a try’. I think they were really inviting me because of what I was doing with my own work at the time and certain critical and intellectual things that I was trying to discover, and may be they thought that I had a critical enough mind and a good enough eye to put those things together and become a teacher. So, I began teaching there and I had wanted to come out to California for quite some time and made the move and started teaching at SCI-Arc and enjoyed it. I taught about half-time, or three-quarters time and by the time Rotondi’s ten years were up, I think people looked around the school to see who amongst us here at the school would be capable of doing this. The goal wasn’t to find someone from within the school; it was to find the best person. And so by looking in and outside of the school simultaneously, they had about 60 people in the end.

So, even though you never had any inclination to become a teacher, you’ve ended up as head of a school. Do you think that’s ironic?

No I don’t, because I could still basically say that everyone here is not an academic. We want to work, we want to build. The school is put together that way. When Ray started the school, he didn’t do it as a dean or as an academic. He said education is very important – we need to have practice and theory come together. So I don’t see any bad fit.

It’s my perception that a lot of contemporary architecture is more interested in reflecting existing social and cultural conditions rather than affecting them. May be this is a reaction against the perceived arrogance of the profession in the past and architects’ assumption of a god-like position. I was wondering how far you see this as a reflection of our powerlessness as architects to actually change things and how much of a role you see for architects in shaping society, or even improving it?

Well, I think the whole idea of holding a mirror up to the world, which is a simple kind of act, can work for some architects as being a kind of honest approach. For others it is a way of getting around taking a real critical standpoint. That’s the argument of rap and ‘gangster’ lyrics- they all say, ‘look, I’m just telling you what’s happening in the neighbourhood.’ Chuck D of Public Enemy was saying that Rap is like CNN- ‘I want to deliver to you, all you people who don’t know’. So that’s at one level the kind of service that needs to happen in this journalistic way of making something. But then you’re forced, when you’re thinking about doing something critical, to actually have to decide, to possibly pass judgement, to risk alienation of various people. And that’s the compelling moment in being an architect and I think that’s what we want to try and do here. We don’t want to intentionally oppose, nor do we want to be complicit and simply hold up a mirror and say ‘the world is much bigger than I am’. I think our position as architects is changing. Part of us being here in Downtown and getting connected to city politics is so that architecture is not the last thing on a list of fifty things that happen when you want to build a building or change a road or develop new policy. The last thing is always ‘let’s call in the architect’, okay? And we’re getting a lot more connection to the positive instrumental force that architects can bring if only we can work in a collaborative kind of way and not in a heavy-handed artistic way.

Do you think that there has been a fundamental change in the way architects see their role? It seems to be implicit in the MR+D programme and the approach they are taking there with the scenario planning, which assumes the architect can no longer simply dictate how things are going to be and follow a linear path from inception through to implementation of a project.

It puts the architect in a completely different position. It means that the architect is obviously collaborating but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the architect should automatically be less important. And I think that’s one of the fallacies in the idea that there is no more author, there is no more superstar. Architecture and the role of architecture is and always will be dramatically important. It’s just the issue of where credit is assigned will be changed quite a bit. So if the architect is conspiring with the engineer and the engineer is connecting to urbanists and so forth, everybody is instrumental and powerful in their own particular way but the web of relations is so much more complex rather than linear. When the architect is talking to the mayor there is a different web of relationships that create a greater connection to the possibility of progress.

I’ve been taking a look at your book, 
“Gyroscopic Horizons” and you talk about globalisation and a new impermanent world, of technology and a hegemonic media culture. In places, you seem to take a critical stand on aspects of this new world, but overall you seem to embrace it as the new reality. Do you feel that the reality you refer to, of airport lounges and multiple gateways adequately covers all aspects of this new age? I was just wondering whose reality you perceive that as being? I was wondering whether you were consciously writing for a specific elite- may be for directors of architecture schools that lead that lifestyle?

Yes, the book was written for an architecture audience, it was not a lay book at all. The idea of the book is that by the time you read and absorb the text and images, it will put you in a particular sort of mood- very filmic and sort of cinematic. This mode of impermanence may be one of the bigger moods that comes out of it. I didn’t go consciously into an analysis of third world versus first world and the nature of distinction and difference in growing separations about issues of identity, although I touch on that. But the issue of where we are- where your body is at, where your identity is at, where your home is at, or how you move from point A to point B. It’s simply about the necessity of being able to locate oneself. A map does that, a building does that, and a dining room table does that. You can look at the myriad ways that a person tries to deal with passage, and movement and stasis and then you pack politics and money, and zealousness and everything else that goes into it. That was what part of the preamble to the book was about, and it’s a pretty sprawling book. It takes a lot of divergent pathways. It’s just a piling up of a lot of thoughts and possibilities, just like any first project it can stand up to some inspection and then for me it sort of says ‘boy, that didn’t go anywhere’.

Richard Meier has said of LA’s avant-guard architecture, “Where is it?” I was wondering whether you could give an example of an important or what you would regard as useful piece of urbanism to have come out of LA in the last twenty years?

Well… Citywalk, the Universal project, designed by Jon Jerde, the mall architect. You don’t have to pay to get into it, although you have to pay for parking. It’s basically an outdoor shopping centre, based on a central piazza with streets running off it. And there are a series of franchised stores. It’s like a kind of re-animated Los Angeles that never was. Citywalk has become a model for commercial mixed-use development. Developers in France are looking at it; developers in Asia have looked at it. They’ve either hired Jerde or they’ve started copying it. In the Nineties there were a string of seminal texts, like those by Mike Davis, on the issue of privatisation and the difficulty of the city being incredibly open but not being understood as being public. This was because there was an increasing sense that beyond the street itself it was all just privatised. And so Citywalk privatised a concept of the city. It creates a gap between real LA and simulated LA. It certainly didn’t invent a prototype but it put a spin on it. So, I’m talking to you about it because it was a point of reference. And what falls out of it is, it’s happening in other places. It also came out of the riots; right after the riots it was developed because tourism, especially Japanese tourism, fell off and this was a way to allow that to happen again. Other than that I can’t think of anything- it’s a reference. 

I must say I’ve been disappointed by what I’ve seen. I visited Eric Own Moss’s buildings in Culver City the other day and it seemed to me his buildings did what every commercial development in LA does, which is focus on a parking lot and have little or no relationship to the streets around them.

I think the key issue here is: can LA tolerate a normative view of what urbanism is? And if it can’t, then may be something succeeded there. If you take the Samitaur building, the long green one built above the existing buildings, that’s an interesting piece of urbanism because that carried out what was foreseen in the Sixties, with buildings above buildings adding a second layer to the city. And imagine that as an Archigram drawing with balloons and people in the foreground; you’d talk about it being a new city, a new contemporary level of urbanism that doesn’t reference the Parisian Street. In fact it’s not about the street, it’s about densifying the city, which is packing it with more mass and more capabilities for people to work and possibly live. May be those are ways which haven’t come into a set of standards yet, in terms of what constitutes urbanism. Eric Own Moss would talk about it in terms of densifying the city, adding to the city, preserving the existing buildings. But the social and spacial and collective content, no. LA finds it very difficult to be understood and organised in that particular way.

Except may be for the Hispanic community, who seem to have revived a street culture on Broadway?

Well, Broadway is inhabited like a New York street. It’s the only one and there it is. So, I think that we are looking for ways that urbanism can be re-thought, re-understood in a city like LA and it’s really so amazing now that we’re already here. We’re in the place where we think we need to work on ideas, at least for North America. But you know as well as I do that at the periphery of many cities all over the world, as J.G. Ballard put it, “the Californianisation of the Globe is happening.” 

Can you talk me through the move that SCI-Arc is making and the arrangements with the private developer? What’s the history of the move?

In 1991, after twenty years, SCI-Arc moved from its original location to the school on Beethoven Street on the Westside. Even at that time there was speculation and investigation into moving Downtown. For two reasons: one, it’s always been cheaper and number two, the immediate connection to a higher level of urban density, if only in terms of building mass. So the school has wanted to find a permanent home for quite some time and didn’t just want to exist simply as a tenant paying rent to some landlord somewhere. When I took over in ’97 it was one of the mandates for me to figure out a way to move the school to an appropriate place and own the building. And I think, all considered, especially over the last eight or nine months I’ve probably spent at least half of my time in my position working on that issue. So it reinforces the fact that I as director don’t have a strictly academic role, even though I want to lead the school in terms of what I think ought to be worked on architecturally. But that’s just the nature of the school. It’s independent, it’s mobile. I wanted to put it together more as a solid business and we’re now concluding the project.

Can you tell me what the situation is concerning ownership of the land and the site?

Yes, it’s much clearer now than what it was. We’re buying the site from a developer, who bought it initially thinking that he could possibly build industrial buildings, but the artist community rejected it and the city didn’t really want it to happen. We’re buying the building and basically the land the building sits on. It’s 2 and a half acres, directly from the landowner, so SCI-Arc will own straight away the building. We’ve gotten a $1.5 million grant from the city that will go straight into the construction costs or the purchase price. We also hope to get tax credits for renovating an historical building. Although we’re not a profit making company, we’re working out a scenario that will allow us to recover the value of those tax credits. 

Are there any deals with developers?

We have no bargains with any developers because we’re just buying the site. We have the city behind us- they’re helping us put together the financing and the whole project will be in our hands. We’re choosing our own general contractor and we’ve been the architects. There have been a whole series of things that have fallen into place to allow that to happen. Previously we were in a relationship with a developer, but he’s gone. He couldn’t pull it together. So we’re in a much better situation now.

What’s your control going to be over the rest of the site?

It’s a bit of a question mark right now. That’s being sold separately and we will be able to articulate our position and the goal of the site is still being a campus. And I think that the city in a way will act as a sort of a big brother for us. Whoever the developer is that comes in, I think that the city will really argue pretty clearly that SCI-Arc needs housing that is affordable and that the site has to have some infrastructure, in order to support the students. We want SCI-Arc faculty to design it because we have a wealth of talent and knowledge and we really do want to make good on the mission of the school to engage in city projects. So, I think that we’ll have a lot of leverage. We’ll have a lot of leverage through the culture of the project, if not by having a big bank account. 

I see what SCI-Arc is doing here as one of the most interesting pieces of urbanism that I’ve come across since coming to LA.

I think it is going to be a model. Especially for Downtown development, because we could be doing something that a typical developer just wouldn’t think about.

Other academic campuses in LA, such as UCLA and USC, seem to be very isolated from the rest of the city.

I think we’ll have a coherent site right here but it will also connect to Downtown, connect to Little Tokyo, connect to the artists, connect to the homeless, connect to everybody. I want to understand it as a fragment of a new type of city but also the idea that it’s a park, the idea that it’s pedestrian. Yes, you have to figure out the parking in all projects and parking is a very difficult thing to deal with because its not Amsterdam- people aren’t riding bikes and the public transport is limited. And I think that we need to think about trying to generate more infrastructure here, so that live-work means that you can use technology to your benefit. Let’s say, if there’s enough infrastructure within five minutes walk, both at the level of entertainment, the grocery store, shopping, then you’d probably be able to exist within that radius, a greater percentage of your time than you do right now, where everything’s about commuting.

How much do you see what you’re trying to do here as new and how far do you see it as using existing urban forms from elsewhere?

It’s probably a combination of both. By the time you’ve even brought a model here that seems to be workable in some other place, I’m sure it would mutate and it would deform to fit the conditions of Los Angles. There are certain inhibiting phenomena -parking and cars are one of them- that mean you couldn’t just take European planning principles and know that there’s an underground nearby. It’s not Berlin, it’s not Paris. So I think it will be a combination of new and imported ideas. 

What will SCI-Arc do next? Is there any danger of SCI-Arc becoming staid, now that it’s going to develop this air of permanence?

No. The logic of it is that the more you are in control of your resources, the smarter you can be in the way that you use them. You can really unleash all of the energy into education and in a way that may be we couldn’t before. This is a kind of one time only thing. I mean one thinks ‘gee, if only SCI-Arc could only move once every ten years’ then we’d get to recolonise, to remake and do this all the time. But obviously we can’t be that nomadic. It’s taken almost thirty years to get to this point where we can own our own building. But I see the site as being pretty evolutionary. I don’t think the site is going to fully get built out instantly. I think there are going to be fragments and pieces that are on-going, especially if we can retain our leverage. There are many things that effect us positively that we could never do before. We’ve never had any scholarships because we have no endowment. We don’t have any endowed chairs or professorships. And as long as I’m director I’m going to use whatever resources we have- and hopefully they should increase quite significantly- to effect and enforce the mission of the school. It won’t have anything to do with any creeping conservatism or a lack of action. We’re thinking quite the opposite- that it will really act as a catalyst to things. I’m sure we’ll figure out new ways to still be exciting.