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All change?

To mark their 40th anniversary, the London based architectural practice Arup Associates recently co-hosted a series of lectures in collaboration with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Entitled Future Context, the series presented three distinct views on the globalization and regeneration of the built environment, in both developed and developing countries. By identifying the three Es of change--Economics, Effect and Ethos--Saskia Sassen discussed how emergent global economies are generating change, Alex Garvin discussed how in New York following 9/11 the Manhattan Developing Corporation is delivering change, and his Holiness the 12th Cyalwang Drukpa concluded with his thoughts on how to inspire change, by drawing on his role as innovator and client on projects such as the Druk White Lotus School in northern India (AR May 2002).

In a pacy and fluent presentation, Saskia Sassen began proceedings by literally taking on the world. As a renowned Professor of Sociology, her theories sought to consider all aspects of the global city. By identifying Frankfurt, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo as the five leading global hubs, what, she asked, was the relationship between the virtual connections, generated by the electronic systems of a city, and civic spaces generated by the physical space of a city? 'Is human interaction necessary?' she speculated, and 'are places merely becoming sites on an electronic global loop?' More interestingly however were her observations regarding notions of rule and regulation, and of order and chaos in our societies. By considering unclassified economies that emerge from private, invisible or perhaps even illegal minority sub-cultures, it is unregulated changes that, she argued, truly break new ground. Chaos prevails over regulation, and the economy, be that informal or formal, is always ahead of government rule. Therefore, while Sassen appeared reluctant to present us with a neat digestible package of conclusions (as is often the case when big thinkers generate more complex questions than they ever attempt to answer), the single most identifiable proposition was that the world will always be an evolving organism where it is impossible for regulation to ever fully stifle the natural process of global change.

By contrast, Alex Garvin presented a far more orderly notion of change, defined by consultation, collaboration and consensus. In describing the process of delivering change in Lower Manhattan, Garvin was not short of statistics. Having involved nine councils, 200 people, and over 50 meetings before Libeskind was appointed, it was a complex task that included the organization of a single public consultation meeting for more than 4300 in one room. However, for a largely architectural audience many questions were left unanswered, including Garvin's own question; how do you grow a city around a memorial? It was also unclear as to exactly what architectural decisions had actually been made, or whether despite Libeskind's involvement, we were still looking at a masterplan of blocks. Beyond the peripheral, but nevertheless important issue of inspiring public support, exactly what Libeskind's role would be remained unclear. And while Garvin repeatedly stated that Libeskind would not be the designer of all of the buildings, he failed to address the concern that without Libeskind there is a real danger that the proposals may naturally revert to the city's original block masterplan--with the odd geometric twist here and there. It is difficult to see for example how the architecture of Libeskind--an architecture of the specific and of the unique--can ever be applied to the process of master-planning; a process which by definition sets out rules and regulation. Without Libeskind, is their any credence in the concern that the bulk of the buildings will in reality be executed and diluted by less inspired associate design teams?


As many would have expected, the final lecture by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, focused on higher order priorities, discussing issues of human fulfilment, of happiness, and of peace. However, as presented these issues were seamlessly brought back down to earth, and were no less practical than those discussed by the previous contributors. Calling for environments that inspire as well as function, His Holiness made it clear that there was a genuine urgency for designers to respond. In the case of his own school for example, he described an urgency to build in order to save what he had identified as 'the declining happiness and beauty in the lives of the people'. Despite a clear recognition of the need to preserve tradition culture, in a world that he saw as being 'distracted' by the pull of the Western world, his Holiness never implied that change was bad. In fact, on the contrary, if you have vision, he concluded, you are free to wander through possible futures, while if you are blind, you have little option but to sit still.

As a series of individual lectures, it is difficult to parcel our Future Context into one neat summary. Perhaps a single symposium would have been more dynamic? For example, how would His Holiness have responded to Sassen's subtext which addressed leadership and anarchy, and how could he have helped Garvin answer the question of how to build a city around a memorial? Despite this however, this inspiring trilogy of evening lectures, gave capacity audiences a series of diverse and stimulating presentations, and were as such a fitting reflection of both Arup Associates' aspirations and the RSA's ongoing Art for Architecture initiative. For more information visit and

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Title Annotation:View; architectural services
Author:Gregory, Rob
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Engineering excellence.
Next Article:Intervening in the European City.

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