Pretty Pictures

A person who listens gives themselves every opportunity to learn from others, something that they don’t already know. But it’s impossible to listen if the voice that’s doing all the talking is theirs. With this in mind, and given than a picture speaks a thousand words (or so the saying goes); who is learning what when we look at all those pretty pictures drawn by architects, landscape architects and urban designers?

Today we played audience to a variety of presentations at the Aedes Network Campus Berlin (ANCB) in Berlin, each looking at a different aspects of architecture and land use planning in Europe and Australia. We saw how historic patterns of rural land use are becoming increasingly incompatible with modern pattens of demand in and around Limerick in Ireland – the results of a project by a bunch of Architecture Students from the university there. AB, one of the academics traveling with our group, gave a presentation covering some of the substantive issues facing land use planners in and around Melbourne; identifying some similarities with the previous talk, but with many contrasts. We heard also from Frank Segebade, a representative of the Capital Region Berlin-Brandenburg (www.gl.berlin-brandenburg.de). A key aspect of his presentation was his glossy brochure – in English, interestingly. It featured lots of reasons why the metropolitan hinterland state of Brandenburg will benefit from closer administrative ties with Berlin, and how the new International airport will be good for everyone. It seems that pretty pictures and a glossy brochure are popular devices here too, for presenting an argument for change that may or may not have substance. It seems that the Australian Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (yes… I know) is in good company.

The final presentation for the afternoon was particularly interesting. Joachim Schultz-Granberg from the Office of Urban Design and Architecture at the Meunster School of Architecture (www.fh-muenster.de/d6) shared some of his students work; looking at small scale housing developments in Berlin. True to type, his presentation was packed with some wonderful illustrations, images and graphic devices that had me at times looking at the artwork more than the message. To my surprise, this very issue became the subject of some questions and comments after the presentation.

The degree to which the architectural profession has in the past valued the engagement by, and contribution of the broader public may, it was suggested, be partly responsible for the fact that less than 5% of housing in Berlin is architecturally designed. This comes despite attempts by the profession to explain how it can potentially create buildings of architectural merit that cost the same or less than conventional construction projects in which architects are excluded. There is a communication problem that architects themselves must overcome to maintain or increase their relevance.

One gentleman in the audience was able to quote an architect from the 1970’s who said something along the lines that first and foremost architects must ‘create a demand for architecture’. Somewhere in here is a lesson for strategic land use planners and urban designers, I think.

In other words, we need fewer pretty pictures that speak a thousand words, and a more inclusive process that perhaps solicits images from members of the community. Instead of (or in addition to) running a consultative community talk-fest, maybe the community should be asked to illustrate their own ideas somehow – to bring their ideas to life in a language other than words. The role of the strategic planner and urban designer ought be one of inclusively ‘listening’ to and interpreting the ideas of others, and not imposing a series of ideas and hoping the community will remain engaged long enough to determine which they despise the least.

So the architecture profession is today coming to realise it’s relevance isn’t asserted through generating pretty pictures. There’s something to be said then for the futile nature of any profession that expects others to sit up and take notice of what it’s trying to say, when the language it chooses to say it in is exclusive, and not inclusive.

So Strategic Planners and Urban Designers take note. You too could end up asserting yourselves into irrelevance by generating too many, pretty pictures.

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