Don’t generalize – not all architects are good, and not all developers are bad

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by professor Peter Rowe at Melbourne University titled “Shanghai post ’78” which discussed this major Chinese city’s planning and growth after 1978. To write about the lecture would take probably 10 posts so I will just respond to some points briefly and also share an enlightening conversation I had with an elderly RMIT professor who sat next to me.

Peter Rowe is a professor at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, where he has taught since 1985 and served as Director of the Urban Design Programs (1985-1990). He has also wrote and edited many books. It was a great opportunity to hear Peter talk about Shang Hai, a city I have visited numerous times most recently being the 2010 EXPO. Peter covered a lot in the lecture which was just over an hour. What stood out to me was the many plans and designs for Shang Hai that were produced both locally and internationally and how they changed over time  as new plans came out under different government leadership. The planning of cities require input from so many different groups of people and to implement these plans are another story. I feel China is becoming more and more open to outside ideas in recent times but it is still the local government who has the final say. For example as Peter said the planning for the EXPO grounds eventually grew more and more mundane under the Tong Ji Design Institute. However there are many positives as well such as the creative district phenomenon similar to the creative clusters Florida talks about.

For me I think no matter how much you study how a city is ‘planned’ it is still more interesting to see the city from a human scale, by walking the side streets and really experiencing a ‘place’ by being in it. In a lot of my classes professors champion the ‘bottom up’ approach  and the natural growth of a city over time, the most popular example given being Tokyo. But even in Tokyo when you walk around distinct ‘wards’ are apparent and each little area is numbered into even smaller blocks giving a strong sense of community within these clearly demarcated areas.

Apart from a very well delivered crash course in the history of Shang Hai’s planning, I learnt another lesson that night – do not generalize. This can be applied to the lecture in that every city is different, even though Rowe compared Shang Hai to Tokyo in the case of the radial structure and elevated motorways as a planning strategy, these are in fact two very different cities.

These two valuable words of advice “don’t generalize” came from a RMIT professor who I sat next to. We started talking before the lecture when he said something along the lines of, “Oh none of my students from RMIT are here, they don’t know what they are missing out on. Melbourne University students are much more on to it.” In which I replied, that’s a bit of a generalization because there are many different students in both, good and bad ones… He then went on to tell me about his story, of studying and working in the States and Canada. For a long period he had his own architecture practice and worked with developers. He said he loved it, he worked with some really creative and enthusiastic developers who respected him and understood the value of good design.

This made me think to my architecture practice class and the consensus in general amongst us architecture students of the ‘starving architect’ vs the ‘mindless developer’ who only cared about money and not the design of the building. The picture below shows my point given by a guest lecturer in my practice class. This short conversation just got me thinking how important it is to really find out for yourself what the real situation is like – and how much you are missing out if you ‘generalize’. There’s a good and bad in everything – not all architects are good and not all developers are bad. I felt this RMIT professor really had a lot to tell and hopefully I will bump into him again at another talk. When I asked why he doesn’t teach at Melbourne University, he simply replied that he was not asked to..and that RMIT did.

Talks like tonight’s at Melbourne University are so high quality and valuable, not just because Peter teaches as Harvard (which is a good enough reason in itself) but the relevance of the topic and the knowledge these incredible people have to offer. I am still surprised to see how little students turn up. I know we have studio class and all but it’s such a great way to expand your knowledge and thinking, and will give us a broader view into the profession so we don’t generalize.

Developers are not all bad

What we were shown during Architecture Practice class – this may be the case in some situations, but surely not all.


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