By Richard J Williams
First published August 2014 at Richard J William’s Blog
Peter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.
Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend to despair change in general, and urban change in particular – which is why in places where their influence is strong, conversations about cities tend to revolve almost entirely around questions of surface. Europe’s historic cities fall into this category, and have become trivial places as a result.
Shortly after reading Cities of Tomorrow for the first time, I moved to Edinburgh to work. I arrived on a bright late summer’s day where the Firth of Forth and its coastline described (I thought) a big, complex urban region not unlike Bay Area where Hall had a professorship during the 1980s. I was instructed later that day by colleagues that Edinburgh was in fact the Old and New Towns, and to a civilised person, nothing else mattered. Edinburgh has been disappointment ever since. That said, rather influenced by Hall, I’ve always tried to inhabit it as an urban region, living its peripheries as much as its centre, and all points in between. Perhaps one day its leaders will think along Hall’s lines, and celebrate its regional character.
In context, Hall’s most provocative text remains the New Society essay he wrote with Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan’. Superficially an anti-planning diatribe, it’s in reality an argument for freedom, underpinned by the belief (shared by all the authors) that the relatively unplanned landscape of southern California had produced a better living environment for more of its citizens than the English equivalent. After many visits over the years to California, I still believe on almost every count they are right – and I still give ‘Non-Plan’ to students as a corrective to their highly aestheticised, conservation-minded view of cities. A few of them get it every year. Most don’t, it has to be said, although they appreciate its humour and optimism, and the accompanying cartoon-like sketches.
It’s not surprising my students don’t generally get ‘Non-Plan’., for they have a lot invested in what it attacks. They hope to make lives around conservation and history, and enough of them have the wealth and connections to make this refined life a possibility. But if anything, ‘Non-Plan’’s prescription seems more urgent than ever. Those cities of the world that have wished to restrict growth for aesthetic reasons have become cities of the rich. San Francisco’s average house costs $1 million London’s real estate is so highly valued, it has mutated from housing to become a global reserve currency. That can’t be right in the long term – and slowly governments in places
where this has become a problem have started to look at regional solutions. In the UK, that means devolution of power to metropolitan regions, and the development of a series of New Towns, both policies Hall had advocated for at least 40 years. Perhaps even ‘Non-Plan’ will get another run too. In any case, Hall’s marvellous work lives on.
Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Peter Hall and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan: an experiment in freedom’ New Society 338, (20 March 1969)