Urbanistas: pushing boundaries in urban architecture and design

This summer's Urbanistas exhibition at the Roca London Gallery showcased the work of innovative female architects and designers working in cities in the UK and Europe. Author, academic and Urbanistas curator Lucy Bullivant discusses the impact of talented women on the field and the rise of more progressive urban design models for the 21st century.


From 6 March to 27 June this year, the Roca London Gallery (RLG) hosted an exhibition called 'Urbanistas: women innovators in architecture, urban and landscape design'. The exhibition showcased the work of six established female practitioners working in UK cities as architects, planners and urban and landscape designers.

The exhibitors included Irena Bauman of Bauman Lyons, a Yorkshire-based architecture and urban design practice with a localist policy of working no further than two hours' drive from its studio. Also on display at the show was the work of architect and urban planner Alessandra Cianchetta of AWP Paris, whose research-based methods have seen her study the effects of light, landscape and climate to create liberating urban environments across Europe. Johanna Gibbons of J&L Gibbons exhibited some of her work as one of the UK's most renowned landscape architects, including her contributions to London's Green Grid framework for beautiful and ecologically enriching spaces across the capital.

Despite the varied approaches taken by the exhibitors - rounded out by innovative residential architect and urban designer Alison Brooks, and Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke of muf Architecture/Art, which specialises in designing collaborative public spaces - they are unified by standing as representatives of a new kind of urban architecture and design. Eschewing the traditional top-down process of planning and design, these practitioners prioritise community-driven strategies that focus on drawing out and amplifying an area's social, ecological and cultural value.

The exhibition was curated by Lucy Bullivant, author, critic and adjunct professor in urban design history and theory at Syracuse University in London, as well as founder and editor-in-chief of urban design webzine urbanista.org. We sat down with Bullivant to discuss the Urbanistas exhibition, the impact of women on the urban design field and her hopes and fears for the future of cities.

Chris Lo: Could you give me some background on the Urbanistas exhibition that you recently curated at RLG?

Lucy Bullivant: The invitation came from RLG, the sole sponsor of the Architects' Journal Women in Architecture Awards. Eva Woode, the gallery manager, wanted to stage an exhibition that demonstrated RLG's commitment to women in architecture, and invited me to curate it in just three months. We discussed the options and she agreed that her preference - which I strongly shared - was for an exhibition about women practitioners with a track record rather than those starting out; to embrace the complementary disciplines of architecture, urban and landscape design and to show realised projects as well as some in-process and competition entries.

CL: Looking across the exhibitors who you showcased for Urbanistas, have you identified some common ground shared in their work?

LB: Yes. Although each practitioner has their own unique approach and language, they are also complementary in sensibilities and strategies [and share] a commitment to reinventing urban design through socially-driven means, i.e. participatory placemaking, building social capital, ecological processes advancing landscape infrastructure and ecological capital. Masterplanning becomes a practice of adaptive planning.

CL: How has the industry changed for women practitioners in the last decade or more? And how do you think women have been challenging the status quo in urban design?

LB: I am not sure that the working conditions of employees in practice have improved hugely, but the expanded presence of women in architecture has had a considerable impact globally, with many principals running practices and also holding senior positions in academia.



Is this paradigm the best option to achieve density in space-starved metropolises?


One facet of the challenge to the status quo in urban design represented by the Urbanistas has been raised through soft planning interests - socially driven adaptive planning, ecological and landscape urbanism, and alternatives to the purely top-down which unite bottom-up methods with top-down, and designing new technological tools.

I'm talking about the exhibitors rather than the entire global field, in which there are a number of people with their own unique strategies - these are wide-ranging, from high-quality masterplanning, to meanwhile uses, to landscape urbanism and participatory placemaking - working alongside male partners, team members and, in some cases, female professional partners.

CL: In what ways would you say the current urban design model is failing people in UK cities at the moment?

LB: There is no one single urban design model perceived on an aesthetic or operational basis, but there is a prevalence of top-down planning. The imperative for each council to produce long-term comprehensive Local Plans has been hugely educational for all the teams involved, and led to a lot of fresh discussion about all aspects of city making, from the use of brownfield sites to policies for mixed tenure housing.

I'm currently doing funded research on the Local Plans for Cambridge, Bristol, Newcastle and Chichester. The dominance of developer-driven plans narrows the options; with local councils playing more of a strategic, empowered role, a multiplicity of models geared towards specific contexts can be unleashed. Urban design must be as custom-designed as possible.

CL: Do you think the scope of urban design concepts - what cities can look like and how they can function - has been expanding in recent years?

LB: Yes, there's more attention across the formal and the informal city, with a number of first-rate academic departments of architecture and urban design working on a laboratory basis, and a lot more exhibitions on this subject. I've just been to an ideas competition for a major interchange in Tallinn at the Tallinn Architecture Biennale held in the open-plan space of a shopping mall, as well as seen the city's architecture museum's permanent display of models of city architecture and urban plans from the turn of the 20th century to the present day, for example. It's far more common to show architecture and urban design in an integrated fashion and to use a myriad of technological means to explore this subject, as well as concepts including hybridity of nature and culture, cradle-to-cradle, retrofitting, tactical urbanism, and the self-driven city speculating on how socially-evolved smart urbanism might develop.

CL: How are modern, forward-thinking architects finding new ways to approach the issue of density in urban design?

LB: When the opportunity presents itself. For example, in the case of MVRDV's
masterplan for the expansion of Almere. The discussion on density has transcended the quantitative area-ratio-based analysis to become one steeped in qualitative concerns, such as the impacts of social intensity, mixed tenure and gradations of density, not simply low or high as a one-dimensional programmatic treatment of a plot of land.

CL: In an extremely commercially-focussed industry with a lot of short-term thinking, what are the perils and pitfalls facing architects who want to create something of lasting social value to a city?

LB: [Challenges include] value engineering, the myopia of large parts of the construction industry, and the fact that in any case lasting social value is ultimately also a question of marshalling a particular management and maintenance ethos. Many architects know their role is one of complicity, and many enjoy finding ways to innovate within the system on as many levels as possible. Architecture is a powerful form of communication, and the public as client in the context of a social media-conditioned world means information travels at unprecedented speeds, with unknown impacts. But, yes, hierarchies of project managers, activities [and] particular cultures in which developer-engineering laissez-faire practices dominate, and practices such as PFI [private finance initiative] have eroded the traditional status of the architect.

CL: What's your opinion of the design and construction work going on in London at the moment?

LB: In its worst aspect, insufficiently controlled by planning legislation, [what you get is] the proliferation of luxury housing high-rises, with a mix of ill-conceived vanity projects, and not yet an innovative action plan for expanding housing tenure to affordable and co-housing solutions. There are also some embattled schemes such as Bishopsgate Goodsyard, the story of which unfolding in the media tells us that developers may increasingly have a fight with the community if they disrespect cultural context, local needs and heritage.

"In the aftermath of the Olympics, there should be higher confidence about realising new schemes that are also popular with the public."

Imaginative solutions continue to appear, often at the micro-scale. And in the aftermath of the Olympics, there should be higher confidence about realising new schemes that are also popular with the public. All the Labour candidates for Mayor of London had detailed and credible plans - let's hope now that Sadiq Khan, the official Labour candidate, can beat [Conservative mayoral candidate] Zac Goldsmith and then strengthen the Mayor's powers to put a badly needed affordable housing plan into action.

CL: With the gap between construction projects and the needs of local people seemingly growing, how can architects and designers help to democratise the process?

LB: Engaging in participatory design and placemaking, so that newer models of
practice are tested and become better known.

CL: In the piece you wrote for Guardian Cities in March you mentioned "outdated legislation" - could you elaborate on that?

LB: I am against modernist zoning, a commercial practice introduced in the 20th century, as it is divisive, no longer needed for much of today's industry 4.0, and serves to perpetuate old models of car-domination and monocultural tenures of land.