Autumn 2006

Urban brands

New Design Cities


Edited by Marie-Josée Lacroix
Designed by Orangetango, Montréal
Infopresse / Editions Pyramyd, .15, €27.50

New Design Cities, a product of the 2004 Montreal symposium, is a dense compendium of design initiatives in seven self-appointed ‘new design cities’: Antwerp, Glasgow, Lisbon, Montréal, Saint-Etienne, Stockholm and New York’s Times Square. Each city is presented by enthusiastic promotion and planning professionals.

The contributors view design both as a route to prosperity and as the means with which to achieve a pleasant urban environment. Architecture, urban, interior, industrial and graphic design are all key areas where public and private, economic and social needs apparently merge seamlessly. Impressive architectural projects, education programmes, institutes and design biennials are all documented.

Some of the seven claim historical roots as design cities – Saint-Etienne boasts the craftsmanship of its industrial heritage, Antwerp was home to Rubens. However, the design city does not just ooze good taste and style. ‘Design. . . must be a method, a mode, a path, but never a goal.’ There is no triumph ‘if most of the residents cannot take part in this transformation’ (Professor van der Brempt). Glasgow’s transformation is, according to Lighthouse director Stuart Macdonald, ‘one of the biggest urban ground shifts in history’. Without investment in design, he says, the city is ‘unimaginable’, but the way forward is ‘investing in people and not iconic projects.’

If social inclusion is indeed an essential component of design cities, then the book fails to illustrate it other than in terms of political will. John Thackara’s ‘Creativity in the City’, the liveliest of three contextual pieces that to some extent politicise the whole theme, points to the essential contradiction of trying to plan for creativity, as encouraged by the influential Richard Florida in American cities. Exciting creative urban spaces are usually those where human energy thrives.

Brian Collins, of Ogilvy and Mather, responsible for rebranding Times Square, returns us to the architects. ‘I’d like to challenge architects to propose more messiness . . . those things that are people-scaled, lively and inspire spontaneous human contact.’ And, in fact, typically soft planning initiatives seem to be the most widely appreciated – the use of light, water, green space, gardens, etc. Whatever the ambitions of the city-makers, it seems that some of the best-loved urban spaces are those least obtrusively designed.