Instead of collaborating on a building during the mentoring year, Sir David Chipperfield and his Swiss protégé Simon Kretz decided to investigate how planning shapes a city and gives voice to the aspirations of its citizens.by Edwin Heathcote — January 2018
David Chipperfield and Simon Kretz are wandering the streets of Shoreditch, London. Passersby stop to look at the pair being filmed as they chat, a few appearing to recognize the older of the two besuited but tieless figures. He isn’t a local, but Sir David Chipperfield, one of Britain’s most successful architects, designer of internationally acclaimed buildings from Mexico City and St Louis to Wakefield and Tokyo. The other architect, slighter and younger, is Simon Kretz, urbanist, teacher and now Shoreditch flâneur.
A generation ago these streets were something of a no man's land, a marginal zone of abandoned industrial buildings and ruined railway arches. Today, that urban grit has been fiercely commodified. The graffiti on the brick hulks of a former existence are now a backdrop for London’s irrepressible real estate market to promote the neighbourhood’s authenticity.
The City of London is creeping east, enveloping Shoreditch, while the burgeoning digital economy is simultaneously colonizing the area, taking over the lofts and warehouses inhabited by the designers, artists and architects first to spot its potential. This churn, and the area’s status as a boundary between creative and disruptive economies and the global capital markets, gives it a special frisson, a sense that something is always happening here. And at its centre is a huge hole, the site once occupied by the Bishopsgate Goodsyard, the former railway yards that have festered in a neighbourhood otherwise transformed into an investment asset.
Kretz and Chipperfield are walking the streets because this rupture in the urban fabric is the site they have chosen for their collaboration. Most architects would have chosen to work on a building that could be realized and displayed, something tangible. Kretz and Chipperfield have opted for something more cerebral, more political, which has the potential for a far-ranging impact. It is what you might call slow architecture. They have chosen to work theoretically, but with a real piece of city, to examine the proposals for this chunk of landscape and how the processes, legislation and capital forces that have led to this point might be changed.
“Architecture,” Kretz says, “is a slow process. A building might take seven or eight years from beginning to completion. We only have a few months, so we were thinking how we could best use that time. And it was in thinking about the way the city works. This is really about the complexity of the city. It’s about the moment you put the fork in the spaghetti.”
To some extent, their project is a comparison between planning in the UK and in Switzerland, but if that makes it sound highly specialized and technocratic, that is certainly not the intention. “We wanted to look at city planning,” Chipperfield says, “and understand what aspects of it are cultural or economic. We wanted to understand whether any of that knowledge is transferable. The Swiss have been at one end of the scale, very serious, with a large public sector and where planning is a respectable and respected career. In London everything is driven by the private sector and planning is reactive. Has either system produced great architecture? What has made London such a ‘hot’ city?”
Comparing the two systems means Kretz can be treated as an equal, despite their vastly different experiences. If a mentorship can be affected by the huge asymmetry between individuals – the star and the student – here each architect is a representative of his respective culture, but each is trying to learn from the other.
The young Swiss architect was born in Fribourg, then studied at Zurich’s renowned ETH (where he now teaches) and runs two practices, one predicated on planning. Chipperfield comes up against planning every day of his working life, but as an architect trying to intervene in cities all over the world. Between them, somewhere, is a syncretic view of how the system works, and how it might work better.
We wanted to look at city planning and understand what aspects of it are cultural or economic.
“We used Bishopsgate,” Kretz says, “to see if you could apply a Swiss system to London and, if you did, how would it measure up against the criteria here? Would it be economically viable? We wouldn’t want to say that the Swiss do it better, but rather, what could you learn from how they do things?”
Both Chipperfield and Kretz are keen to stress that while this seems a slightly technocratic endeavour, it is, at heart, about people and communities. “Planning,” Kretz says, “and the way planning processes are orchestrated, have a profound influence on the physical and social form of cities, of how we live and perceive our daily environment. Planning is the DNA of cities. Even non-planning is a form of planning.”
The collaboration started around the time that the UK decided to leave the European Union, apparently out of a sense of disconnection from power, a gap Brussels came to represent. When the two architects first met, in the autumn of 2016, this momentous event informed their initial conversations about what could be done to make citizens more active in the processes that inform the rapid changes in cities.
Through the process, the architects have developed a bond, discussing how things could be made better, in both countries. How does Chipperfield feel about his role as mentor? “Well, how does one mentor? It’s commonly a master and student relationship, but this is something else and, in my experience, the best relationships are always based on mutual discussion: what common territory might we find?
“In some ways it might be easier in performance; think of music or dance where there is a common performative element. This is more like what you have with film-makers, where each visits the other’s set.”
Kretz agrees, and relates how he is following the project through with his students at the ETH, so that the questions and the ideas are allowed “to ripple through the world of the Swiss students and develop a life of their own beyond the immediate mentor and protégé”.
He is enthusiastic about the outcome of discussions. “The comparison has given me a totally new view of our system [in Switzerland] and it has enabled us to bring two cultures together. It has made me understand what planning is essentially about.”
Chipperfield elaborates: “We’re comparing two extremes. We’re pitting the Swiss, probably the most protected planning system, against the UK’s, the least protected. In the UK, the building is seen as a product. In Switzerland it is seen as part of a city.”
“On the other hand,” adds Kretz, “in Zurich there is no real momentum for great stuff. Everything is so debated and discussed, the big, extreme projects just don’t get built.”
Summing up, Chipperfield says, “The debate is about what a building can contribute to the city. People feel that the city is something that happens to them, a process in which they have no voice.”
And that is the crux of the matter. How can citizens be empowered amid the constant renewal of the fabrics that form the cities in which they live? To what extent can they be involved in the complexities of planning, and to what extent can people avoid becoming disaffected and feeling ignored, a strong theme in the present political turmoil in Europe. It is, in a way, a struggle for equity, with the city as the commons.
Public engagement is underestimated, but crucial for our urban future.
“Planning,” says Chipperfield, “gives a glimpse of what a future society can be,” though Kretz adds a note of caution: “The actual planning processes in most cities are far from perfect; most foster frustration and confrontation.”
Does Kretz believe the project has lived up to expectations? “It’s already been a huge influence,” he enthuses. “It’s about the architecture of thought rather than just the architecture itself. We have also reached conclusions. Planning does matter – it has great influence in the way we live our lives. It has to relate individual development potentials with a collectively shared vision. It is, therefore, of public interest.”
And his conclusion? “Public engagement is underestimated, but crucial for our urban future and the credibility of cities and their politics.
The British architect, meanwhile, has benefited in a somewhat surprising manner from the London-versus-Zurich comparison. The seemingly ponderous, bureaucratic but impeccably democratic Swiss process apparently proves not only more effective and efficient, but faster. For all the bluster about London’s hothouse environment, its flash towers and its skyscape of cranes, the subject of their study, Bishopsgate Goodsyard, is still mired in inaction, while the Zurich counterpart they have chosen (a site likewise beside the city’s main railway station) is becoming a sophisticated reality. It is a paradigm Chipperfield feels he can use in the struggle to make his home city’s system more accountable and urbane. “Now we can point to this study to explain how a system in which planners have more power might work.
“Architects have become increasingly marginalized. We’ve become complicit in the system and a kind of caricature. In particular, this idea of the ‘starchitect’, which has become the emblem of our profession. As I get older I realize I’ve become less interested in the buildings and more interested in the cities they’re in and how we design them.”
Chipperfield and his protégé are now planning to write a book together describing the results of their investigation. It is a fitting way to end what has been a complex and fruitful year of mentoring.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic of the Financial Times. He is an architect, the author of over a dozen books and the editor of online design writing archive readingdesign.org.