Human Being Meets Vitruvian Man

VitruvianManThanks to recent changes in the Scottish Planning System, us planners, urban designers and architects are desperately seeking public consultation experience to pack into our CVs. Evidence from a recent RTPI Urban Design Forum event in Edinburgh suggests best practice is still evolving!

Spare a thought for the victims of our efforts to persuade, cajole and inform – local people, or ‘stakeholders’ as they are now known. The term brings to mind a mob of raging peasants with sharpened sticks, spiking the souls out of the vampiric demons who would suck their blood dry. On reflection, that sounds like some of the consultation events I’ve attended….

Hopefully our efforts can create enough local warmth to allow us to take off our anoraks. The nerdy professional catchwords I fall back upon include –

Settlement – your home town or village;
Units – homes for people to live in;
Building Typology – what your house looks like;
Cul de Sac – where your house is (but don’t expect more culs de sac);
Development Plan – the “Da Vinci Code” with the story removed.
Let’s set Dan Brown to one side but stick with his muse. Da Vinci illuminated the ideas of Vitruvius through his iconic 1487 sketch ‘Vitruvian Man’, uniting geometric and human proportion. This concept, along with others like the ’golden section’ studied by our old school friend Pythagoras, underlies the design of many of our buildings and places – at least the traditional ones.

Anyone can appreciate the Vitruvian Man because he’s a human being and we all understand squares and circles. The trouble is, when we unleash our lovingly nurtured plans, sections and axonometrics upon the public, they may have little understanding of the three dimensional implications. Let’s face it, even as professionals we’re still surprised at the physical consequences of our visions. Sometimes even pleasantly surprised.

Da Vinci wrestled with upright human proportion and the translation of its geometric beauty into movement and perspective. He sought to resolve this in his sketches and paintings. Unlike the rest of us, he was a genius. How can we explain our own illustrations to local people, so they grasp the nature of the question they are being asked? If we allow our proposals to grow from their local context, that might give us a head start in explaining where we are and where we’re heading. You might call that ‘townscape analysis and design philosophy’ at your next consultation event.

“The story we tell is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense.” Tom Hanks, promoting ‘The Da Vinci Code‘ movie, 2006.

Richard Heggie