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

Island Hopping

Lanzarote may not seem an obvious spiritual companion for the Hebridean Isle of Islay. One is known for harsh volcanic landscapes bathed in year round sun, the other for windswept northern beauty and distinctive whiskies. Ending a week in Lanzarote on Sunday, I was on Islay by Monday, working on our master plan for extending the original planned village at Bowmore. However, Urban Animation isn’t the only connection between these two distant places.

Both are remotely located and depend on strategic transport links. Both have visitor economies, driven by climate in Lanzarote, distilleries and ornithology in Islay (booze ‘n’ birds to our tabloid readers). Both have a preponderance of whitewashed buildings reflecting vernacular style to varying degrees. Both have developed under the influence of innovative planning regimes.

Local artist and designer Cesar Manrique is credited with thwarting the worst tourist excesses by promoting a low rise development policy and design code in Lanzarote. Building form, finish and colour display an unusual unity. But it’s not all good news. The boom is well and truly bust and large scale development has exposed terminal flaws in the code.

The result is a suburban wasteland of vacant villas with the odd expat leading an isolated existence in the relentless sunshine. The uninhabitable black lava fields are a backdrop to uninhabited rows of whitewashed holiday homes. Both are equally lifeless. In these bleak circumstances, the lesson that traditional coastal and rural villages are not characterised simply by their architecture, but by the manner in which their buildings relate to one another and the uses they host, seems almost secondary.

Islay has not experienced the same boom yet faces its own issues, including population decline, housing need and constrained transport links. Partly as a result of these stifling factors, the villages and landscape retain much of their unique identity – most of the Islay villages are original planned settlements with a distinctive building typology and urban form. This slower rate of change on Islay has fostered indigenous growth, where people and places adapt to changing circumstances over a period of time.

We hope to provide a framework within which organic and sustainable growth can flourish at Bowmore. We also hope the sun shines while we’re doing it.

“This island is almost made of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish in Great Britain at the same time.” Aneurin Bevan, 18 May 1945

Richard Heggie