A man walks near the National Congress building, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, in the Ministries Esplanade in Brasilia December 6, 2012
Grand plan gone wrong: Brasilia © Reuters

In 1593, the Venetians decided to build a new city to celebrate victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto. A fortified city in the shape of a nine-pointed star with a piazza at its heart, Palmanova is the most complete realisation of a Renaissance obsession, the ideal city.

This was to be a place of equity, in which every citizen would have equal access to land and knowledge, and a place in which life would be enhanced by beauty and geometry. The dream was of craftsmen, farmers and merchants who would create a city of wealth and culture.

The trouble was, no one wanted to live there. The Venetians were very happy in their poky houses and dark alleyways. Venice was a place of beauty and ugliness, a place that, despite its curious location and liquid streets, remained a capital of culture.

But Palmanova’s vast central square has none of the vivacity of even the scrawniest Italian piazza. Instead, it is dead – too big, too sunny, too dull.

Building the ideal city has never been easy. The most successful cities seem to grow haphazardly. Whether it is the incessant transformations of London, the untrammelled upward extrusion of New York or the intimacy and accidental beauty of a Roman square, the cities most able to reinvent themselves have been those where no single vision has confined them.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. All those cities have in place a plethora of regulations and social constructs that govern their growth – they are hardly unplanned – but it is still striking how unsuccessful centrally planned cities have been.

This lack of success is important because the world is urbanising at an exponential rate and many of the cities we are building are effectively new. Even if their location has been dictated by the existence of a fishing village or trading post, their form is planned.

Many of the issues addressed by the winners of the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards are most applicable to cities that have grown organically – and their most unplanned extensions, the “informal settlements”, or slums. But they have important lessons for their planned counterparts.

The phenomenon of the grand new city tends to be associated with the desire to create a new capital or administrative centre, and the wish of statesmen, architects and planners to imbue the new city with meaning and symbolism.

Perhaps the most famous planned city is Brasília, built in the 1960s as a post-colonial capital to take over from Rio de Janeiro. The architecture of its administrative heart is among the finest design of the 20th century, yet as a city it does not cohere, and politicians and civil servants fly off to Rio or São Paulo as soon as the week finishes.

The city centre is a vast plain dotted with architectural monuments; the suburbs are dormitories with nothing to do. Ironically, the poorest parts of the city are the liveliest, with liveable niches, intimate streets and a human scale.

Scale, of course, is often the problem. In the search for grandeur, city builders often overdo the monumental. Washington’s Mall is an impressive space, but it is not really a park, street or square. The monumental concrete architecture of Chandigarh, a 1950s attempt to create a modern northern Indian provincial capital, is impressive but, as a city, not so much. Australia’s Canberra has elegant buildings, but it is hardly a destination.

China is planning new cities on a vast scale. Many might appear a little bleak, yet the authorities have been careful in installing infrastructure, transport, green space and often surprisingly fine avenues and ambitious streets. The buildings may be second-rate, but perhaps the next generation of architects will do better. If the bones are good the city can still work.

In condemning planned cities we often do not give them time to take root. The world’s favourite cities – London, New York, Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Venice, Rome – have been around for centuries, if not millennia; a city takes time to mature. That planned cities are not doomed to failure is testified by some wonderful successes.

Lisbon, for instance, was entirely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1755. Philadelphia was laid out in a grid in 1682, later expanded by William Penn, who laid the foundations for the wide streets and open spaces that have made it such an enduringly successful city.

The grid, the most seemingly inhuman and rational of town planning systems, has proved to be one of the most adaptable systems for the successful city. In New York it allowed the extraordinary growth of the city into a coherent yet flexible place and the regeneration of many US downtowns after decades of flight to the suburbs has demonstrated its resilience and relevance.

One cannot say the planned city is less successful than the unplanned, as almost all cities are planned in some way. But what is certain is that planning is a fashion based on taste and technology. Suburbs and exurbs on the US model, now almost universally adopted, rely on the ubiquity of personal transport and cheap fuel. Grids depend on contemporary building techniques that might seem hopelessly outdated in a century.

Some contemporary planners have turned to New Urbanism, a movement that attempts to emulate the picturesque qualities of historic cities with their walkable centres and leafy, winding residential streets. But there is a certain lack of vision in these, a surrendering to the qualities of an imagined history.

The biggest successes are often the most surprising. Take Tokyo. Its architecture is a mess: buildings are almost exclusively short-termist garbage, based on fashion and squeezing maximum floor areas into often tiny sites. Yet the result is a city of almost unparalleled invention and vibrancy.

Or take a hillside Latin American favela. Housing conditions may be execrable, yet in their unplanned growth they have often produced streetscapes as intriguing and complex as any in medieval Italy.

That these are slowly being gentrified (notably in Brazil) under the guise of slum clearance (but actually because they are well-sited and often strikingly beautiful) is an indictment of the planning of big cities such as Brasília or the overscaled chaos of São Paulo.

What we should learn from the historical dialogue between the planned and unplanned is that, extraordinarily, we have learnt nothing. Planning is hit and miss, and often the finest cities emerge from the temporary and extemporised, or the rational and the abstract. We can set out to create a great city, but only history will confirm our success.

Get alerts on when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section