Urban design physician

Architects can transform the way that cities look and work if they are prepared to set aside their personal prejudices and talk to the people, US design doyen Ray Gindroz tells Huw Morris.

Howard Roark, the antihero of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, epitomises the architect with a huge ego. His uncompromising motto is: "Do it my way or not at all." As a pioneer of public participation in neighbourhood planning, Ray Gindroz is the polar opposite of this fictional monster.

"The idea that the architect knows better and has a vision that everyone else must fit into has been the single most destructive element in architecture of the past 60 years," says the co-founder of Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates. "It is close to leading to the end of architecture as a profession because we find that communities are increasingly organised to resist such intervention."

Not that Gindroz is against the iconic architect or strong personality who invents new forms. "Let's keep them in places that we visit rather than places we live," he argues. "The places we visit should be comfortable not just physically but psychologically. They must feel like expressions of the traditions and physical qualities of the place, the environment, the region and the neighbourhood."

He points to London's Regent Street or Venice's Piazza San Marco as outstanding examples of this. "They have to strike the right balance between uniformity and individuality. There is a certain amount of controlled form on a large scale to create the urban and civil spaces that everyone in the community and people coming to visit can identify."

Inspired by these ideals, Gindroz is now leading the rediscovery of pattern books, which, he admits, most of the world has forgotten about. Pioneered by Vitruvius in the Rome of Augustus Caesar, pattern books guide the layout of towns and harmonise buildings to try to create "an environment in which standards, proportions, shapes and forms please a broad group of people". Palladio was a leading exponent during the Renaissance and Thomas Cubitt used pattern books to build the Georgian estates of Belgravia and Pimlico.

Gindroz has now written a book about them for the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment. "A distinction must be made between the fabric buildings of cities and the landmark objects that are in them," he argues. "The landmarks are where the superstar architect comes in, whereas fabric buildings need one whose ego is subsumed in the process of engaging with a place."

Pattern books essentially set the parts and pieces that make up the pattern and show how to use them when creating buildings, Gindroz explains. They were popular in 19th century North America but disappeared with the onset of the depression in the 1930s and modernism. "Architects lost interest in production values and thus pattern books. Housing developments became heroic complexes, most of which have now been blown up," he observes.

His book describes pattern books using the metaphor of a 1950s toy, Mr Potatohead. This included a variety of facial features that children could stick onto a potato to show different personalities. In a pattern book, these correspond to different parts of a "production house". Windows or doors are standardised but available in different forms, while elements such as dormer windows or porches can be applied later. "The production house is the box, the part that needs to be standardised is the 'potato', but the face to the street represents diversity," says Gindroz.

"It is essential that communities are engaged in the design of pattern books," he adds. "All our information comes from conversations with the people who know a place best and care about it most. Architects are not always highly regarded by communities, but once you establish a personal relationship with them much of the suspicion goes away. You do it by asking simple questions about what they like and dislike about the place and what they see as the most important thing to do."

Gindroz is a firm believer that neighbourhood and housing design affects the stability and life of the community. Diggs Town in Norfolk, Virginia, was one hellhole where this approach worked. Like many US public housing projects, it was built as an institutional environment in the 1950s and became a byword for unemployment, crime and decay.

"It was a wreck. Drug gangs had taken over the public space and the project consisted of barrack-type buildings," Gindroz recalls. "We engaged with the residents, who were terrified of the activities outside and felt trapped inside their houses. They told us they would like porches, so they could come out of their houses, see each other and be together."

Streets were created in the common areas to give each home an address. Fences were added to define front gardens and secure those to the rear. Within six months, the effects were noticeable. Shootings were down from two or three a night to two or three a month. The community regained confidence and self-esteem. Children's performances at school improved dramatically. People started taking part in job training and educational programmes.

Within two years, the drug gangs had gone. The local police chief commented that the mere presence of flowers in front gardens told gangs that this was no place to do business and that residents had taken back control. Diggs Town was no longer a project but a neighbourhood. "This is urban acupuncture," Gindroz concludes. "You find the simple things you need to do and then do them."

The Place of Dwellings is available from The Prince's Foundation, £12, tel 020 7613 8500.

Age: 68
Family: Married with one daughter
Education: BArch and MArch, Carnegie Mellon University; diploma, Centro
per gli Studi di Architecture, Vicenza
Interests: Mary and Ray Gindroz Foundation, drawing, urbanism and music
2008: Chairman of board of directors, Congress for the New Urbanism
1999: Fellow, American Institute of Architects
1967: Urban design lecturer, Yale University
1964: Founder, Urban Design Associates

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