Which of course it wasn’t, at least not quite. The task of building, let alone rebuilding the whole of Manchester in plasticine in 12 hours was always going to be a challenge even with the help of more than 40 architecture students from Manchester School of Architecture. However we did build a huge model and the process did reveal some truths about how cities are built through collaborative action and how futile it is to pretend that any one person can control the process.
‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was a A project to make and re-make Manchester in 12 hours. This was part of a project called Urban Future, Human Future that evolved from a series of discussions between Mike Mayhew (artist), Stefan White (architect and academic), Jenny Savage (artist), Steve Potter (psycologist and academic) and myself. The discussions took place under the umbrella of the wider 12.12.12 Humanity project facilitated by Mike Mayhew included a series of activities across Manchester on 12th December 2012.
‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was not an urban design exercise, an urban strategy session or a public consultation. The aim was not to model a utopian future for the city, such futures are always doomed to failure (or worse still to being taken seriously). The model instead sought to explore what it means to be human and how we as humans collaborate with each other at the scale of the city.
Victor Hugo described the city as a ‘self made tapestry’ created from ‘successive evaporations of human society’. If the city as an artefact is a physical representation of human relationships, then the shape of the city, its beauty or ugliness, might say something about the society that it houses. Are the car-based, out-of town, business-park and suburban estate cities of the modern age representations of the atomised society in which we live in which the largest unit of human interaction is the ‘hard working family’? On the other hand might the historic cities that we love to visit say something about a time when units of human interaction as communities also existed at the scale of the neighbourhood, town and city?
If this is true there must be a process by which the nature of human society shapes the city in which it lives. We assume, because cities are human constructs, that they have been designed. The professions of architecture, planning and urban design are based on this idea. There is however another way of looking at cities; as places that have grown. As soon as you introduce the idea of growth you open up the field of complexity theory, in which a simple set of rules over a long period of time can create hugely complex patterns and shapes. This further links to the idea of emergence in which order starts to resolve out of this complexity – a theory that makes the city the human equivalent of the termite mound or ant colony.
‘Wasn’t built in a day’ was an attempt to explore this process. The model was built over twelve hours, the first six concentrating on building the city as it is today, and the second half looking at how it could change. Built at a scale of 1:1250 the model was around 7m square and, as we have said, was built out of plasticine (in fact it was built out of Newplast, which is what we all think of as plasticine even if the lovely people at New Clay Products, who sponsored the event, no longer own the trade mark). At this scale a single strip of Newplast is the equivalent of a two storey building and the model uses grey for the existing buildings and red for the interventions. Many of the architecture students had been working with local communities across the city on masterplans for their neighbourhoods, which they transposed onto the model in the second part of the exercise. You might have supposed that this would have imposed some order on the chaotic model of the existing city – if so you would have been wrong.
At URBED we use Newplast all the time in our work. For more than ten years we ran training courses for the Glasshouse Foundation and the National Tenants Resource Centre in Chester. Local community groups who were facing the prospect of their estate being redeveloped would come on a three-day residential course and we would teach them masterplanning. The aim was for them to understand the process and the concepts of urban design so that they were better equipped to negotiate with architects working on the masterplan for their estate. The third day of the course was spent building a Newplast masterplan of their estate. We would have people from up to six estates on each of these courses and, over the years, have overseen the making of around 100 of these models. In most cases something happened at the moment when we brought out the Newplast – something we came to call the ‘plasticine moment’ (with scant regard for New Clay’s trademark). The smell of the clay as we unwrapped the packets would transport people back to their childhoods. Battle-hardened council tenants from some of the country’s roughest inner city estates would start to… there’s no other word for it… play.
The process of building a model with Newplast is very collaborative. There is no one person holding the pen as happens when you draw a plan and as a result everyone feels able to get involved. The clay is malleable and movable, you can try things out and scrunch them up if they don’t work, you can make suggestions, discuss, amend and agree. We have had groups of tenants of all ages working along side their housing and planning officer, local councillor, vicar and sometimes even occasionally their architect, all pitching in to create a masterplan for their estate (even if their contribution is just confined to modelling a giant Godzilla to tower over the local park).
So successful was this process that we started to use it for consultation rather than just as a training tool. The first time we did so, in the Wernerth neighbourhood of Oldham, it was with some trepidation. We worried that local people would see it as too frivolous an exercise for the serious business of creating a plan for a neighbourhood that would involve homes being demolished. But we needn’t have worried, the ‘plasticine moment’ had the same effect and somehow the process of play created exactly the right atmosphere to deal with the serious issues we needed to address. Since that time we have run the ‘Design for Change’ process (as we call it) all over the country and there are only two occasions where it has not worked: East Ketley in Telford and Kirkolt in Rochdale – but those are stories for another day.
The thing about the ‘Design for Change’ process is that the masterplans that emerge are really good – sometimes so good that they cause us urban designers to question what we actually bring to the process. If we can teach a group of local people with no professional training to produce plans this competent in just three days then what value our own professional training? Many times we have been able to photograph the model and transcribe it directly onto a masterplanning drawing. The irony is that, easy as these local people seem to find masterplanning, it is something that still eludes many architects. It is amazing how talented creative architects can completely miss the point when working on a masterplan. They overcomplicate things, tie themselves in knots and get things wrong.
Which brings us back to the ‘Wasn’t built in a day’ model. The process of creating a model like this tells us something about why tenants find the process so much easier than architects and planners. One of the ways to understand this is the DIY analogy. When my architect friends do a DIY project they plan it in advance – they draw a plan, work out the construction details, buy the right materials in the correct quantities and build it as they originally conceived it. I don’t work this way. My DIY projects may start with a plan, but only one in my head. I use whatever materials I have to hand, which I add to with occasional trips to the DIY store. I will decide on each stage of the work, only after I have completed the previous stage stepping back to decide whether what I have done works. This is not necessarily an approach to DIY that I would recommend – it is wasteful and inefficient and the results are uncertain. However the aesthetics of my projects are quite different to those of my architect friends. The architect-design projects tend to bring order to the domestic environment, whereas mine add complexity and end up with juxtapositions of materials and forms that I could never have planned in advance.
The point, of course, is that cities are built by a process more similar to my haphazard DIY technique. Cities may be designed, but they are designed one site at a time and the designers of each site don’t know how the neighbouring or preceding sites will be designed. Instead they stand back, look at what has been built and decide how to add to it. As such cities grow by a process of accretion and, just as with the ‘Wasn’t built in a day’ model, the end result of this accretion is unpredictable and arguably unplannable. Because this is a process that takes place over time the incremental decisions of each generation reflect their ideas of society and how its members live together. This is how Hugo’s ‘successive evaporations of human society’ are crystallised in city form.
All of this is an oversimplification, of course, planning does take place on a city-wide scale. Plans are drawn and policies are written that shape the process of city growth. The grid of Manhattan or the boulevards of Paris were designed and have shaped the growth of their cities. City ordinances and planning policies have also placed restrictions on the buildings that have been built in these cities. But this doesn’t contradict the idea that these cities have still grown into their grids and boulevards by a process of accretion: That this process of accretion carries within it the imprint of the society in which it was created; and that the end result of this accretion is unpredictable. All cities are a combination of planned and natural growth and it is the process of natural growth that is least well understood. The act of building a Newplast model of the city somehow mirrors this process and helped us understand a little more how it works.