Climax City

Random writing on cities


Climax City Book

The Climax City Book is now out! Together with Shruti Hemani, I have spent the last five years working on a series of large scale, some might say obsessive, hand drawn plans of cities across the world. Initially the idea was to produce an urban atlas. However as the project progressed, the maps developed a hypothesis based on what they were learning through the process of drawing these maps. Climax City, published by RIBA publishing is the result.

There will be a series of book launches over the next few months including the following events with Shruti, who is travelling to the UK from her home in Jaipur:

Nottingham Urban Room Tuesday 1st of October

University of Manchester Wednesday 2nd of October

Manchester School of Architecture Thursday 3rd of October

RIBA Portland Place London Tuesday 8th of October

In addition to this I will be talking about the book at the following events: 

The Therapeutic City Festival in Bath on 27th September

Ceramics Biennial, Spode Works Stoke Saturday 12th October.

York Design week Tuesday 29th of October



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The Offenbach Block

URBED were recently invited to take part in the Architektursommer Rhein-Main Lab involving 8 architecture and design practices from across Europe*. This culminated in a week long residency in a temporary pavilion in Goetheplatz in the centre of Frankfurt. The film of the installation can be seen here.

Frankfurt is actually a conurbation of six cities and, on the southern bank of the River Main, lies the City of Offenbach. This once the focus of the city’s Jewish community and is now home to a large Arab community. People in Frankfurt told us that we should be careful when walking its streets but, as people who have lived all of our lives in the cities of Northern England it didn’t seem very threatening. OFF context

We became fascinated by the large urban blocks of Offenbach enclosed by a grid of streets but retaining the older geometry of field boundaries and plot divisions from a time when the area was rural. These messy urban blocks stood in contrast to the looming presence of the European Central Bank being constructed over the river. The Offenbach blocks were full of life, ringed with shops and cafes below apartments housing a wide range of people. Deep within the blocks could be found all manner of activities, workshops and garages, artists studios and warehouses all alongside more housing. It seemed to us, as outsiders, that this was the interesting part of the city, and was likely to be where new ideas, creativity and start-up businesses would emerge, rather than the shiny towers of the banks and corporate offices. The Offenbach Block was the building-block of the creative city.

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The Offenbach Block (illustration Ste Garlick)

In her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs said something like ‘you can only have new ideas in old buildings’. New buildings are too expensive and tightly controlled, you have to sign up to long leases and you can’t make a noise or a mess. Old buildings, by contrast, paid for themselves years ago, they are cheap, flexible, relaxed and you can occupy them on easy in-out terms if your idea doesn’t quite work out.

This is true in Frankfurt/Offenbach as it is in our home town of Manchester and particularly the city’s Northern Quarter where URBED has its studio. The block structure of Manchester, made up of former textile mills and is very different to Offenbach but it serves a similar function. Old building provide cheap, low-commitments space for people and businesses trying new ideas and the old warehouses have filled with architects, designers and other creatives alongside the remaining wholesale clothing retailers and scores of bars and cafes at street level. The problem in Manchester as with Frankfurt,  is that there is precious little of this type of space left. It has been squeezed out by the corporate city centre, new residential schemes, fancy refurbishments and suburban areas of industry and housing.  MAN context

In the modern world of tech start-ups and the weightless economy cities have become reliant on their creative class. Those that can foster a strong counterculture and a diverse economy of creative business will become magnets of young people, energy and investment. This has profound implications for the way that we plan cities, places that were once dismissed as ghettos or backwaters could become more important than shiny business parks and office blocks. The Offenbach block or the Northern Quarter block could be the building block of a whole new economy.

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The former textile warehouses around URBED’s studio in Manchester  (illustration by Ste Garlick)


* Recently in this context is a relative term – we were initially involved in ASRM In 2014 and the installation took place in December 2105. It just takes me a long time to put things up on this blog.

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As part of the installation in December 2015 we built a large plasticine model with the people of Frankfurt. This was done over three days and can be seen in the film of the event

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We built the model with quite a lot of help in a temporary pavilion designed by the architect Ian Shaw (who practices in Frankfurt but comes originally from Manchester)  

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The URBED/Rudlin team: Ste Garlick, Sam Atkinson, Nan Wang and Helene, Jonah and David Rudlin  


When Nan returned a week later she found that the people of Frankfurt had added to the model!

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Cycling around Paris

In March this year I was invited to speak at a conference in Paris. It wasn’t an unqualified success, there being no translator and my French being fine for chatting in a bar but not really up to presenting at a conference. However the nice people at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville agreed to pay for my hotel for a second night giving me a whole day to myself with the city to explore with the help of a vélib. The notes below are transcribed from my note book and were written in a bar just outside Gare De l’Est. The maps are from the sequence that we are producing for the Climax City Project.

Figure Ground Plan of Paris – Drawn 2011 for the Climax City Project


A March saturday in Paris, unseasonably warm, taking full advantage of the Pari-bike scheme to undertake a bit of psycho-urbanism. Starting from Montparnasse and travelling via the Eiffel Tower to the Bois de Bologne then back across south of Sacré-Coeur to the Grand Boulevards and St. Denis. Then weaving through the tourist crowds across Île de la Cité to the Rive Gauche and back up the hill to Montparnasse. A route that I will measure on Google Earth when I get back to an affordable Internet connection (15 miles). The first thing you notice when cycling in Paris is that it is really quite hilly, there is a third dimension that doesn’t come out in the urban design analysis. The Arc de Triomphe sits on top of a hill that is really quite steep when you approach it from the river – must try and get a contour plan to add to our mapping.

The other thing that you notice is how absolutely beautiful it is! It is no false claim to to say that it is the most beautiful city in the world, but less easy to work out quite why this is. As you cycle around you constantly come upon set pieces that have been planned – the vista along a boulevard, the six pointed Étoile, the formal park or promenade. But the city’s beauty lies in the interaction between these set pieces and the organic chaos of the older city which reasserts itself around every corner. The European norm is for a dense organic old town and a modern (relatively speaking) brash extension of avenues and Boulevards. Barcelona and Milan are particularly stark examples, but this arrangement is the norm in many continental cities where the old town was extended to create a new planned district. Freed from the restrictions of existing buildings and ownerships these ‘new towns’ are grandiose and impressive but they don’t have the richness of Paris.

In Paris generation after generation of urban designers have tried to impose order on the unruly city. They have sliced it up with new streets straight as a die, radiating from grand six pointed junctions (les Étoile), squares and parks. Some schemes have failed like the great masterplan for Temple that Eric Hazan describes in his book The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps although echoes of these plans can still be found if you know where to look, as Hazan does, in the angle of a street or the position of a small square. However many of the plans were realised by fiat of King or Emperor and still have the power to take your breath away when a vista suddenly opens up. The city is a collection of these set pieces, rather than a coherent plan, and within a few footsteps of the grandest formal urban composition can be found a tight medieval street that predates it all.

We have this idea that it was Haussmann who masterplanned Paris, but in fact he was just one of a long line of a planners who have sought to put their stamp on the city. They take their place alongside those who built Paris’s five sets of walls, the engineers who cut her canals and the paysagistes who laid out her parks. London is a similar mix of the planned and the organic but in the chaotic free market (if you are French) freedom and democracy (if you are American) of London the organic generally wins. The unstoppable force of the market and the inalienable rights of land owners have thwarted attempts at grand planning line Wren’s masterplan for London after the Great Fire. Further more, when grand planning was tried, be it in Bloomsbury or Knightsbridge, which were laid out on estates at the edge of the city, they were designed in an anti-grandiose fashion, grandiosity being very un-English.

So London is an organic informal city for all its planning, while Barcelona and New York are planned cities for all their riotous growth. Paris by contrast stands at a point of balance between the organic and the planned. Its effortless urban set pieces took great effort to impose on the unruly city. They required the power of a centralised state – absolute monarchy or emperor – set against a teaming riotous urban population. Not necessarily a model to be emulated but the formula for a beautiful city.

Paris at three scales: A Trellis plan (left) with a 10km circle, the 2km Figure Ground Plan (centre) and an 800m Tissue Plan (right).
Below – Paris as it would have been if Le Corbusier had seen his plans for the city realised