Book review: Identity By Design

Identity By Design
  Identity By Design

Published by Architectural Press, 2007

Why are all cities starting to look the same? That's a question increasingly being heard as the work of international design practices come There's an inevitable corollary to that question - what can we do to stop the 'clone town' phenomena - that is harder to find an answer to.

A new book sets out to tackle this important issue head on, Identity by Design, co-written by two academics based at the JCUD (Joint Centre for Urban Design) at Oxford Brookes University. They suggest that we need to think more carefully about what we mean by identity and how people identify with the places they live in.

The authors define what they mean by identity, 'a notoriously loose concept' early on in the book. 'We have found that when we get beneath the surface of what users say when they talk about a place's identity, they usually have in mind some sort of meaning the place has in terms of their own identity: how the place affects they way they conceive of themselves.'

To make this point, the authors use the example of two completely contrasting places, the Old Bridge in Mostar, and a modern estate in London, Angell Town. What do these two very different locations share? Residents of both lay claim to a sense of belonging, and a liking for these two places.

'It is the process of inhabiting that is important', the authors say. The factors involved are complex, and are not merely down to style and design. The way people move through and experience buildings is down to a mix of feelings and emotions, including smells, memories, activities.

A 'cultural landscape' provides a sense of permanence, and gives us roots in a society all of us are experiencing as increasingly vast and impersonal. Many people living in cities talk of facing loneliness and alienation, so 'where do we belong' becomes a very important question.

By finding out about identity, the authors argue, designers are then in a better position to work with communities on drawing up proposals for the new buildings and developments. Any designer asking 'what is my role in this?' needs to consider key issues. We need landscapes: - which support the greatest range of choices in people's everyday lives. - that support the construction of imagined communities. - to help us find ways of living together. - to live in harmony with nature.

The authors suggest that 'positive place identities' can best be created through an examination of case study examples. The book aims to offer 'a storehouse of ideas to help drive design thinking forwards'. Case studies are drawn from Prague, Ljubljana, Mexico, Bologna, Perugia, Malaysia, and Boston.

The wide range of locations show the differing roles that architecture, urban design and planning can play in creating a sense of identity. In mid century Prague, for example, then under the rule of the Hapsburg Empire, subordinate communities sought to find ways of creating a national identity. The community was a mixed one, consisting of a variety of religions and languages, so a common identity was forged from what they shared - the topography of the land, and the city's river location. The book describes the sequences of squares and city spaces were created, starting with Wenceslas Square and moving outwards

In subsequent chapters, they look at Ljubljana in Yugoslavia and the newly developing urban forms of Mexico. In both cases, the authors strive to show how new developments have links with culture, history and geography.

The Malaysia chapter is particularly interesting. Here is a rapidly developing country, where high rises dominate the skyline of capital city Kuala Lumpur, and new roads strangle it below. But, unlike China, there does seem to be some hope of local identity emerging.

In the 1980s, Ken Yeang's Tropical Verandah City proposed a new development, Malaysian style, with a system of arcaded, pedestrian walkways that echoes the traditional shophouses. Today the architect Jimmy Lim is developing a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Malay timber house and the idea of a tropic city.

Finding a way of assimilating the old and the new seems key here, and it does in many other places.

The books ends with a synthesis, an attempt to bring together the 'morphological' approach adopted in Perugia for example, with the more empirical approach adopted by the English-speaking world, which is less rooted in design theory.

This synthesis has led Butina Watson towards adopting the 'responsive environments' approach, developed by JCUD at Oxford Brookes University. The principles were outlined in the 1985 publication Responsive Environments, and a study of the pioneering scheme at Fobney Street in Reading, completed in 1986, shows how this approach can work in practical terms.

This network of Victorian houses had been cut off from the surrounding urban area by a major road. New speculative housing was planned. The project aimed to open the area up to the flow of people again, by creating new pedestrian spaces and networks to the rest of the town. Developers were also encouraged to build a variety of housing types.

In the authors' words, they describe this process:

'It is these morphological elements - topography and hydrology, linkage networks, blocks/patches, plots and buildings/shelters - which form the basic raw material of parts and wholes from which cultural landscapes are formed through design. In place-identity terms, the designer's task is to organise these elements and the relationships and interfaces between them, so as to foster positive support for our place-identity agenda: maximising choice, constructing the rootedness of imagined community, overcoming nostalgia, supporting a sense of transcultural inclusiveness and co-dwelling with the wider ecosphere, for as many users as possible.

'Using these ideas, we can range across our case studies to bring out a pattern of useful design principles, across all the morphological scales, which can help all designers crate the potential for positive place-identities: both at the practical level of how places are used, and at the symbolic level of their meanings.'

If you'd like to read more, you can find an extract published via the RUDI website chapter 8, which looks at the case study of Boston, USA.
Identity By Design
Fobney Colour Fobney Street, opening landmark views, and landmark bay window

Identity By Design
Key views identfied

Identity By Design
Preliminary street layout

Rudi Team