As much as we may want to believe that the city is an autonomous work of art, architecture the mother of urban design, and architects and planners the designers of the urban environment, all who have tried to design an actual city know these are fictions. The goal of this session is to explore how urban theory challenges the place and practice of urban design as well as some of the conundrums which arise when theory overwhelms the experience gleaned from everyday life. In this short introduction, I will attempt to clarify definitions of culture and theory, and relate them to concepts of urban design.

At first glance, theory, like culture, challenges urban design because its rhetoric and practices, when set within the context of the pluralistic city, diminish the need for design or designers to shape the meaning of place. In a city such as Los Angeles, where many are unemployed, the environment is fouled and civil unrest lurks beneath the surface, priority for the physical design of the city is minimized. The body politic believes that more pressing issues exist. In spite of limited design successes, many of which are on view in MOCA’s galleries (Urban Revisions Exhibit, 1994?), urban design is typically the frosting on the cake of a larger and more politicized city-building process where the architect or planner is little more than a spectator. However, if urban design is defined as a practice of city making which straddles cultural and theoretical practices, perhaps a more empowering role for the urban designer can be staked out. To do this one must first distinguish the meaning and place of culture and theory, and only then define the place of urban design in relation to both.

First, culture: typically defined as the ideas, skills, arts, etc., of a given people in a given period, the concept of culture also suggests “nurturing” (as in cultivation), as well as that leap of faith associated with strong beliefs and cult worship. What is common to all of these definitions is acceptance of the idea that knowledge is generated from direct experience and wisdom of daily life gleaned from social intercourse. Hence, the form of the city is primarily nurtured by and responsive to cultural voices and customs that are everywhere around us.

From the perspective of the urban design and planning professions, which privilege specialized knowledge and techniques, one might say that culture and its many sub-cultures challenge from below. One tactic towards an empowering urban design practice is for the designer to more actively embrace the sub-cultural voices of the city and to propose forms that allow the expression of those voices. On the other hand, a myopic culturalism can quickly lead to localisms that exclude full participation in the activity and design of the city. Theory can at times serve as a buffer to counteract this type of destructive separatism but in doing so challenges culture, as well as urban design, from above.

A theoretical perspective grants a contemplative and mental viewing of ideas without the necessity of social intercourse which culture suggests. Theory allows for clear statements of principles and the creation of interpretive and speculative frameworks describing phenomena that may transcend the daily experience of life. The revelatory possibility of urban theory, however, is abstract in comparison to a strictly cultural perspective. Theory requires a distanced view and only becomes pro-active when revealed phenomena, which sometimes are not even visible to the persons effected, are manipulated. A conundrum for urban designers or planners exists when facile embracing of theoretical positions leads to formalisms distanced from the more immediate concerns of cultural practices. In reality, the urban designer’s or planner’s role in the making of the city is weakened when purely theoretical positions are taken without an understanding of cultural constrains.

San Fernando Valley, 1950

To move beyond the conundrum of being either too mass-oriented or too abstract to be relevant to the concerns of city -making, the urban designer and planner must fit directly within the concerns of the city as opposed to viewing them from either above or below. Perhaps it is best to think of urban design as the three-dimensional projection of critical discourse into the environment. That definition allows us to experience as physical design, for example, the Rodney King Civil Disturbances of 1992 as well as debates about fiscal policy or air quality. These situations become acts of city design due to the fact that the look, feel and experience of the city, its open spaces, as well as its individual buildings, are impacted. Without participation in these simultaneous conversations from above and below, the act of planning and designing the city is relegated to irrelevance.

The “passive aggression” of much urban design and planning is ultimately due to definitions of urban design which emphasize political accommodation in the absence of either cultural or theoretical positions. The discourses of culture and theory are the pincers which define the uses of urban design as a physical art form. An incorporation of both is paramount if physical design and architecture are to be meaningful within the context of the city and not simply private activities carried on with pleasure by a privileged or self-selected elite. In essence, the city designer, as opposed to the architect has to constantly incorporate the cult of professional knowledge within and between cultural and theoretical practices. If the goal of this session is to explore how urban theory challenges the place and practice of urban design, then the objective of this session is to explore the balancing act between culture, theory and practice and to determine what the designer’s role becomes when theory engages the urban and becomes a social and cultural ingredient in the conceptualization of place.

In this context two questions arise: Is the city designer still consigned to irrelevance when theory engages the city, or more positively, does theory allow the city designer to become a medium and resource for other voices and cultural positions?

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