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Big League Urban Design

Big League Urban Design

This short background introduces two reports from our archive, from the days when urban design work was hand drawn, with limited benefit from elaborate digital techniques.

In truth, for me, the ‘big league’ was to work on social housing in Wales and England, seeking to resolve living conditions in these ‘garden city’ influenced, rather segregated, largely single tenure, rented and (despite popular misconception) remarkably low density ‘council estates’. They are still our priority; our first love.

Way back, when we started, Stephen Thorne and I launched ourselves into Urban Design with two epic projects – first, the Prague Urban Design Competition of 1993 for the City of Prague and Czech Railways and, soon after, the Urban Design Strategy for Inner City Johannesburg in 1994. Both fall into the traditional concept of ‘big league’. They certainly were.

Prague had started as a collective student project during our Master’s Course in the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University, which Steve and I had embarked on as mature students, both with extensive construction industry experience behind us, Steve as an architect, me as a surveyor. We, many of us, tutor and sponsor support, went to Prague early in 1993 to reinforce our taught theory, research key themes and assemble a competition entry. As the work was consolidated, with several trips to Prague, Steve and I ended up developing and preparing the entry. We nearly won. Down to the last two, we were disqualified on a technicality and the victory given to the Czech entry. Fair enough. We won a cash award in compensation.

We were very pleased with ourselves; it was an encouraging and inspiring complement to our learning experience at Oxford.

Steve returned to his home in Johannesburg, me to Wales. On the back of the Prague ‘sell’, Steve was commissioned to undertake the Inner City Strategy for Jo’burg City Council. He immediately called me and I set out for Jo’burg to arrive on the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated. It was an exciting time, perfect for our audacious, consultative, outward-reaching, Jane Jacobs inspired theory.

Within 6 years of our report, our proposal for an iconic city bridge was under construction. Amongst many proposals, we suggested that the creation of that single movement line would be the most significant intervention to develop the city centre for the 21st century. If they got it right, it would link communities north and south of the rail divide, be a catalyst for extensive city centre development, and be worthy of the name, ‘The Mandela Bridge’. The rest is history.

Some of these images from the internet, indicate the people-oriented approach we had in mind.

They are just one reflection of a vast all-embracing report, which certainly founded much of our subsequent work, me in Britain, Steve in Australia. Both reports can be viewed here:

Prague report

Prague drawings

Johannesburg report

Johannesburg drawing

Gordon Gibson