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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, 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 they first started, Stephen Thorne and our associate Urban Designer Gordon Gibson launched themselves 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 their Master’s Course in the Joint Centre for Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University, which Steve and Gordon had embarked on as mature students, both with extensive construction industry experience behind them, Steve as an architect, Gordon as a surveyor. They visited Prague early in 1993 to reinforce the taught theory, research key themes and assemble a competition entry. As the work was consolidated, with several trips to Prague, Steve and Gordon ended up developing and preparing the entry. They very nearly won. Down to the last two, they were disqualified on a technicality and the victory given to the Czech entry (they won a cash award in compensation!).

In Gordon’s words, they were very pleased with themselves and found it an encouraging and inspiring complement to their learning experience at Oxford.

Steve returned to his home in Johannesburg, Gordon 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 and, with Gordon, set out for Jo’burg to arrive on the day Nelson Mandela was inaugurated. It was an exciting time, perfect for their audacious, consultative, outward-reaching, Jane Jacobs inspired theory.

Within 6 years of their report, their proposal for an iconic city bridge was under construction. Amongst many proposals, they 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 the authorities 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 they had in mind.

They are just one reflection of a vast all-embracing report, which certainly founded much of their subsequent work, Gordon in Britain, Steve in Australia.

Both reports can be viewed here:

Prague report

Prague drawings

Johannesburg report

Johannesburg drawing