Urban designs for developing countries demand the perspective and foresight of one of today’s great minds - not the clumsy first attempt of a novice

Once upon a time, our director of sustainability came to us with a BRIC masterplan to review. It was all rectangular, glass, no sense of place, sterility without redemption. “Absurd”, is how our urban designer described it. Two thousand years after Rome, 160 years after Haussmann, 40 years after Gaia, had our BRIC-ish masterplanner learned absolutely nothing? For there was no plan, and we couldn’t detect a “master”.

It’s a sadly familiar scenario. His design was ignorant of everything good that had gone before, yet we were asked to review its incompetence. Extinct before it was born, it didn’t need a review - it needed divine intervention. I’m not being mean - I just don’t want our industry to produce such ignorant rubbish, especially for developing countries who trust us to do better than they can.

I’m not being mean, I just don’t want our industry to produce such ignorant rubbish, especially for developing countries who trust us to do better than they can

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” said Einstein. But sometimes it’s very smart to be “stupid”. For example, when its world evaporates, even a fish might try to climb that tree. Desperate times, with such desperate designs, we too might need desperate measures.

“So, who’d like to be first up?” gasp the fish in their muddy pool. Only the bravest, or possibly most stupid, come forward. The first few die horribly on the bank. Nothing to eat, no shelter, nothing to breathe - at least it’s quick. But eventually one remarkable fish does figure out how to clamber out and live. As for the rest, science confirms they become very good fossils …

I mention the fish because their world is our world. Stick or twist? Stay or move? Most projects have some strong “swimmers” diligently cruising up and down the pond. Bobbing around are others still in their waterwings. If they are all careful, nobody drowns. Some even realise the pond is shrinking, yet won’t - or can’t - climb out.
Just a few quit swimming and try something new. These “tree-climbers” develop a fresh perspective. In our lives, let’s say Renzo Piano is one. Or lately, Steve Jobs. There once were Newton and Einstein. But even these great minds were once just babies, novices. They couldn’t climb anything at first, but eventually found a way forward, leaving their origins far behind. The “pond”, with all its problems, seems completely different once viewed from the outside.

As an example of perspective change, four years ago I photographed our sister galaxy, Andromeda, from my garden. Glowing huge on the computer, two million light years away, it was mysterious, unfathomable. As a novice, I was amazed at my achievement. But I’ve taken another picture every year and, gradually, that first one seems less wonderful. Each new shot has more colour, more texture, more subtlety. Last week I took the fourth version and, suddenly, I noticed that Andromeda wasn’t alone up there. Nearby, in the darkness, glowed another galaxy. Only 10 billion suns - pretty hard to miss you’d imagine - it was called Messier 110. I’m sure it was there before, but I felt a sort of out-of-body experience … in my mind I was up there far, far away near Andromeda. A moment later I was back home, a grey February, wondering about dinner. The perspective-shift was so strong that I was nearly travel sick, even though the entire journey was inside my head. But after four years’ effort I was suddenly enlightened.

In the BRIC plan we saw the hand of a novice, and the thrill of achievement blinded him

I mention this story because of its resonance with a working life in design. Try, try, try again … eventually there’s a concept and a collective sigh of relief. And, too often, there it rests, at novice level, just as that first photo in which, for four years, I couldn’t see 10 billion suns shining right in my face. In the BRIC plan, we saw the hand of a novice, and the thrill of achievement blinded him. Masterplan? We hoped for mastery lost in the glare, or at least proficiency, when all we had was a novice-doodle.
The importance of mastery was explained in 1980 by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California, who developed a five-stage model of the way in which we learn. The stages are: novice, competence, proficiency, expertise and mastery. Compare our BRIC novice with a “master” such as Piano, who, the Dreyfuses say, is “capable of experiencing moments of intense absorption in his work, during which his performance transcends even its usual high level”.

I’d add that Piano’s performance transcends even its usual intellectual location, and that is key. Every so often, someone like Renzo can look at the world from Andromeda. A special skill we could all do with. And for that we can thank the tree-climbing fish. If you spot one, please feed it.

Chris Wise is chairman of the Useful Simple Trust and director of Expedition Engineering