Ricky Burdett, the London School of Economics’ new professor of architecture and urbanism, is the capital’s leading educator, adviser and ambassador of urban design. We met him to discuss his plans to improve cities across Europe and beyond …

City slicker
City slicker

Visiting Ricky Burdett is like entering the research department of a provincial polytechnic. You walk into a half-forgotten Victorian annexe, through a fire-escape door, up three fusty dogleg flights of concrete stairs and along a narrow corridor with small rooms off one side.

In one of these small rooms, you sit down at a large table sandwiched between an epic 18th-century plan of Rome on one wall, facing an artist’s impression of an extravagantly classical seafront promenade on the other. Then, if you look out of the window you see higgledy-piggledy streets crammed with every style of architecture of the past 150 years.

For this is no provincial polytechnic, but one of the world’s foremost social and economic research institutes: the London School of Economics, in the heart of London. And Burdett is no obscure researcher but the founder of the LSE’s cities programme. What’s more, since this January, he has been a professor of architecture and urbanism.

A short chat with Burdett and horizons expand beyond Kingsway and the Strand to cover the whole world: Rome, Barcelona, Zürich, and even Bogotá in Colombia pop up in the conversation. Burdett knows nearly all of these cities from professional visits.

And as much as the cities themselves, Burdett knows their mayors. Starting in New York two months ago, he is running a series of two-day conferences in major cities of the world, with the full personal involvement of their leaders. The next in line for the Burdett treatment are Shanghai, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Berlin and of course London.

Burdett know this last city’s mayor best. Along with Lord Rogers, Burdett has, since 2001, been consultant to the Greater London Authority’s architecture and urbanism unit. His role in London has been enhanced since January. “Richard [Lord Rogers] remains the head of the architecture and urbanism unit, and he is chief adviser on architecture to the mayor of London,” explains Burdett. “But he has reduced his time from two days a week to roughly one day a week. My new contract will double my input to up to three days a week.”

Unlike a traditional council, the GLA does not develop buildings itself. Burdett is therefore involved primarily with the spaces in between buildings. “All the work the architecture and urbanism unit is doing is much more about the civic and therefore the public realm; it’s about collections of buildings and neighbourhoods rather than buildings themselves. It’s less about getting the GLA to build a nice police station – important though that is – and more about creating environments that will work for the 700,000-odd people who will be moving into London over the next 10 years.”

“One thing we’re not is style police,” he says. “If it has a pitched roof or flat roof, whether it’s got a glass facade or a brick facade – that’s not the point. The point is to make a community work, and this depends on how a scheme connects to its surroundings, its public transport, the quality of public spaces and social infrastructure, schools and so on.”

Along with the seven full-time staff members of the architecture and urbanism unit, Burdett’s work for the GLA splits into four main areas. The first, where he reckons he will step up his involvement, is to develop a 3D design strategy for Greater London’s sector of the Thames Gateway.

We’re not style police. If it has a pitched roof or flat roof, a glass facade or a brick facade – that’s not the point. The point is to make a community work

Here Bellway Homes, in a joint venture with English Partnerships, is to develop 10,800 homes at Barking Riverside. Roger Bond, Bellway’s managing director for the project, confirms Burdett’s involvement: “We’ve dealt with Ricky from day one, and he’s been instrumental in getting on board strategic issues at an early stage, contributing to the concept of increased density and insisting on high-quality public realm and community facilities.”

The unit’s second role is an extension of its work on the Thames Gateway. This is to help commission masterplans for regeneration areas around Greater London, 27 of which are currently in the pipeline. “The architecture and urbanism unit is involved in three things here. The first is getting these groups of public agencies together and saying ‘let’s not just look at numbers but also at design’. The second is to write a brief, and the third is the very important role of selecting the architects.”

Burdett’s third role, in which he hopes to spend 70% of his time, is to help improve what is known as “the mayor’s 100 public spaces”. Much of this work, which is scheduled over the next eight years, involves taming, but not banning, traffic to make the public spaces more attractive to people on foot.

His fourth GLA job is to “try to engender a culture of design within public organisations,” he says. “It involves talking about how to design high-quality, high-density housing.”

Operating at arm’s length from development means Burdett is effectively an ambassador of architecture. It is a role he carries off ably, partly as a result of many years’ teaching at University College London and then LSE. He has also run the now-defunct 9H architecture gallery and was the founding director of the Architecture Foundation, both in London.

He also has the physical presence and demeanour to match his administrative importance. Burdett is tall, with bushy grey hair, bold facial features, a forceful way of talking and a slightly racy American-sounding twang to his voice.

As befits his quasi-ambassadorial role, Burdett is a believer in what he calls protocols. “After you set up a project, if you don’t follow through, you’ve wasted your time. You need a protocol to implant the DNA into the development agency so that in five or 10 years’ time, when none of us is there, there is something that says that whatever you do, the quality of design matters.” More often than not, this involves a lengthy document for each regeneration project requiring that, among other things, the masterplanner be involved in selecting architects for individual phases.

As for Burdett’s new professorial role at the LSE, his main focus will be to run those six top-level conferences in cities around the world. “What we do is put the mayors in a room with a group of 25 experts in the world of Urban Design, urban analysis and urban economics. Over two days they talk about the issues and problems facing their city.”

When not travelling the globe and teaching, Burdett is charged with grappling with the profusion of rules, regulations, policies, procedures and finances of a multiplicity of public agencies and private developers – exactly what architects detest most. His response is to play the same game by setting up rules and protocols to protect design quality. And he has managed to retain his architectural vision, too.

Personal effects

Where did you grow up? I was born in London but grew up in Rome until I was 20.
Then I studied architecture in Bristol and London.
Where do you live? In Camden Square, a Victorian square with a central garden in north London.
How do you travel round London? By Vespa motor-scooter.
Which cities do you like visiting most? Any city with good public spaces and restaurants – Verona, Venice, Barcelona or Copenhagen.