Today I started a new course at the Victoria University architecture school, a paper on the Theory and History of Urban Design. Architecture school is the only place I can learn about urban design at undergrad level in NZ. I am picking up a strange slant, not too surprisingly, towards, or rather, away from, architecture.

A lot of the talk today was about how Urban Design is *not* like Big Architecture. This emphasis seems strange to me because I am not an architecture student. I have little knowledge about how architecture works as a discipline, but judging from their description of urban design, it seems quite focused on aesthetics and special and grand buildings. Urban design seems to cover everything else as well. The city is apparently made up of the worthy monumental and the lip curling vernacular.
In this lecture I felt like my interests are the opposite to that of architects. I am fascinated by the every day, sometimes purely functional, sometimes purely delightful, not-architecture. It is this that I want to influence.

Despite my interest my professional background is not architecture but civil engineering. My short experience with engineering has forever coloured my view of other professions. I am curious about the apparent tendency for the architecture school to favour big ego projects. It seems exactly the opposite of engineering culture:

• Big engineering projects are the sum of work by many skilled participants. There is no one mastermind, but levels of skill and expertise interacting to create something that is known to work. Function of course being the highest goal.

• The mantra we where given at engineering school was “Health, Wealth and Safety” for the whole of society. Fame never really came up. Excellence meant ever more efficient processes and resource use, or, maximum return for humanity, with minimum waste, creating prosperity for all now and into the future.

• Assumptions are always stated and the future always considered. Not like news reports in the daily papers.

• When engineers are in charge large projects take on the cloak of the sublime rather than the grand. Like urban design projects which are larger than any one person can fathom.

Interestingly engineers and architects are legally equivalent in large or medium building projects; an Engineer or Architect is required as a project manager, to act as a technical design professional and an intermediary for clients and contractors involved in projects from start to finish. This person is expected to have the best interest of all parties at heart, including future users and the general public. At least that is what I learnt as an engineer. Function, design and ethics are intertwined.

I have sat through a good number of the Urban Design lectures at the architecture school, before enrolling, and the topic of professional design ethics did not come up. Today’s experience reminded me of this apparent gap. I shall ask more about this in case I’ve missed something as an outsider.


Urban design also requires many skilled participants. No one person, and no one discipline can understand something as complex as a city. The lecturer today said it was a shame they didn’t have sociology students taking part. The cross-discipline that we have in lectures is architecture students combined with landscape architecture students. That still leaves out the population health experts, environment and transport engineers and town planners. So why aren’t they here?

Me: cross-discipline student extraordinaire! Engineer, artist, designer, pedestrian advocate, urban explorer and philosopher.


I romanticise a bit. To acknowledge this, I quote from an ode to engineering:

“Ridges and valleys and underground streams,
You have to know what’s under your feet,
So you can make things strong enough,
To take the weight,
The weight of all the people,
Who haven’t been born.
That’s what you said to me,
and it’s the envy of angels”

the Mutton Birds, ‘Envy of Angels’.

Discussion (6) ¬

  1. Great post Lily! Hooray for cross-discipline and cross-pollination of all stripes! That’s where the juice is. Hybrid vigour. The wider the better I say!

    Architecture can be about the small. I’ve been noticing lately out where I live the houses that people have designed and built themselves, often from available/ local materials. They don’t call themselves architects, but make a series of choices about the way they would like to live and inhabit spaces. And so the houses are as unique as the people who live in them. This pleases me greatly.

    Less of a hermit-crab mentality (as in we serial renters) and more of a caddis-fly one.

  2. Thanks for that Rose.
    F. Hundertwasser advocated for a more human architecture in the 1960s till his death a few years ago. In his view housing is the third skin (after clothing) and having a personal, physical, creative relationship with one’s home is vital. For Hundertwasser the ideal architecture is where the designer, builder and resident are one.

    Current urban living can seem quite disconnected from such creativity, where everything is built for you, but building owners still have the option to augment and personalise their homes and street fronts along public boundaries, and can potentially extend this to tenants. Potentially we can voice preference for variety in type and structure of dwellings in updates of building and subdivision codes, though this will never be as detailed as something built personally.

    As someone new to architecture I’m not used to differentiating between ‘architecture’ and ‘Architecture’, similar to ‘art’ and ‘Art’ , I prefer ‘people, bugs and critters generally’ and ‘professional institutions’.

  3. I like your categories, Lilly. Architecture clearly needs you bad. Seriously, though, you should ask Draw about this sometime – he’ll give you a blow by blow by crushing blow account of everything that is wrong with Architecture from a politics perspective.

    Quick question: was it Hundertwasser who also suggested that we have gardens on every rooftop? I always thought that idea was pretty boss.

  4. Yes it was. Hundertwasser essentially said that the vertical belonged to man, and the horizontal belonged to nature (I don’t have the text with me to quote properly). I’ll post more on that issue in future.

  5. You are an inspiration. I too studied civil engineering and presently work as a traffic engineer in South Africa. I am presently doing my masters in transportation studies and have developed a passion for urban design (stimulated perhaps also by my love of art) and a mindfulness of the impact of our transportation systems on the formation of our cities and the quality of our public spaces. I have been considering a switch (or as Rose put it, a little “cross-pollination) and its comforting to know that isn’t completely absurd! Now that I have discovered your blog, I look forward to reading many more posts.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Roslynde : )
    I think it is one of the most fascinating things to experience and learn something of a people through their aesthetics, values and playfulness in space, through travel or by sharing good detailed recordings. It would be wonderful to hear about creative uses of public space in South Africa, and I’d love to hear about your progress in blurring the transport -urban design-art boundaries.

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