Essay

Chris Williamson looks at the way the duties and demands of citizenship have evolved since the days of the Roman Empire and explores the potential for green technologies and infrastructure to transform the way we travel, live and work

Fast track to the future

‘Those who at any point over the past thirty or so years followed the discourse on the design of the contemporary city cannot help but be led to the conclusion that the architect’s last hope by which to shape and discipline an increasingly unruly and uncontrollable metropolitan condition is through its networks of infrastructure.’ — Roger Sherman, associate professor and co-director of cityLAB UCLA, 2014.

I believe that architects in the future will need to be as involved in what makes cities work as in the design of individual buildings. That is certainly borne out by the work of WestonWilliamson+Partners. Our mission statement is about ‘creating civilised cities’. Our work includes masterplanning, and major infrastructure projects such as the Thames Tideway project, Crossrail and HS2: projects that shape the city and make it work effectively.

On looking to the future, it is sensible to reflect on the past. As Steve Jobs said: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards’.

I am an avid reader on the subject of ancient history: the Persians, the ancient Greeks, and the Egyptians. But I am particularly intrigued by the Roman Empire. A comparison of our cities now and Rome two millennia ago is interesting to consider. If Tiberius were to return to Rome today, he would be astonished by many things. The growth and influence of Christianity, for instance, and the scale of the buildings dwarfing the Pantheon built in Augustus’s reign. Computers, televisions, radio, mobile phones, cameras and other technological advances would amaze him. But the biggest shock might be the way we move between and around our cities: the cars, buses, trains, aeroplanes and helicopters. This has probably had the biggest effect on our environment as it has dictated land use and planning, and will continue to do so. Some of these changes can be predicted, but others afford such boundless possibilities that it is only possible to forecast change without the knowledge of what that change will be. It will, however, offer great possibilities to architects.

Architects must meet these challenges to combat climate change attributable to population growth and the move from rural communities to large urban complexes.

Fast track to the future

The pace of change

A further influence on the future and any attempt to predict it is also evident in studying the past. That is our development as a species. Here, Tiberius might find the inhabitants of the city relatively little changed: taller, generally better educated and most more travelled, but with broadly similar hopes and fears – a need to love and to be loved, to protect and nurture, and the same capacity for harm (with which he was all too familiar). We still have broadly the same diet (though more plentiful and varied), and feel heat, cold, injuries and hurt in the same way. Modern medicines might improve and extend our lives, but we still die of many of the same ailments as Tiberius’s citizens. He would be amazed by a modern hospital with X-rays and MRI technology, but appreciate that they are essentially powerless against human frailty. For comfort, many of us still believe in an afterlife – though for many millions this is based on the teachings of a man who had few followers during Tiberius’s reign. The divisions of race and religion would also come as little surprise to the emperor, although they have been amplified by modern communications and weaponry.

Tiberius would not find much difference in other aspects of our daily lives in our cities. Many of the laws and rules for how we conduct ourselves (or should) in a civilised urban society would be familiar. The duty of a citizen and civic pride would be understood. He would also recognise the hedonism and would appreciate our love of music and entertainment, albeit being astounded by the instrumentation and technology.

My point in this absurd imagining is that our minds and bodies are essentially the same after 2,000 years even though the technological advances have been immense. Even in the last 50 years the way our cities are being shaped has developed rapidly, but the focus is still on satisfying the same essential needs in man.

So how does this affect our thinking about the future? I think it is an essential reflection because, despite technological advances, we (as rational and emotional beings) still respond to the environment in a similar way, and that will surely continue.

The citizens of ancient Rome would gaze with awe and wonder at the Pantheon 2,000 years ago in much the same way as we would at the Bilbao Guggenheim. The technological advances to achieve the latter are incredible, but the effect is the same. Similar advances over the next 50 years will affect the way we design and build, but how might they affect what we build and why?

It is not just on the monumental scale where similarities should be drawn. On a domestic scale, the needs of shelter and also the forms and scale of construction are little changed, though we have much greater capacity to moderate our environment in inhospitable climates. Climate change will continue to increase the occurrences of these unless we act concertedly. This will be an increasing concern in all architectural projects, but also transport projects, which contribute around 46 per cent of global climate change emissions.

Fast track to the future

Creating civilised cities

Computers and building information modelling have transformed what we can build and how it is built, and will continue to do so. Robotics and 3D printing technology will add further capacity for new forms and new ways of construction.

I think the greatest effect on our cities will be how we move around them and between them. Economist Paul Buchanan explains that we have traditionally travelled for around one hour to get to work. This would have been true in AD16 and it is now. The workers of Rome might have walked or ridden to the fields, construction site or port for an hour to their employment each day. With modern travel, that hour covers a greater distance and, when the first phase of HS2 is completed in 2025, the young architects of our office might travel from affordable accommodation south of Birmingham to the office in London and take advantage of connectivity throughout the journey.

Connectivity will continue to be a blessing and a curse. The need, or expectation, to be continually connected and constantly available is a pressure.

WestonWilliamson+Partners has recently drawn up a scheme for a Hyperloop (a vacuum tube with a maglev train travelling at 1,000km per hour between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane), which will change the way people commute and choose to live in the east of Australia. The need to combat climate change will be a spur to these advances. The number of people currently travelling on planes between these cities is astonishing. If we want to move people out of planes and cars we have to make public alternatives much better: more reliable, more comfortable. Or perhaps the need for continual connectivity might render travelling speed secondary to speed of communication. If we can stay in touch, will we need to travel so much?

The timescale for large infrastructure projects such as HS2 is so long that there is a real danger that new technologies will render them irrelevant before they are completed. There is a distinct possibility that automated vehicles could take customers away from HS2, for example. People may choose to relax at a slower speed if they can sleep or work on a door-to-door journey.

It is for this reason that high-level discussions are taking place between Google, Uber and others in the forefront of these new technologies to involve them in HS2 and ensure that ‘HS2 is future-proofed, adding expertise on everything from booking tickets to on-board retail.’ (The Sunday Times, 19 February 2017)

Citizen Mag — Fast track to the future

It is quite possible that there will be less emphasis on speed. If we can be connected to the office and others at all times, comfort and convenience would be preferable. Perhaps a slow safe solar-powered airship taking three days to fly from London to Sydney would be preferable to a cramped uncomfortable faster jet burning fossil fuel and contributing to climate change.

There are other exciting possibilities. London is being transformed by commitment to good public transport and will continue to attract overseas investment as world cities compete against each other for the same pot of money. Even vertical movement is on the agenda, with thyssenkrupp Elevator developing personal transportation from underground metro-platform level to designated locations in surrounding towers, moving both horizontally and vertically. This technology could transform the way we move around tall buildings as much driverless cars will change the physical environment of our cities.

In addition to the research work with thyssenkrupp, WestonWilliamson+Partners are conducting a research project to design and promote a new green city based on high-speed rail – a high-rise version of a true garden city: a civilised city.

We can see how this might look already with the proliferation of electric scooters transforming areas of California and other major cities and in the way Uber and others have completely altered how we travel in areas poorly served by public transport to fill in the gaps.

New high-speed rail connections are proposed in the UK, Singapore, the Middle East, the US and elsewhere. This presents a huge opportunity to rethink how cities work and look. We have taken this opportunity to re-imagine how a new settlement of 350,000 people could be designed around a new high-speed transport hub. It could be north-west England, southern Malaysia, or northern California. The design would be site-specific while adopting the design principles that we suggest.

I believe that current plans for the areas around high-speed rail stations south of Birmingham and Ebbsfleet are too unambitious and will do little to provide much-needed quality housing in the UK. At the moment, only 15,000 homes are proposed at Ebbsfleet when so many more are necessary and could be built, put in reach of employment opportunities by high-speed rail. Developments such as Canary Wharf show how important it is to synchronise the provision of public transport with the rate of development. At times, commuting becomes unbearable.

Previous new town examples – such as the Garden City, Milton Keynes, Chandigarh and new settlements in China – have relied too heavily on petrol-fuelled personal transport. Our proposal eliminates the private car entirely within the 2.5km-diameter centre.

Fast track to the future

Passion for infrastructure

Greener technologies will power new vehicles and, if automated vehicles can be designed to move on a variety of terrains, we can dispense with roads altogether.  This would totally redraw man’s imprint on the planet. The freeing of land currently used for car parking alone will transform the look and feel of our cities.

The UK government’s enthusiasm for infrastructure is welcome. When WestonWilliamson+Partners designed the London Bridge station for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990s, it was seen as a purely transport-oriented project. Since then, successive governments have looked closely at the regeneration possibilities of infrastructure projects. Other countries have also taken up the challenge. Singapore is leading the way with its vision for public transport and long-term planning. Sydney and Melbourne also have ambitious plans. The new uses for their dense networks of alleys – the laneways – have transformed these cities. As Charles Montgomery says in his excellent book, Happy City: ‘Rome rose as its wealth was poured into the common good of aqueducts and roads then declined as it was hoarded in private villas and palaces.’

Predicting the future

Our passion for transit-oriented development (TOD) comes from our interest in the future of the planet. We are now used to severe climate conditions on an almost yearly basis. There are still some sceptics who do not believe that our pollution is causing climate change. But, even if this were the case, mental and physical health benefits can come from changing the way we design our cities.

We all have our own vision of the future. We know what it might be like, but changes often happen in random leaps rather than as a smooth continuum. What we do know is that not only architects, but society at large, face great challenges. If robots print, deliver, assemble and install our buildings and infrastructure, what will the ageing population – demanding ever-better healthcare and amenities – be contributing? This may be a question the robots will be asking themselves (as we will have taught them to reason), and they will be deciding our future.

That really would give Tiberius something to think about. He had to contend with close and distant family members plotting against him. But we all have the capacity to be the architect of our own downfall. I was 13 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and have always had great optimism for our ability to perform incredible feats and solve any problem. And I believe we will.