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Utopia: The 5 most significant urbanists of the last 100 years

Le Corbusier

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Over the last 100 years, architects and urban planners across the globe have offered their utopian dreams. Several urbanists have made instrumental contributions to the way people live and interact with cities. The 21st century has already seen tremendous growth and transformation in our cities. This growth would not have been possible without the influence and master planning of a few key urbanists.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier will forever be known as an icon of modern architecture. From the moment he designed the Villa Savoye in the 1920s, he established a style that would influence architecture and urban planning for years to come. His famous saying, “architecture or revolution” offers a glimpse into the mentality of the Frenchman. It came from a strong belief that efficient, industrialised architecture was the only way to avoid a class-based revolution. He laid out his arguments in his famous book, Vers une architecture. He was a multi-talented artist, with a career spanning five decades.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs was a profoundly influential figure in urban planning. Despite having no professional training in the field, Jacobs had an extensive impact on the study of urbanism. Jacobs took a more logical approach to the cities of America and the problems they faced. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she critiqued urban planning and the failings of cities. Jacobs challenged conventional planning theory and practice, arguing that many cities were not safe, interesting or economically stable. Her book has since become one of the most influential texts in the history of urban planning. Jacobs didn’t just write about her ideas. She was an activist, having led several protests against the replacement of urban communities with high-rise buildings. Referred to as a “crazy dame” and a “housewife”, Jacobs found more widespread appreciation after her death. Jacobs ultimately championed urban diversity and new, community-based approaches to urban planning.

William H. Whyte

William H. Whyte is one of the most admired urban thinkers and helped lay the foundation for growth. He was a pioneer in the study of human behaviour in urban settings. Eager to understand how people behave in urban spaces, Whyte began to observe street life in 1969. He spent 16 years watching and filming what people do in New York. Whyte described his findings in The Social Life of Urban Spaces. He believed much could be learned about what people want in urban settings by watching and talking to people. He is perhaps best remembered for this quote: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

Kenzo Tange

Kenzo Tange’s 1960 plan for Tokyo Bay is widely considered one of the most innovative examples of comminute-led urban planning. Tange’s project aimed to accommodate the city’s growing population. His plan for Tokyo was a great advocation for metabolism, a post-war architectural movement that spawned ideas about ever-changing structures. Tange expanded his portfolio during the 1970s and 1980s. He designed buildings in over twenty countries, such as the Taipei World Trade Centre in Taiwan, and the OUB centre in Singapore. Tange continued to work until three years before his death in 2005. His unique style of urban design and architecture continue to speak volumes today.

Jan Gehl

For more than forty years, Danish architect Jan Gehl has taken a modernist approach to urban planning. He has focused on making cities more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly. In fact, Gehl is not fond of using cars in urban settings at all. He said in an interview, “The car is a lousy solution today. It is 115 years old and comes from the Wild Wild West in Detroit.” Gehl has improved the quality of life all over the globe, including downtown areas in Sao Paulo. He has also created more cycling opportunities in Mexico City. Gehl places an emphasis on “liveable cities”, where each neighbourhood offers all the necessary facilities and infrastructure. As a founding partner of Gehl architects, he continues to re-imagine city designs to be safer and to serve the people.

Today, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas. When it comes to city life, change is inevitable. A great city should be one that people admire, learn from and can reshape to satisfy their needs. These pioneers explore the uncharted terrain of urban planning to create great cities. Their work requires immense skill. Urban planners and architects find ways to make things better, faster, more economical and accessible to the masses. These great urbanists serve to remind us of the key role cities play in fostering diverse communities and promoting safe spaces. Their work and ideas continue to flourish and influence new generations of urbanists.

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