Attention-seeking buildings are ubiquitous in today’s architecture despite the fact that a relatively unnoticeable oneness defines most successful urban places; these places constitute a stable image and an enduring collective identity even while the communities that inhabit them change. For example, the Neo-Classical fabric of Edinburgh’s New Town (from 1747) embodies a single grammar that has accommodated remarkable shifts in patterns of use over time. Its substantial houses and gardens have survived, and transformed incrementally by being subdivided into smaller dwellings (two up two down) for professional families, or used for offices and galleries, hotels and small institutions.
The building of new urban housing at the scale of the New Town continues today and faces the same questions of longevity, adaptability and negotiability versus singularity of type and expression. IJburg, the new suburb of Amsterdam that is presently under construction (since 2001), took Edinburgh’s eighteenth-century development as one of its models. Envisaging a new urbanism for Dundee, we ask: what are the narrative histories that have been accommodated within such a ‘neutral’ urbanism? – and what are the governing principles and grammatical rules that have ensured the cultural sustainability of such a negotiable architecture?
We ask these things in the knowledge that the architecture of our communities is rarely discussed. Walter Benjamin argued that we receive architecture – unlike painting – in a state of distraction: we never notice our ambient environment until it starts to change. Yet our subject is the art that gives form to social groups. It gives them a spatial quality and thereby makes them visible; it is therefore one of the great humanist discourses through which we collectively contemplate the human condition. Vitruvius insisted that architecture only ever happened when people gathered together in conversation – and it gave form to that gathering.