Architects v. urban designers: At cross-purposes?

Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid's Library and Learning Center, left, at Vienna University of Economics and Business in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Peter Haas / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What are the three most important principles for architects to understand about cities? Send your thoughts.

If you hang out around architects and urban designers, as I sometimes do, you might notice that occasionally, even though they are often taught in the same college departments or schools, they can seem to be at cross-purposes. Why is that?

Most people know what architects do. Not nearly as many know what urban designers do. It’s a common misunderstanding that their mission is to design signs, park benches or discrete ornaments in a city. Instead, they design the relationships between buildings and people. How does that building meet the sidewalk? What surroundings of a park will bring people into the park? How close should buildings be to each other? How tall should buildings be, in relation to the width of the street, to create a sense of pleasure rather than dread in people passing by? Where should the streets go – or not go?

I know a local writer working on a book exploring what architects need to know about cities and urbanism. What, he asks, are the three principles most important for architects to understand about cities, or about the task of designing buildings or groups of buildings in urban settings? If you have thoughts on that question, please share them in the comments below or in an email to

His question set me thinking about how the two disciplines seem to approach things from different mind-sets. I recall something architect and planner Steve Mouzon said during a 2012 visit to Charlotte:  Architects, he said, are taught their work should be unique. They celebrate structures designed so creatively that nothing like them has come before. Mouzon, a traditionalist, prefers not to ignore the lessons humanity has learned through centuries of building, but he understood the intensity of the pressure to be uniquely creative. That’s what’s celebrated among architects.

That push to be unique reflects, I think, the contemporary values that celebrate the lone creative artist and the single building or project she or he has designed, rather than buildings that contribute more modestly to a sense of place and community. Has he created a building that stands out, compared to its surroundings? Has she re-imagined the genre of building so completely that the viewers don’t know what they’re looking at? This view – honoring the so-called lone creative artist and single building – pretty much ignores the reality that creativity feeds off collaboration, off building upon what came before. 

The lone genius myth is a powerful one. Le Corbusier convinced a lot of people that the Radiant City, essentially “towers-in-a-park” connected by highways, would solve the problems of poverty and squalor found in European cities before World War I. (He did not, as many before me have noticed, consider the need for vast parking areas next to all those highways, as the growth in private auto use soared.)

Frank Lloyd Wright, to solve what he saw as the problem of urban ugliness and crowded cities, proposed Broadacre City, a patchwork of one-acre lots stretching to the horizon.


The Raleigh headquarters of the N.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects offers a bleak experience for passing pedestrians. Photo: Mary Newsom

Urban designers, on the other hand, must look at the whole city or the whole neighborhood as a collective endeavor of the people who inhabit those places. They’re trained to think about how people interact with places and are rewarded, not for designing one iconic building, but for designing places that draw people in. Instead of forgetting lessons learned over centuries and around the globe, which is required if your work has to be “unique,” they have to apply those lessons and learn from examples. Instead of trying to become a genius of icons, these designers have to become geniuses of the broader community. They have to understand that cities aren’t a problem in need of being solved by one silver-bullet brainstorm.

Cities are what Jane Jacobs and many others have called a system of organized complexity. A change over here will probably have an unintended consequence over there. You can’t solve a city.

So my list of three things I hope architects understand about designing buildings in cities – and don’t misunderstand, some architects already understand these things, but many don’t – is below:

  • Throw out theories and abstractions you may have absorbed in architecture school that treat a building as somehow separate from the city. Instead, watch how real people react to real spaces in the real world.
  • If your beautifully designed sculpture of a building creates an ugly experience for people going past at ground level, it fails.
  • While some iconic buildings add value others do great harm, by pretending they alone matter. Cities are a communal enterprise. Respect that.

Opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.