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  • Writer's pictureChristiaan Gey van Pittius

Two 'Urban Block' books - Book review

Jonathan Tarbatt & Chloe Street Tarbatt, The Urban Block: A guide for urban designers, architects and town planners, London: RIBA Publishing 2020, 154pp., £40.00 (Hard Back)

Susanne Komossa, The Dutch Urban Block and the public realm: models, rules, ideals, Nijmegen: Rotterdam and Vantilt Publishers 2010, 222pp., €40.40 (Paper Back)

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Investigating urban design during a rare event is quite a fascinating exercise. In an attempt to reconnect to established urban narratives, I grabbed this chance to review a contemporary residential urban design guide: The Urban Block, published in April 2020.

Urban design duo Jonathan and Chloe Tarbatt start by saying the ‘importance of the block to city life is well-rehearsed’ (p.3). This ‘rehearsed’ urban life has come under severe scrutiny during 2020 and urges a different approach to revising urban guides.

“…everything has changed, and now Irish cities need reimagining, we need to rethink how they work. That means rethinking where we live, how we work and play. It means our cities must evolve to become more desirable places to live.” James Chilton

The Tarbatts rush through a historical glance at the formation of urban form, to arrive at the core body of the book: ‘Defining the Block’ (p.33). Here the taxonomy of urban forms are thoroughly discussed through a comprehensive look at urban typologies but without any Jan Gehl (1971) poetics: the block, the plot and the street. The sketches of familiar urban concepts are few and oversimplified, making them relatively futile. The good photographs do make up for the lack of engaging illustrations and the over-designed fonts and layout. This design of the book itself is proving this hardback somewhat better as a coffee table book.

In the second half of the book, the Tarbatts examine well-know (pre-COVID) case studies from the UK (p.102), Norway (p. 114) and the Netherlands (p.142). All of which is renowned for their urban narratives and thus not changeling the status quo outlined in the first half. I was feeling disappointed that no new argument, nor design contribution was formed. I looked to compare it with another contemporary “block” analysis and settled on the Durch version of the same literal concept from Susanne Komossa (2010) in Delft.

Komossa writes “the Dutch City is a huisjesstad, or ‘city of homes’. This means that over a long period it was conceived, used, designed and built in terms of the relationship between the home and the public realm.” (p.15)

Komossa uses a beautifully intelligent approach to use historical progress and relevant urban-design discourse to show how Rotterdam and Amsterdam have evolved into their present urban environments. She refers to a multitude of books and theoretical giants from Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier with CIAM and Team X (p.51), and how this discourse is reflected in the urban design of these dutch cities. She uses fantastic illustrations of urban plans and sections to demonstrate her point of view.

I couldn’t help to imagine the next chapter of the historical record based on the current global crisis and how it will once again change the design of an urban course. Although this reiteration of ‘block’ analysis proved more intense, I find it to be a successful composition of urban transformation and ideas.

As designers, we should be excited to see what is waiting around the corner.


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