Good Design: A Case Against the Master Plan

Master Plans are tricky. Take a look at Le Corbusier’s Master Plan for Paris here. The best design happens when the design is the result of organic limitations. I told a professor I was having a hard time reconciling my love of order with my love of nature. How is it, I said, that I think both the organic spacing of an oak savanna and the ordered symmetry of the Parthenon are beautiful? He explained that I was thinking about order wrong. He explained that there was as much order in the oak savanna as the Parthenon. Hunh?, I said, very intelligently. Well, he said, the trees… all of them grow upward, toward the sun, don’t they? And then it clicked for me: Order is not something that is imposed. It is the result of organic limitation, which is a function of time.

No one person (again, see Le Corb above) or governmental agency is going to be able to project needs, craft legislation, impose a set of rules and keep everything working by keeping it under the thumb of the Master Plan. David Dejewski mentions that you will never see a child care center next to an adult video store… I wager that you won’t see it because at some point, there was one, and people pushed back, crafting the appropriate covenants or rules and regulations. Do you know how master masons knew how high they could build cathedrals with flying buttresses? They kept building them higher and higher until one fell down. Then they knew they’d gone too far.

Good design is messy. A city, like a government, like a living organism, needs to stay in a continual state of input and output. Artificially cutting off the input means it is now out of touch, selfish, starving. It is sheer arrogance to impose a Master Plan, unless the Plan itself is to continually allow for input, output, growth, and surprise through constant adaption and change. That’s natural order.

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There is always a tension between planning and execution. I like to err on the side of not enough planning than the other way around. I think “the master plan” is hard as often it is theoretical and people have different opinions. It is hard to get people on the same page and we do not know actually how things will work out. It seems much better to put a sense of framing around the topic and then iterate, execute, and change the plan along the way.

Carolina Laverde

Perhaps if we redefine Master Plan as a framework for coordinating development and physical change, the concept will not be so limiting. I think of it as a hub where experts from various subject matters from all level and views can come together to figure the course of action. I don’t think of a Master Plan as the end all be all. I compare it a person’s life. We layout a plan/framework for ourselves to motivate day to day activity but we all know that life is not static so along the way we make changes based on the hurdles we encounter but without a basic plan, time and energy are wasted.