The living memory of cities

Nicholas Temple discusses London Met's new collaboration with industry to offer a series of events, launched with a lecture from eminent architectural scholar, Prof David Leatherbarrow.

Date: 26 November 2020

A recent lecture from Professor David Leatherbarrow entitled ‘Whole Parts: urban architecture, in and out of scale’ represented the first in a new knowledge exchange seminar series, The Living Memory of Cities.

The series has been organised by José de Paiva as a collaboration between Eric Parry Architects and the Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies (CUBE) at London Met

David Leatherbarrow, professor of architecture at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, is an internationally recognised theorist and teacher of architecture and urbanism. This year, he received the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education.

His presentation built upon his incisive knowledge of - and insight into - the relationships between built form and topography, further developing these connections to reveal new insights into how the internal coherence of buildings within cities can give rise to an engaged "autonomy", with respect to their larger urban settings (topographical relationships).

Recognising the shortcomings of totalising urban systems advocated by many planners, engineers and politicians in cities today, Leatherbarrow argued that proper attention to scale as an expression of relationships between parts and whole, requires better understanding of the way buildings can behave as complete works in themselves and at the same time have larger responsibilities with respect to their urban contexts.

In this process, cities absorb architectural and urban interventions (which originally opposed them) to create "whole parts". The discussion was supported by a series of built and unbuilt examples in Paris and Philadelphia; Le Corbusier’s reconstruction project for the Ilot Insalubre (No.6) in Paris (1937-39); his Salvation Army Hostel in Paris (1931-33), and developments along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia; the Rodin Museum by Paul Philippe Cret (1929) and the nearby Barnes Foundation by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects (2012). 

Opening the event, host Eric Parry RA formally introduced Professor Leatherbarrow to the audience, followed by Prof. Nicholas Temple (Director of CUBE) as respondent and questions by London Met’s Dr Matthew Barac, Prof. Christian Frost and Prof. Maurice Michell (members of CUBE) among others.

Contributions from the virtual floor included a question from London Met alumnus Dr Patrick Lynch who asked to what extent Leatherbarrow’s notion of "parts" draws upon the late Dalibor Vesely’s concept of fragment in architecture. In his response, Leatherbarrow argued that neither the inherent ambiguity of fragment, reflected in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s work, nor Leon Battista Alberti’s principle of the inter-relationships between elements in buildings sufficiently compares to the role of the "part" in his thesis; a role that involves (in their relative autonomy) the "partnering" of whole-parts within urban fabric.

The lecture - first in what will be a monthly series - was delivered as an online event, and attended by an audience drawn from academia and industry of up to 100. A recording is available online on the YourTube channel for AAD Research in a playlist entitled CUBE: Centre for Built & Urban Ecologies.

The next seminar in the series is on Wednesday 9 December at 5 pm with guest speaker Peter Carl, followed by a discussion from Carolyn Steel on Wednesday 13 January at 5 pm, to talk about her work on the city in relation to food, culinary culture, and a vision of ‘Sitopia’.

Future events will bring architectural and urban practitioners together with scholars and research students to cultivate debate about the city today and the role of cycles of deeper reflection on its meaning and reproduction today. Events in this series will be shared on the CUBE webpage, via the LondonMet Research & Postgraduate Office calendar, and on social media.


man in front of concrete building

The Living Memory of Cities series is convened in collaboration with Eric Parry Architects and The Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies (CUBE) at London Met.

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