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April 09, 2005 || 8:30 pm

I've realised I should really have a) been blogging more recently (you know it's getting bad when American Family Radio aka the voice of the Southern Baptist church starts commenting onthe importance of blogging daily) and b) been blogging about this whole book research shebang that I've been spending the hours between 7pm and midnight on for the last 2 months. It might even be interesting to those architectural/design/activist types among you.

Basically, it's been an incredibly interesting but hard slog through the internet to try and find really outstanding case studies of multi-disciplinary, socially and/or environmentally engaged architecture/planning/artistic practice. The premise being that in recent years there have been a growing number of projects, often initiated by practitioners as opposed to the usual client bureaucrats, that have addressed severe social and environmental problems and urban and rural renewal in creative, characterful, and ultimately more successful ways than the usual masterplans/housing schemes/regeneration initiatives which tend to cost billions, be generally disliked/ignored by the community they are meant to serve (and vice versa) and contribute to the dullification of places and spaces around the world into bland 'neighbourhoods' with nothing to do except the planners' idyll of 'neighbourhood services' (read a Costcutter, 'youth club' and Pizza Express).

We know there are many great projects out there, because we've featured them before in our work and we've been tracking them for some time through meeting interesting practioners in the field, and we think that to tell the rest of the world about them (especially the bureacrats who need some fresh ideas) might help more of these projects take place, ultimately engaging communities in more vital and meaningful ways, and contributing to more truly characterful, eccentric, holistic and varied place-making.

But we want to make sure that our book of international case studies (with essays by some of the leading thinkers in the field) doesn't just feature our top thirty projects we already know about, but truly represents the best of what the world has to show. So I have been spending my evenings not blogging as before, but trawling Google and Yahoo, following endless chains of links like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, emailing far-flung places and trying to track down the elusive best projects. It's a huge field to research yet very hard to find truly innovative and outstanding projects that demonstrate all of the aspects that we want to highlight.

We want projects that have been realised on the ground and achieved concrete results, yet inevitably many of the best ideas have never come to fruition. We want projects that have tackled real problems, not just the product of well-off and comfortable liberal environments. We don't just want a pretty building; we want a strategy that may or may not result in a building, depending on what is appropriate for that particular place and community. But when something is designed or built, we want it to be really well-designed - not just a good strategy resulting in the same bland architecture of dipped-in-brick neo-vernacular crap with efflorescence stains on the walls in three years.

It's been incredibly difficult and I still feel like my list of projects in wholly incomplete - that I must have been an idiot and missed some obvious anr really great projects. I've been attacking Africa, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and the central and eastern portions of Europe. Jointly with my fellow researcher, we've been doing the USA.

Lessons learnt: it's impossible to get hold of anyone in Cuba, by email (never replied to or the addresses bounce) or phone (weird bleeping noises construed by my paranoid mind as eavesdropping by the US authorities, lines going dead, etc). There are an absolutely amazing lot of fantastic projects in Japan that everyone in the West should know about, but I'm not surprised they don't, as all the websites are only in Japanese. I don't read Japanese and Altavista translation is not very good. Problem, when it comes to finding out more info than is given in the only two English-language articles I have managed to find.

Best web resources: the Aga Khan Development Network and it's myriad awards schemes, not to mention the invaluable Archnet; UN-Habitat and the other UN best practice sites (but why are there so many of them? can't they be consolidated into one?) and those countries that kindly translate their stuff into English, I'm sorry to say.

Personal highlights at the two ends of the scale: Japanese planning (for a flavour, look at this), and this small project, to me a wonderful design solution on many levels. And big thanks to my mum, for phoning the Snowman Institute in Japan for me.



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