Next Project

Dunkerque Masterplan (urban masterplanning)

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Christopher Schulte
Architectural Association London | UK
This paper is about a dull subject: urban masterplanning. Moreover, it is about masterplanning in a dull place; Dunkerque. Since the 1670s Dunkerque has collected masterplans at an amazing rate. Many of these schemes, two this century, were provoked by war devastation. In this cycle of accumulation and erasure and various and conflicting interpretations of the value (or lack of value) of this northernmost town in France have been presented -- and frequently constructed. The town's present physical configuration in many ways encapsulates the most significant issues of masterplanning as it emerged as a discipline more generally.

The work of AA Diploma Unit 7 this year has been stimulated by the spectral presence of an as yet unexecuted masterplan by Richard Rogers for Dunkerque. This plan, which was provoked not by war disaster, but by sudden economic decline, shows how much the contemporary masterplanner must position himself within the accumulated biases of his discipline. Read against this background it becomes apparent why the Rogers project for Dunkerque must attempt to supply a positive, quasi-narrative closure which promises to 'complete' the town for the good of its inhabitants. The fact that it makes this attempt by explicitly compressing much more complex and contradictory desires (of identity, of pleasure) into a single, homogenous, globally applicable consumerist need, reveals the extent to which the masterplanner's new 'commodity' -- urbanism -- is marketed with aesthetic and ideological indifference to specific local conditions.

This paper suggests, with reference to my own work in the Unit, another approach to planning in Dunkerque: a process which brings into purposeful collision the nexus of contradictions inherent both in and between the culture of masterplanning and the actual cultural situation present in Dunkerque. The point of this is to be optimistic about the future of masterplanning.


Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Zone Books, New York 1995, orig. Paris 1967.

Ernst, Max, 'Beyond Painting', in Beyond Painting, and Other Writings, ed. Robert Motherwell, New York, 1948.

Gould, Stephen Jay, 'Phyletic Size Decrease in Hershey Bars', in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, London, 1983.

Urban Planning and Development Agency of the Flanders-Dunkirk Area, Flanders-Dunkirk Area
Industrial Environment Scheme, summary, Dunkerque 1993

Christopher Schulte

The thesis at the Architectural Association is not currently a compulsory piece of work; students may alternatively elect to write two term-papers, each related to a seminar course chosen from a wide range. Those who do write a thesis are explicitly encouraged to see it, not as an isolated academic piece of work, but as an opportunity to explore the issues which lie behind their project work, and to broaden the scope in which an architectural project is situated. In this way, project work and thesis are seen as part of an always interconnected culture in which architecture and writing have specific roles to play.

Christopher Schulte's these explores the notion of masterplanning in relation to the concrete topography of Dunkerque, the site for his unit's project work this year. Dunkerque has been repeatedly masterplanned since the 17th century. Each time, the 'complete vision' of the masterplan has been made redundant, either through physical destruction or through obsolescence, perhaps both. Directly addressing the most recent masterplan, produced by the Richard Rogers Partnership and commissioned by the City of Dunkerque, Christopher's concern is not to propose an alternative 'solution', another totalising projection. Instead the thesis sets out to reveal a powerful culture of masterplanning, which contains within it both its ability to make sense of a situation and the flaws which lead to its constant lack of fulfilment. It is with this background the project work evolves, again recognising the need to work within a culture which it reveals, rather than against a culture by proposing alternative new constructs. If Christopher's 'mutations of infrastructure' are understood in this light, the richness of the impeccable prose of his argument can be most fully appreciated.

• Page Hits: 5586         • Entry Date: 18 October 1998         • Last Update: 18 October 2002