Darryl Chen, 28 07 08

In the broad range of street delights, Starbucks guarantees a minimum standard. It is the customer’s right to demand the Starbucks brew, but no more. 13,000 branches worldwide, and a basic beverage menu of 10. Keep the masses happy – so with coffee, also with urbanism. Limit your options to a basic street section, a basic building form, a basic elevation, a basic material range and a basic colour palette, and you can guarantee a basic product, mediocrity par excellence.
Starbucks reaches beyond mere happiness to represent a comprehensive nirvana of lifestyle definition. Starbucks as a mini-utopia is a branded environment so highly controlled that it encompasses visual, touch, aural, smell and taste predictabilities. We all knew that. Yeah, but like a retail chain, the design code enacted on an urban place desires the familiarity of a utopia made in the creator’s image. It biases security over danger; control over freedom. Some proponents of design codes would say the ideal urban neighbourhood is both attainable and able to be blueprinted. And that amenability to specification means it is subject to someone’s authorial intent. Just as Howard Schulz had a vision for a friendly culture of coffee drinking and urbane pick-me-ups, so Andres Duany of the US-based New Urbanism movement insitigates blocks of radial street patterns with subtly varied frontages and civic hearts – a smooth suburban space with prozac aesthetics.
The design code is a branded product and like any brand concept, it is a result of late capitalist logic that colonizes anything that can have a monetary value attached. Compare the alcohol-fuelled teen that will fuck anything that moves. Cartography, local planning policy, the design professions, the media have all conspired to make the masterplan – even the idea of regeneration – one such product. And though aspects of it have been ensnared in a compromising net of commodification, the concept of the ’urban’ remains as unfixed and elusive as ever. Design codes have been described as “taking the confrontation out of planning.” We like confrontation. Bring it on!

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