SESAH Annual Conference 2023
Administrative Reverie: Master Plans as Institutional Dreamwork
Conference Presentation, September 2023

This paper theorized master planning as an administrative act distinct from architecture and urban design, one that mobilizes design expertise in support of the anticipative, projective, and imaginative faculties of bureaucratic institutions. Once adopted, master plans channel institutional growth and change but also, to varying degrees, manage and control architecture itself. Unlike most urban design proposals, master plans tend to establish stylistic standards to enforce aesthetic cohesion in excess of spatial arrangement. Producing a master plan requires a blend of omniscience and naivete, a stance that often causes designers to suspend disbelief in order to offer grand, abstract visions. Drawing from research in the collection of institutional planning consultant, author, and educator Richard P. Dober—particularly his work on the initial master planning phase of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta—this paper argues that as architects took on master planning projects in the post-WWII years, a phase shift took place that was as much methodological as it was professional. On the one hand, designing master plans allowed architects to champion abstract composition using closed spaces and volumes, an approach that was otherwise forbidden by functionalist dogma during the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, unlike other scales of modernist design, these projects’ success is often judged purely by the persuasiveness of their visual communication. On the other hand, master plans are often accompanied by hundreds of pages of bureaucratic paperwork documenting existing conditions, itemizing needs, and justifying projections— work that only specialists like Dober could effectively complete. As opposed to the infrastructural approach taken by engineers or the technocratic approach of administrators, what is it that designers bring to the practice of master planning? Why do these administrative reveries remain compelling despite their frequent failure to be realized in recognizable form?

Contact sheet showing master planning consultant Richard P. Dober meeting with Coretta Scott King and members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center board, early 1970s (Dober Collection, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design) .