Monday, 20 December 2010

Strictly local

The winner of Strictly Come Dancing is chosen by popular vote, with expert commentary and advice available to the voters, who can accept the advice or reject it as they wish.

That's quite like the relationship between a design review process (which generally speaking involves peer or expert review, and does not claim to be representative) and decision making by local councillors (who are generally not experts, but represent voters).

The rhetoric of the current Government tends to deprecate 'unelected quangoes' and the like, and favour opportunities for 'local people' to decide things. In fact, of course, that's pretty much what we have now - the advisers advise, and decisions are made by the representatives of the people (through a system called 'representative democracy via secret ballot'. which has been cleverly designed to ensure that everyone has a say, not just the pushy).

Architects often have mixed feelings about others commenting on their designs. Many would prefer it if no one commented, and they could just get on with things - after all , they spend a long time learning how to design buildings. Peer review is not always popular - but may be preferred to the popular vote.

Openness and debate are good. Strictly has all the elements of a good decision making process - informed by experts, but not left entirely in the hands of experts.

But we do seem to end up with quite a lot of 'Widdecombe' buildings, so perhaps we need to look at it a bit more closely.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Keeping it simple

The Localism Bill is just out, and it includes significant planning measures, including the introduction of 'neighbourhood planning'.

A month ago, the RIBA had a meeting with Greg Clark, the decentralisation minister. It was put to him that (1) one of the few things that everyone could agree on about the planning system was that it was too complicated and ought to be made simpler; and that (2) every reform that set out with this ambition had the result of making the system more complicated rather than simplifying it.

He made a note of this.

Neighbourhood planning could be a good thing in theory, if one takes the optimistic view. But in practice, it seems very likely indeed that an already over-complicated system will yet again become more so, and the absurd micro-management of every last aspect of a planning application will intensify.

Mr Clark's boss Mr Pickles says he wants to cut through pointless bureaucracy, but has just put his name to a Bill that will have the opposite effect.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Not much pleasure in these ruins

Owen Hatherley's 'A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain' (Verso,2010) is a highly readable (though depressing) and well-informed (though opinionated) account of recent architecture and development culture in this country, considered, through portraits of a dozen or so cities from Southampton to Glasgow, in the light of the changing priorities and preoccupations of the postwar decades.

If you read the annual guides to the RIBA Awards, you could get quite excited about the quality of new buildings in the UK. If you read AJ and BD each week, you can still be reasonably optimistic; Property Week is maybe a bit less inspiring. If you drive around the dystopian fringes of most cities, though, or look out of the window of any train as it leaves any city, then it's not hard to see what Hatherley is on about. You are struck by how different the real world of lumpen everyday design and build is from those glossy pictures in the magazines, and how much more prevalent it is; and it's not hard to get as fed up as Hatherley is about what we are doing to the places we redevelop, even if you think what we built in the 60s wasn't always quite as great as he does, in spite of the best intentions.

The 'New Ruins' is not for the easily discouraged, but it would make a good Christmas present for urban boosterists, or Pollyannas who think all it would take to sort out our problems would be to give more projects to talented architects - a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition if cities are to recover from the various malaises diagnosed by Hatherley.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Smithfield Market - wholesale heritage

Today's Observer, in 'This week in 1849', quotes an article from that year bemoaning the 'Smithfield nuisance': 'The Corporation of London seem resolved to stand by the Smithfield Market and uphold it in all their integrity of filth, disease and crime. More shame for them!'

The source of the problems at that time was livestock, which came here from the countryside for sale since at least the 10th century. Within a few years, the cattle market had been moved north to Islington - you can see the remnants off Market Road, opposite the Astroturf - and from then on it was carcases rather than live beasts that were brought here. Horace Jones' meat market buildings, still in use today, were built at Smithfield in the 1860s.

Filth, disease and crime are not apparent at Smithfield today (at least, not at the market) but you can still see porters with bits of carcase on their shoulders. One imagines there may be some amongst the tidy minded who would be happy to see this market disappear in turn. The City's planning policies support its retention, but not in very strong terms. All the other wholesale markets in central London have moved out - to see what we lost, watch Lindsay Anderson's 'Every Day except Christmas' (1957) and Hitchcock's 'Frenzy' (1972), for a mixed use nirvana of cheery cockney fruit and veg selling in Covent Garden.

Does it still make sense to have this market here today, serviced by particulate-belching articulated lorries, a short walk from the heart of the City? In the nineteenth century, meat came here directly by train, via sidings off the lines that run below the market (which are currently being upgraded for Thameslink) - the lost art of the integrated sustainable transport solution.

But the fact is that Smithfield still seems to work, lorries and all. Commuters wander to work through the Grand Avenue amongst the porters, pallets and forklifts, without apparent difficulty. Imagine the fuss if this was proposed as a new piece of planning today.

Michael Sorkin's marvellous 'Twenty Minutes in Manhattan' reminds us how conservationists so often miss the point in thinking that it is buildings rather than activity that mainly determine the character of an area. It is hard to imagine the present rich mix of the Smithfield / Clerkenwell area becoming yet richer if the meat market were to be replaced by 'tidier' uses. We can get scented candles elsewhere.

Today's causes are less visceral than those of the 1840s - most recently at Smithfield, the proposed redevelopment of the moribund General Market building, at the west end of the complex on Farringdon Road, was contended at a public inquiry. It is not much of a building, unused and depressingly consistent with much of Farringdon Road in the dead character of its frontages. If that building was replaced by a more useful one, there might be a bit of a 'heritage loss', but not much, and if done well there would be significant gains. The character of Smithfield would not change much. If the butchers went, that would be a different kettle of fish - they would not come back, and Smithfield would really become less 'locally distinctive', and more like everywhere else.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Robin Hood Gardens redevelopment - architectural vandalism or mercy killing?

Designs to replace Robin Hood Gardens, the 1970s housing estate in Tower Hamlets designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, have been revealed.

The debate about the merits or otherwise of Robin Hood Gardens over the last few years, resulting from the news that it was being considered for demolition, has not shown the architectural profession, or architectural journalism, in a particularly brilliant light. Amid strident accusations of architectural vandalism, questions about whether you want 'great architects' with interesting theories to design social housing were left on the sidelines. And in the trite description of such projects as 'experimental', the question of how the results of the 'experiment' were supposed to have been monitored, and what the findings were, remain largely undiscussed (there was no such exercise, of course).

The Smithsons' reputation has increased over time. They were powerful polemicists and effective self-promoters. There is little argument that the Economist complex in St James is a masterpiece which has stood the test of time. But many remain sceptical about the Smithsons' built achievements considered in the round. Hugh Pearman wrote about the architects under the title 'Should Alison and Peter Smithson have stuck to talking?'. A dispassionate look at Robin Hood Gardens today reveals the relevance of that question. Robin Hood Gardens, later than and derivative of earlier projects such as Park Hill, is just not that good or that interesting as architecture, and it feels dysfunctional as a place. The idea of using buildings to enclose communal public space is claimed by the project's supporters as a masterstroke, but it's hard to see the result as an advance on the eighteenth and nineteenth century squares, the builders of which appear to have had the idea rather earlier.

Today, Robin Hood Gardens is a run down and depressing place. While it has suffered from the neglect common to many postwar social housing projects, the flaws lie in the design as well as what happened after completion. Demolition appears by far the most sensible option.

Research into the critical reception of Robin Hood Gardens revealed a remarkable episode that took place ten years or so after it was completed. The architect and critic Robert Maxwell wrote an account of taking the leading Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti to see the project in the early 1980s: ‘He wanted to see Robin Hood Gardens……We looked all over it, which was not easy. Many of the flats were boarded up, there were broken milk bottles and a smell of urine everywhere. There was hardly anyone about. This was not the jolly street life envisaged for street-decks. We were all at a loss, and not a word was spoken. We turned away…. Only a visit to Berlage’s Holland House, on our way back, could cheer him up.’

The connection made here between Robin Hood Gardens and Holland House is remarkable, because their elevations are structured in very similar ways - see below. Did they visit Holland House by chance, because it was already on Gregotti's list of things he wanted to see, or because someone said to him ' we can show you this kind of thing done a lot better.'

Where Berlage is all sensuality and detail, the Smithsons offer, well, Brutalism. The demolition of Robin Hood Gardens will not be a great loss to the world. The problem, as with other Brutalist buildings, is that it is clearly a 'something' rather than a nothing. The challenge to the architects of the replacement scheme is to improve on the architecture as well as the housing.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

It's a wrap. Or possibly not.

The AJ reports Lord Coe defending, and architect Rod Sheard attacking, the decision to leave out the 'wrap' which was to have formed the cladding to the whole of the outside of the 2012 main stadium below the roof structure.

This issue was already being discussed when the above photo was taken in July, and at that time it was already looking like a bad idea to leave out the wrap.

The back of Piano and Rogers' Pompidou Centre in Paris is an example of a building facade without a wrap. It still looks good, because everything that was revealed was designed to be seen, and worked out accordingly - a visual effect achieved at considerable expense - money well spent as far as the architecture is concerned, but costlier than providing a 'wrap' covering it all up, and letting the services subcontractors do what they want behind it.

At the stadium site this summer, large amounts of miscellaneous kit were already being installed in the void below the seating, and it was obvious that it had not been designed with a view to looking good - it had the look of equipment laid out pragmatically with little thought to its appearance. At the time, it was still undecided as to whether it would be visible or not.

Expect to see a lot of electrical trunking and suchlike in plain view if you visit in 2012 - and probably some ad hoc advertising opportunities to cover up any particularly unfortunate consequences of this decision. Maybe the RIBA should take one: 'Should have listened to the architect'.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Design review by royal appointment

It seems that the Prince's Foundation would like to run a design review programme. Presumably this would be a sort of revival of the 'licence to crenellate', which applied a while back.

Prince Charles' tastes over the years have seemed to favour the classical rather than the Gothic, but it's never been clear whether he would really prefer to turn the clock back to roughly the eighteenth century - the peak of Georgian excellence, but by which time the powers of kings were already a bit restricted - or roughly the thirteenth century - Gothic architecture, but proper kings.

However, it seems that the popular view of the licence to crenellate - that it was a favour which was in the royal gift - is mistaken. According to the historian Charles Coulson, there was in practice not much restriction on building castles, and there was 'very slight chance of interference by royal officials even in so intensively governed a realm as England.'

But that was then.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

One New Change

To EC4 to witness the grand opening of Jean Nouvel's One New Change - the City's brand new monument to retail. It was mobbed with City workers taking an early lunch - there was even the obligatory street performer on stilts, just like architects always draw. He had a French accent ('no phurtos, s'il vous plait'), so perhaps it was Nouvel, who is not tall and might have been worried about being lost in the crowd on his big day.

The eye-catching 'stealth bomber' architecture has been criticised as 'likely to become dated' by some of the design chatterati - a line of attack which always needs to be challenged. St Paul's cathedral on the other side of the road can be dated by a historian, but does it look 'dated'? The mania for 'barcode' elevations and the like has been subject to the same criticism, but Eric Parry's building in Finsbury Square, an excellent example of the style and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, seems likely to stand the test of time simply because it is a good piece of architecture. It will be possible to date it in a hundred years, just as we can now date an Edwardian civic building to within ten years or so without looking it up. Perhaps 'temporal distinctiveness' should be added to 'local distinctiveness' on the planners' checklists.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What is the English for urbanism?

If there is to be a CABE 2.0, then it would be good if it could be a proper champion for urbanism in England.

In a way, that is what it had already become - but it had never made this clear. CABE, rightly careful about use of language, has wherever possible avoided terms like urbanism and urban design, fearing that they are even more of a turn-off, for all except the professionals, than the word architecture (which they avoid like the plague). Yet its reviews of projects and its advice are far more focussed on urbanism than on architecture. Whether those architects and others who moan about CABE's activities are moaning because of this fact or in ignorance of it is not clear.

Architecture - designing buildings - is really difficult. Urban design is, in principle, easy by comparison. It is delivery that is the difficult bit. For various reasons, urban design is got wrong in England, constantly and everywhere.

The Urban Design Group, the Academy of Urbanism, the Urban Design Alliance etc. all exist separately, with slightly different remits - all are well intentioned and sound - but are little heard and not effective on the ground - certainly if the evidence of what gets built in most places is anything to go by.

There is no strong nexus for urbanism at the RIBA or the RTPI, and none in government. If a minister took and interest and got the point and asked who to go to to find out more, it would be hard to know where to point them.

If there is to be a new version of CABE more independent of the government, it should be a national centre for urbanism, with a strong physical presence, and a shop window prominent in central London. All of the organisations with an urban in the title should be rolled into it, and major developers and landowners should support it.

Then we might have the beginnings of a decent, public-facing Baukultur, as the Germans call it - an urban development culture, with a common language, free of gobbledegook, understood by professionals, public bodies, the private sector and the public. 'Civic architect' is an example of a term that gives the flavour and communicates readily to most people - Leeds City Council has just got rid of the last example of this once common post in England.

If we got that culture working properly, with better briefs, better clients and better planning authorities, there could be a framework where architects could be left to design buildings without the constant irritation (apparently) of busybodies telling them where they are going wrong.

This would all take several decades, and in this period the precepts of urbanism will probably change in all sorts of ways anyway because of climate change - all the more reason to get on with it.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Dynamic view protection

It's good news that Indian elephants have been given the protection of heritage status. But how do you protect a view of an elephant?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Reports of CABE's death greatly exaggerated?

CABE is severely threatened by the withdrawal of funding, but it appears that it is not actually being abolished, as many other quangos have been.

CABE is eleven years old. That is about the age that someone or other - the Spartans? - put their children out in the wild for a few days to see if they survived; and that seems to be the Government's attitude to CABE. Learning to forage will be the order of the day.

There has been a national design review programme in England since the 1920s - the Royal Fine Art Commission did the job before it was wound up and replaced by CABE in 1999. If you went back and looked at the RFAC's judgements about projects in the 1950s, 1970s or 1990s, you'd find much the same issues being discussed in much the same way as in CABE's reviews now. Peer review is peer review, and it's generally a good thing.

CABE has always promoted the value of good design - taking various senses of the word value, but including the monetary one. This thesis is to be put to the test rather directly now, as they seem likely to have to seek out those who are prepared to pay for design review.

My money (but only in the metaphorical sense) is on a national design review programme carrying on in some form.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Eighty years of made up names

Troubled architectural practice Archial is to be bought out by a Canadian firm, Ingenium; and so what could the new firm possibly be called but 'Ingenium Archial', if the AJ website is to be believed.

Whatever happened to the idea that language is a means of communication? Who comes up with these names?

Do you remember Consignia, as the Post Office became briefly, only to back down in the face of universal ridicule? I wonder if Ingenium Archial do.

There is, however, a problem with looking down one's nose at made up names of this kind, which is that the trend appears to have been started by a really great practice: Tecton. Perhaps Ingenium Archial will turn out to be their heirs.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The irregulars

Panter Hudspith are a practice whose buildings I often admire and this remarkable new block of flats in Bear Lane, south of Southwark Street, is a good example.

It is interesting in a number of ways. The building responds to its irregular and varied site; thinking about this in relation to the practice's other buildings, it caused me to reflect on how some architects are much better at dealing with irregularity and some much better at regularity. Panter Hudspith seem to have a highly pragmatic temperament and (in my view) are at their best responding to varied conditions - as found also in their buildings of recent years in Lincoln (museum) and Cambridge (residential over shops). Other have interests and aptitudes that incline more to regularity.

Clients when choosing their architects might like think about the shape of their site and take this into account. Mies or Michael Hopkins might not be at their best struggling with funny shapes; Giancarlo de Carlo or Panter Hudspith might not excel given a square city block.

This may be genetic. Watching small children with building blocks (when left to their own devices) one can observe that some are predisposed to arrange them asymmetrically, other symmetrically. It's not obvious which confers the evolutionary advantage, but perhaps a survey of Stirling Prize winners would provide an answer.

The dreary and the cheery

In Union Street in Southwark you can find this recent Travelodge, much of its elevations made of the kind of dark grey 'fairfaced' blockwork normally confined to the insides of plant rooms and suchlike. While apparently many people find Southwark's planners pretty picky, they seem to have let this one go.

Close to this dreary hotel, you can find, on the corner of Dolben Street and Bear Lane (and opposite an extraordinary new building by Panter Hudspith, to which I will return) something much cheerier: a new block of flats where the choice of external materials has lifted a building rather than spoiling it - in this case, a glorious green glazed brick, used to great effect on a big curved wall (the photo above does not do justice to the colour at all). The architects are Association of Ideas (AOI).

Taken together, these are two good examples of how the planning system appears to be too busy obsessing about all sorts of things that don't matter very much to pay much attention to things that do matter. If all the planners controlled was external materials, and if they did that job well, might that be a better system than the one we have?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Walk to work day - spirit of the Blitz

A tube strike is a nuisance, but there is something pleasing about seeing far more people than usual walking on the streets - and not just because it makes them resemble the way that architects always draw street views, with more people than is plausible. Old photos of everyday street scenes often show more pedestrians than one would expect today - so do street scenes in mid-century films by the likes of Preston Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock, which can look contrived today but perhaps appeared natural at the time. In the past there was more experience for everyone of this basic communal activity, presumably not because there were fewer people on tubes, but because there were fewer people sealed away in their cars. The optimist might detect, in the rush hour today, a slightly increased sense of common purpose, in (very mild) adversity, at a time when the media are commemorating the start of the Blitz.

Keep calm and carry on.

The Olde Mitre

The Olde Mitre pub, near Holborn Circus, is a good example of the general rule that most 'rules' of urban design etc. are there to be broken. Accessed down an alley which is about 1200mm wide, the pub appears to do good business, and is packed at times. If you proposed this as a new route to get to a new bar, the police would object, so would the people who collect rubbish, so would the planners, and so would the commercial agents.

The charming sign on the lamppost on the pavement in Hatton Garden helps you find it for the first time. Locals were distraught when this was trashed earlier in the year, and it seemed unlikely that it would be replaced - but it has been. Well done to whoever sorted this out.

The Olde Mitre is recommended, in spite of the tacky orthography, for good beer- and a rare opportunity to buy a pickled egg from a jar on the counter.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

New does not mean bad

To Gustafson Porter's delightful and popular Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, with visitors to London who have not seen it before. They are hugely impressed - particularly so since (habitual readers of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail) they had been predisposed, from memories of press coverage when it opened, to think that it was a great disaster and scandalous waste of money.

There is so often such negativity about anything new, bold, interesting, different that is to be built. The Angel of the North, now a proud symbol for the whole of Geordiedom, famously only happened because of the courage of a few individuals who stuck their necks out in the face of near universal moaning and ridicule.

It seems that neophobia is often a self-limiting condition. Unfortunately, though, bad decisions can be taken by people in the grip of it.

We are used to the consequences of this. What is less clear is the extent to which it is genuinely widespread, or the consequence of a a few noisy people with sharp elbows getting their way. Sometimes there is a ray of sunshine - congratulations, for example, to the Councillors of South Oxfordshire, who have approved Rowan Atkinson's Richard Meier-designed country house scheme against the recommendations of their officers to refuse it.

Monday, 2 August 2010


Ace Guardian reporter Rob Booth, formerly editor of Building Design magazine, writes in today's Guardian on the government of Iran's plans for a new embassy in South Kensington.

Proposed for a prime site that has sat mystifyingly empty for decades, the scheme looks designed to provoke a reaction. And that's what it's got - locals are already calling on Prince Charles to intervene. I feel a bit sorry for him in this case - he runs the risk of being seen as forever on call as a royal rent-a-nimby. Perhaps a case for a discreet private letter? But who to write to? Since the Iranian regime is a 'theocratic republic', HRH may have less of an obvious route to the top than elsewhere in the Middle East.

The scheme itself, as far as one can tell from the image published in the Guardian, seems to conflate the idea or parti behind Rem Koolhaas' Dutch embassy in Berlin (freestanding modern object cunningly integrated into corner of traditional urban block) with the sort of architecture that served for London's German embassy (modern, but reassuringly stucco), then given a further modern twist (corners of windows at 80 degrees or so, rather than the old fashioned 90).

The progress of this scheme will be worth watching. Will CABE pronounce? English Heritage? Could there be opportunities for them to gain or lose brownie points where it matters, in the current uncertain climate for both bodies?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Could we Get Smarter with Brutalist buildings?

The famous 'Get Carter' car park which dominates Gateshead's skyline is being demolished to make way for a new supermarket.

Its architect Owen Luder was on good form on Radio 4's Today programme, clear-eyed and refreshingly unsentimental about its loss, in contrast with the huffing and puffing often heard from architects in similar circumstances.

The car park is/was a fine example of concrete Brutalism and like others of its kind - Luder's now-demolished Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, RobinHood Gardens etc. - it provokes both love and loathing. But not in equal measure - the popular vote is usually about 10 against to 1 in favour.

The problem with replacing the car park in Gateshead is that it is a 'something' which (if the redevelopment is anything like what one expects today - from the Michael Caine architecture of Luder to the Michael McIntyre designs of the average new retail development) is going to be replaced with a 'nothing' that, as Luder pointed out, is unlikely to generate a national news item when knocked down in 30 years' time.

My former CABE colleague Jon Rouse suggested that the car park's helical circulation, combined with the boy racer proclivities of the Geordies, made it ideally suited to creative re-use as a go-kart facility: 'Get Karting'.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Stirling Prize - wacky vs worthy

This year's candidates for the Stirling Prize have been announced - the usual eclectic mix, from an exotic gallery (in Rome by Zaha Hadid) to a south London school (Clapham Manor by dRMM).

They are all very good, I imagine - they are all RIBA Award winners. And it's not easy to compare apples with pears (although both have an attribute in common with buildings - the inside is often not as appealing as the glossy outside led you to hope).

What do you go for? Celebrate Zaha as the cavalier swansong of the age of bling - or is this the kind of award that confirms the prejudices held by 80% of the public about architecture? Or do you give the prize to Chipperfield's Berlin museum - a sober, roundhead alternative, more in tune with the times.

If I were a judge, I'd be choosing at least partly on political grounds. And with two schools on the list, I think I could see what the shortlisters are getting at - though I'd be worried that they've managed to split the vote in the process.

Give the prize to a school, and show the public the new schools that the Government won't be letting them have any more (unless they have time to build their own). The trouble is, though, that there are lots of quite good new schools. Is any one of them really the best building in the country this year? Probably not - but I'd be happy to accept it as a bit of point scoring.

I'm sure the real judges just go on merit. But... I see William Hill have Zaha as favourite - bet on her if you want, but I won't be.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Mr Bean builds his dream house

Rowan Atkinson has applied for planning permission for a new Richard Meier-designed house in the Oxfordshire countryside.

The usual suspects are lined up on both sides - locals, as reported in the Mail and the Telegraph, are up in arms; but Lord Rogers and Professor Burdett both think it's great.

Couldn't we, just for once, have a controversial modernist project that Lord Rogers, after careful scrutiny of the drawings, decides isn't quite up to scratch; or one that Colonel Sir Tufton Bufton of the Old Rectory is pleasantly surprised to find doesn't conform to his preconceptions, and actually makes a rather wonderful addition to the landscape - in much the same way, now he comes to think about it, that the late Lord Burlington might have chosen to do, were he still with us.

It appears not.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Prefabs to sprout?

The Nasty Party seem to have done away with the possibility of building many proper new schools for the next few years. But demographic pressures, in London at least, won't go away, and there is a growing need for new school places - never mind rebuilding the existing stock. So we can expect a boom in prefab classrooms.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it would be a good idea for architects to start thinking about the possibilities. Colin Davies's excellent book The Prefabricated Home (Reaktion, 2005) contains an interesting discussion of architects' various hang ups about mass produced buildings, and highlights a number of examples of architects who have grasped the opportunity to turn prefabs from buildings into architecture, and not just in housing projects, by means of a few cheap but ingenious moves (Nicholas Lacey at Trinity Buoy Wharf, Penoyre and Prasad in Bloomsbury).

When materials and money were in short supply in the decades after the end of WW2, the ingenuity of architects gave us the Hertfordshire schools and low budget housing of considerable quality. Good architects are resourceful and ingenious, and good architecure doesn't necessarily flow from plentiful supplies of stainless steel and polished granite. There's no reason why the coming Age of Austerity shouldn't give us better buildings than we got in the Age of Bling. Unless those in charge think that most money spent on architects's fees is wasted.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

To the exhibition 1:1 - architects build small spaces at the V&A. It's on until 30 August and is a pleasure to the mind and the eye, full of charm and inventiveness. Don't miss it.

Seven invited practices from around the world, nearly all unknown to me, demonstrate a wonderful variety of approaches to creating small domestic structures. Delight in geometry, in the manipulation of scale and space, in the qualities of natural materials and in pure tectonics are all in evidence, as well as examples of how responsiveness to cultural context in architecture is not incompatible with the exercising of the imagination (I'm sure you didn't think it was, but building in a conservation area in this country is still more likely to be a problem than an opportunity - but I digress...).

A lesson, perhaps, to those - some of them perhaps in positions of power now - who don't quite get the possibilities of 'delight' in architecture.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Wrong building demolished in Farringdon

A very big hole has appeared in the townscape of Farringdon Road (London EC1), on the corner with Cowcross Street, where a building has been knocked down to allow the construction of the Crossrail station.

Unfortunately, they seem to have knocked down the wrong one.

The one that went was one of those neutral 1960s offices building that no one ever notices, even though it's far bigger than its neighbours. The one they left, to its north, shown above, is a po-mo (post-modern) number from the 1980s. According to the Survey of London this was described by Hugh Pearman as 'Early Learning Centre architecture' and nominated by him as one of the two worst buildings of 1992. It is regularly namechecked as people's least favourite postwar building in London (and there's some competition).

A few years ago, while working for CABE, I was twice involved in trying to find new offices for them. We couldn't pay very high rents, and the space that came up tended to be in office buildings built either in the 1980s or in the 1960s. On more than one occasion, we found half decent space in a 1980s office building that was so embarrassingly awful in its appearance - usually involving shiny purple granite and large balls used prominently somewhere as a decorative element - that we decided we couldn't locate there; each time we went for more neutral examples of 1960s architecture, first at the very plain Elizabeth House in Waterloo, and then at the architecturally superior and slightly more assertive, but still calmly classy, CAA building in Kingsway.

It's a generation thing, I think - maybe Oedipal in origin. Each generation reacts against the tastes of the one before. At the moment, po-mo looks decidedly not the thing, but maybe it will come back. Buildings can be listed, generally speaking, after 30 years, so the earliest 1980s buildings can now be considered. Stirling's No. 1 Poultry, a rather later building, would be top of my list as a London exemplar of the movement.

The building at Farringdon wouldn't be. If the Crossrail project was being run by quality surveyors rather than quantity surveyors, surely a way would have been found of getting rid of this monster.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The view from the back yard

Communities secretary Eric Pickles has written to local authorities to tell them that they should decide on housing numbers, rather than having the numbers dictated via regional targets - as trailed in the Tories' statements before the election. He states that 'it will no longer be possible to concrete over large swathes of the country without any regard to what local people want'.

I wonder what 'local people' those are, then - presumably not the ones looking for somewhere to live.

Tory planning policies (and presumably now the coalition's) have been widely criticised as a nimby's charter. The problem is that most new housing, particularly greenfield housing, is pretty terrible, so the problem is probably not an irrational dislike of new development, but an evidence-based dislike, based on a reasonable guess as to what one is likely to get in one's back yard.

Improving the quality of what gets built is therefore more important than ever, if 'local people' (I'm never quite sure how they differ from 'people') are to be provided with new homes.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Plenty of room on top?

What is it about London Mayors and buses?

Boris's decon/recon Routemaster, launched this week, looks like a mixed blessing, but at least it takes up less room than Ken's hated bendy buses.

In their approach to London's limited supply of land, Ken's and Boris's housing and transport policies offer an interesting set of contrasts.

Ken wanted the housing piled up high to save space, but the bendy buses took up twice as much road as their predecessors and consequently blocked junctions (as well as offering big savings on rides up and down Kingsland Road to the youth of Hackney, who christened one route the '2-4-free' as there appeared to be no need to buy a ticket).

Boris's phasing out of the bendies frees up the roads, but he's less keen on high density and high rise housing.

Probably the effects will cancel out. There may be some sort of scientific Law of Conservation of Open Space at work here.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Modernity and tradition on the Suffolk coast

This extraordinary concrete church, St Andrew in Felixstowe (1929-31, listed at Grade II*) was designed by Hilda Mason in collaboration with Raymond Erith. It mixes modern architectural themes and modern construction with clear references to the medieval churches of East Anglia.

Erith, born in 1904, went on to become a leading classical architect in the postwar period when classical architecture was completely out of fashion, and in due course was the mentor and partner of Quinlan Terry.

I don’t know who Hilda Mason was. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon by Elizabeth Scott was, I seem to remember, cited as the only major or listed pre-war public building by a female architect. It seems this is not the case. And the church looks more interesting than the theatre.

St Andrew’s made me wonder whether Erith could have gone on to be a much more interesting architect had he taken a different path – maybe in the vein of George Pace, or William Whitfield in his later buildings.

Robert McCrum, in today’s Observer, reflects on the difficulty that writers and other artists find in remaining creative as they age. No problem for geniuses such as Picasso, but not so easy in the lower tiers. One can’t help noticing that the second half of the average ‘best of’ CD isn’t worth listening to. The late novelist Simon Raven remarked that ‘as people get older they get more conservative and more boring’ – I think we’ve all noticed that. The architect Tony Fretton, giving a talk at the RIBA’s Small Practice conference a couple of years ago, observed that the visual language of architecture is renewed by small young practices. We seldom see anything new from the ‘great’ or leading architects today, once they are established – we have to seek it out elsewhere.

So Erith starts out, aged 25 or so, with an association with a building that is still startling today, and ends up pursuing a kind of architecture where originality is not so highly admired. Leon Krier’s trajectory is similar: early modernist-influenced work while working for James Stirling rejected in favour of a conversion to traditional ways of thinking about architecture and urbanism.

So might the conversions of Erith and Krier to traditional design be no more than examples of the syndrome that Raven articulated? If creativity dries up in middle age, then a philosophy that regards creativity as overvalued sounds like an expedient strategy to adopt at about that time.

I wish I knew more about Hilda Mason.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Poundbury - back to the future

On a trip to Dorset recently, we drove past Poundbury on the Dorchester bypass.

Overcoming various prejudices, I quite admire the first bit of Poundbury to have been completed. Ok, it's not Hammerby, but compared with most of the pitiful products of the volume housebuilders, it's admirable, at least in terms of built form. As a place to live, it's probably weird - The Prisoner meets The Archers. Check out the Forelocktuggers Arms in the village square, for example.

Poundbury is evidently growing, though - and, I fear, not in a good way. The view from the bypass of the more recent parts reminded me of one of those Leon Krier polemical projects from about thirty years ago. His thinking underpins much of what has happened here. In spite of his unfortunate association with Prince Charles and the latter's strange ideas, Krier's influence, which has been signficant, has in my view done more good than harm over the years. But the sheer oddity of the view from the bypass illustrates the difference between polemic and what should ever be built (compare Le Corbusier and the Ville Radieuse). Whatever the way to build urban extensions is, it's not this.

Happily, we drove on and found the Hive Beach Cafe.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Herding cats at Portland Place

Nominations are open to stand for President of the RIBA. It's not an easy job. Trying to lead architects is like herding cats.

Consider comparisons with other professions. I doubt you would get much consensus from architects on how to complete this table:

Answers might include:

Beauty ( / truth )
Meeting the requirements of the client’s brief
“Design quality”
I don’t understand the question
What a stupid question…

Having served on the RIBA Council for a few years now, I’d say that we’ve been quite lucky with our presidents in recent years (Jack Pringle, Sunand Prasad and Ruth Reed). I suspect the trick is just to be yourself rather than take it upon yourself to represent the whole profession.

Who’s next? Papabile candidates are thin on the ground. Nominations close on 14 May; white smoke later in the summer.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

At Potters Fields

The area around London's City Hall now offers a selection of case studies in landscape design, from new public space at its best all the way to 'landscaping' applied as a failed attempt to recover a hopeless bit of urban design.

The new Potters Fields park opposite the Tower of London, designed by Gross Max, is a triumph - it is simple, elegant, and hugely popular. The device of raising the lawn relative to the river wall, giving a view of the water to those sitting on the grass, is very successful - easy when you know how.

Not far away is an example of the dark side of 'landscaping' - a term the landscape architect Tom Lonsdale once warned me to look out for as an indicator of the sort of stuff applied with a special felt tip to a 'landscaping layout' to fill the gaps between the buildings, which hadn't been considered by the architect (who was too busy working out the core layouts).

Here at the More London development, overlooking Potters Fields, there was a problem - a pointless gap between two buildings, blank ground floors either side. No problem - we'll fill it with some 'landscaping'. Bit of hard, bit of soft. Job done.

I'm not blaming the 'landscapers'.

London's negotiable skyline

The recent draft London Plan - the Mayor of London’s planning strategy - proposes changes to the capital’s view management regime which controls new development that would appear in important views, including those of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London.

Significant alterations to the London View Management Framework (LVMF) include adding a new protected view from Parliament Square across the Thames, and imposing more control over the view of Westminster from the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park. The changes, in the manner we have come to expect in the UK, ignore the normal English usage of the word ‘planning’ by following rather than anticipating development proposals. These changes affect some major development sites.

The Parliament Square view affects the area around Waterloo Station, including Allies and Morrison’s Three Sisters tower scheme recently refused planning permission after an inquiry. The Serpentine view affects plans for further tall buildings at Elephant and Castle, which lies bang on the alignment in question - the residential tower by Hamiltons under construction there is clearly visible from the Serpentine Bridge.

Several other geometrically defined viewing corridors are to be widened, restricting development opportunities elsewhere. There are a few views - the most important - where there is strict geometric definition which prevents buildings from being erected in front of the protected monuments: a system much the same now as when first developed in 1991. The rigour of this part of the regime mirrors that of the separate system of St Paul’s Heights restrictions in the City, dating from the 1930s, which receives far less attention than the LVMF.

Its rules are non-negotiable. Most of the rest of the LVMF is a bit like the Pirate’s Code in Pirates of the Caribbean: ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’. Much of what the LVMF purports to control is negotiable - a good example of the rule that the longer planning documents are, the less precise they are. And because the zone of uncertainty is so great, it is worth developers’ while to enter into protracted processes, ending at inquiry if necessary, to see how far the boundary can be pushed.

Architecture suffers as the brief expands or contracts on the hoof, according the progress of negotiations. The regime for London’s skyline, perhaps matching a wider cultural position, doesn’t know whether to look to the dynamism of New York or the stasis of Paris for the best way to regulate the skyline: both have their advocates. Yet I suspect that in either of those cities, if you want to find out what you can build, you simply look it up in a book.

We like our roundabout just the way it is

London is always changing, but a lot more stays the same than changes. Ian Nairn wrote of Sloane Square in Nairn’s London in 1966:

‘Apart from the traffic, Sloane is one of the most attractive squares in London….the space is right, the plane trees are right, the site is right, with….the Royal Court, facing Peter Jones….The square needs joining to both of them, instead of being misused as a traffic roundabout, and then filling with kiosks, a cafĂ©, more seats. Here really is one of the few sites of London where that wistful dream, a ‘Continental’ atmosphere, would spring up naturally’

Over forty years on, a recent scheme by architects Stanton Williams to do more or less what Nairn had suggested was torpedoed by an improbable alliance of local toffs, thesps and suchlike who wanted their roundabout preserved – and succeeded in bringing about an uncharacteristic failure of nerve by the otherwise admirably robust Councillor Moylan of RBKC.

This is a suitable case for the ‘flip test’, so often a helpful mental exercise: if the present situation is A and it is proposed to change it to B, one way of testing whether this is a good idea is to imagine that the present situation is B and it is proposed to change it to A. How would we feel about that?

In the case of Sloane Square, I am convinced that if the square today was as Stanton Williams had imagined it, and it was proposed to change it to the layout that in fact exists today, the same group of people (or perhaps the other half of the People’s Alliance of Thesps and Toffs) would be manning the barricades: ‘The vandals are at the gates, they want to turn our lovely square into a roundabout’.

Few (apart from moaners stuck in traffic on the Strand) would now want to return Trafalgar Square to its gyratory layout . That, while not perfect, is a terrific success: an example of Fosters' clarity of thinking at its best (I mention that as they may be criticised in other posts).

At Sloane Square, it was, as usual, change itself that was the problem.