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.