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.