Thursday, 20 January 2011

Separated at birth?

The Rogers Stirk Harbour-designed One Hyde Park, with its super luxury flats, had a high profile launch party yesterday which got plenty of attention in the press. The jaw-dropping prices and billionaire interiors received more attention than RSH's architecture, and no one seems to have noticed the building's inspiration across town at the 1970's St Giles Hotel in the former YMCA building off the south end of Tottenham Court Road - revealed in the pictures above. The buildings share a remarkably similar 'parti' - architect speak for basic arrangement of plan and form - even to the extent of both relying on views out on the diagonal to avoid overlooking from one wing to the next, as in both cases they are quite tightly planned. But while you will be asked for quite a few tens of millions if you want one of the remaining flats in the new building, at the former YMCA there is, as the Village People observed, a 'place you can go...when you're short on your dough' and enjoy a poor man's version of the same experience for less than £100 a night.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Piloti has a funny turn

Private Eye's Nooks and Corners column, which deals with planning and architecture, can usually be relied upon for tweedy, miserabilist huffing and puffing, sweeping up (with that same lack of discrimination for which its targets are so often criticised) the worthwhile along with the worthless in its scattergun loathing of anything that has happened in architecture after, roughly, Le Corbusier abandoned twiddly mouldings.

Very surprising, therefore, to find that the column in the latest issue begins with two paragraphs of (grudging, caveated) praise for the new masterplan for Chelsea Barracks. What's going on? No good can come of this.

Happily, the natural order of things is restored within a sentence or two, and the point of the item revealed - a characteristic moan about the project developer Qatari Diar's application for a certificate of immunity from listing for the Victorian chapel on the site.

Piloti's judgement in matters of listing can be gauged from a subsequent item which appears to suggest that a former workhouse in Cleveland Street W1, the subject of a current campaign, should be listed because Dickens lived nearby. Hmmm.

Gehl at NLA

To a packed event at the New London Architecture galleries, where Professor Jan Gehl gives a talk to promote his most recent book Cities for People.

He's a terrifically engaging speaker, his command of English striking just the right balance between communicating well while remaining very Nordic and therefore inherently more plausible than a Brit on the subject of humane, people-centred urban environments. We've heard most of it it all before, but it can't be said often enough, and Gehl is the man who was saying it earlier than most and more clearly and consistently than most.

It became apparent that in spite of successes such as Trafalgar Square and Kensington High Street, London is pretty off the pace when it comes to tarmac-culling, pedestrian and cyclist friendly streetscape improvements such as are now happening even all over Manhattan, as well as in Scandinavia, Australia and elsewhere.

Gehl has reached the level of authority and seniority where he can take the mickey, in a charming manner, out of named as well as generic purveyors of form-obsessed urban soullessness. Those architects' drawings showing new urban environments implausibly overpopulated by people enjoying themselves - activity he describes as 'unspecified public life' - were ruthlessly contrasted with photos of the deserted reality.

He is clear that architects should spend less time obsessing about forms on the skyline and more time worrying about life lived with feet on the ground, but perhaps most striking was the thought that perhaps these two worlds have far less to do with each other than one might assume. The neglect of the public realm in design is not a necessary consequence of attention to other things (except insofar as there are only so many hours in the designer's day) - we ought to be able to have both.

The evening ended with reflections on whether economies such as China and India can learn the lessons sooner than we did, relative to their state of development. The signs are not hopeful. I was reminded of a story of an occasion when London's then Mayor Ken Livingstone visited Beijing with Richard Rogers. On a tour of the streets of the city, they exclaimed 'all these bicycles!' - but the admiring tones were lost in translation, and they were told 'Don't worry, we're meeting our targets for getting them all cars.'