Thursday, 16 June 2011


The AJ's Forgotten Spaces competition shows how neglected spaces can be revived thought the application of creativity and ingenuity, but those qualities are not alway in plentiful supply, and there are plenty of places that could be improved just with grass and trees and flower beds.

Run down public housing estates are an example. 'Estate regeneration', in London at least, seems to start with consideration of the building stock, but often it is everything between the buildings that is really the problem.  Some publicly or RSL-owned post-war housing estates have appallingly neglected 'public' realm where every (generally undesigned) intervention that does take place, from the location of bins to the erection of barriers, seems to say to tenants 'you don't matter and we don't care'.

But it's not easy for the landlords, even if well-intentioned - compared with more traditional layouts, such estates are full of too may acres of 'space left over after planning' that no one takes responsibility for.  And there's no money.

At the Abbots Manor Estate in Pimlico, for example, (pictured above), there is an area of greenery where the space between the buildings has been filled with areas of well maintained planting that has the look of something that tenants are involved in, and didn't need a design competition.  Whether or not this is the case, it suggests that there is a good way of dealing with all that pointless space on estates that no one loves, by digging up the (already potholed and time-expired) tarmac and getting the people who live there to grow things.  There are so many pluses to this that surely it should be encouraged everywhere, but particularly on 'problem' estates:

1. It will make the place look better, and might provide some flowers and fruit and veg.
2. Gardening is good for you and the gardeners will be healthier and happier.
3. If there are people there with nothing to do, this is something for them to do.
4. It provides a good reason for people who are not up to no good to occupy and take ownership of the public space: eyes on the street.
5. Without wanting to get all 'big society' about it, it ought to be a good thing for people who live together in a place to have the opportunity to do something together that is so self-evidently beneficial.

- but anyway, a worthwhile target for 'big society' funding if ever there was one.

One could parody the difference between 1960s public housing and present day mass market private housing as having somehow flipped from, then, decent well planned flats built to Parker Morris space standards but set in a dystopian wasteland of decaying external space -  to, now, nasty, gloomy, badly laid out hutches designed for 3/4 size furniture, set in lush, buyer-friendly 'public realm' of shrubberies and Marshalls shared surface paving. The problems of the first may be easier to sort out than the problems of the second.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Infrastructure before Expansion

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, interviewed this morning on the Today programme about water shortages, used a phrase new to me: 'I before E', meaning Infrastructure before Expansion. A bit of googling reveals that this neat coinage dates from at least 2003, but it is surprising to hear it used approvingly by a cabinet minister, since it seems to imply more planning than is happening now, and not at a local level ('regions' and 'regional' are words banned in Government now, so the hunt must be on for a new term - how about 'arch-counties', which has a nice Anglo-Saxon, Little-England-friendly ring to it?).

In fact, the Tories have over the years been better than Labour at getting on with big infrastructure projects, at least as far as transport is concerned.  They need to rediscover that bit of their heritage, particularly as the debate over High Speed 2 reveals all the predictable political tensions, made more problematic by the tenets of localism ('local high speed trains for local people').  And while they are sorting out the water and the trains, how about some new parks for new housing too?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Time for a PoMo Society?

A recent piece in the Guardian suggested that - judging from re-run episodes of Top of the Pops - pop music reached its nadir in 1976.  Today, many would think the 1980s the equivalent for postwar architecture.  It was interesting to see Derwent, those canny refurbishers of postwar building stock, choosing to give the 1980s Angel building a complete reclad (by AHMM), erasing the perfectly respectable but undoubtedly dated and unfashionable granite and black glass cladding....

....whereas in their earlier, equally clever makeover of Olivers Yard (by ORMS), the 1960s cladding was kept.

There were probably all sorts of reasons for the respective decisions, but one imagines that fashion - in respect of kerb appeal to likely punters - was a factor.  Just as James Bond's suits in the 1960s films look a lot classier than in the 70s and 80s, and we look back more fondly on the Beatles and Kinks than on Mud and the Rubettes, so 1960s cladding seems more in tune with today's aesthetic interests than the 1980s versions.

But English Heritage is starting to think about what from the 1980s is worth listing, as their recent (rather surprising) recommendation to list Broadgate demonstrates.  Part of the idea of listing is that it can be contrarian - if Brutalism is out of fashion, all the more reason to save some prime examples so there are some left when it comes to be appreciated again - remember that St Pancras was nearly demolished 50 years or so ago.  Could that 1980s PoMo look, so deeply unfashionable now, come back?  What would you list from the 1980s?  I would start with James Stirling's No. 1 Poultry, designed in the 80s though built a decade later - its excesses being not blameworthy but precisely the point, the built representation of the fat city boys in red braces of the Thatcher years.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

New draft policy framework recognises conservation creep

A draft of the new National Planning Policy Framework, written by CLG's advisers, has been released and can be found here.

The section on design reads well.   The heritage section attempts to rewrite PPS5  in plain English and reduce it to three pages, again pretty successfully.  It introduces one or two interesting new ideas too, and the following caught my eye:

'When considering the designation of conservation areas, local planning authorities should ensure that an area justifies such status and that the concept of conservation areas is not devalued through the designation of areas that lack special interest'. 

This is a reference to an aspect of conservation creep that is common (conservation creep is a syndrome and not, it should be made clear, a type of individual).  Conservation areas are meant (by law) to have special architectural or historic interest and are not meant (according to current guidance) to be designated just to stymie development, but both of these requirements are flagrantly ignored as more and more second rate or unremarkable areas are designated by local authorities, often to keep residents' assocations happy.  In a rare legal challenge to designation, a conservation area designation by Tower Hamlets was recently thrown out by the courts.

Another inappropriate, and rather paradoxical, reason for designation is (or was when there was money around) to secure heritage funds for renovation and improvement in decaying and neglected areas. 

It will be interesting to see if this admirable piece of drafting in the new document makes the final cut after consultation.

In the longer term, the measures in the Localism Bill may make it easier for residents' association-type interests to say 'no change round here please', but that will at least be a bit more honest than pretending that some humdrum Victorian terraces have special interest.

( You can read find my comment piece for the RIBA Journal on the challenges for the NPPF, written before the draft referred to above had appeared, here. )