Monday, 26 September 2011

Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City by urban economist Edward Glaeser (Macmillan, 2011) is highly recommended.  Although the son of an architect, he is not a fan of solving cities' problems by building things:  'help poor people, not poor places' is a recurring theme of the book.  A perceptive outsider's take on one's own field is often refreshing, and while this stat-fuelled account of why cities are the key to progress, growth, enlightenment etc. concerns itself for the most part with people and economic activity rather than buildings and infrastructure, the parts of his arguments that relate to the built environment are filled with useful iconoclastic observations of the kind that fall flat when one tries them oneself but command attention when delivered by a Harvard prof. 

For example, he suggests that if conservationists were a bit more logical (a bit more like economists, I think he means) they would argue for buildings not in conservation areas (I'm translating from American into English here) to be as tall as possible, not as short as possible, to reduce future pressure to redevelop the things they are trying to protect.  Conservationism is fingered as having the direct effect of keeping property prices high and excluding the less well off, in respect of jobs as well as homes.  NIMBYs are revealed as the unthinking slaves of the combined effects of two well-understood psychological syndromes that apply to reactions to change generally: the status quo bias (over-attachment to the present state of affairs) and impact bias (over-estimation of the impact that a negative shock will have on one's happiness). 

Glaeser is for density and against sprawl, while being honest enough to explain why he and his family moved from downtown to the suburbs (schools etc., just like London).  He hopes that India and China will avoid the perils of new cities growing at low rather than high densities as they mature, and speculates that 'in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend'.

The title of the book might suggest you are in for some urban boosterism, but Glaeser is a lot more thoughtful than that, and he provides a powerful ethical as well as an economic basis for promoting densification.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Train crash townscape on the Mersey

The Mersey, like most rivers as they approach the sea, is relentlessly horizontal; but the architects of two major recent projects next to the 'Three Graces' on Liverpool's waterfront haven't taken the hint, and both schemes - the new Museum of Liverpool (featured in this week's AJ) and the adjacent 'Three Black Coffins' of Mann Island - have espoused the Architecture of Funny Shapes for their inspiration.

One can't help wondering how much of the visual confusion and discord that has resulted would go away if they could just have straightened the things out.  It is common for 'look at me' architecture to try to be different in as many different ways as possible, but the loss of the prevailing Cartesian order of horizontals and verticals seems like one degree of difference too far.  In the future, when the style war debates have been forgotten, the funny shapes may be the things that above all else result in a disagreeable degree of disharmony.

Prince Charles, in his notorious 1984 intervention on architecture at the RIBA, asked 'Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles - and functional?'.  I doubt whether this kind of outcome is what he had in mind, but it reminds us that you should be careful what you wish for.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The rabbit hutch house: market failure or regulatory failure?

To the RIBA for the launch of the Institute's 'Homewise' campaign, which majors on the fact that new homes aren't big enough, but clearly should also branch out into the question of whether the square metres (or more pertinently, cubic metres) of space being offered in new homes are laid out sensibly or not.  They have been pretty astute in appointing a Future Homes Commission with members who are (a) very eminent and (b) not architects, and in fact not even very architect-ey.

One member, Which editor Martyn Hocking, made the point that as a consumer, he would buy a  new TV or car in preference to a second hand one, but would only buy a second hand home and would not expect to find a new home on offer that he would want to buy. 

At the Q&A, an aggrieved representative of the Home Builders Federation asked why they should be expected to take part, since it appeared that everyone had decided to gang up on them- and attributed the profession's downer on the housebuilders, effectively, to snobbery.  The HBF will generally claim that there isn't a problem, since their members sell all the homes they build, and surveys show that a very large majority of buyers are happy - though it was pointed out that someone who has made the biggest purchase of their life is unlikely to admit very readily that they have made a ghastly mistake (it would be interesting to compare surveys after say 6 months and 5 years). 

Problem or no problem?

The average product of the average housebuilder (characterised by Alan Bennett as a f***-hutch) is not big enough and not much good, and there is a problem, whatever the HBF think. There was a massive response, in the form of comments on the BBC website story about the launch, which makes it clear that it is not just architects who think this.  But is this market failure or is it regulatory failure? Housing supply is rationed because of the planning system - that is not the stated aim of the system but it is the practical effect.  If it was de-rationed, a freer market might operate, and we might get better homes.  But since that is unlikely to happen, it would be better to increase the amount of regulation and find ways of making the housebuilders improve their product - both in size (easier to achieve) and in the quality of the design (much harder). I suggested to the Commission members that they steer well away from questions of what new homes look like (awful for the most part, but the issue is a mare's nest) and stick to how people are meant to live in them - a more important consideration where the present market is failing to deliver.

This does seem to be a rare example  - if the warning above is heeded - of an important issue where the profession can be at one both with the general public and with ministers, who can fairly often be heard to bemoan the quality of new homes.  A new Parker Morris standard is not said to be on the cards as part of the RIBA's campaign, presumably because they know the Government want less regulation, not more.  The trick will be to think of some fairly irresistible 'nudges' that can be said to stop short of regulation.   Best of luck to the campaign and the Commission.

Monday, 12 September 2011

RIBA Presidency - time to make it a job share?

To the RIBA last Friday, for an event to mark the handover from the first ever female RIBA President Ruth Reed to the second, Angela Brady.

Much talk, amongst those I spoke with, about the increasing demands of the job.  The two-year Presidency is unpaid, and the demands on the President's time have increased to the point where there are few who are in a position to be able to commit to it if they wanted to. One has to admire those who are prepared to take it on.

The leading figures in the profession - for example, to be objective, UK-based RIBA Gold medal winners from recent decades - have not (with some honourable exceptions) chosen to have much to do with their institute, and have generally not served as President - though most of them are in a position to do it if they chose to.  But who better to put forward the case for the importance of architecture and architects than the architects with the most admired track record of projects?

Perhaps the Presidency needs to be shared between a high-profile figurehead who can be wheeled out a few times a year when it really matters - the most outward facing part of the present role - and a second person who would chair the RIBA Council and undertake the many days of visits around the UK and abroad that are required of the President. 

Both roles would need political skills, and there are plenty of good architects who are not so adept at politics, but they are not mutually exclusive qualities.  Angela Brady talks good sense and can be expected to be a good President, but why would we not expect to see the names of the likes of Rogers, Hopkins or Chipperfield on the panels in the RIBA entrance hall?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Town hall hotels - everyone wins

Property Week reports today that a number of former town halls in London are being considered for conversion to hotels. What a great idea - it should probably be made compulsory for all town halls that predate the Second World War, unless a council can make a good case for staying put.

There are many benefits:

  • There are lots of sound and attractive old public buildings, many listed, that do not have an obvious viable use, and town halls are a prime example.
  • Most of these are in the hands of local authorities, and the evidence suggests that many local authorities are not fit and proper organisations to be in charge of nice old buildings.
  • Most new hotels look awful - it is the building type least likely to generate good new architecture (competing for the title with  student housing, but that is the building type most likely to generate bad new architecture, not quite the same thing).  So putting a hotel in an old building is probably to be preferred.
  • The old town halls are in town centres where hotels should be - whereas the default option for operators is to stick them on the ring road.
  • As a building type, a hotel is as much a public building as a private one; and hotels are likely to be able to make use of the grand public spaces found in town halls from the days when they built proper ones.

More please - there's only so many Wetherspoons that a city can take.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Excellence - more important than Excel

Proposals by Isis for canalside development in Brentford received good coverage in AJ and BD this week.  I was a member of the panel that reviewed competing schemes for the first phase of development, designed by three teams each made up of three architectural practices.

We had an interesting day and saw some good projects.  Isis find themselves in the happy position of being able to choose between competing schemes of good quality, as a result of having chosen decent firms in the first place.

This is how procurement should work.  Set a high quality threshold, and let in only those architects who are likely to give you a good building.  A client should then be able, if they wish, to chose the cheapest amongst competing schemes - as opposed to the more usual choice in public sector procurement, between a cheap scheme and a good one - a situation that has predictable results.

Getting a good building is not easy, but it's not as hard as some people seem to make it.   Write a good brief and then get a good architect.  CABE were making this simple point to the Government all through the boom years of PFI, but with little success, and the landscape is now littered with tacky public buildings as a result (there are a few good ones too). 

There has also been recent press coverage of criticism of the 'box ticking' procurement culture that is the prime cause of the poor outcomes referred to. The problem is still widespread.  Clients like Isis seem to be light enough on their feet to avoid it - not a slapdash approach or one that ignores due diligence, but the application of intelligence to the task at hand, focused on a high quality built outcome - rather than on pleasingly completed spreadsheets.