Wednesday, 14 November 2012

New towers of London: Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and the rest

The view towards the City of London from Waterloo Bridge is one of the best in London, which is one reason why it appears in the header to this blog*.

The more recent photo above shows the present state of the City's skyline, with cranes as prominent as buildings, most notably on the sites of two of the City's new towers: Rogers Stirk Harbour's 'Cheesegrater' (next to Foster's Gherkin) and Viñoly's 'Walkie Talkie' (on the right), the frame of which now begins to show us the shape of building we will be getting (in case we hadn't quite believed it).

If you've spent your adult life involved in putting up buildings, the sight of this forest of cranes should be enough set the pulse racing irrespective of what you think about the buildings.  Colonel W A Starrett, author of 'Skyscrapers and the Men who Build Them' (1928), wrote that 'Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war' - if you have witnessed the level of activity at the foot of one of these sites, or at that of the nearby Shard until recently, you can see what he meant.

But the tall buildings that the cranes are putting up are even more effective at eliciting a reaction.

Fluctuating vital sign measurements are not always a good thing - a recent rant in print from Simon Jenkins about the ruination of London's skyline, along much the same lines as we have heard from him rather too often before, being a case in point.

On the other hand, you can find websites dedicated to the slightly anorakish musings of skyscrapers enthusiasts, the antimatter opposite of Simon Jenkins, who enthuse about heights above Ordnance Datum, cladding systems and all sorts.

Ruskin wrote (in the 1850s)  'Have not these words, Pinnacle, Turret, Belfry, Spire, Tower, a pleasant sound in all your ears? ….can you really suppose that what has so much power over you in words has no power over you in reality?'  It seems unlikely that he would have approved of skyscrapers, but we can trace a path from this statement of the emotive power of verticality through Louis Sullivan's exhortation (in the 1890s) that a tall office building should be 'every inch a proud and soaring thing', to the clear intention of many of today's skyscraper architects to amaze us rather than follow the more sober route of Mies van der Rohe's towers.

It is permissible, though, to take a more sober view.  London needs to grow within its borders.  Paul Finch pointed out in last week's Property Week that there is no shortage of land in Greater London to allow it to do so without needing to expand into the green belt - there are oven-ready sites, which have been sitting there for a decade or two, for tens of thousands of new homes in the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula.  Closer to the centre, however, it is a very different story - there is the strongest demand to build, and the least room to build, partly because nearly everything is now a 'heritage asset'.  I don't like the look of the Walkie Talkie at all - but even if, as I suspect, I am not alone, that's not much of a reason not to build it, when compared with the arguments in favour of doing so.  The only way is up - a case that was made convincingly at this summer's excellent exhibition 'The Developing City'.  Otherwise London will end up like the Paris that the tall-poppy-loppers would like it be - but not in a good way.

*(it did when I wrote this post - it was updated in 2015)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Autumn in leafy Mayfair

This new building just off Curzon Street in Mayfair caught my elevation composed of brass leaves / tiles - a welcome upping of the game of decorative elevational treatments in recent buildings in Westminster that was discussed here.  This is beautiful and subtle - a long way away from the world of 'Look at us we hired an Artist!'.  Doubly pleasing to find out that this is the work of my own professional alma mater Squire and Partners, boldly going off-piste as they do occasionally.

Considering that Mayfair is such a posh area, it's surprising how dreary many of the buildings built there in the last hundred years or so are.  Or perhaps not.   Many recent buildings have espoused the anodyne, milk and water architecture that one can't help thinking is put forward by cautious developers and their architects who want to avoid upsetting planning officers or planning committee members, rather than representing anything that anyone actually wants.

Westminster City Council sponsored an exhibition at New London Architecture a few years ago, Contemporary Westminster, to show that they are not the fuddy-duddies you might have thought and that plenty of fine new buildings do in fact get built there - which is true.  They need to keep it up though, because  buildings as good as the one shown here are the exception rather than the rule - there are still some horrors, plenty of mediocrities, and a few that manage to be both mediocre and horrible.

An annual design award scheme could help raise the game.  They can be problematic, though - some other boroughs that run them have found that prizes mostly go to schemes turned down by the council and given planning consent at appeal.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Flanders Fields in Hyde Park

Depending on your point of view, it's either unfortunate, or possibly appropriate, that as Armistice Day approaches, much of the eastern part of Hyde Park resembles the Somme in 1916.

Apart from that particular association, its present condition is entirely regrettable.  2012 has been a special year, and many major public spaces, including this one, have been heavily used, mostly to good and successful effect.  But the underlying trend, noted before in this blog, is for many of London's public spaces to be used more and more for special - and revenue-generating - events.  The mudbath shown above illustrates that as well as rendering these spaces full of unsightly tat and unavailable for quiet public enjoyment while the event is on, and while it is being set up and taken down, there can also be serious long term effects - much of the park continuing to be unsightly and unusable through the autumn and winter months.

By the end of November, the delights of 'Winter Wonderland' are due to reappear here.  Bring your wellies.

Perhaps it has been decided by The Royal Parks - who run Hyde Park and who are under pressure from their masters in the Government to make their estate pay its way - that this part of the park is in fact now a showground, and that anyone who wants grass and trees will find plenty of that in the west half of what is admittedly a very large park, in Kensington Gardens.

But it would have been nice to have been asked if we thought this was a good idea.

(Guest contributor: Ebenezer Scrooge)

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Flânerie in South Molton Street

For what is au courant in the world of architectural ideas, you can visit the degree and diploma shows, and for a view of what journalists find interesting, you can read the journals; but you can't beat a bit of lunchtime flânerie  for spotting trends in what is actually getting built.  The Gutter and the Stars pounds the pavements of London en route between meetings to bring you the latest that is emerging from the hoardings (and indeed the hoardings themselves).

I was a bit disappointed to see the Hog in the Pound pub at the top of South Molton Street demolished -  like the now vanished Swiss Centre, an interesting and rather characterful piece of 1960s architecture of the kind that Westminster City Council seem only too happy to see replaced.  But the new building by DSDHA is, I think, a worthy replacement, clad in luscious glazed terracotta and making the most of its quirky 'prow' site.

Apart from the increasingly fashionable (and entirely welcome) use of glazed terracotta - also seen in spades on Dixon Jones' Regent Palace Hotel project not far from here -  the other trend that DSDHA's building exemplifies is the grouping together of windows in two storey high vertical strips. I'm not sure where this motif came from, but it also features, within a few minutes walk of this one, on Squire and Partners recent building in Hanover Square, and also this rather odd new building in Margaret Street just off Cavendish Square.

For my money, while the device works well on DSDHA's elevations, because there is an implication of a kind of central piano nobile strip with smaller bands above and below, it is rather less successful when repeated vertically, as it is here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Batman: Death by Design

Rebuilding Gotham City's Wayne Central Station, commissioned by the Caped Crusader's dad but now crumbling, was never going to be straightforward, what with crooked union bosses, a femme fatale conservationist set on putting a stop to the demolition, and the disillusioned son of the original architect who is not all he seems - not to mention Kem Roomhaus, a Dutch celebrity architect 'frightened of his own genius'.

Oddly overlooked by the book review pages of the architectural press, this recent graphic novel from DC Comics is a lot of fun.  It is dedicated to Hugh Ferriss, and the look of a lovingly realised Gotham is very much that of 1930s New York - an obvious but successful choice - it's much less easy to imagine Batman swooping around in, for example,  the glassy, 1960s fantasy architecture of Tati's Play Time.   And if you are to stand a chance of making a story involving architects into a page-turner, best not to set it in a multi-disciplinary consultancy, or a Mad Men style corporate environment - the architects in this story are characters more at home in the world of superheroes - lone Nietzschean geniuses in the mould of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark.  Nevertheless, there is room for the odd bit of throwaway professional practice dialogue such as 'the stresses on the structure were improperly calculated' - Paul Newman, as the architect in Towering Inferno, got to deliver comparable lines.

All of which gets one to wondering whether the world isn't ready for a graphic reimagining of The Honeywood File  - surely a Hollywood blockbuster in waiting.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Flat white in New Bond Street

No horror vacui here in New Bond Street, where beautifully made flat white sheeting covers a large scaffold in a single taut piece, interrupted only by a neat vertical slot for hoists on each floor - a refreshing, palate-cleansing change from the banality of those 'instant pastiche' scaffolds that offer you a picture of the building behind.  If only all new buildings had as much care and thought put into them....I hope the thinking included consideration of wind load in a gale, though.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Architecture and dermatology

The architecture of some types of building has become more and more about skin, and less and less about substance.  A rash of recent new buildings in the City of Westminster demonstrates an interest in patterned surface treatments to the elevations.

On this new office building in Buckingham Gate in Victoria (above), sandstone cladding is decorated with swirling patterns of (3D) gouge marks, its inspiration appearing to be somewhere between the abstract and the figurative.

On a weird new building in Oxford Street that is nearing completion (south side, near Marble Arch)  the glass and metal panel cladding system includes decorated panels that seem to have a similar aesthetic intention, this time in 2D only, and heading more towards the world of geometry.

And next to Edgware Road tube station, possibly the apotheosis of this trend, at least in Westminster - this time more purely geometric -  a cut and paste update of random pages of Owen Jones' 'Grammar of Ornament', perhaps.

What's going on?   An interest in surface decoration, now very fashionable, is a respectable aspect of architecture with a long history stretching back via Semper and Owen Jones all the way to prehistory.

That great modernist hard-liner Adolf Loos regarded decoration, exemplified in his mind by tattoos, as the last resort of criminals and degenerate aristocrats. The cerebral delights of abstraction were seen as an advance on the 'horror vacui' (fear of nothingness) of the savage mind.

It's certainly true that some recent patterned buildings must have engendered regrets in the cold light of day, as one assumes many tattoos do, after seeming a good idea at the time.

But you don't have to be a savage to think that the world is a more pleasant place if buildings have 'more to see when you get closer'.  It happens in most traditional architecture, whether high or vernacular.  The lack of it is one of the complaints that has always been levelled at 'modern' buildings, for example in critical reappraisals of the 'International Modernism' that swept the world in the postwar period when aesthetic interests appeared to align with the desire to do things cheaply - which gave us, for example, Victoria Street of the 1960s.  To do a Mies or Corb wasn't cheap, but to do a knock-off was.

The 'more to see' can come from the bits and pieces of the building itself - something you get in the best buildings of Richard Rogers or Michael Hopkins.

But delight in the elaboration of construction is a poor fit with an age of austerity, with unitized construction, with the world of design and build, value engineering and procurement by project manager rather than by client as patron.  

One can't help reflecting, considering some of the recent examples of 'dermatology as elevation', that while sophisticated details are expensive ('No money no detail' - Rem Koolhaas), decoration is cheap.  The trouble is, it often looks it.  But it doesn't have to.  If we are not to get buildings of substance, and visual interest is to come mainly from 2D surface decoration, then it deserves as much attention and talent as might be put it to beautiful details.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Plotland Arcadia on the Sussex coast


To Winchelsea Beach on the Sussex coast for Sunday lunch in one of the ‘plotlands’ houses built here, and elsewhere along the coast of Essex, Kent and Sussex – in the 1930s, just before effective planning legislation arrived in England.

The story of how these marginal areas came to be built on is told in Arcadia for All - The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward (1984).  Colin Ward described the plotlands in a 2004 article as ‘those places where, until 1939, land was divided into small plots and sold, often in unorthodox ways, to people wanting to build their holiday home, country retreat or would-be smallholding. It evokes a landscape of a grid-iron of grassy tracks, sparsely filled with bungalows made from army huts, old railway coaches, sheds, shanties and chalets, slowly evolving into ordinary suburban development.’

The story is a quintessentially English one, with all the tensions of today’s planning system present in embryonic form, overlaid with themes of town vs. country  and middle class vs. working class (East Enders buying plots from farmers and upsetting the settled communities nearby with their sometimes ramshackle buildings).  Although the pressures to regulate were presented as mainly to do with roads and drains, there were also objections to the generally untidy look of the strip development that resulted, and to the unsuitable type of person who came to live in them.  But even in the 1930s, there were those who defended what was being created as having an interesting and distinct character of its own.

Colin Ward’s anarchist sensibility let him to sympathise with the plotlands pioneers, who without being hampered by regulation, created environments that are, of course, highly sought after today.  Now there is development pressure, and at Winchelsea Beach, at least – which I suspect has always been at the more salubrious end of the plotlands spectrum – the original shacks, some by now more or less collapsing, are gradually being replaced with slightly larger architect-designed replacements, most reflecting to at least some degree the spirit of the originals.  But  taken together, in their newness and conformity with regulations, these new houses are resulting in a change to the character of these remarkable places - the suburbanisation referred to by Colin Ward.  And it can't be long before the money being invested leads to pressure to replace the potholed gravel tracks with proper roads (though come to think of it, perhaps the excuse to get one's Tonka-toy-style SUV muddy is part of the attraction?)

Time to declare a few conservation areas to recognise the special character of the plotlands?   What an irony that would be.   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Fifty Shards of grey and a pimped up porch

It’s been Shardmania week in London. 

A previous post noted how the Shard reflects different weather conditions.  Much of what gets written about buildings of this kind in the national press is a reflection of prejudices and preconceptions about other things - projected onto the subject building like the attention-seeking lasers that marked the Shard’s inauguration.

The build-up to Thursday’s display, for example, included an intemperate (and ill-informed) rant by Simon Jenkins in Tuesday’s Guardian, claiming that the pointy tower ‘seems to have lost its way from Dubai to Canary Wharf’ and has ‘slashed the face of London for ever’. 

At the other end of town, and the other end of various kinds of scale (sublime / ridiculous? - but which way round?), the recently completed visitors’ entrance to Kensington Palace – initially refused planning permission by Kensington and Chelsea Council  –  prompted former RIBA President Jack Pringle’s memorable accusation that Prince Charles was  "pimping his palace with a puffed-up porch”.

If you’d prefer to live in a twenty-first century state rather than the Ruritanian / feudal model of our country that has been in evidence through the course of the Jubilee (yes, I’m with Jack on this one…), then you’re not going to go for a neo-Regency porch, however elegant; and if you don’t like outward and very visible signs of foreign wealth taking over from the home-grown variety in our capital, then the Shard is going to upset you, and you are never going to be able to consider it an architectural masterpiece. 

Little of the discussion of either project is really about architecture or urbanism.   This is something that cloud capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces will always have in common – along with the fact that neither of these particular projects seems a very good fit with the mood of Austerity Britain, which is better represented by the New Boring movement. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

London should learn from PlaNYC

To Lend Lease's London HQ to hear a talk by Adam Freed, Deputy Director of Sustainability in the New York City Mayor's office.

Their city plan, 'PlaNYC' (nice plan, shame about the name) has a lot that London could learn from, in respect of what is planned and how they propose to achieve it:  sustainability-led, progressive, interventionist series of programmes and initiatives concerning development, transport, infrastructure and energy, driven by an ambitious City administration with powers and budgets that London's Mayor can only dream of.

One of the most surprising aspects was the extent to which this felt like 'big Government' - delivered by a Republican Mayor in a country where if you suggest that poor people should be provided with state health care, you are branded a Communist.    Impressively, the programmes seemed designed to benefit disadvantaged outer parts of the city at least as much as Manhattan, where the high profile successes such as the High Line and Times Square are located.

The tone was one of can-do pragmatism rather than ideology or political manouevring.  It was the American architect Daniel Burnham who said 'make no little plans', but while in the UK masterplans and strategies are expected to have an 'overarching vision', in NY there seemed to be a distinct lack of windy rhetoric and a strong desire to actually get on with things.  Our London Plan programme is all about telling other parties what they can or should or can't or shouldn't do - the NY equivalent seems to be more about doing things.  If a developer there builds affordable housing - yes, they have that too - he can put more flats on his site.  A bit like what happens in London in practice in some cases, but our plan doesn't actually say that anywhere.  Americans are be better at cutting to the chase - codifying things to allow progress without endless negotiations.

London's administrative and political structure is dysfunctional, and our Mayor is right to seek more control over infrastructure and other things.  Mayor Bloomberg puts some of his vast personal resources into particular  public programmes - a modern version of the bread and circuses of the Roman Emperors, perhaps. Our Mayor was born in New York City, and appears to know a lot about the Roman Empire - if this summer's circus works out well, expect a stronger push for more control.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


These new houses under construction in South Kensington looked interesting out of the corner of the eye - something novel, striking, a bit edgy for SW7 perhaps? 

But on getting things into focus, it became clear that the cladding isn't on yet.  In this neck of the woods we can expect something bland and tasteful to cover up the interesting looking and pleasingly arranged array of fixing brackets that can be seen today. 

Buildings often look more interesting under construction than when they are finished.  Berthold Lubetkin complained that Owen Williams' (and Sir Robert 'Concrete Bob' McAlpine's) beautiful in situ concrete frame for the Dorchester Hotel was ruined once William Curtis Green's dreary cladding went on.  And the probably apocryphal story of the exchange between Colonel Seifert and Richard Rogers ('When are they getting the scaffolding off that Lloyds building of yours?' 'When are they going to finish off the top of your Nat West Tower?') concerns two very different buildings that (maybe) have in common a deliberate aesthetic of 'work in progress'.  

The sales strapline on the hoarding here is 'there is a story behind these walls'.  God knows what they mean by that, but probably not the brackets.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

City glazing fashions - get the look

The glazing at 125 Old Broad Street in the City of London - the former Stock Exchange building - is undergoing a makeover.   This is presumably something to do with the problems that have been reported about glass falling out (a less abstract threat than a falling FTSE).  

The present look, at first glance, bears quite a close resemblance to one of those fashionable facade treatments with diagonal lines that echo (allegedly) the stress patterns in the glazing, such as OMA's CCTV building - or more purely decorative versions of the same sort of thing by FOA and others.   But on closer examination, the pattern here appears in fact to be no more than protective tape to glass awaiting replacement.  Quite neatly done, though - and if you think about it, the visual resemblance to the stress diagram is probably not accidental. 

Monday, 21 May 2012

Chipperfield on housing

Good to read of David Chipperfield speaking out about affordable housing in the AJ - and the general difficulty of getting decent housing built at all in this country.

Chipperfield complains correctly about greenfield sprawl, but much brownfield housing, which he says is preferable, is poor as well - usually for rather different reasons.  Another high-profile architect whose views are generally worth listening to, Rem Koolhaas, once observed that there are two kinds of airport: too large and too small.  Housing in this country is going that way too: we build pixie f**k-hutches in the middle of nowhere, and we build monster condos, but the middle way - good, ordinary, medium to high density housing comparable with what already exists across most of central London - while not unknown, seems a lot harder to achieve. 

And what is even harder, and really matters even more - when most sites allocated for housing are not very suitable for housing, but are the only ones where there are no nimbies will moan about it - is joining up the new bits to the old bits.  If it's not near anyone's back yard, it will probably be hard to get to and get from - since we don't plan for infrastructure any better than we plan for housing. 

Building affordable housing, as Chipperfield suggests, 'not as an adjunct to unaffordable housing, but as an aim in itself', sounds like something we should all agitate for. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Shard - the architect was right

Renzo Piano has spoken of his design for the Shard as reflecting the sky, disappearing into the background, and at the top, tapering away to nothingness.

Sceptics pointed out that the glass buildings on London's skyline generally look black - it is the stone ones that look white - and that talk of the visual 'lightness' of glass cladding often turns out to be nonsense when the thing is built.

But now we can see for ourselves and Piano was right - at least in respect of some weather conditions and some hours of the day (this picture was taken yesterday evening, from Centrepoint).

A lot of discussion about how realistic or reliable computer-generated images are misses the simple point that buildings, particularly glassy buildings, vary very greatly in their appearance at different times of day and different times of year.  The honest answer to the criticism that 'it won't look like that really' is 'sometimes it will, sometimes it won't'.

Piano always acknowledged this, saying that the Shard would change with the weather and that that would be part of its appeal.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pop up stairs at the South Bank

At the back of the South Bank Centre this rather handsome flight of stairs provides a new way up to the terraces around the Hayward Gallery.  Pop-ups, temporary installations, meanwhile uses etc etc seem to be all the rage and this stair, supported on standard metal containers, feeds off that zeitgeisty, recession-friendly aesthetic, though I've no idea if it's planned to be temporary or not. 

Sadly, there is a history of rather unsatisfactory temporary solutions lasting several decades at the boondoggle that is the SBC's estate - this one is far superior to many of the the various lash-ups that have come and gone, often outstaying their welcome, over the years.

A previous post discussed the variable quality standards applied when structures are envisaged as temporary - and we can expect plenty of that this summer, with Trafalgar Square already filling up with unsightly tat, and a giant upside-down purple plastic cow occupying the car park on the other side of the rail tracks from the Hayward (which may cause some puzzlement to visitors when the lavish new Jubilee Gardens open shortly).

What the SBC stair suggests, as have some other recent pop up projects, is that a willingness to treat a modest intervention as a proper commission, and the application of a lively design intelligence, can enhance the city and lift the spirits without the need for big budgets, or the intention to build for posterity - and that there's no need for the ephemeral to be tatty and thoughtless.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Moscow Modern / Москва современная

To Moscow to see masterpieces of post-revolution Constructivist architecture - much of which is neglected and in poor condition - as part of a group shown round by the estimable Clementine Cecil, former Moscow correspondent of The Times and instigator of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS).

In a packed couple of days, our visit (inspired by the recent Royal Academy exhibition) took in, among other things, Konstantin Melnikov's Workers' Club, with those canted auditorium elements copied by many architects over the years; Moisei Ginzburg's Narkomfin housing block; and Melnikov's own house.  The Melnikov buildings were not in brilliant nick but it didn't look too hard to bring them up to scratch given the will and the money (MAPS has the former, but not much use without the latter); whereas the Narkomfin building is in a bad state, and its future looks uncertain, in spite of the efforts of the grandson of its architect (who met us on site) to rescue it.

Most of the important buildings are recognised with very smart cast bronze plaques, but apart from that not well looked after.  In the case of Melnikov's house, which is still occupied by his granddaughter (whom we also met), there is a dispute about its future that appears still to be continuing along the lines reported by Rowan Moore last year.

An unexpected highlight of the trip was a visit to the All Russia Exhibition Centre, now mainly a very popular park, but populated by a weird collection of Socialist Realist inspired pavilions and monuments, mainly from the 1950s, including this one dedicated to agricultural productivity, its sparkliness a rather poignant contrast to the decay of the (mostly badly built) Constructivist buildings of the 20s and 30s.  

Early Modern, one suspects, is a minority interest there as here.  In London, the Grade 1 listed 1930s Finsbury Health Centre - designed by the Moscow-trained, Constructivist-inpired Lubetkin, and as idealistic in its social programme as its Russian cousins - languishes in just as unloved a state.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

NPPF - what is poor design?

The NPPF says at para 64 that 'Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions.' Good stuff.

The consequences of new policy documents take a while to become apparent, and it may be a year or so until we find out which bits of wording are the 'sites of contention' in this document, but this is likely to be one of them.  Previous policies did not go this far.  Paul Finch pointed out in a recent article that the wording in the draft referred to 'obviously poor design' - and that the (welcome) loss of the qualifier in the final version might come to be seen as significant. (No doubt it will be argued that the second half of the sentence qualifies or waters down the first half - but the second half ('fails to take opportunities...') is in fact simply an inevitable attribute of poor design.)

What are we to make, for example, of the average product of the average housebuilder?  Generally speaking, it represents  'poor design' in all sort of ways - even without considering what it looks like, which compounds the offence in most cases.  Will all this stuff - and the (let's say) 50% of all new development, as seen (let's say) from your window during a long train journey -  that represents 'poor design' - be turned down by planning authorities now?

And if not, why not?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Open Source Architecture

In a new community architecture initiative to be launched by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles later today, Open Source Architecture will allow speedy, guaranteed planning consents for planning applications which are deposited online in SketchUp, with drawings in a form that can be modified by consultees.  The scheme as it stands at the close of the consultation period will proceed automatically to consent.

This is a natural heir to Open Source Planning, an idea popular in the Tory party before they got into power, whereby planning policy would be continuously updatable by interested citizens.  Civil servants pointed out practical objections to this as a basis for government policy soon after the Coalition was elected, and we hadn't heard much more about it until now.  But you can't keep a good idea down, and the new initiative has been hailed by commentators as an entirely logical consequence of the precepts of localism and neighbourhood planning.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Budget and NPPF - a nation holds its breath

Plenty of pro-growth measures in the Budget, in infrastructure and housing, which are welcome. But the projects that are being supported will still need planning permission – so it's a shame we didn't get the National Planning Policy Framework issued on the same day, in a form that reinforced the message. It is promised for next week.  

Speaking to the Parliamentary Architecture and Planning Group on the day after the Budget, planning Minister Bob Neill told us that the NPPF would be strong on design quality. Neill mentioned certain poor development being thrown up in booming China as an example of the dangers of ignoring design quality.

But he made it clear that the NPPF was also intended to deliver faster planning consents, needed by business in order for us to compete globally - and seemed blithely unaware that the twin goals of speedier outcomes and quality outcomes might turn out (in practice – no problem in theory) to be in conflict.

He said that existing PPS’s and PPG’s would be abolished - except where there was important technical content that needed to be retained (that sounds like a muddle in the making).

So if PPS5 turns out to be no longer needed, perhaps we could flog it to the Chinese – a win-win for a more competitive UK.  

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The politics of shared space

A thoughtful piece in the New York Times (reprinted in today's Observer's roundup) admires the achievement of the recently completed shared surface makeover of Exhibition Road.  The ideas that underlie the project, inspired by the late Hans Monderman and already widely put into effect in continental Europe, have been well covered in Britain, but it is interesting to know how they go down in the land of the free.

In the UK, such measures might be favoured more by the liberal (cycle-using, Guardian reading) urban intelligentsia, and less by Daily Mail buying types whose human right to drive unimpeded at 30mph could be seen to be under threat.   But the NYT piece suggests that shared surface projects can be seen as deregulatory, anti-nanny-state initiatives - that is, the kind of approach that in other fields might be favoured by the right-leaning - with pedestrians and drivers working things out between themselves rather than being bossed around by big Government.

The legal presumption, as a starting point, that the less vulnerable (e.g. driver), rather than the more vulnerable (e.g. cyclist) (but also cyclist relative to pedestrian) is to blame in an 'accident' has been established elsewhere in northern Europe, and it seems obvious that it should influence behaviour for the better, but it is not yet gaining headway in the UK.   In a decade or two, though, the idea that pedestrians are expected to jump out of the way of vehicles may have gone the way of drink-driving in its social acceptability.   Even Tories have to go on foot sometimes.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Two way streets

What a pleasure to cycle through Russell Square in Bloomsbury, for the first time in a while, and find that streetscape improvements have undone the unpleasant one way system, and returned the roads on all four sides to the normal two way arrangement.

All one way systems in city centres have a dehumanising effect, the worst of all being the 'gyratories' such as Russell Square was until recently - a Georgian square transformed into a roundabout.  They encourage vehicles to drive faster, which is unpleasant and dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists; they make traffic go further than necessary; and they result in the various expensive and ugly paraphernalia of signs, white lines, barriers etc. - all of which make cities nastier to live in.

The traffic calming project in Exhibition Road, which has received much more media coverage, is a 'designer' project - done very well.  Russell Square, by contrast, is a project where there is not much to see on completion - the square now just looks neat and tidy and normal.  The previous arrangement had had measures added in recent years to provide cycle contraflows and so on, all making the square a progressively uglier and more complicated boondoggle of blinkered, incremental interventions.

Just as it's hard to imagine how people would countenance the idea of the Hammersmith flyover if it were proposed as a new project now, so it's hard to imagine anyone proposing today to turn what is a nice square into a roundabout. But that is what Russell Square was until a few weeks ago.  Those who put it right again deserve our thanks and congratulations. I hope they get a prize.  But they probably won't, since  photographs of the square will lead a jury to ask 'er, what have they done here exactly?' The trick of the recent project is progress by subtraction rather than addition.  A new competition category is needed.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012


To the launch party for Farrells' new book Continuum, which charts the last ten years' work of London's pre-eminent urban design practice - where we learn from Terry Farrell a word new to me and others there, 'urbiculture' - the culture of placemaking that they aspire to.

Earlier in the day I'd undertaken a tour with colleagues of large recent projects each of which had major elements of what we have learned to call 'public realm' (an awful bit of jargon that fails the 'would your mother have any idea what you were talking about' test - but is called by that name with a straight face during the planning process) which is in fact revealed to be 'private realm', when on site after site we were told, by the usual characters in hi-vis tabards, 'you can't take photographs here, this is private property'.  They were polite enough - but if the public 'offer' is part of the planning deal for these projects, being ordered around doesn't feel in the spirit of the thing - a far cry from the welcome that the Victorian sponsors of Brompton Cemetery provided at their gates:

 When you raise the issue of 'real' vs 'pretend' public space with developers, they will say that they don't want their investment in landscape handed over to a local authority who may or may not look after it properly.  That's fair enough, but it's an entirely separate point from whether or not a visitor is made to feel that they are somewhere genuinely public.

The various and admirable self-generated projects instigated by Farrells - Marylebone Road and others - have more in common with the Victorian generosity of spirit suggested by the sign at the cemetery than with the bizarrely paranoid and unpleasantly over-protective attitudes found in the 'public but not really' parts of so many new developments.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

New Boring the new Zeitgeist

We've had the New Boring in architecture for a while now, but according to reports of yesterday's Brit Awards, it is just as big in the world of pop.  Triumphs for Adele and Ed Sheeran are both offered by commentators as examples of this trend.  Diligence, subtlety, craftsmanship etc. are rewarded in preference to shoutiness, showmanship and attention seeking.  Evidently there is a Zeitgeist thing going on here.

Townscape and cityscape can work well when there are a few attention seeking buildings but not too many, set amongst 'good ordinary' background buildings.  That doesn't quite make sense for the pop charts, but the Brits suggest you can attract attention, and achieve recognition, without seeking attention in that noisy or hotel-room-trashing tradition. But we'd all miss that tradition if it went away altogether.  You need a few Pete Dohertys and Will Alsops to stop you nodding off.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Culture vs. commerce in Venice

Trouble in Venice, reported in today's Guardian, as a scheme to convert the historic Fondaco dei Tedeschi near the Rialto bridge into a shopping centre, designed by architect Ippolito Pestellini working with Rem Koolhaas, is criticised by heritage interests.

Mixed feelings about this, but surely there is scope for bringing some C21 commerce to a city that could only afford the cultural heritage that we now enjoy there because of its commercial activity back in the day.  Trying to make it work the other way round is not sustainable for somewhere this big.

Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright both designed projects for Venice that did not see the light of day; Carlo Scarpa fared better with some masterly but less in-your-face projects in a number of places in the city.  Scarpa's work is hugely admired in the UK and a model for tasteful yet characterful intervention in historic buildings of a kind that I suspect doesn't really interest Koolhaas, so it will be interesting to see how this project, a few years in the making already, gets on.

There are already lots of ironies to enjoy and probably more to come -  Fondaco dei Tedeschi was the medieval HQ of  Venice's German merchants - today, presumably, euros of German origin are helping to keep Venice afloat through the tourist economy, and if Italy follows in the footsteps of Greece, a lot more will be needed, and not just from tourists.  I wouldn't turn down the chance for them to spend a bit more in the city.

I can't remember if Italo Calvino's multiple versions of Venice in Invisible Cities included 'Emporio, a city of shopkeepers and bartenders who have forgotten that once they were merchant adventurers...'.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dreaming lift shafts on London's skyline

Demolition in central London often reveals something interesting.  Here in Fitzrovia there is a new view of the lift tower of Lyons Israel and Ellis's brutalist 1960s buildings for Central London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).

Once we could decorate the skyline with spires and towers and cupolas, but today's clients' enforcers, the project managers and 'value engineers', frown on that kind of thing even if the architect has the appetite for them.  Instead we are expected to pile up the roofscape with chillers and suchlike - and then hide them with screens.

Where opportunities for vertical expression present themselves, it is good to grasp them. This is one of great achievements of Richard Rogers / Rogers Stirk Harbour's best buildings, which are up to much the same game as  Lyons Israel and Ellis were - to take things that you can't be told aren't needed, such as stairs and lift shafts and ducts, and play with them to architectural effect.

But this kind of robust expression has fallen out of favour and has tended to be replaced by a thinner kind of 'skin' based aesthetic, which cuts out unnecessary articulation, reducing the surface area to volume ratio of buildings, saving both money and energy in the process, compared with a more complicated alternative.  It would be hard to reverse this trend in an age of austerity (the end condition being that all buildings will be spherical).

But the various paraphernalia of 'green' buildings present new opportunities for articulation - such as the chimneys of Portcullis House, memorably described on completion by the late Sir Philip Powell as resembling 'a smelting plant in Belgium', but now with the passage of time regarded as an ornament, if a rather chunky one, to the Westminster skyline.  Architects may need to work below the radar to turn building into architecture, but this has always been true.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

London's tall buildings

Several large new tower buildings are under construction in central London - not just the Shard at London Bridge, but also in the City and at Vauxhall.  As they come out of the ground, and as more towers are planned for central London, we can expect continuing debate, probably intemperate at times, about the wisdom of the planning decisions that have been taken and have yet to be taken; and the architectural merits of the buildings. This blog will cover that debate - and you can come here for a measured view at all times.

To kick off, it's interesting to consider the merits of some of the many towers London has already.

At each end of London's Tottenham Court Road is an office tower building  - Centrepoint at the south end, the Euston Tower at the north end.

Of the first wave of such towers in London, from the 60s and 70s, these are two of the most prominent outside the City.  In terms of how sites are considered suitable or otherwise for tall buildings today, they are both in locations that would be thought suitable in that they mark significant points in the townscape, at major road junctions - but it is hard to imagine them getting permission today if they didn't exist already. Yet neither does any particular harm - and Centrepoint, controversial when built, is a now a listed building and accepted by most as a positive landmark.

If you ask people to name some big towers in London (I've done this - try it), many will think of Centrepoint and few will think of the Euston Tower.  The difference between them is one of architectural quality rather than location or prominence. Centrepoint, designed by Richard Seifert's practice, is sophisticated and architecturally ambitious.  With its tapered plan and muscular exoskeleton, it is designed to be a 'something' in the townscape, and succeeds, except in the way it connects with the streets around it at the lower levels.  Euston Tower, by contrast, by architect Sidney Kaye, is deliberately neutral in its appearance, but without any of the classiness of a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. Euston Tower is highly visible, but not very noticeable.  Mostly, it is just a bit dull - its most interesting aspect is its pinwheel plan, allowing shallow plan accommodation in four blocks spinning off a central core - but this cannot be seen clearly except from directly above it.

The present wave of tower designs for London has, except at Canary Wharf, tended towards the attention seeking rather than the neutral, but you have to wonder whether this strategy has made life harder for those proposing them.  Euston Tower suggests you could build a large tower without anyone noticing. Centrepoint, more interestingly, suggests that you can have an architecture that makes its mark without being attention seeking.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Tatlin's transparent tower

The model of Tatlin's 1920's tower project was one of the highlights of the excellent 'Building the Revolution' exhibition at the Royal Academy.  The project is a famous one and an inspiration to architects ever since, but I'm ashamed to admit that I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that the 400m structure that you always see illustrated as transparent was in fact designed to contain a great deal of accommodation, in the form of four large rotating structures, one on top of the other and going round at different speeds.  These were represented by the flimsiest of wire cages in the RA model, as they presumably were in the 1920s - diaphanous enough for the orthogonal lines best suited for floors, walls and suchlike not to interfere with the visual drama of the twisting structure.

Selling your project with an compelling image that is a bit different from what you will actually get is nothing new.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Olympic Village

To the Olympic Village housing to have a look round as it nears completion, as a guest of Prof. Pankaj Patel whose practice Patel Taylor were the architects of some of the blocks.  Recent reviews of the project as a whole have mostly been fair to middling but I found more to admire than some of the accounts might lead you to believe.  In particular - having been involved peripherally in the design process as a member of the review panel - I was concerned that things that we had fought for would have been stripped out through the exigencies of 'value engineering', time and budget pressures etc.   There's a bit of that - on the later blocks in particular - but rather less than one might expect, and much of the housing passes the test of 'more to see when you get a bit closer', which so many new buildings fail.

 Some of the criticisms have made unfair comparisons with East European public housing and you can see what they mean in certain views from a distance.  But the Olympic Village succeeds in resembling recent high quality housing elsewhere in Europe that has inspired some of what has been done here - such as Hammerby in Stockholm and Parc de Bercy in Paris - much more closely than the desolate public housing of the mid-century.  This is because of the attention to material and detail on most of the blocks  - and the quality of the hard and soft landscape and everything that you experience as a pedestrian - which should ensure that the completed development is a success.

The bigger questions that remain - and on which it is hard to comment while the village remains a high security compound - concern connections with the surroundings, inherently hard to achieve because of the site's geography.  The new housing is not very near any existing housing, and will be separated from the rest of Stratford, Leyton etc. by some rather challenging gaps after the fences come down.  Edinburgh New Town was built on the other side of a big gap from the existing town too, so lack of continuity - even with railway lines inbetween - is not an insuperable problem, but Stratford 'International' Station is not Waverley (nor is Westfield Princes Street) , and there's a bit of work to do at Stratford to make the gaps a plus rather than a minus. Who will do that; and how; and when?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

At the top of the Shard

The top of the Shard is almost there, and presumably there will be excitable media coverage when it is put in place, accompanied by references to the battle for 'highest spire' between the Empire State Building and Chrysler building in 1930s New York (just as the recession kicked in - an issue also in the news this last week, when we were told that a wave of tall buildings is an indicator of impending economic collapse - which since skyscrapers are always planned in boom times, and bust always has followed boom, seems about as outstanding a statement of the bleeding obvious as you could hope for.)

Since the top of a tall building is the part that is most visible from a distance, and it is visibility from a distance that tends to be the most contentious aspect of tall buildings when they are proposed, the design of the top is of particular interest.  The Shard and the Heron Tower (view from the west above) offer two possible models - simple and much the same from any direction, vs. more complicated / fragmented and different from different viewpoints.  There are pros and cons for each approach - the main problem with the latter being that if you make it look great from some directions, it may not look so great from others (you can also have 'complicated but symmetrical' (Chrysler) and 'simple/singular but asymmetrical' (Cheesegrater)).

Because tall buildings that few people like, such as 1960s council housing blocks, tend to have particularly dumb tops, there is a tendency to think that 'interesting' tops are to be preferred; and certainly the skyline of Canary Wharf would be poorer without its central pyramid.  But dumb vs. interesting is not the same as simple vs. complicated  - if the Chrysler building is the apotheosis of the 'good complicated' top, Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building might be that of the 'good simple'.  The challenge for today's skyscraper architects is to match the quality of buildings like that - not much sign of that happening in the second half of most books on the history of the skyscraper to date, but on the evidence of the Shard and Heron, London will be better served that most of the Middle East and Far East.  Maybe our planning system isn't so bad after all....

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

London's missing motorway box

Trouble with the Hammersmith flyover - currently closed for repairs after what look like pretty major defects were found in the structure - makes one ponder on London's major motorway infrastructure, or rather the lack of it.  Paris got its Peripherique in the 1960s.  Equivalent plans for London were drawn up at that time, but only small parts of a proposed inner motorway box were ever implemented, such as the West Cross Route spur road next to Westfield in West London, and the East Cross Route at Hackney Wick.  These, together with the Hammersmith flyover and the elevated part of the A40, are among the few big-scale postwar road structures that were built close to the city centre.

It's not hard, looking at a map of London, to join the dots between the bits that were built and work out where to put most of London's peripherique, but there are a few places where there's no obvious way through.  You can draw your own route and check your work on a rather wonderful website for road enthusiasts,, which tells the story and provides a link to a map, overlaid on Google maps, showing in some detail where all the roads would have gone.  Camden Lock, for example, would have benefitted from an east-west flyover with a massive and complex grade separated junction, just north of the canal, much more substantial than anything built at Hammersmith.

It's hard to imagine anything on this scale coming forward today in London - and interesting to speculate on how people would react if it turns out to be necessary to rebuild the Hammersmith flyover from scratch.   Roadbuilding is even more disruptive than railway building, and even rail lines bring the out the nimbies in force, and we have seen this week with the reactions to the HS2 proposals.  But if you lived in Hammersmith, would you rather have a replacement flyover, which would probably turn out to be bigger than the one that is there now, or a lot more traffic through your town centre?  It may be a good time to invest in tunnelling companies.

Finding oneself stuck in traffic on the London road network that we ended up with instead of the motorway box - say on Warwick Road - with several lanes of one way traffic directed through a residential street network that in places is pretty much as built in the nineteenth century - leads one to wonder whether London or Paris came out better off from the 1960s roadbuilding boom.  The two systems, of course, are near perfect mirrors of their respective countries: Cartesian rigour and Napoleonic dirigisme vs. English compromise and muddling through - or do I mean pragmatism?