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.