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.