Monday, 14 December 2015


My commentary on Eric Parry's Undershaft project for a new City of London office tower, from last week's AJ

Eric Parry’s design is a good and pleasingly modest proposal for the new peak of the City’s ‘Eastern cluster’ of towers.  Recent skyscraper building in central London has seen a rather attention-seeking crowd of starchitect designs accumulating within the jumbled medieval street layout – curvy in the case of Foster and Viñoly, angular for Rogers and Piano.  In its contingent messiness, it is a very London cluster, in spite of this international provenance, which contrasts with the calm, orthogonal approach to tall buildings raised on a north American-style masterplan grid at Canary Wharf. 
Parry has matured into an acknowledged master of the high end, contextual city building.   Here, this approach is taken to new heights, but in its response to its surroundings, it exhibits the same thoughtfulness at seventy storeys as seen at a tenth that height in other projects by this practice which are set within traditional city block contexts.  There isn’t room for another trophy here, and the relative straightforwardness of what is proposed can be read as an implied rebuke to some of its predecessors.
The limits of the Eastern cluster are largely determined by London’s protected heritage views, and new towers here need to be squeezed into an area of about one tenth of the Square Mile.  The cluster is getting denser, not bigger, with several other very large towers in the same area planned but not yet built.  It may soon begin to call to mind a crowd of lanky shipwreck survivors huddled together on an island not quite big enough for them - as the tide rises.  Thank God for what we used to know as the CU Plaza that will, in an improved form, provide at least some sort of setting for these huge buildings. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

How to get through planning: a quick introduction for the busy client

Here is a piece, directed at construction clients, that I did for this new RIBA publication, available now here.

The planning system – faites vos jeux

Everyone knows that we have a planning system – but it is by no means self-evident what it is really for

In its origins in the first half of the twentieth century, at a time of unregulated growth, it was devised principally to address serious concerns to do with public health and nuisance – for example, so that people did not have to live next door to a glue factory. But in less than 100 years, mission creep has set in, and we now have a very complex system that can control – and in fact micro-manage – almost every aspect of building activity.  Control of land use is still at the heart of the system, even though your neighbour who wants to set up a business is more likely to be using a laptop than boiling up glue – but the system now concerns itself with every conceivable detail of amenity and environmental protection.

Each new planning minister says they want make the system simpler – each leaves office having made it more complicated.

The planning system can be seen a paradigm of the ‘nanny state’, more than any other aspect of public administration.  But it has ended up like this in response to demand.  The person (i.e. voter) who thought last year that their human right to build a back extension to their house was being infringed when the council told them that they couldn’t – is the same person who, this year, believes that their human right to stop their neighbour building a back extension to their house is being infringed when the extension goes ahead.  This textbook manifestation of cognitive dissonance explains why politicians have given us the system we have.

Given the complexity of the system, it is no surprise that obtaining a planning consent, for a project of any size, usually involves a protracted negotiation – a process now at the heart of the system, although the word negotiation does not appear anywhere in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The planning system tends to be more interested in how a proposal relates to the rest of the world than in the proposal itself – so a local authority’s priorities may be upside down when compared with those of the client and their design team. And within a council, elected members may not have the same priorities as officers.

Every significant planning application is looked on as an opportunity for the local authority to get things that it wants – within the scheme itself, or outside it, via the ‘Section 106’ system – a sort of legally sanctioned ‘brown envelope’ which allows councils to ask applicants to fund things the council wants to see happen, as long as some tenuous connection with the project can be demonstrated.

The planning system has to operate under the pretence that it is rational and objective, but as practised it is a black art, and highly political, both with a small and a big ‘p’.  A lot may depend on whether decision makers like the look of your scheme – or indeed of you.  And because there are so many different aspects that are negotiable, while any one point can be considered in the light of adopted policies and guidance, the degree of discretion within each subject area is such that in practice there is a table full of chips to be shuffled around.

Planning negotiations are generally carried out with the local authority’s planning officers.  Planning decisions for major projects, however, are made by elected politicians, who will be thinking about what their electorate will think – even though their task is meant to be to decide whether a scheme complies with the planning policies that they have set out.  Planning officers are professionals (unlike politicians) – but their advice to you may be tempered by attempts to second guess what the elected members will think (and it could be in your interests that officers do this).

The dynamic between officers and elected members can vary greatly from planning authority to planning authority. In some places an authoritative or forceful chief planner may rule the roost, and members are content for that person to make the running and vote for or against schemes as they are recommended.  In a neighbouring council, members may undermine officers at every turn.
Decisions can be capricious – officers may recommend a yes on the basis of twelve months of discussion, but councillors can say no in a matter of seconds at planning meeting, while you were trying to find the right page in the agenda.

The human factor is important in planning.  A client wants their architect to design a great building for them.  But without planning permission – in the UK at least – the great design won’t get built. As well as being a designer, the architect needs to be a communicator, who can convince officials and politicians of the merits of their design.  They need to be able to tell a coherent story, in a persuasive way, about how the design is the right one for the place it will be built, as well as for the client’s brief.  They need to be able to listen to what is being said on the other side of the table as well, and to be able to judge when to stick and when to concede.

In conclusion, my five top tips for clients who seek to find their way through the territory sketched out above are:

·         Personalities matter. Build relationships.
·         With your architect, present your case to the planners confidently, in a way that shows that you understand the planning system.
·         Remember that the planning system is more interested in the project from the outside in, while the client may be more interested in it from the inside out.
·         Work out what the council would like to gain from your project – which may be quite different from what you want from it.
·         As a last resort: remember you can appeal against a refusal.  You will get a rational hearing from a planning inspector, if you didn’t get one from the local authority.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The post-war listing lottery

The listing of post-war buildings is a tricky business, and although everyone involved has to maintain that the process is entirely objective, in fact there is an element of arbitrariness to what ends up listed and what does not.

The group of post-war commercial buildings that were listed recently, for example, was a pretty good set of choices in my view; but I or any other architect or architectural historian making the final cut from the published long list would inevitably have come up with a slightly different set.

The closer one is to the present, the less there is likely to be a settled view or consensus concerning what is worth keeping. It's true for almost anything. Robert McCrum in Sunday’s Observer, reflecting on his choices for the 100 best novels in English, wrote that

'these novels span about three centuries, roughly 1700 to 2000. Compiling a list for the first 100 years was relatively straightforward, from 1800 to 1900 progressively more difficult, and from 1900 to 2000 (my arbitrary cut-off) perilously close to impossible.'

- and those who wrote in to complain about his choices were for the most part concerned with the latter group.

It's just the same for the people responsible for listing at Historic England ('HE', as we must now learn to call what was the planning half of English Heritage - it's said that the people's choice for a new name, 'Past Caring', just failed to make the cut).

Property owners who are worried that a building might be listed can apply for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing (COI), which if granted guarantees that a building won't be listed for five years.

Applying for one of these is in effect the same as applying for a building to be listed, since it means asking the Secretary of State (who makes the decision, based on advice from HE) to decide whether or not a building should be listed.

Such is the lack of consensus about which post-war buildings are worth keeping that I was recently asked by a developer whether they should apply for a COI for a complete dog of a 1960s building that is as far from being listable as one could possibly imagine. When I asked why this was being considered, it became apparent that the view of the developer, on the basis of recent cases, was that pretty much any post war building might be listed.

I don't think Robin Hood Gardens (seen in the photo above) should be listed, but as an architect, I can understand the case being made that it should be. That isn't true of most people who are not architects - particularly those who, unlike many of its supporters I suspect, have actually been to see it.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Is conservation for the haves?

A tweet from Edwin Heathcote today...

Economist offices in St James protected.  Robin Hood Gardens social housing condemned. Class system enshrined in architectural protection...

As it happens he's quite wrong about this case, in my view, since the Economist offices were worth listing, and Robin Hood Gardens isn't - but the general point is worth exploring.

Many years ago, helping to mark some geography homework, I found that in answer to the question 'what is a conservation area', one child had answered 'a conservation area is where conservatives live'. I had to give this a tick, unsure whether they were mickey-taker or dimwit.

There is a statutory duty to 'preserve' or 'enhance' listed buildings, and conservation areas and their settings, and local authorities pay correspondingly greater attention to these parts of the built environment, with dedicated staff, considerable time devoted to conservation area appraisals, and so on.  We can be fairly sure that it is the haves rather than the have nots who benefit most from this. When conservation areas are 'threatened' by new development, objectors, usually well heeled, will pray in aid the statutory duties - a set of weapons not available to, say, the residents of the average council estate if they think their homes will not be enhanced by a scheme the council has planned for them.  The latter must rely on prescriptions about the importance of 'good design' in policy and guidance - just as vague and open to interpretation as requirements to preserve and enhance, but not framed as a legal duty.

Where this is particularly relevant is in the proliferation of conservation areas to cover areas that do not really meet the required definition of 'special architectural or historic interest'.  The word 'special' is there for a reason.  The NPPF says that 'local planning authorities should ensure that an area justifies such status because of its special architectural or historic interest, and that the concept of conservation is not devalued through the designation of areas that lack special interest' - a recognition, obviously, that the problem of over-designation exists; but a piece of guidance that is widely ignored.

The result is conservation areas - typically those most recently designated - consisting mainly of coherent, stable areas of housing of the middling kind that does not meet the definition of special interest, but whose residents would like to keep them the way they are - you could think of them as 'residents association conservation areas'.

Put simply, a lot of planning effort, required by law, goes into keeping nice places nice, and generally nice environments are the preserve of the better off.  Less effort, and less resource, goes into ensuring that less favoured places are made better and not worse when changes are planned.

In planning committee reports you will sometimes find an 'equalities impact assessment', usually saying little or nothing of interest, largely cut and pasted from a previous report. But such a report is meant to address issues of gender, race and so on, where there are yet more legal duties (in this case favouring the disadvantaged, but only in specific, rather than general, categories).  It is not required to report that 'this recommendation for refusal will work to the benefit of those lucky enough to own homes in this area already, and to the disbenefit of those who would like to find somewhere to live'.

Does conservation regulation as practiced favour the haves over the have nots?  What do you think bears get up to in the woods?

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

New London housing - design by regulation

A 'new normal' is emerging for the design of dense urban housing in major projects in London - more as a consequence of following the rules than as a brainchild of any creative mind.

That state of affairs is not novel or unusual - it is how many building types emerge.  Much of the way that buildings are shaped has been determined by regulation rather than design intent, ever since there were regulations. Examples include the New York 'set-back style' for tall buildings - a consequence of that city's Zoning Ordinance of 1916; and London's interwar mansion blocks, many of which are 8-10 storeys high simply because of the height limit imposed at that time for reasons of fire safety, with developers 'maxing out' within the rules no less than they do today.

The building type that is emerging in London is a free standing apartment building of eight flats per floor, with a linear plan of four flats each side, with the block's long axis north-south.  These characteristics result from the housing standards now being insisted on by the GLA: no more than eight flats per lift and stair core; no more than 50% single aspect flats (therefore four corner flats plus four along the sides); no single aspect north facing flats (therefore oriented with long sides facing east and west).  You can't join the blocks up into terraces because you lose the corner flats. But the form can go as high as you want (until the planning authority, structural engineer or QS stop you for other reasons). Some schemes offer fewer flats per floor, giving you a form that is more tower-like than slab-like when you go tall - but many clients will want to know why they can't have eight flats per core like everyone else. 

This plan form can produce decent buildings.  The general idea, executed at a high level of sophistication and cost (and fewer flats per floor), can be seen in Rogers Stirk Harbour's scheme at Neo Bankside.  But as Le Corbusier's Unités (as seen photographed in sunshine) morphed into 1960s council housing (as seen photographed under storm clouds), we may fear that imitators will not pull off the model so well.

The form when repeated leads to arrangements of free standing buildings - rather at odds with today's (revived) urban design precept of buildings being used to define external space.

The GLA rules don't tell you to build in this way - it is just where the rules seem to take you. Other housing typologies - deck access, scissor flats etc - are available, but do not seem to find favour.

The New York Zoning Ordinance was turned into art in the 1920s by the genius of Hugh Ferriss, in his studies of what could be achieved within the new rules.  London's housing today needs an equivalent. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A fight in Red Lion Square - and the origins of town planning

Red Lion Square in Holborn is not one of London's best known or most attractive squares, but it is one of the oldest in its origins.  It was laid out in the 1680s by the remarkable Nicholas Barbon, a dodgy-sounding character who was a doctor, developer, economist and one of the inventors of fire insurance.

According to the London Encyclopedia, when the square was being laid out by Barbon's men 'the lawyers of Grays Inn objected to losing their rural vistas and there were pitched battles when 100 or so of them went to beat up the workmen; but, led by Barbon in person, the workmen won.'

It's not hard to work out what must have happened next. The lawyers retreated to the safety of their Grays Inn quad to lick their wounds and consider how they could learn - and perhaps profit - from the experience. The answer: some sort of legal framework for controlling development, whereby disputes of this kind could be settled by brain rather than brawn, with the double benefit of favouring the lawyers rather than the builders next time the former wanted to protect their own amenities - and providing a source of work for them evermore in helping everyone else to achieve their aim either to develop or to obstruct. A clever lot.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

£3bn to refurbish Parliament - is it worth it?

The Houses of Parliament are long overdue for a major refurbishment.  Speaker John Bercow has recently warned of the dangers of any more procrastination - everyone agrees that there is a need for action.

This is a headache for Parliament, rather than the government, but that is not a distinction that will be recognised in what is bound to be a fuss over the cost.

Plans are in hand.  The present estimate is that it will cost £3bn.  Is it right to spend that much money on it - and is that the right amount of money?

As you head across Westminster Bridge from the Lambeth side, you can see Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster on the left, and Hopkins and Partners Portcullis House on the right.  The latter, housing parliamentary offices and meeting rooms, was opened in 2001 amid controversy about the fact that the building cost £235m, and that weeping figs had been rented for the atrium at vast expense, etc etc.

Portcullis House looked like a big and ambitious project; it still does; and in my view it was worth the money.

It's not very impressive compared with the Palace of Westminster, though, and it's not hard to imagine how you could rack up £3bn sorting out the latter.  Because it is so familiar, it is sometimes hard to see it for the masterpiece of Victorian architecture that it is, all the way from the brilliant formal balancing of symmetry and asymmetry in the arrangement of the whole, to the craftsmanship and details at the finer scale.  Not the least of the architects' achievements was the masterly incorporation of the medieval Westminster Hall in the new complex - and all done without the advice of heritage consultants, English Heritage or Westminster City Council...

My view is that as with Portcullis House, this job must be done properly, for the long term, and with the very best consultants that can be found - and that those responsible for justifying the costs should go on the front foot about the importance of the project to the country as a whole, for quite a long and varied list of reasons.

There are two schools of thought on how you pluck a budget figure out of the air for a project of this kind: either (1) set it low, so that at least you get the go-ahead, and field someone thick-skinned to take the flack when the costs escalate later - in the hope that the client will have the grace to say privately later, as that Chinese emperor is supposed to have done, 'thank you for lying to us about the cost, or we would never have done it'; or (2) set it high, roughly on the Micawber principle, with a budget that includes what a QS I worked with many years ago called a 'protection of the innocent fund' - that is, a cunningly disguised but generous contingency sum that ensures that the bottom line remains the same from start to finish.

The commission is potentially a poisoned chalice for whoever is prepared to take it on.  No doubt to be procured under EU rules and therefore not immune to going to a consultant team that is cheap rather than one that is good, the project has potential downside for the chosen consultants that is, I am sad to say, enormous. They will have Sir Humphrey-like clients to deal with, and then sneery parliamentary committees; and if anything goes wrong, or the project goes a penny over budget, they will have the Daily Mail to answer to as well.

Whatever they do, they should avoid specifying any large plants. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

London's main roads can accommodate growth and make our city more like itself

London's population, according to the Office for National Statistics, is projected to grow by 13% - over a million people - between 2012 and 2022.  This means there is a need for more of every type of building - offices, factories, schools and hospitals - as well as the homes that are the main subject of discussion when growth is discussed.

There is plenty of room within Greater London to accommodate this growth, and that is what the London Plan proposes to do.  But it's not easy to reconcile this pressing need with the tendency of local authority planning committees to resist it in their decision making.  It seems unlikely that if asked, committee members would support people being accommodated in sheds in the back gardens of TfL's zones 4 to 6, but that is what happens at present - out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.

London is not like New York (hellzapoppin, at least in Manhattan) or Paris (homogeneous, at least until you get out to the banlieues).  Its growth projections are twice those of New York, but it needs to find its own way to expand, not become like somewhere else.  Development areas such as Nine Elms are criticised, with some justification, as appearing to have little to do with the character of London; and even Canary Wharf, accepted by most Londoners for what it is, has little obvious connection with the rest of the city.

One way that London could grow in a more London-like way would be to concentrate incremental growth - extensions and new buildings - along main roads, both in the centre and elsewhere.

Typically, London's main roads are larger in scale, and more varied and changeable than the side streets the run off them.  They were often developed before the side streets, but have been redeveloped more frequently, so there is less that is precious, and less that is homogeneous.   Outside the centre of London, and in places in the centre too, main roads also tend to be more run down and in need of visual improvement.  Camden High Street and Hackney Road are typical examples - visually grotty environments with smart side streets only yards away.

Main roads can accommodate change, variety and increased scale more readily than side streets.  In order to accommodate growth, there should be a presumption in favour of enlarging existing buildings on main roads, or replacing them with large new buildings.  Such a policy should explicitly recognise that these large new buildings will be seen from neighbouring conservation areas and in the backdrop of listed buildings and that this is not inherently harmful.  It is already characteristic of London.   When done well, such contrasts improve the city and do not to harm it.

The upward extension of a building on Euston Road that is illustrated above is an example of what can be done.  Sensibly scaled and neatly executed, doing what is appropriate and no more, it enhances the base building below and is readily accommodated in the varied existing streetscape.  Notably, it shows that it is not compulsory for upwards extensions to be 'roof-like', mimicking mansards from the days before we had lifts, when the top floors contained the least desirable accommodation, not the most desirable as they do now.

Paris is largely homogeneous in the height of its buildings.  New York is the opposite, but its gridded urban block structure is very unlike that of London - all roads have equal, democratic, weight in the urban hierarchy.  A strategy of intensifying built form along the main roads would be in tune with the character of the London that already exists and would have the effect of making London more like itself rather than like somewhere else, such as the Dubai-on-Thames complained of by the moaners.

It could also have the effect of bringing about much needed visual improvement to some of London's most visible signs of the persistence of urban decay in some theoretically desirable parts of the capital, while massive, but not necessarily appropriate, redevelopment takes place elsewhere.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Finsbury Health Centre - not off the critical list yet

The Twentieth Century's Society's small exhibition at the Royal Academy, 100 Buildings 100 Years, (on until 1 February 2015) includes Lubetkin and Tecton's Finsbury Health Centre to represent 1938.

Listed  at Grade 1 and one of the most important modernist buildings in the UK, it has had a troubled recent history, and is on English Heritage's Buildings at Risk register.

Most of the other buildings in the exhibition are illustrated with a photograph, either historic or recent, but this one was shown with a computer-generated image credited to Avanti Architects, who have worked on the restoration of the building over the years, and whose former director John Allan, author of the definitive monograph on Lubetkin, has been instrumental in the campaign to save it.

If you go and look at the real thing you can see why they didn't use a current photograph.  Some aspects of the present state of the building would have been a depressing sight in what was generally an uplifting exhibition...

The building itself is clearly in need of love and money.  It is particularly sad to see the state of the front railings and the ugly and insensitive signage which contribute to the visitor's first impression. Money is no doubt tight, but sorting out the front wouldn't cost that much. (The planting looks better tended, but has always looked as if it belongs somewhere else entirely.)

We don't need castles as much as we used to, but they seem to get plenty of money spent on them. We do still need health centres.  This building should be kept in its present use and restored as a priority case for any national funding that may still be available to restore buildings at risk.  A trust has been formed to secure its future, and it seems there is hope of a positive outcome after years of uncertainty and neglect.

It is not hard to imagine a scheme whereby the owners would get rid of it and it would be lavishly restored to its former architectural glory, but as the HQ of a design company or whatever.  For a building whose social and historic importance matches its architectural importance, that could be a fate worse than death.  Lubetkin, I can't help thinking, would rather have seen it crumble to dust.

As with many early welfare state projects, the story of Finsbury Health Centre can be read as one of faith in the future.  There are plenty of people - professionals and lay people - who care deeply about this building, so one should be optimistic about its chances.  When it was shiny and new it was a beacon of hope serving a inner city working class population many of whom who lived in slums and suffered from poverty and poor health.  Today it sits looking tatty, at the heart of a now wealthy area with possibly more design professionals per square metre than anywhere else in the planet.  If this building can't be sorted out, what hope for buildings at risk in more benighted places?