Category Archives: Urban Design

Estate and Context – two books – one subject

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Reviews first published by Building Design December 2015

Until I had “read” both books it would have never occurred to me that they could be talking about the same complex and indefinable term that architects and urban designers use so loosely – “context”.

I write “read’ because so much of Estate is visual. Estate is a photographic record of a place as it was at one very specific time 1991. It doesn’t show the emergence of a place, its design, construction or the continuing story of it. Of the nine original tower blocks only three remain. Why these three are retained, they also happened to be the smaller ones (13 storeys against 16) is not part of the story.

Jonathan Meades has set it in a written context and as one would expect it goes beyond the immediate images and goes straight to the political context, racialism, public housing before it became “social” housing and by 1991 the advent of Thatcherism and the right to buy. Interestingly according to Hugo Young quoted in James Meek’s Private Island, Thatcher had to be talked into right to buy by Edward Heath as a populist policy and as Meek says one that violated basic Thatcherite principles – self reliance – good / state handouts – bad. But perhaps that is a point that doesn’t fit into the Meades narrative.

Laura Noble in her essay deals with the more detailed aspects of the subject, interiors and exteriors, materiality, landscape and above all the subject matter, the people living on the estate. The photographs almost suggest being staged or set up. They look studied as indeed some were but others had to be captured quickly in an age long before digital media allowed for multiple images. At the end one wonders what exactly the photographs have to say. As with so much photojournalism it is perhaps only with the passing of more time that the relevance becomes clear. At the moment the images could almost be contemporary and that to me means that we have not progressed. Sad but true.

“Context” on the other hand is an ambitious attempt at defining the qualities that make places and specifically an urban place. The field of architecture and urban design proliferate with such terms but rarely are they defined. Eric Parry has attempted this in relatively short but esoteric sections dividing the subject into 5 chapter subjects. He has further enhanced his subjects by reference to his approach to building design as well as other well-known practitioners in Europe. By relating his approach to very specific situations he has the advantage of using real life to explain his approach to this complex subject without recourse to generalization.

With headings of Pavement, Horizon, Simultaneity, Kinetics and Artifice he walks us through the qualities of a place in a manner that only the most thoughtful of designers can. Illustrated by sketches, photographs and maps, the qualities of urban environment in its physical, historical and changing character through the day is brought to life through reference often to projects and studies done in his office.

In the second chapter he teasingly shows his 2006 sketch of the skyline including the site of his recently revealed 1 Undercroft tower with on the following pages a discussion of the detail of the cenotaph with its celestial radius of 1000 feet now referenced in the Tower design. How these thoughts fed into the design and what part they might have played are for the future no doubt.

Whether this is a valuable reference book for the aspiring designer or a good story told to promote a successful and creative office is the question. In the hands of Eric Parry the subtlety and sophistication of context is clear. Unfortunately in the hands of lesser designers too much sophistication can be a handicap to achieving good quality design.

NLA Director Peter Murray talks tall buildings

Peter Murray talks tall buildings.

Peter Murray’s New London Architecture has organised an excellent exhibition at the Building Centre, Store Street on the future of London’s skyline focussing on the 240+ existing and planned tall buildings in the capital. Presenting the subject earlier today, Peter stressed that it seemed that nobody elected and in authority (though GLA planners dispute this) knew there were so many buildings of over 20 storeys planned, where they were and how they will impact upon the skyline and the ground level of the city.

Recounting the many changes over the recent past two aspects struck me as being critical.

First – buildings evolve and adapt to changing demands over time. Will the tall residential development may offer little flexibility for the future of living in the city? The best residential buildings can update themselves (Trellick Tower) , the worst (system built – Ronan Point) fail catastrophically or are demolished. However many recent developments have been poorly constructed, of no architectural quality and without an overall master plan that considers the immediate locality, streets, environmental conditions. Commercial buildings are now being converted through permitted development rights without due consideration of their suitability. Commercial space is being lost and designs originally conceived for one form of occupation has throughout time had to adapt. The Gerkin, Natwest tower being two example quoted. What is the long term fate of these many new tall buildings?

Second – tall buildings and specifically those that contain numerous privately owned, often rented flats are likely to have to stand very much longer than commercial developments which can be removed for higher value opportunities. If the market rules, truly affordable homes, at affordable not unaffordable rents are no longer developed save in very limited numbers. The heart of London is being hollowed out so that London can ‘compete’ in the global economy, but that hollowing out will be the death of an attractive city.

Lessons from abroad in unduly conservationist Paris, or in New York where rights are being traded across plots so that extremely tall, high value apartment buildings trading on the values that height brings can be built are not encouraging. It is probably too late to adopt Vancouver’s planned approach ‘Vancouverism’ that both limits height to specific areas but encourages a visually coherent and environmentally positive city.  It would also require a political and culture shift.

So where does that lead. Opportunity areas of which there are so many that one wonders what is not an opportunity seek a planned solution. The evidence from the largest is that planning is taking a back seat in the face of overwhelming development pressure.

Rowan Moore in his recent excellent articles for the Observer has opened up an issue that won’t go away. It has drawn to the attention of politicians the impact that piecemeal decisions are making to our city. Trying to square development that funds so much of the city’s infrastructure, achieving quality of design and environment, fighting ever increasing competition for land with soaring values, whilst trying to provide homes for a rapidly increasing population who want to live and work in a successful city whose  global city status is a big ask.

One which demands solutions that are more radical than what is currently on the menu.

London Housing Report: the Princes Foundation

With an introduction  “The enduring popularity and desirability of London’s Sloane Square, Mayfair and Notting Hill neighbourhoods speaks to the strengths of mid-rise as a form”  I wonder if this is really going to be a fruitful read.

However amongst and beyond the quotes from three interviewees, Ben Denton, Ben Derbyshire and Eliot Lipton, there are snippets of value amongst the rather confused structure of the report.

Housing in the UK is no small subject to cover in roughly half a report of 34 pages. Categorise it by historical and current development, policy context, tenure types and current industry recommendations (increase investment, make more land available, empower communities, financial reforms) and conclude with:

“we need to build differently” is to say the least inadequate.

Come to page 24 and we get to the meat of the report, a definition of mid-rise housing, 5-8 storeys. Not up to 10-12 storeys which might have been thought a more acceptable proposition for some of the higher value and better served areas of a world city.

The potential locations and context for mid-rise revealed at the beginning are key routes, small/medium infill sites, large scale new build and estate regeneration.

An important consideration is the so-called “right of way” (R.O.W.). Mid-rise developments can be defined as those buildings not taller
 than the R.O.W. of the streets onto which they face. This is not taken any further as a definition but begs the question “what about buildings overlooking large open spaces, parks, rivers?”

The four separate contextual or typologies are then discussed and throughout the three interviewees make comments for example:

Ben Derbyshire decries the low density of suburbs

“It’s so low the density of suburbia…it’s ridiculously low… it’s got the most enormous density capacity to supply housing. 2/3rd of London is at suburban densities,
and therefore it’s essential to look at the capacity of that 2/3rds as a whole, from the point of view of what it can yield up by way of additional supply. The number that I bandy about is: that if you double the density of only 10% of the footprint of suburban London, you supply all of the housing London needs for the next 20 years…”

Are suburbs unpopular?

but he also states without any evidence to support it

People don’t want housing estates…they
 don’t want that kind of physical and social disjunction between the city that they own 
and privatised space with weird built form… they just don’t want it anymore, and there’s no reason why they should have it.”

Ben Denton acknowledges London’s role as a world city

“London’s attractiveness is as a global city so therefore its market is not just the UK, it’s the world and that brings some quite unusual pressures. So in terms of demand, you’re talking on a world stage rather than just a country stage and so not just the flow of the number of people, but also the flow of money into places creates unusual market circumstances.”

But his role as Strategic Director of Housing Regeneration and Property is also expressed when coming up with ideal options for mid-rise housing…

“…….If you look at some of the great examples of mid-rise across London, historic examples like Maide Vale, they work fabulously well, they had communal outdoor space…that model works really, really well. Everyone would aspire to grow up in Maide Vale and in places like that.”

Not more than 500m away from Maida Vale in Westbourne Green, there is a very different and successful model, mixing estate renewal with new build additions to intensify the density of the area.

Eliott Lipton surprisingly says of the London housing market:

 “London residential is an inefficient market, with customers at either end of the earnings spectrum getting homes – – if you’re rich or in need of support, then 
the state system works for you…it’s the people in the middle that the system works less well for and that is fundamentally caused by a lack of supply.”

No doubt those at the top get what they want but at the bottom too?

The report paints a reasonably realistic picture of the challenges that London is facing……

“While the bulk of demand can be identified at the lower end of the market…….., new developments continue to target wealthier buyers……. The current model of investment into luxury, typically high-rise, residential developments is risking oversupply in the Prime market, while failing to deliver where
 the bulk of future demand lies.

Research estimates that 28,500 new homes are needed at the lower end of the market each year, while only 18,500 will be needed in the mid and upper core markets52. Of the 42,000..(current Mayor’s housing policy target), 15,000 affordable homes are to be developed each year – 40% of which will be for lost-cost ownership, and 60% will be for affordable rent. These targets, given the mere 17,000 homes built in London last year, only 6,000 of which were built by housing associations and councils, have been praised as ambitious, if not unrealistic.”

Social housing as part of a mix is barely considered in any detail.

Fundamental to the report is the desire to paint a single form and possibly visual image for the future of London. Mid-rise has its role but so too the lower densities of inner and outer suburbs. The arterial routes in and out of the city could with improvements to air quality provide fertile ground for higher density mid-rise developments but like so much of city planning this requires joined up thinking and not a single limited solution.

Retrofit and the RIBA President

The AJ Retrofit award should be a highlight of the architectural year. First it deals with the bread and butter of an architectural practice as well as the large scale projects. It is all about context, constraints and lasting solutions. This year the winners are no exceptions to these challenges and whilst they lack the really big projects of recent times, there is so much to learn from them.

Stephen Hodder has just taken up his role as President of the RIBA. He knows about Retrofit. Retrofit is all about giving a building a second or maybe third chance. The first initiative of his two year position seem to be seeking evidence for “good design improving lives” as a justification to sell the services of architects to a possibly disbelieving client. This is not a new area of research as others such as the Useable Buildings Trust have pointed out. And if Stephen Hodder is not aware of this I would be amazed.

Whilst there are design deniers in some departments of Government, is this the best way to promote good design? Paul Morrell, at a CABE event a couple of years ago, said that the Government wanted design to a standard that was not excellent, but “good enough”, effectively endorsing Michael Gove’s agenda for schools. Coming from someone with Paul’s track record and experience, this was a powerful and depressing message. I hope it will not be the result of the President’s initiative.

Design Panels

Andrea Klettner “Squaring the Circle” in BD 5 July 2013 addresses housebuilding stimulation, planning, garden cities and design review in a single page, including Nick Boles’s “five favourite schemes”. Well done Andrea, no mean achievement. Even Nick Boles the Planning Minister says he does not know what makes a good system or a bad one when it comes to design review.

Robin Nicholson who does know about such matters, gets in touch with Boles to tell him about the Cambridge Quality Panel (Disclosure – as a panel member I have experienced its excellent work under Robin and John Worthington’s chairmanship). Nick Boles promptly goes to Cambridge, looks at some of the emerging developments on greenfield sites around Cambridge. In the Cambridge bubble, far sighted Councillors and officers have been and continue to release land for development whilst insisting on the highest standards of design to accommodate the City’s housing needs.

What makes the Quality Panel work so well? It has a number of consistent threads to its work. It was set up by Cambridge Horizons with a relatively small number of panel members. Panellists regularly get the opportunity to work together on reviews. There is an explicit agenda around the four themes of Community, Connectivity, Character and Climate, based on a report for Cambridge Horizons written by Nick Falk of Urbed. A key recommendation was that the panel review emerging major urban extensions. Initially this was taken on board by other Councils nearby. In the light of NPPF recommendations it is hoped that this will be restored after a lapse. The proposition was taken up by Peter Studdert and fellow planning and design colleagues. There is an understanding, largely shared by local authorities and housebuilders that the panel should be consulted as early as reasonable and that the consultation is continued through the design process, leading up to applications and  reserved matters.

12 panel members including the two chairs have a range of skills covers urban design, planning, transport, architecture, landscape design, sustainability, sociology and housing. The panel members include local and national representatives. It is well served by Council officers from the County and City Councils. Briefing and site visits are included. Revisits to review completed schemes are planned.

Design review is spread across the Country and its value is increasingly recognised. If the planning regime, developers and house builders can be persuaded that it is a facilitating not obstructing mechanism then standards can only improve.

Design review

Yesterday was Cambridge, two weeks ago it was Wales. Design review takes you to many different places. The schemes are varied in scale, quality and significance but the challenge for the reviewer is always the same, how to be critical friend and yet be brutally honest when necessary. The designer may be so immersed in their work and probably knows that there are flaws, they just don’t like to be told that. The critic wants to be helpful but often struggles to understand the rationale. Last week I responded to BDonline on the removal to prepare design and access statements from a number of projects. I believe that they are essential to describing the design process and so underpin review and planning. My comments led me to being asked to respond on one side of the BD Debate this week. I look forward to reading the other side.

The Edge Debate 58

The question for debate was

“Is creating an institute of the Built Environment the answer to a ‘fragmented and ineffective’ industry?”

That’s a positive message, I thought, and Terry Wyatt was quite happy to go straight in there with a proposition to merge two of the many professional institutes that make up the sprawling group of individuals and major companies that make up the “construction Industry”. It was a well structured argument that picked at the separation of design, production and management and the silos that they construct. But neither side really questioned the premise, indeed they generally agreed on much. So why is the industry so fragmented and ineffective?

The importance of leadership and the paucity of it generally was proposed by Mike Murray. His argument drew considerably on the Wolfenstone report of 2009 as the most important review of the industry. I have just read its 30 odd pages. Digestible and clear. But is it just another look down the wrong end of the telescope? It seeks to justify the importance of the industry, to show that it is efficient, to raise its profile, all valuable aims, but is that what is really needed?

Were we talking about the “built environment” of just the professionals, trades, contractors and FM technicians that make up the building industry within strictly defined boundaries? Yes, for much of the time we were. The debate ranged far and wide and took in the attractions of architect courses over engineering, the professions generally – law, medicine and architecture/engineering. Buildings are an important consumer of energy, they cost and have to last. But will they ever be truly sustainable? We knock them down before the end of their natural life and build another one that will go the same way in 20-30 years time if not  sooner. None of this was addressed.

It was only towards the end of the debate that anyone mentioned “planning”. Were there any planners in the room? Two hands went up. Was there a mention of Urban Design? No. But the message I came away with was that’s all very well but construction, unless it is the Olympics, Crossrail or a new London airport, is just a minor works job. Long life, loose fit, low energy was one of the old slogans that didn’t warrant a repeat last night. Perhaps it should have done but then we would have only had to say that was then and now is now. The future is BIM, zero carbon etc. But a one-off where the design is usually specific to need, certainly specific to site is most of the industry and the bread and butter of the SMEs that struggle within it. Craft is important as is knowing your builder/sub-contractor. The bigger questions remain. Where and how does the community and user fit. Do they have a voice? Unless the project is rolled out many times over, it is a one off, delivered by a group of individuals responding to a client. The client, their advisors and the teams working for them all contribute to the success or failure but trying to make a single solution will not work.

Chaired by Professor Alan Penn from the Bartlett and with the two sides represented by Terry Wyatt of Hoare Lea and CIBSE and Mike Murray of many places including One Creative Environments. It made an interesting and valuable discussion. Afterwards talking to Robin, Steve and Rob it was the comment that Alan Penn made at the start that it is around the edges that interesting things happen that kept coming back to me.

Walking to Charing Cross from Carlton House Terrace, through Spring Gardens Rob pointed out four stories or perhaps facts all to do with the place we were passing through. Albert Speer, Patrick Abercrombie, Frederick Gibberd, the silver jubilee and squatters. A very Iain Sinclair or Jonathan Meades moment.

pedestrian space

Tunnel under Hammersmith

Is a tunnel better than a flyover? This seems to be troubling the local architectural community in Hammersmith. Working in Cities is not so much dealing with small discrete alternatives that make no overall difference but the shear complexity of making the big changes that do. Removing elevated highways is now very much on the agenda after years of trying. Taking out one road and replacing with another does not move managing transport in cities forward. It repeats the mistakes of the past. A radical proposal takes road space out and forces the traveller to think about his journey, the mode of travel and the time of day. There is more than enough space within the City. A bus after all accommodates at least 30 people in the space of two cars, and of course most of the traffic in Hammersmith isn’t on the flyover anyway.