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.