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.

Oxford Street

Just been looking at this excellent historic film.

“Its one of the world’s busiest thoroughfares….” That’s  around 1964, two lanes in each direction, people dodging the traffic in much the same way as they do today. But where has all the traffic gone?

Now it’s mainly buses and taxis, white vans and the occasional rogue car. Pedestrians  throng the pavements particularly between 11am and late in the evening, far more than they ever did in the 1960’s. Soon they will be joined by millions more each year as Crossrail delivers its passengers at Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road. Will the street be able to cope? – Some of the time maybe but not all and so big changes should be debated now not left to the last minute. Already major building works for the construction of Crossrail stations has closed down parts of the street for extended periods with diversions, so the experience of reduced traffic flows will not be new. More work has been done from Oxford Circus heading towards Tottenham Court Road and no doubt will follow soon.

In the 1990s the street was largely reconstructed from Orchard Street to Oxford Circus, largely funded by the City of Westminster with some private contributions from the likes of M&S, Selfridges, Grosvenor, Land Securities and John Lewis.  The key argument then to persuade the Council to invest in what was a major redesign extending footways but up to 50% in width and closing side entrances to traffic, was the promise of substantial contributions from private landlords and frontagers. This time though these organisations may already be contributing towards Crossrail. So a different model for funding will be needed.

Oxford Street is a busy well connected street running through the heart of the West End. Complete  24/7 pedestrianisation is not an option and is not needed. But a project that re-balances the space for pedestrians and essential public transport is needed and now is the time to get planning.

Google Kings Cross HQ

In the week that Twitter went public and doubled its share price in a day (journalistic exaggeration), what was Google up to? It decided to reconsider its design for the new HQ in Kings Cross.

Simon Allford of AHMM crossed the world for a 10 minute meeting with Larry Page, according to BD Boots, that’s 550 miles travel for every minute of the meeting. This is an opportunity to open up the larger questions of connectivity across King’s Cross and beyond and an opportunity for Google to demonstrate  local as well as global contributions to society. To show some of that old but not dead concept of patronage.

Following the 19th and 20th century philanthropists, what will Google’s response be? What will a redesign do? It may move a limited market forward, but does it provide anything of lasting value. A new park constructed over the railway tracks, green space in an area of green deprivation, pedestrian and cycle links from the Regent Quarter to the fast emerging Argent developments between the tracks of St Pancras and Kings Cross could do.

Someone suggested a new Exchange Square. Twitter was at work here, thanks to Michael Edwards for starting the debate. But Exchange Square is a glorified private office court masquerading as a public space. A new local park is a gift that has lasting value.

The images are from a competition entry for Luxembourg Gare  – a park over the tracks linking two sides of the City. Urban design by Matthias Wunderlich and Simon Carne (Urban Initiatives team)


1913_luxembourg_03 2

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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.

Zaha Hadid

Do we need a new vocabulary to do justice to Zaha Hadid?

Last week saw the Imagine programme with appearances from the lady, her business partner Patrick Schumacher and Alan Yentob wandering through many of her great and not so great works across the globe. If this is architecture then we need to reconsider what is involved in the “discipline”. Does the computer generating forms to order qualify? Is there a place for the economical use of space and materials?

Unsurprisingly the commentators and fellow architects and teachers were all expressing their approval of the work. There is no doubt that the Peak would have been extraordinary, the Phaeno Science Centre at Wolfsberg amazing and the Cardiff Opera House was one of the missed opportunities of all time.  But I came away with Piers Gough’s Frank Gehry quote as summing up the whole design conundrum of her work. Flat piece of something $1, single curve $2, double curve $10. With enough budget extraordinary things are possible, but they are generated by what? And they are constructed using vast quantities of steel, designed by the 3D capability of computers operated by exceptional engineers like Hanif Kara.

The Festival Hall is over 50 years old, St Paul’s Cathedral over 400 years, the Pantheon 2,000 years…. Will the “organic, rolling, slipping and sliding” cultural centre in Baku be the ultimate Zaha experience?

Alan Yentob sums it up as “…one of the most remarkable structures I have ever seen” Give it a few more years Alan.


Planning major infrastructure

London Heathrow: the future

Options for a new hub airport for London come in thick and fast. Today it’s the turn of Heathrow to come up with a third or maybe a third and and fourth new runway concept. Earlier this week it was all estuary, Grain Island or possibly Stansted with Foster, Make, Atkins/Hadid battling it out to be Boris’s preferred option. No doubt the Committee empowered to review these options will be thinking beyond the images and consider the views of those directly affected, but it will be the big interests that determine the outcome.

Whatever the outcome there does seem to be some logic in proceeding with this process even if it ends up being a re-run of the 1970’s when Maplin was ditched for Stansted. Can these lessons be applied to the second major infrastructure debate?

HS2: fundamental review

The other hot infrastructure topic, HS2 rolls on, this time with the paving bill in Parliament. HS2 have already racked up significant fees on developing a back of envelope concept but now it seems that real money is needed despite the growing calls for reconsideration through to all out scrapping. Disruption to cities and countryside is inevitable with major projects and yet this one seems to have got off on the wrong foot spectacularly. It seeks to re-balance the economy with a single fast train service that all evidence suggests will draw people down to London rather than the reverse. Its environmental damage to the country and city is too significant to be ignored. The major cities Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds may get the benefit of a service but other cities in greater need in the East Midlands, North West, North East, East, South West and West get little or no benefit. Transport is a network of connections and this proposal makes limited contribution to the overall connectivity at great cost and over a very long timescale.

Above all the project has not been investigated from an agreed starting point. What is it trying to achieve, first it was speed until that was shown to be of limited benefit, then regeneration, then capacity or a mix of all three to justify the need. The objectors have picked off these arguments skillfully but there is no dialogue between design and politics and until there is the two sides will continue to fight.

The country cannot stop infrastructure development because it is difficult and complete acceptance across all interest groups is unachievable, but this project does seem to be heading in the direction of no benefit for anyone beyond a few with generous expense accounts and no time to switch off.

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.

If COR-TEN is the answer What is the Question?

Fashion in architecture is more than skin deep. However sometimes the skin dominates the fashion. COR-TEN or weathered steel is not a new material, but compared to the everyday choice of building materials, it has a relatively short and some might say patchy history. It also has that elusive quality of authenticity and honesty. Many though not all ‘modern’ architects like to work with materials that are unencumbered by other messages references to historic styles .

Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the SOM / YRM Grade II* factory of WD and HO Wills Factory outside Bristol is one famous example of a COR-TEN structure being brought back to life with a completely different function.  John Winter’s house in Highgate is perhaps the archetypal British modernist architects house. But these are very specific, fine examples of a rigorous structural aesthetic approach with the material expressed for what it was – a structure.

Other purely sculptural and structural examples, Richard Serra’s Fulcrum in Broadgate, the Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Marks Barfield’s Kew Tree Walk are now added to by advertising displays at the Chiswick roundabout with COR-TEN structure.

















Passing a quiet suburban street in Kew recently I was drawn to the remains of a modest brick facade undergoing reconstruction. I say reconstruction as it seemed that the planning authority was faced with a distinctive approach to the provision of a new home but with the remnants of an existing building, within a conservation area and with neighbours whose initial reaction was probably negative. The Richmond planning website revealed that it was designed by Piercy Conner receiving permission in 2011. When finished it will probably grace the pages of architectural and design magazines. But will it last and how will it weather? COR-TEN is a complex material and has many

Last week the Waddington Studios by Featherstone Young were illustrated in the AJ.

COR-TEN was the preferred material of enclosure to the public face of the building. This time it was not compromised by attempts to keep some reference to what was there before and to that extent it makes a more positive statement. It is also a far more complex arrangement of spaces and functions and the COR-TEN was only a part of the stylistic references and messages. (MAXXI, green roofs, Waddington playing card designs)

COR-TEN can be used in its pure structural and sculptural form without references or historical detail. It can as in the examples of Piercey Conner’s house and the Featherstone Young building be embellished and perforated to create patterns. But there is more to the material than honesty and truthfulness, it has distinctive weathering qualities and design detail requirements. This demands complex design detailing and craftsmanship.

The question lingers, if COR-TEN is the answer what was the question?

Swansea City of Culture

The shortlisting of Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and parts of Carmarthenshire as a “City” has demonstrated that Cities are more than single entities. They depend on a physical hinterland and in Swansea’s case a significant physical and cultural background. Even without that background the twitter question posed by me last week on my way there….

“Off to city with 2 universities premiership football club in Europe plus top notch rugby club beach and marina where?”

Got the almost immediate response

“Swansea. One of my all time great UK cities”

If 140 characters allowed I could have gone on to list plenty more but that was apparently unnecessary.

Now the challenge of “winning” this title is up to the combined efforts of a group of authorities whose future lies in collaboration as well as friendly competition. They need to think hard about what they want their city to be in 15-20 years time as well as in 2017. This will include thinking about the role of the motor vehicle, encouraging urban movement and how city living, shopping and leisure can become a reality for a significant population.

This is the same challenge that many places face. The future lies in moving to the head of the pack, working collaboratively for the long term, political continuity and above all being bold.