Perhaps Pickles walked a short distance from the House and stood at the precise spots where the visualisations were conceived. Perhaps he came to the conclusion that on certain days, from very particular places, if looking in the right direction and looking for it, you might see this new glassy building from Parliament Square. Unfortunately for English Heritage, this didn’t ruin or disturb his appreciation of the Houses of Parliament or St. Stephen’s Tower.
Our complex system of visual assessment lends itself well to opinion presented as fact. It is purely a technical exercise, which suits the experts. This is underwritten by the London View Management Framework, which appears fiercely complex. So it is no wonder that the ‘view of something’ is too often confused with being ‘in the same view as something’.
All images are the result of creative decisions and are, at best, a manipulation of the true picture. Photographs have limitations. As Cullen says in his introduction to Concise Townscape ‘the scientific solution is the best that can be made of the average’. English Heritage, Westminster or Lambeth Council can’t possibly understand the impact of the proposal by staring at these images as if they were paintings.
The temperament of the creative team, the relationship of the architects to the visualisers and the amount of money the client is willing to spend will affect the ‘reality’ of the outcome as much as the time of year or day that is chosen to demonstrate the view.
The visualisers are making important decisions about the ‘quantifiable materiality’ of the building in the images based on what the architects are telling them. It is their appreciation of the scene and the façade materials that we are assessing and not necessarily whether the historic environment can still be appreciated.
The ability to not only see something but to appreciate it seems like a sensible approach to me. So buildings and objects that are within say 150 yards of the subject to be appreciated will appear part of the scene whether you notice them or not. But the further away they are, the more likely to appear as part of the background.
The Elizabeth House replacement is over 800 metres from Parliament Square. It is tall and it will be seen from Parliament Square but will it be appreciated as part of the scene or as a building in the distance, on the skyline? It is separated from the Square by distance but also by the open space of the River.
Equally, the building will not reflect the sky in most views, it will not appear as a ghostly white cube and it won’t appear as an entirely smooth surface – it never does.
We should assess buildings not only on the basis of static views but also more broadly the dynamics of the city; a road crossing where you will wait for the traffic lights, a junction where you might wish to change direction and re-orientate yourself, a sunny corner of the street where it is pleasant to sit on a bench.
If we rely on technical assessments then we forget that we have sympathy with our surroundings. The result of the ever more technical exercise of townscape is that we get a high degree of accuracy but a dumbing down of the imagery and therefore the quality of the buildings and the townscape.
The danger is that our increasingly light entertainment view of heritage setting is being informed by ever more saccharin images. Instead, we must ask is what you see what you get but more importantly, whether it is any good or not.