We desperately need some creative thinking about where and how to build new homes but if we simply release green belt land to private house builders, under our current system of planning and land ownership, the fear is that the suburban sprawl perpetuates, and the land will be wasted; low density, car-dominated, lacking social infrastructure, and boring. But it is also fantasy to point to the Great Estates of London – Portman, Grosvenor, Howard de Walden - and say we can build mid-rise to solve the housing crisis. These Estates, in single ownership, in which high density mansion blocks are balanced by wide streets, large parks and communal gardens are compensating for the lack of private amenity. Our land ownership pattern is now fragmented. Our building regulations and planning requirements make these forms hard to achieve. While we have an inefficient and ineffective land and planning system, releasing more land will not result in many more homes nor will it improve the quality of those that are built. As Tom Copley London Assembly member is proposing in his report ‘A Land Value Tax for London?’, unless we encourage innovation in funding and delivery this is exactly what we’ll end up with.
Building Design Magazine 24 January 2014
Do C20’s South Bank pictures help the debate?
It's a gimmick, worthy of the worst of nimbyism planning tactics. The 20th Century Society isn’t getting its own way, and its response amounts to misinformation. Why not cut out the image and turn it into a hat for the Queen? It would make as much sense.
As far as I can tell the CGI images shown of the Southbank Centre are as good as we will get of what the overall scheme might eventually look like. They are based on accurate drawings and the materiality of the existing and the proposed. The illustrations may have a touch of artistic license, but they aren’t fantasy.
By contrast the 20th Century Society have fallen into the tabloidese. Such unsophisticated, sensational images show up the obsession with treating buildings as fixed architectural monuments. This misses the point. The debate is whether the Southbank Centre’s proposals both conserve the building fabric and, more significantly, restore the spirit and conscience of the architecture.
Images like those offered by the 20th Century Society have no relevance to context, location or detail of design – particularly as the Southbank Centre is not a Listed Building, an ancient monument or in a World Heritage Site. And the problem with the 20th Century Society’s approach here is that it risks making its concerns and more sensible suggestions also seem questionable.
The 20th Century Society’s images are intended to shock, but for the more forward-thinking they may actually be illuminating. Who knows? In the right circumstance, and with the right imagery, a structure floating majestically over one of our more historically significant buildings might just be an idea worth exploring.
The popularity of totaalveotbal or total football in the sixties gave the world a different way of playing the game. Before this there were fixed positions; goalkeeper, left back, winger. But Dutch manager Rinus Michel changed this. Using influential players, such as Johan Cruff, to instil a system where as a player moved out of position another came in to fill his place. Players needed to be attackers, midfielders and defenders and not be fixed in their place on the pitch. The Spanish World Cup winning team of 2010 and current European Champions used a version of this system called Tiki Taka.
I think this resonates with Ove Arup’s key speech of 1970 and the pursuit of Total Architecture: architecture is the influential player and is supported by the engineers, planners, project managers, etc. I believe that integrated urbanism ought to be just such an influential player.
Perhaps what is needed is a multi-disciplinary and also technical approach to place making, one where the process of master planning is more important than the master plan it generates. That way it encompasses engineering, sustainable existence, economic drivers and social well- being.
Total Urbanism or Place – then is the process of creating places of value to the developers, landowners, home owners, renters and visitors and consultants. It isn’t about control, perhaps exemplified by Poundbury, where inhabitants willingly give up their rights to ensure not much changes. But neither is it too free or complex such that one organisation can orchestrate it.
Each building contributes to the street, each street to the district, each district to the neighbourhood, each neighbourhood to the city and each city to the World. As we grow cities so we diminish the significance of the host country. Rome was a powerful city before Italy the country existed. Today London, Shanghai, New York, Moscow, Sydney, Singapore outperform within their region and country to form a new collection of conurbations, almost remote from their national politics, national identity. These are the most multi-cultural and mixed communities – for better and for worse. These cities attract billionaires; they are seen as investments. They are also used as opportunities to amass egotistical collections of properties. The cities provide currency exchange centres and safe havens in their local markets. Foreign investors in London continue to drive up property prices as the relationship of the pound to the Euro and other currencies fluctuates. To some London looks cheap.
What does this mean for urbanism? It may mean a continued growth of cities, not as conurbations but as city regions. The disparities between costs of one place over another or one currency over the next will flatten out and people will move more freely from their homes in London to Shanghai to New York. So perhaps cities and city development will become more important than national development.
Earls Court, Tottenham, Kings Cross, Greenwich, Wembley, Nine Elms, the Olympic Park: These areas could have great identity, the new villages of London, and be places that are desirable to invest. But being successful is not about master plans but about allowing an integrated approach to economics, property and politics to allow a place to transform quickly but to mature as well.
At a time of increased specialism in the built environment and other professions, there remains the role of someone with vision and practical knowledge, someone respected and revered. Someone who can take the best element of the team, make each player support the next and so deliver a recipe for success – Total Urbanism might be a solution.
What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. Louis Sullivan
This week saw the topping out of 122 Leadenhall by RSH+P. Last year saw the topping out of 25 Fenchurch Street by Rafael Vinoly. Both are due for completion in 2014 and it is now possible to see both at their full height and so, inevitably, comparisons are to be made.
This also coincides with the regular check-up by representatives of UNESCO - a group of fierce aunts who run their fingers over every surface checking for dust and tutting loudly - and the (hollow) threat of abandoning our sophisticated planning and conservation policies for one of preservation.
To most commentators it seems that the most productive argument is not whether there should be more tall buildings (this seems inevitable), but that we should look at their qualities and characteristics more critically.
The system of planning, consultation with EH, CABE and the GLA means that there is a deep and wide set of assessments and opinions both statutory and advisory to be balanced. But to be effective these need to be rigorously followed through. I was privileged to be part of that CABE process for both buildings nearly a decade ago (tall buildings take a long time).
Both buildings are spectacular. However, in my view, Leadenhall best fits the criteria of ‘a proper skyscraper’. It is lofty. The ground floor will be an extraordinary public space. It is ordered, organized, precise. It is thrilling.
Fenchurch Street is also tall but is it lofty and thrilling? The earlier designs presented to CABE were quite different to what has been approved. The building was taller and therefore appeared slender. At its base the fins came to the ground, reinforcing the expression of elegance. The fins were intended to be a defining feature of the building, they were to vary in width and ‘wrap’ over the building, as a frame. The southern elevation subtly stepped forward at each floor, making it appear as though the floors had been stacked slightly out of alignment, which caused the building to appear to be leaning. The fins are now barely visible, the southern elevation is smoothed out (see below). Throughout the process, including the public inquiry, CABE maintained that the quality of the detailed design, particularly the fins, should be upheld. Re-reading the early letters this appears to be a prerequisite for success. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/http://www.cabe.org.uk/design-review/20-fenchurch-street-1
Of course, this is what often happens to projects as they develop; some times the details are fine tuned, unfortunately in some cases, they are worn away or simply erased.
The space at the top of Fenchurch Street will be extraordinary. The longer views, particularly from the south of the River, will enhance the image of the cluster of tall buildings. Looking at what was there before and what might have been (see images of the context below left), it is a strong addition to the City.
But it has lost something that seemed important. It has become less elegant, less interesting and less engaging. The detail matters hugely and to be truly lofty and thrilling it needed all these things to work together. I’m not convinced that they do.
I don’t know what prompted Architecture Minister, Ed Vaizey, to announce a review of architecture and the built environment in the UK to be lead by Terry Farrell. Perhaps he needed something to announce on a trip to the Venice Biennale, or a post Olympian surge in the interest of design but it sits well with his encouragement of a manifesto for architecture.
His choice of Farrell to lead the Review is welcomed. Farrell has understood urbanism more than other architects; it isn’t just about the building.
This week, the NLA hosted the launch of the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, labelled FRABE by Peter Murray. Terry has been assigned 12 apostles – Sunand Prasad, Alison Brookes, Robert Powell, Nigel Hughill, Victoria Thornton, Jim Eyre, Thomas Heatherwick, Alain de Botton, Peter Bishop, Hank Dittmar, Lucy Musgrave and writing it, Max Farrell.
However, there was a sense that this was hastily commissioned. Terry admitted to being surprised at getting the telegram from the Minister. The panel is very good but there are some obvious omissions. The Review’s aims are wide but it is due to report at the end of the year, leaving little time to implement the outcomes before there will be another election – what can usefully be achieved in implementing any recommendations?
Is it necessary at all?
It was extremely frustrating that CABE, either past or present, was barely acknowledged. Were the Panel told not to mention it? CABE still exists, is established, needs funding and at its best is very good. It is even becoming a UK export. Much of what was discussed could have been taken straight from the annuals of CABE c.2000.
There are other similarities with the early years of CABE. I’m pleased that Sunand Prasad is part of this Review as he was a CABE commissioner in 2000 and Peter Bishop wrote the review of CABE. DCMS was also the sponsoring department for CABE, when it had one.
However, there are some significant challenges ahead for the Review and its recommendations. CABE had the support of not only the Minister but also the Prime Minister. It also had two sponsoring bodies, crucially the one that included housing and planning, DCLG. The Labour government was also fond of ‘white papers’, which gave CABE a way of influencing the government’s policy. Crucially, there was a large public sector building programme.
Getting departments to work together is tough, getting them to agree tougher still. In today’s government construction and development are in BIS, planning and housing in DCLG, heritage and culture in DCMS and, as ever, highways and transport in DfT.
So Architecture, along with heritage is seen as a cultural undertaking. It is not development, construction or planning in the eyes of this government. Can the Farrell Review look more broadly at these issues and engage with these departments?
The Review is tasked with looking at the built environment more generally. Streets and public places are clearly things that need our attention. The positive impacts of good quality public spaces were obvious during the Olympics, but it will be difficult to achieve this when, for example, the average tenure of the Minister at DfT since 2006 has been less than a year. Furthermore, DCMS is increasingly irrelevant in the promotion of the built environment. Looking holistically at architecture and the built environment may never have been so tricky.
But we can be encouraged that Design Review, one of CABE’s remaining successes, is in good shape and still much in demand. Design review is now part of national planning policy.
So, if CABE didn’t exist today, would we invent it? Definitely. The vision from CABE’s first annual report is still relevant;
‘At CABE we have set ourselves a challenging agenda. We want to inject architecture into the bloodstream of the nation. We are seeking to bring love and care to the design process, to coax real commitment to good design from those who commission buildings and to redefine the understanding of value in architecture. And we are starting from an overriding premise that the fundamental purpose of good design and architecture is to improve the quality of life of the ordinary citizen. We want to address the obvious fact that social dysfunction so often has its roots in bad buildings and poorly designed places and spaces and, conversely, that buildings which raise the spirits and respond intelligently to their surroundings so often have a positive impact beyond their own four walls.’
Terry and his 12 apostles should not seek to reshape the entire landscape of architecture and the built environment. I hope they find a way to reprise the role of CABE. But it will be take a brave Tory Minister to recommend that CABE be resurrected, when it was such a Labour success.
A few weeks ago it looked like development around Waterloo was heading for another costly battle. Elizabeth House (EH) is to be demolished and a new building, designed by David Chipperfield, developed in its place. But Ed Vaizey and Nick Boles were lobbied by English Heritage (the other EH), for a call-in. Pickles, however, has thought better of it and now thinks it's a local matter.
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.
Since the 1980s residential building values have exceeded office building values; in London by quite some margin. But the ‘as of right’ conversion of office to residential isn’t based on evidence and removes a way of making balanced decisions about our town centres. It is indiscriminate and a poor way of stimulating the economy and the housebuilders.
A glance at Camden’s website shows that many upper floors of retail units in its high streets are being converted from office and storage to flats. Applications are submitted and permissions granted. It is a slow but managed changed. Office can be converted to residential or anything else but it requires permission. Where large offices are vacant or in areas better suited to housing then what’s not to like? But of course areas with vacant offices are often low value and less attractive or good for residential; there aren’t the jobs or the incomes there anymore. Some developers have achieved extraordinary things with conversions from office / employment to residential but not everywhere gets an Urban Splash; more’s the pity.
Paved with Gold, CABE’s publication, studied high streets, such as Hampstead in Camden, to assess the value added by good public realm. But the evidence that lead to this conclusion also showed that Hampstead had a balance of residential and employment, particularly in office. That keeps restaurants and cafes busy through the day, it creates a mix of uses and helps ensure that the vacancy rate of retail is 1%. There is evidence to support the approach that office is making a positive contribution to the high street and the place. But high residential values in Hampstead mean that these offices are under pressure. If they go they may not return for 30 or so years. By then the diversity, and value, of the high street will be lost. The problem with the ‘as of right’ is that it isn’t based on evidence; planning policy or lack of it is a very bad way of stimulating the economy.
This pressure to convert is coming from developers with cash and systems to turn them around easily. The FTSE subsector of housebuilders has risen 46% in the past six months despite house prices stagnating and the number of starts falling 10% further from the lowest levels. Over the past two months the top housebuilders – each £1bn + businesses – have posted record profits. Taylor Wimpey up 106% to £185.3M profit, Barratt jumped 113% to £46.1M and Berkeley up 45% to £142.2M. While achieving these profits Wimpey raised its output by just 800 units, to just fewer than 11,000 units a year or just 10% of the number of units available for them to build on – Wimpey has increased its land bank to 100,340 plots.
Is this a good story? 1/5 of their product – our homes – has come from the £280M subsidy that the government or us tax payers through FirstBuy and NewBuy. Typically, these people don’t want gardens and are more likely to want apartments or flats in central locations.
Sensibly for their shareholders, managers and top brass, housebuilders are focussing on profitability and not sales. Housebuilders are in the business of land and not house building. They have been buying up land and smaller developers cheaply but stagnant house prices means that no houses get built until a rise is sustained. By then the land value rises faster than the house prices and the availability of mortgages so land is traded and not built upon. Building larger volumes of houses will not happen, as it isn’t in their interest to sell product at anything other than the very top of the market. It comes down to availability of finance for first time buyers, downsizers and the rest.
So developers and there funders will look at London office space in good locations. They may be occupied but with break clauses, and probably on high streets. There may be few but they could be significant for the future of high streets. So land banks remain undeveloped and only higher value housing gets built.
Even if we accept that the nature of work is changing and we may no longer need large offices, just as many retailers no longer need shops, we will need diversity on our high streets.
So we might see old buildings given a new lease of life with residential use. Oversupply of office accommodation on low rents is transformed into homes for first time buyers and the like. But without the evidence we are just as likely to see the further erosion of the mixed use high street, poor residential accommodation and small flats while the number of family units built by the big boys remains pitifully small.
It is refreshing if not remarkable that a Planning Minister is talking about beauty in the built environment. It is rarely talked about in architecture let alone Planning, so to hear MP Nick Boles state that the ‘The built environment can be more beautiful than nature and we shouldn't obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open – sometimes buildings are better’, warrants some praise.
He is starting to sound statesman like. It also reminded me of Patrick Abercrombie - bare with.
The preample to the Greater London Plan 1944 states ‘A community is not made up of a number of single buildings, unrelated to each other, and which manage to be at best harmless or devoid of offence. House-builders especially, who have failed in the recent past, must set themselves a higher standard.’ It could have been written by a politician today.
However, I suspect that the ‘pig ugly’ he also refers to is actually the reality of the not so old days of PPG3 on housing. At its best it did allow for innovation, however, what we witnessed more often was the same mundane houses, designed at less than 30 dwellings to the hectare, just pushed closer together with gardens squeezed and car parking fudged. It achieved the higher densities but often on sites poorly equipped to deal with it, such as greenfield, but easier to finance and develop. So you get larger numbers of people, suggesting large numbers of car journeys and hey presto the infrastructure of roads and roundabouts gets ever larger, making walking and cycling far harder. The highways win and the place making loses and its no one faults. The density is not enough to create a place in itself so it seems place-less.
We just don’t have an idea about how to develop integrated policy that allows us to make places that are attractive, healthy, and safe and provide good access to good jobs. Instead, we obsess about numbers of car parking, what the density is, the percentage of affordable, etc… all the stuff that is measured and quantifiable rather than other, more quality based indicators. We should promote a liveability index – the number of schools that can be reached without the need to use a car, employment per hectare in the area, accessibility to the high street by bicycle or on foot, for example. There are plenty to choose from.
This would not stifle design or imaginative approaches but it would lift the mediocre and ‘pig ugly’ to being better places to live, work and visit and design of the houses would be far, far less important than design of the place. It would take it out of the command of the housebuilders and put it back into the hands of the urban designers to lead the engineers, planners and architects.
Politicians, and shareholders of house builders for that matter, will not appreciate the luxury of allowing things to develop or mature over time. For all his welcome words about beauty, we will get the places we deserve if we allow politicians or house builders to determine how places, and not just houses, look and feel.
Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Thames Estuary and Heathrow: intelligent architects are busy proposing various visions of their new airport ideal. What is less clear is whether the groundwork has been done. Do any of these visions answer the essential questions about what we think, need or want airports to be in the future?
While using Heathrow isn’t always a pleasant experience, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the airport can’t be made better or that it is in the wrong place. If Heathrow were to close it would be the largest airport ever to be shut down and replaced. Building new airports and runways requires new infrastructure and new homes. Heathrow directly employs 5,500 people, but it keeps over 76,500 people in 320 companies in work, the vast majority of these are either within or close to the airport. Are we prepared to build the equivalent of a new town to re-house, provide new schools, leisure facilities and the rest, at the same time as the new airport?
Expanding Stansted or a new Thames Estuary airport could accommodate more flights, including night flights, and faster train links could be provided, although at some cost. None of this is impossible but does it make enough sense? Who wants to get off a plane in Stansted or the Thames Estuary at 4 a.m.?
In my view, it can’t be solely an architectural vision but instead a broader urban design idea for the development of an airport city for London. It is the urban planners (Schipol Airport has had its own urban planner for many years), geographers, economists and urbanists that need to be engaged not just architects and engineers. We might be grateful to these architects for promoting debate, but let’s work out the trickier question of what is really needed first, then where it should go and finally what it might look like.
There are 9800 conservation areas in England. There are 1200 McDonalds in England. That means that most conservation areas are without a McDonalds. Is that relevant? Clearly not, except that our perception of McDonalds is that they are everywhere, and it seems that one can’t find a site to redevelop that isn’t within or near a conservation area. Are we preserving too much and too much is just not worthy of it? Is our heritage costing us too much?
There is a recent spat with UNESCO over the designation of World Heritage Site status being withdrawn from Liverpool and a threat to do so if Southwark is allowed to develop tall towers. It is a one sided argument and an empty threat. As any parent knows the threat only works if the thing that the child values is being removed. So what if Liverpool waterfront, or the Tower of London for that matter, lost its World Heritage Site status? We would not see fewer tourists. We would not see a rash of new developments in the shadow on the Tower. I doubt very much would change at as our own heritage designations and levels of planning would not allow it anyway. WHS is a badge, a label and not a state of being.
A better balance between preserving what we have and allowing change to create cities that are liveable is needed. The Economist’s survey of Liveable Cities in 2012 includes only one city that has a World Heritage Site within it – Vienna. Admittedly it is near the top but all the others have historic cores and much built environment to admire, including heritage. They also have areas of preservation or conservation. Despite the feelgood factor of the Olympics, London slipped from 53 – 55 – last summers riots were the cause of this decline.
If the balance is too far in one direction and focussed only on the built heritage then we will suffer as a city and we as citizens of that city will suffer too. Liveability combines many factors such as schools, health as well as restaurants and art galleries, but in a World where the choice of location is increasingly flexible, and the money is concentrated in fewer super cities, the balance needs to be right. UNESCO is in danger of exhibiting the worse of the zealous fanatical heritage lobby with its single-minded agenda. England has the most demanding requirements for development; its cities have the most onerous of these. Before it removes its status UNESCO should be sure it would get the reaction intended.