Accordia Housing, Cambridge (Photo By View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A School of Place?

Wrong answers to good questions on urban design

Artillery Row

In the lean news period over Christmas, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was on the airwaves. He spoke about the comments he had made in the introduction to a report issued by Policy Exchange, calling for the establishment by the government of a new School of Place. The plan is to implement the proposals of the recent Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission — that architects should be trained to think more about the environment surrounding buildings, instead of treating them in isolation. 

Gove’s view, which is sensible, is that much of the hostility to new building development, particularly in rural constituencies in the south, is due to scepticism about the quality of new building developments: a feeling that new building projects either foul up unspoilt farmland or are tacked on to existing towns and villages without adding to their interest or quality. As Gove writes, “Whilst the tradition of great architecture continues to flourish, all too frequently in Britain the places around it do not. How often have we seen what would otherwise be good housing developments let down by poor landscaping or indifferent urban character? How many town centres in our great cities are still gridlocked by arterial highways that sever them from the suburban communities they are meant to both serve and represent?”

One breathes a sigh of relief when one emerges into the surrounding shops

In writing about architecture for The Critic over the last couple of years, I have seen plenty of individual buildings to admire, but surprisingly little integrated urban development. Let me give three examples of recent large-scale urban planning. 

In East London, the planning of the new Olympic Village in Stratford was as close as we have got since the 1980s to the planned development of a new town. Whereas the design of the Olympic Park was done interestingly, with a great deal of variety in the way it was laid out, creating different areas and moods within the park, the Olympic Village was done in a way which was traditionally monolithic, designed as if Le Corbusier’s 1923 Vers Une Architecture was still the best guide to how to lay out a new city.

In the construction of a big new area of urban development on the site of Chelsea Barracks, the first proposals were by Rogers Stirk Harbour, for large-scale blocks of flats set in empty parkland. This was vigorously contested by the then Prince of Wales in what was intended to be a private letter to the Emir of Qatar. The development was then laid out on more traditional classical principles. The result is not particularly inspiring, built on a rectilinear grid, also monolithic, with little urban texture or variety in the way the buildings have been designed. One breathes a sigh of relief when one emerges into the surrounding streets of Pimlico with their shops and cafés, the differences in scale of the housing, the sense that it is a complex and interesting neighbourhood that one wants to explore.

Much of the area around Battersea Power Station has been totally redesigned in the last decade, using some of the world’s best-known architects, including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Wilkinson Eyre. Does it produce an attractive urban environment? No. It is an expanse of wind-swept open spaces and roads, dominated by huge individual buildings, hardly an area that one wants to walk round, in spite of the proximity of the River Thames. 

Architects may be good at designing individual buildings, but they don’t seem to be very good, or very interested, in thinking about how buildings relate to their surroundings.

The question is, what should be done about this?

The Policy Exchange proposes to establish a new School of Architecture, which instead of being about architecture on its own, should instead focus on “Place”, modelled, the paper suggests, on the École des Beaux Arts (“the most influential architectural school in history”) and the Notre Dame School of Architecture in the United States, which has supported the rise of the “new urbanism”.

This feels like a very expensive and long-term solution to what is an immediate problem: how to create new urban developments which people like, so that new housing creates less political opposition. I would suggest that, instead of looking at what is bad about current housing developments, it would be sensible to look carefully at where it has been done well and to learn the lessons accordingly.

It requires a planning process that rewards taking a long view of design

In London, the best area of new urban development is to the north of King’s Cross. A big new neighbourhood has been created that respects what was already there, integrating some of the surviving 19th century railway buildings to avoid the feeling of it all being brand new. It also uses the stretch of the Regent’s Canal as the focus of the development. There was a single developer, Argent, and a single plan, drawn up by Allies and Morrison, but they encouraged and allowed every building to be designed by a different architect. This creates a degree of complexity in the overall feel of the development in contrast to what has been done in Battersea. As Robert Venturi should have taught us long ago, complexity and contradiction are more interesting visually and psychologically than uniformity.

In Cambridge, there is a large area of new housing development called Accordia, south of the Botanic Garden, which rightly won several prizes in 2008. It is well scaled as well as well built. One might say that Cambridge is a privileged environment, full of young urban professionals who are willing to buy and rent property with an eye for quality in its design. But this is surely what one wants elsewhere: housing which uses good quality materials, well integrated into its surroundings and designed to last. It can be done. It requires developers and a planning process that reward taking a long view of design. We must judge new housing projects not in isolation, but how they look in relation to their surroundings and what they contribute to their neighbourhood. There must be ways of tweaking the process to disallow new developments (like the current plans for 72, Upper Ground) which pay no attention to their context.

It is perfectly possible for City Councils to produce good quality new housing if they are encouraged to do so. This has been demonstrated by Norwich City Council’s development of new brick housing in Goldsmith Street, which, like Accordia Housing in Cambridge, won the Stirling Prize. Again, it is not difficult to see why this project has been successful. It pays close attention to materials, using traditional pale bricks. It is designed as a total environment, which respects, but is not totally subservient to, the traditions of terrace housing. It is perfectly possible to design new housing successfully, but we never seem to learn from what works and what doesn’t.

The answer is not to create a new School of Place — at vast public expense and completely outside the current system of architectural training — but, instead, to encourage the existing Schools of Architecture to pay more attention to place-making in urban design; to invite the RIBA to adapt its system of examination accordingly; to compel local authorities to assess any new architectural project in terms of the contribution it makes to its surroundings; and to find a way of encouraging and rewarding those developers, including City Councils, who commission imaginative new housing schemes that can act as models of urban design.

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