Milk Tray of different styles: Poundbury in Dorset

Homes fit for a post-Covid world

Tim Abrahams asks whether the crisis will prompt builders to create the type of houses we need

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It is hard to say whether the suburbs of Britain rejected contemporary architecture first or whether contemporary architecture rejected the suburbs. But by 1999, when Richard Rogers published Towards an Urban Renaissance, contemporary architecture, still ostensibly motivated by the progressive tenets of modernism, had deserted the field. 

The report argued that Britain’s rising population should be housed in denser housing in the urban core rather than in expanding suburbs, preparing the ground for the surge in contemporary high-rises in city centres across the UK. Not only did Rogers’s proposals, picked up by the New Labour government, give modern character to an age-old schism, they doubled down on a planning system that could never provide enough quantity and variety in size of apartments to cope with the surge in demand. Britain’s population grew by 8 million between 2000 and 2020.

At the same time, traditional architecture began its domination of suburban development. By the end of the millennium, the first phase of the Prince of Wales’s model settlement Poundbury, a Milk Tray box of housing stuck on the side of Dorchester in Dorset in different traditional styles, was nearly complete. Since then there has been a thorough parting of the ways, with contemporary architecture reserved for urban centres, the odd semi-rural cultural building or a stylish weekend rural retreat aside. The fiftieth anniversary of Milton Keynes’s incorporation as a new town in 2017 raised nothing but rueful smiles and a nagging sense of an opportunity lost among contemporary architects. 

Extrapolated from the simplest drawing of a child’s drawing of a house, they are utterly anonymous

Could Covid-19 be the turning-point in this cosy division? Boris Johnson’s exhortation to “build, build, build” as a means of stimulating the economy and addressing the housing shortfall provides an opportunity to take stock of how we plan and build. Since its codification under Tony Blair in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the local plan system has had the unfortunate effect of reducing the amount of land available for development, because it became dependent on local planning authorities to deliver their plans. They were reluctant to do so for fear of antagonising voters resisting development, or because they lacked the staff. 

Helmut Jacoby’s 1971 drawing “Milton Keynes in 1990” and an aerial view of the town today, showing the modernist grid

A strange secret at the heart of our planning culture is that successive governments have stuck by the local plan in a remarkably bipartisan way. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework legislation doubled down on the significance of the local plan. Each passing government has exhorted local planning authorities in increasingly strident tones to make plans by threatening that they will uniformly allow certain types of development to proceed without the requirement for planning permission and, if there is no movement, introducing that exemption, as Cameron’s government did in 2015.

Although today Johnson’s detractors on the left present this as a coup for big housebuilders, he is operating in a continuum. The legislation that emerges from late August’s Planning the Futures white paper could, if it overcomes opposition from the Conservative backbench, make the local plan sacrosanct. 

This emphasis on the local plan rather than granting individual permissions in ad hoc fashion, is sensible and indeed progressive. It may be used for ill, but it can be used for great good too. Sadly the latter fact is lost given that the move to the local plan system has created a culture in which gaining planning permission takes a long time. The only bodies able to deal with its vagaries are the volume housebuilders who have the capital to survive the five years it takes to get developments of more than 1,000 units through planning. This has produced utterly anonymous housing: Monopoly forms, extrapolated from the simplest drawing of a child’s drawing of a house, lacking even a bit of Tudor pastiche for the lolz. 

Johnsonian pseudo-Keynesian exhortations are relying on the intellectual conservatism of the late Sir Roger Scruton

This situation is evolving, however. We are in a situation now where the best suburban and exurban (that is isolated housing schemes, often of high cost in rural areas) developments owe a debt to the manic historical references of Poundbury — a suburb unstuck in time. The Prince’s Trust is increasingly a force to be reckoned with in determining how the world outside our cities looks. There is something quaint about how Prince Charles has encouraged one or two landowner chums, such as the Earl of Moray in Inverness, not to sell land to the highest bidder but to work with developers on building rows of pseudo pre-industrial cottages for the proles and neo-Georgian fancies for those who can afford them.

Still, at least places like the new suburb of Newquay, Nansledan, built by the Prince’s Trust, have schools and shops and are animated by a sense of community, albeit a highly engineered and — given their proximity to an arterial road and the freedom it offers — a rather hypocritical one. And yet when it comes to the suburbs in terms of planning models, this agglomeration of pseudo-cottages into a pseudo-village is the only game in town. 

The Prince’s Trust may see itself as kicking back against the big housebuilders but it is remarkably useful to the latter, providing a pastebook of simple styles that can be adapted to local context. This arrangement suits a government that is keen — despite the new imperatives of build, build, build — to keep its supporters happy by appealing to pre-industrial, Platonic ideals of beauty. 

This is a key alliance but a shaky one: Johnsonian pseudo-Keynesian exhortations relying on the intellectual conservatism of the late Sir Roger Scruton. He heavily influenced the Living With Beauty report, published last January, on how the government might promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new-build homes and neighbourhoods and thus build in the Tory voting constituencies in the south-east where still — despite changes in working patterns post-Covid-19 — the vast bulk of housing is wanted. 

In September, a poll of Conservative councillors by Savanta Comres on behalf of BECG, a communications consultancy working in the built environment sector, found that 61 per cent believed proposed reforms announced in August would make planning less democratic. This conflict at the core of Johnson’s building project will give truculent left-of-centre architects some interesting allies in the form of Tory backbenchers who like the sound of Scruton’s exhortations on beauty but would prefer not to argue the toss in their own constituency. Anyone interested in the future of conservatism would do well to watch the outcome of this tussle. 

That is not to say there isn’t a persuasive conservative argument on the side of building. Ben Bolgar, a key figure in the design and delivery of Poundbury, sat on the Living with Beauty panel and has the government’s ear. At Heyford Park in Oxford, he and his colleague Nick Tubbs have worked with volume housebuilders to provide large neo-Georgian family homes in areas previously deemed beyond commuting distance. This is hard for unreconstructed modernists to take. In the 1970s the default architectural language of the suburbs was the car-friendly American futurism of Milton Keynes: a vocabulary of speed and generosity but with a British twist. Fifty years later we appear to have gone back in time. Our future is now neo-Georgian.

Contemporary architecture has never looked more out of sorts with the prevailing social and political tendencies in the UK. And while one can have sympathy with criticism of the utter disregard there has been for design quality let alone contemporary architecture in volume housebuilding, often architects really do bring it on themselves. The profession has lambasted government reforms as a bonanza for volume housebuilders, pointing at the controversy that Robert Jenrick, the hapless housing secretary, became embroiled in when he granted planning permission for a development by former newspaper magnate — and Tory donor — Richard Desmond against local planning advice. 

The 15-minute city, which heightens the emphasis on homeworking, is untested

The hyperbole of the PM’s description of the white paper as a bonfire of the existing planning rules does not help, but the antipathy is toxic: a leftover, perhaps, from the culture wars of Brexit in which the architecture profession was hugely for Remain. One wonders if this will ever be set aside and a generation of opportunity will go to waste. Johnson, after all, showed himself to be a fan of contemporary design when Mayor of London even if the results — hello, Thomas Heatherwick’s double-decker bus — were decidedly mixed. 

Although the proposals for the new planning rules have received qualified support from professional bodies such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Town Planning Institute, the architecture profession has responded negatively. Surely if critics of Johnson wanted to make their voice heard, it might be here. There is much within the ken of the architect in the very function of the proposals. The white paper calls for local plans to become visual documents, as opposed to text descriptions, and to use technology to make them easily shareable among the people they impact. This is what architects do. The public must now learn how to argue for what they want when the local plan is being discussed. A campaigning organisation might here lead the public in planning literacy. There is an opportunity for architects to have a huge influence on how we debate our built environment. Sadly though, the impasse seems total. 

The truth is contemporary architecture finds itself making as many historical regressions as the overtly traditional. Professor Carlos Moreno is not an architect. He is an avowed expert in the “smart city” — using embedded technology and the big data it collects to influence how citizens behave. His concept of “la ville du quart heure”, the 15-minute city, has gained traction among European architects. The idea is that cities, those great agglomerations of ceaseless movement, will be divvied up into slivers of space into which work, home, shops, entertainment and education can all be confined.

“We still live with this legacy of modernist zoning, where there is a CBD [central business district] and areas for retail. If that gets a bit more mixed up it might be better,” says Gavin Henderson, a director of the architects Stanton Williams. “We might move to a more polycentric city where we are not commuting to one place, and there are more focal points, more opportunities for walking and cycling, rather than relying so heavily on cars.” It sounds very attractive and would no doubt work for some people. 

Our cities are hardly a bastion of modernity. A telling remark in the Financial Times extolling the virtues of the 15-minute city may highlight why this end to modernist zoning might not work. “The French automobile group PSA (which makes Peugeot, Vauxhall and Citroen cars) was early to seize the opportunity to shift its non-production workforce to permanent remote mode.” 

It’s nice for the managerial class to flit from their converted fourth bedroom to occasional pow-wows at head office, but not so easy for people who actually make stuff. The Gilets Jaunes rose to prominence in France when suburban workers realised their increased taxes were paying for environmental policies. It’s not hard to imagine workers here and elsewhere noticing their mobility is curtailed even as they are compelled to travel to work.

Architects such as Richard Lavington of Maccreanor Lavington welcomed the Covid lockdowns as a dry run for measures to address a climate crisis — Extinction Rebellion values thrive in the architectural profession. Given how society baulked at a second lockdown, it is hard to imagine how such a world might look, but a regression from modernity is certainly part of it. 

The 15-minute city, which heightens the emphasis on homeworking, is untested. According to research by the London School of Economics and Pocket Living, an affordable housing developer, young Londoners living in shared properties had just 9.3 square metres of personal space during lockdown. Furthermore, 37 per cent of Londoners in house shares used their bedroom for both sleeping and working. The illegal raves that sprang up across London and other big cities might be seen not as wanton public order offences but protests at what was effectively a prison sentence. Though they have limited alternatives, this class of workers’ agreement to homeworking is not a given. 

So much for the contemporary role of planning a city. What about the buildings themselves? In a recent article for Architectural Review, the academic and architect Andrew Clancy described architects’ relationship with the material culture of modernity — the standardisation of elements from prefabricated wooden frames to door handles, and the specific needs of a site or a building in a unique place — as one of critical distancing. 

It is a sound position. Since the 1980s the architect has lost his role at the centre of the building process, and is now as likely to be a consultant as the key professional instigator. Clancy imagines a role for the architect, in this refurbishing and refitting of the existing built environment: “a form of practice as comfortable working with existing buildings — graftings, annexes, extensions — as new.” Architecture becomes “an archaeology of process and an assembly of found skills, materials and products that navigate globalised manufacturing of materials alongside local techniques.” 

Ireland has always had a more laissez-faire attitude to planning than the UK

Some of the best architecture of our age has been undertaken in such a way. Some examples: Witherford Watson Mann’s insertion of a visitor centre within the Victorian pumping station at the Walthamstow wetlands in East London; AHMM’s preposterously named but stylish The Bower, a slick steel-finned reinvention of a 1960s concrete office block in Old Street, also in East London; and the reinvention of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly by David Chipperfield. Indeed, the gap between our traditional and contemporary architects is but a parchment’s width: one sees our built heritage as a historical continuum that must be asserted, and the other as a discontinuum that must be fixed. 

The intellectual vanguard of thoughtful practitioners like William Mann and Andrew Clancy see their task as adapting and using what exists. More senior architects, such as Eric Parry, describe the city itself as a historic condition, and putting up even a new building as an act of archaeology. The end of history has finally arrived in architecture. Greatly exaggerated environmental concerns; acceptance of housing under-provision and a lack of grand narratives have given architecture the impression that society already has enough stuff: all that needs to be done is fix it up and, if we are lucky, divide it up properly. We certainly don’t need to add any more. 

Yet even with this highly circumscribed idea of their historical role, architects seem incredibly conflicted about whether they can take advantage of it. The premier trade magazine, the Architects’ Journal, has been campaigning for a VAT reduction on materials and services for conversion to match the zero rate for new-build, making it cheaper to retain buildings. But many architects opposed the 2015 legislation which permitted office blocks to be changed into residential without planning permission. 

Certainly permitted development has produced some stinkers. Dr Ben Clifford, a political geographer who has extensively surveyed such projects, describes a landscape of bad architecture. “Internal design issues are the most common problem, where guidance on space standards and natural light have been ignored,” he says, resulting in flats that are all corridor and no windows. But there are also good developments. Clifford singles out Leon House in Croydon, south London, a striking, razor-sharp modernist office block converted by ColladoCollins into 263 apartments: all very bling, exposed concrete, loft-style apartments, and co-working spaces — but it works.

Leon House: Office block converted into razor-sharp apartments

And other office blocks are going to have work as apartments too, given that the Tory backbench rebellion led by a vengeful Theresa May appears to be forcing the government into somehow mandating development in the inner cities — there’s vague talk of adapting an algorithm — rather than Tory constituencies. With the lockdown having cut heavily into the office rental market in the short term, the government sees conversion to residential as an opportunity to fix two problems at the same time even if it is not what the home-buyer wants.

What we need is an architectural profession as aware of the material needs of society as its material production, respecting the wider beliefs of society as much as its own. Covid-19 should challenge the role of the architect as a social campaigner, protecting the masses from the consequences of the much-exaggerated “climate crisis” and the evils of capitalism. Architects seem reluctant to go where the public goes — into the suburbs — rather than where it thinks it should. It is only when this is done that architects will be able to wake up from history. 

Because history has a way of throwing light on unexpected places. Take the low limestone basin between Tralee and Killarney in Ireland, filled with beautiful pasture. Somewhere in this lush green landscape is one of the six sites under discussion with the Irish government as a possible site for a new city named Nextpolis proposed by the Victoria Harbour Group (VHG), an international charter city investment company. It could be home to tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, fleeing the political crackdown. Ireland has always had a more laissez-faire attitude to planning than the UK. 

But if the desperate need to build homes for the British working class continues to be ignored, will an event like a new city on the Dingle peninsula jolt architecture out of its studied contextualism — and will we then submit ourselves to the shock of the new?

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