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August 16 2012

Gerry Vaughan obituary

My husband Gerry Vaughan, who has died of prostate cancer aged 77, was an 11-plus failure who went on to work as painter, teacher, lecturer and education adviser for Derbyshire county council.

Born in Gravesend, Kent, he went to the town's Gordon school for boys, where his artistic talent was nurtured initially, and then from the age of 14 to Gravesend School of Art. After national service, he was accepted into the painting school at the Royal College of Art. He left in 1959, having been awarded the RCA life-painting prize.

His idealism and belief in education initially inspired him to teach, and he joined the staff at Gordano school in Portishead, Somerset. Two years later, in 1961, he went to Chesterfield College of Art as lecturer in fine art. He was appointed as teacher adviser for art by Derbyshire county council in 1969 and remained in the post until 1985. During those years he was responsible for much of the art education in Derbyshire. He was an early member of the Art Advisers Association and worked closely with colleagues from other counties and areas.

We moved to Wirksworth, Derbyshire, in 1963, where local concern for a very run-down, neglected small town caused Gerry to become a founder-member of Wirksworth Civic Society in 1969. When the Wirksworth Project to regenerate the town was established in the late 70s, Gerry's interest in the built environment came into its own. He was charged with liaison with the local schools and encouraged them to be fully involved with the project. He ran courses for teachers and children, organised a study of art in the built environment and staged major exhibitions of the young people's work. The project was widely reported in the national press and had a worldwide influence on regeneration.

His early retirement, as a result of illness, enabled Gerry to take up his own painting once more. His sense of colour, able draughtsmanship and love of water – especially the Thames estuary and the Greek islands – resulted in a body of work that earned considerable respect. He exhibited in various venues in the UK and Greece. He supported the Wirksworth festival from its inception, both exhibiting and participating in the selection panel from time to time.

Gerry was painting until the end, through sleepless nights and long days, his work still full of vibrancy and colour.

He is survived by me, our children Simon, Jane and David, and seven grandchildren.


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August 08 2012

Bluewater thrives by not alarming shoppers with anything new or strange | Owen Hatherley

The expanding mall is a kind of undemocratic city, with levels of planning and security that almost guarantee 'no riots here'

Bluewater, the enormous north Kent shopping mall, is planning an extension. About 1,500 "private sector jobs" will arrive in a deindustrialising area, as if to answer the coalition's increasingly desperate prayers, but the continued success and expansion of a shopping centre during a double-dip recession might seem unexpected. Its co-owner, Lend Lease, has recently been better known for closing down high-profile projects – as in the chaos of its redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, or the demise of the Tithebarn "mall without walls" in Preston. Somehow, Bluewater endures and grows. How can an out-of-town mall manage to become more successful during an apparent decline in retail spending? Why are people going there to nose around chain stores, when we're all apparently buying on Amazon or going to farmers' markets and niche high street shops? What exactly is Bluewater's secret?

The first thing you need to know about Bluewater is that it's not merely a shopping mall, but something much more ambitious. I know the place very well, having regular appointments at the nearby, contiguous PFI-built Darent Valley hospital. As the crow flies, the two are about a quarter of a mile apart, but you couldn't walk it – buses have to loop for some time around the massively over-engineered motorways that feed the mall. But when you finally do arrive, the entrance is exceptionally well defined. Neoclassical gateways and signs make the distinction from straggling north Kent subtopia apparent. Even the flyovers here have their concrete decorated to make it clear you're somewhere different. There is a reason for this – a reason for everything in Bluewater.

According to its architect Eric Kuhne, head designer at the multinational firm CivicArts, Bluewater is "a city rather than a retail destination". Its design and planning are intended, he said in a 2008 interview, to "dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids".

What this means in practice is that Bluewater is not solely a retail hangar, in the vein that runs from the Arndale Centres to Westfields. It's the same typology, a heavily patrolled and surveilled series of shops and restaurants in a big enclosed box, but it takes some of those spaces' innovations much further. Not just private security, but an entire code of conduct for entry, not to mention a dress code. No hoods, no baseball caps, no swearing, even.

If Bluewater is a city, then it's obviously not a democratic one. Kuhne wouldn't have it any other way – in the same interview, he pointed out that "democracy has a pretty poor track record of building great cities. The great cities of the world that we travel to see were built by benevolent despots".

Like any other city, Bluewater has its periphery. Ebbsfleet, the exurban new "town" that boasts its own line to Paris, is effectively its suburb. Its cul-de-sacs and wood-clad flats abut wide motorways and retail parks, discouraging any civic or public life in anything but the mall itself. The Thames Gateway, the unofficial eastward expansion of London, has no centre, no real public space – for that it has Bluewater, and its older, gawkier north-of-the-river cousin Lakeside. Also, like a city, it has its slums. Nearby towns such as Chatham or Northfleet are as stricken as Barrow-in-Furness or Merthyr Tydfil. Their former centres are practically decimated by Bluewater.

Yet to discover Bluewater's secret you have to go inside. Its architecture is so didactic it sometimes evokes Stalin's pet projects, like the Moscow Metro or the Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Sculptures and slogans urging jollity, exhorting commerce, singing the beauty of nature and stressing historical continuity are in every corner. Many depict the trades that people once practised in north Kent, appropriately for this mall scraped out of a chalk quarry. Cutlers, Tanners, Fletchers, Bowyers, Chandlers, Glaziers and others are all immortalised by little statues in niches on the mall's upper levels.

From a distance, the big box's glass extrusions resemble Kentish oasthouses. Bluewater tears the heart out of older towns, and replaces – partially and inadequately – older jobs, but it immortalises them as it does so. It is, in Kodwo Eshun's phrase, a "future shock absorber", a new and destructive landscape that strains every sinew to reassure, to make the shopper feel secure and at ease, to eliminate anything alarming or obviously new and strange. It boasts levels of planning and security that practically guarantee "no riots here".

Bluewater's architects are right – its success is not merely about shopping, but about the production of a particular kind of place. The successful city, as represented by Bluewater, is clean, corporate, homogeneous, authoritarian, and, should anything unexpected occur, easily sealed off. The worse things get, the more it will thrive.


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June 19 2012

The regeneration Games: why the Olympic Park can revive east London

We may not be living in boom times but cultural regeneration can still work. Just look at how Liverpool's city centre has been transformed into a true civic space

Can art and architecture regenerate cities? It is a totemic belief of recent decades that they can. So much money was put into cultural projects in the boom times, and it was all justified as a means of spreading wealth to cities and regions left behind by the decline of industry and the rise of global markets.

Now that every economic assumption of our time has been shattered, now that serious experts seem to be losing hope of growth in the foreseeable future, where does that leave the idea of cultural regeneration?

You can see a new cynicism at work around the legacy of the London Olympics. Organisers claim that the Olympic Park in east London with its spiralling Orbit sculpture will bring renewed life to a deprived urban area. Some residents seem sceptical, while fashionable writers see the Games as destroying the precious impoverishment of London's eastern lands.

But this week, I visited Liverpool and saw how regeneration has finally started to work for one of Britain's least affluent cities. Liverpool got its first effort at regeneration in the 1980s with the opening of Tate Liverpool. It has since had biennials and hosted a Turner prize – just to cite the artistic cream on a huge cake of investment. Has it worked? At last, the answer is yes. This city has a transformed centre that now feels, after years of squalor, like a true civic space.

Does that abolish poverty or bring jobs? Well it must bring some jobs. And if it does not solve every problem, it solves some. It gives Liverpool the look and atmosphere of the world city it always was. That must attract business.

If business survives the years of austerity.

Given the situation in Europe now, it might seem that Liverpool is dressed up for a party that has been cancelled. But it feels better than that. In these times, a visit to Merseyside seemed full of underlying hope. It would certainly be hard to argue that anything has been lost. What did Liverpool lose when its historic Albert Dock was sensitively converted into a cultural centre? What has it lost by the more recent creation of the Museum of Liverpool nearby? This city celebrates its past even as it builds a future. Residents of east London will not lose by having a spacious, attractive Olympic site with its green spaces and centres of sporting and cultural fun. It's absurd to think so, like wishing for Liverpool to have left its docks bereft and desolate.


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June 13 2012

London 2012 legacy: the battle begins on a Newham estate

For some, the aftermath of the Olympic Games could bring eviction and disruption, for others, it is a chance to transform their lives and businesses

Competing views about East End life after London 2012 are sharply crystalised amid the public housing architecture of the Carpenters estate in Stratford, which stands on the fringe of the Olympic Park, overlooked by the red spirals of the Orbit tower.

The vision of the planners, led by Newham council's ebullient Labour executive mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is for the Carpenters to make way for a new campus for University College London (UCL), enhancing the life prospects of the neighbourhood and enriching hard-up Newham as a whole.

An estate resident, Mary Finch, takes a bleaker line: "I think that the Olympics has lost me my home." She has lived on the Carpenters for 40 years and is disinclined to depart quietly. "I think they're gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that's got nothing wrong with it, that's standing solid? I do not want to go."

Slow dispersal of the estate's residents, mostly to alternative dwellings nearby, has been in progress for some time. This has been justified for Wales by the need to embrace a host of development opportunities created not only by the draw of the Games and the park but also, just as importantly, by the economic arteries formed by the improved transport hub at Stratford station. Already, the giant Westfield Stratford City shopping centre has been a hit."It's always a balance if you want to do something for an area," Wales says. "What is the wider community getting at the expense of the inconvenience caused to local residents? People in Carpenters are concerned. I would be too. I completely understand that. But with UCL we would get an amazing, top university coming to the area. Our vision is for science and hi-tech providing jobs and skills. It would be such a good offer from the point of view of our kids."

Finch is not alone in being unenthusiastic. Two younger residents, Joe Alexander and Osita Madu, are driving forces in the campaign group Carp – Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan – which has been quarrelling with Wales's pledges to treat residents properly, bombarding him with questions at public meetings. They reason that the Carpenters works well as a community, so why dismantle it? "We're not some kind of social ill or blight on the landscape that needs help," says Maduu. "Somehow Newham council thinks we're a social problem that needs to be addressed."

"We voted for a mayor and got a dictator," adds Alexander.

It is, in many ways, an archetypal urban regeneration conflict between local authorities on a mission to improve, and those on their patch who fear they only stand to lose. Strife also marked the clearance of the Olympic Park site, when a twilit labyrinth of small industrial concerns was removed from the land on which the array of sports venues now awaits the world's athletic elite.

Among them was H Forman and Son, a family salmon-smoking business founded in east London by a Jewish migrant from Odessa in 1905. The proprietor, Harry Forman's great-grandson Lance, had his premises where the Olympic stadium now is. He fought a long compensation battle and celebrated victory with an email to the Games organiser Lord Coe, a former Olympic champion whom he'd been due to cross-examine at a public inquiry. The email said: "You can run, but you can't hide."

The upshot is a handsome, salmon-pink building on a bank of the river Lea, containing not only a smokery, but also a restaurant and an art gallery in a location long called, with glorious suitability, Fish Island. Olympic dignitaries and others now congregate there. The stadium looms across the water. Forman will soon erect a pop-up corporate hospitality venue on a piece of adjoining land he owns, complete with recreational beach volleyball court. Speedo was the first big name to take space in this Fish Island Riviera, and Forman is finalising discussions with others.

"We're going to have some luxury yachts along the riverfront," he enthuses. "Sixty palm trees are being shipped in. We're going to have this beach club that turns into a nightclub."

Forman hopes to emerge a winner from the Games, but says business is still recovering from the disruption caused by compulsory purchase. He hopes to be part of long-term rejuvenation by developing the land his Riviera will briefly occupy, perhaps with a mixture of homes and boutiques, and facilities for the arts community that has flourished in recent years in former warehouses along the towpath in Hackney Wick. Forging links, he invited a graffiti artist to enhance his restaurant's toilets. In the gents, fine silver fish leap skywards above the urinals.

"I think the area was regenerating anyway," Forman says, looking across at the stadium. "But the existence of the park ought to help. I think when people come here they're amazed at how impressive it already is and how easy to get to."

London's outgoing Olympic legacy chief, Margaret Ford, also gives an upbeat assessment of the post-Games future of the 200-hectare park and its immediate surroundings, although she warns that expecting it to be "the catalyst for the regeneration of the whole of east London", has "never been entirely realistic". Citing prior experience with renewing England's coalfield communities, she stressed the need for "continued investment and belief over a long period".

Ford steps down as chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) this month, having led it and its predecessor, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, since May 2009. She says the park should be an example of how you "change the psychology" about an area. "You're hoping that the whole view of investing in east London changes by persuading people that it is a fabulous place to come to and do business and invest."

She accepts that a great fear with large regeneration projects is that the wealth they attract fails to benefit existing residents, many of whom are in pressing need. Canary Wharf, whose glass towers pierce the skyline a short distance away, is often condemned as the ultimate example. "The concern is that the park will become a sort of golden city on a hill surrounded by a sea of poverty," says John Biggs, a former City analyst and senior Labour member of the London Assembly, who represents three of the six Olympic boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking and Dagenham.

Ford, a Labour peer held in high regard across the political spectrum, says she and her board have been "utterly preoccupied from day one" with ensuring that local people derive the maximum value from the post-Games plans, and with facilitating the Olympic boroughs' goal of economic convergence with the richer west and centre of London. She is proud of creating training and schemes and close links with local schools. "The big game-changers will be jobs and changes in educational attainment and aspiration for a lot of families in east London," she says.

Ford will depart with most of the arrangements made for putting the permanent sporting venues and other attractions to post-Games community use, and with decisions in the pipeline for the three big jigsaw pieces not yet in place:

• The commercial occupants, either a fashion hub or digital "innovation city", for the two buildings the media will use during the Games.

• The long-running search for tenants for the main stadium, very likely to include a football club.

• The determination of planning applications for the future development of the park as a residential area and visitor destination.

Five neighbourhoods will form within the boundaries of the park over the next 20 years, with the first, Chobham Manor, due to be completed at the end of 2014. Ford emphasised the importance of including sufficient genuinely affordable housing. "I think we need to remember there was quite a big promise made to the communities in east London about the houses being affordable – either affordable to rent or affordable to buy. I think it's one they are not going to forget."

While pointing out that the LLDC remains committed to 35% of the up to 8,000 homes it plans to see built on the park being affordable – in addition to 3,000 that the Athletes' Village will be converted into – she felt it was a matter for regret for London as a whole that the government's new funding approach means "affordable" rent can now be up to 80% of local market rates, which even in poorer parts of London are high compared with the rest of the country.

"I think Londoners are desperately short of affordable housing. It's definitely short of good-quality social housing [which has far lower rents]. If we mean what we say about needing to house all of our key workers, we need to house lots of people in lower-paid jobs who make this city work then, yes, I would say moving to 80% of market rents will cause some of those people not to be able to afford properties."

Another Olympic borough mayor, Tower Hamlets' independent Lutfur Rahman, who, like Wales, is a member of the LLDC board, has called for more homes for social rent among the 800 housing units proposed for the Olympic Park neighbourhood to be called Sweetwater, which will fall within his boundaries.

Ford, who has 33 years' experience of delivering regeneration programmes under both Labour and Conservative governments, is to be replaced by the Conservative politician Daniel Moylan, the appointee of London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to whom the LLDC is accountable. The selection of Moylan, an experienced councillor in Royal Kensington and Chelsea whom Johnson made his deputy as chair of Transport for London two years ago, has caused some disquiet among political opponents.

Biggs says that although he likes the urbane Moylan – "he's fun to talk to" – he worries that he is not equipped to follow someone with Ford's track record. "The truth is, he doesn't know anything about regeneration." There's an ideological issue too. "The point of bodies like the development corporation is to do the things the market can't or won't, and Daniel is the sort of politician who thinks red-in-tooth-and-claw market forces will take care of everything."

Ford, though, says she's confident Johnson has made a good choice and praises him for allowing her and her chief executive, Andrew Altman, to produce a new masterplan for the park. The one she'd inherited, she says, "pretty much had the place populated by high rise buildings. Why would you stuff it full of flats when it's an obvious family housing neighbourhood, given the green space and the venues? We didn't want to create some pastiche of the Old Curiosity Shop, but a place that had squares and crescents and little pocket parks – the kinds of things that make London quite higgledy piggledy but recognisably London. Boris was hugely encouraging."

She gathered intelligence for the masterplan on "mystery shopping" excursions – chatting to people in cafes and the old Stratford shopping centre. "They wanted front gardens, back gardens for their kids to play in, really good lighting, lots of storage space, nice green spaces, somewhere they can afford and a decent school – it's not bloody rocket science."

When the park begins to reopen for the public next July, its name will change to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Ford believes the royal touch will enhance local attachment: "It's about creating a different feel about the place. It's about people having a pride in it."

Even so, while Olympic borough schools gear up for the excitement of the summer, renaming their classes Helsinki, Tokyo and Beijing, parents express a mix of views about the value of the changes underway. Martin Sadler, a resident of Hackney who works in education and lives with his wife and two daughters not far from the park, foresees a good and a bad side.

"I think this part of Hackney will start feeling a bit more like central London and less like east London," he says. "I've lived here for over 20 years, and it's always been a traditional East End sort of place – a real mixture of people, plenty of cheap accommodation. It's already becoming more affluent, partly because the schools have improved. That brings good things with it, but there are worries too. I think London could be getting more like Paris – that doughnut effect, with the poorer people having to move out of the centre."

That is not the outcome legacy idealists say they have in mind. Time will tell if they manage to avoid it.


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April 07 2012

Marcus Coates: 'Eventually something serious comes through'

The artist talks about dreaming up alternative visions for the now derelict Heygate estate, near the Elephant & Castle shopping centre in south London

Wearing a silver suit, sunglasses and a stuffed horse's head, Marcus Coates stares at the empty Heygate estate in south London. The eccentric artist, 44, has been visiting this site near the Elephant & Castle shopping centre for years – getting to know residents before they were evicted in 2008 and 2009, listening to stories, even moving in with some before eviction day. His dad helped build the estate in the 60s (when it was thought of as a fine example of urban planning, not a local council sore spot perpetually marked for redevelopment) and Coates has used this as background to help him as he mulls over the site's unknown future. His methods are curious.

He explains: "There are millenniums-old traditions of 'visions'; of shamen whose imaginings were used to try to solve intractable problems. These days that has become a corporate thing: rich developers have visions, councils have visions. Archaic culture has become part of corporate culture." So Coates decided to counter this with some visions of his own, using a combination of meditation, self-induced trances and novelty headgear to see what ideas for the redevelopment of the site he could muster. A film, Vision Quest – a Ritual for Elephant & Castle, follows these efforts, including Coates's well-attended on-stage trance at a nearby music venue in 2009.

"Getting to know people from the estate, I began to understand what an intricate community existed here. Residents depended on each other, doing each other's shopping, checking in – ways that you would never know if you were the council visiting to do an assessment." And how did the council react to his findings, which included visions of seals, of hillocks made of animal excrement? "They were aghast that a guy in a silver suit was coming in to talk about his daydreams," admits Coates. He still hopes he had an influence.

Is Coates for real? He has covered similar ground before, in a project based around a condemned Liverpool tower block. He gathered residents in a room, donned the skin of a deer, and fell to noisy meditation before them; footage of it formed a central part of his 2004 artwork Journey to the Lower World. From clips, it looks a bit like a hidden camera skit. Is this all a big joke? "It's an earnest thing for me," he insists.

"I agree, the incongruity of these situations can seem ridiculous." He refers to the horse's head, from a knacker's yard in Staffordshire, and the silver suit, from an east London clothes shop. "It seems facile, but eventually something serious seems to comes through." In 2009, he went to a shopping centre in Israel, donned shades and a badger hat, and offered people vision-based advice on request. A long queue formed and he was there for hours.

"Ultimately," says Coates, "people on the Heygate estate felt like they were being discarded. There was a huge sense of loss. I wanted to try and tap into a collective imagination, represent it and offer an alternative to the scripted, corporate vision." Does he think he's helped? Coates isn't sure. "But I like the idea of an artist trying to come up with answers rather than posing questions."

Redevelopment of the estate continues uncertainly.


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March 26 2012

Towns clamour to become a Portas pilot

Hundreds of towns are bidding for the funding that will help regenerate their high streets

Large numbers of towns, including many in the north, are vying to become Portas pilots to help rejuvenate struggling high streets.

The 12 chosen towns will share more than £1m of funding and receive advice from the retail guru Mary Portas. It is expected that hundreds of applications will be received before Friday's deadline.

The government said the high streets and town centres are facing "serious challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and the internet."

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of town stores fell by almost 15,000 and there have been further losses since then.

The government argues that high streets are recognised as important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of local jobs. They're a visible indicator of how well, or how badly, a local economy is doing.

The Portas Review, published in December, set out what she thought had led to the decline of the high street and made 28 recommendations about what could be done "to breathe life back into them." She said many high streets had reached crisis point.

Among the recommendations are "town teams" to champion local high streets, business rate concessions for entrepreneurs and penalties for negligent landlords. Portas also urged that betting shops have their own planning classification so their numbers could be monitored more closely.

Among the bidders for the Portas Pilot funding are Lincoln and Market Rasen in Lincolnshire and Rawtenstall north of Manchester and Altrincham south of the city.

On the Wirral, Hoylake is among the bidders along with the seaside town of Crosby in Merseyside, where Antony Gormley's Another Place statues gaze across the sands.

Further north and east, Morpeth in Northumberland is one of the towns that is putting in a bid for the funding.

During a recent visit to Rawtenstall, minister for housing and local government Grant Shapps praised it for its 'unique' high street.

Events have been held, supported by the Association of Town Centre Management, to help towns prepare bids.

Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the ATCM, told The Grocer the government also wanted to ensure those who missed out on pilot funding were not left behind.

"I can't remember anything like it," he said of the level of response. "But of those 300, only 12 are going to get funding and we don't want the other 288 left alienated."

Bids in Cumbria have come from Penrith and Whitehaven. Alan Blacklock, the Whitehaven Chamber of Trade secretary said in an interview with the Whitehaven News: "I would like to think we could get into the top 12, but there are so many other towns in the same boat as us it will no doubt be very competitive." He added that their aim is for Whitehaven to become a better place to visit and shop.

Preston, too, which is celebrating its Guild this year with a programme of cultural events, has joined the bidders.

Mick Lovatt, environment director at the city council in Preston said it had already drawn up plans for further improvement to the city centre which a successful bid could kick-start.

"If we can get this funding," he told the Lancashire Evening Post, "it will allow us to do a lot of the things we want to do with the city centre." He said they are already looking at ways they can work with landlords to dress some of the empty shop units and improve the look of the main shopping areas.

In Lancashire, Chorley, Kirkham and Morecambe have also applied for the pilot status.


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January 28 2012

Interview: architects Richard Rogers, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour

Celebrated architect Richard Rogers and his partners discuss £140m penthouses, John Prescott's ministerial 'flair' and Prince Charles's strange ideas about architecture

Richard Rogers, at 78, is not about to slow down. "I am enjoying myself, so why would I retire?" says the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd's of London building. "I'd like to think I'll be learning a new language or something when I die."

But even a master builder can't go on for ever, which is why Richard Rogers Partnership discreetly changed its name, some five years ago, to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. "We wanted," explains Rogers, "to avoid the situation where the name of the practice is someone who died 100 years ago. Architecture is a living thing. If I want to leave something to the future, it has to be able to change – but retain something of the ethos that we built up over 50 years."

Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour are here today too, flanking Rogers protectively like affectionate, respectful and, just occasionally, faintly exasperated sons. (If Rogers is known for running his practice like a family, he is also famous among those who know him for a close and warm family life – one into which tragedy came late last year with the unexpected death of one of his sons, Bo.)

Leeds-raised Stirk, 54, is trim and wiry, with a narrow tie, dark suit and spiky hair; he is softly spoken and emphatic. Harbour, 49, is a rangily tall redhead, brought up in the West Country, with an easy grin and friendly manner. Between them is Rogers, whose get-up – turquoise shirt, orange sweater and splendid, canary-coloured socks – reminds me of Madrid airport's brightly coloured Terminal 4, for which Harbour was lead architect, winning the practice the 2006 Stirling prize.

At the moment Harbour is involved in planning Barangaroo, a former container port in Sydney – the biggest piece of city-making the practice has ever undertaken. Stirk, meanwhile, is working on the new exhibition and conservation centre for the British Museum; he also designed the Knightsbridge residential complex One Hyde Park, infamous for its £140m penthouse, thought to be the most expensive apartment ever put on sale. According to Harbour, their emergence as key figures in the firm is not a revolution. "Between Graham and myself, we have put in 55 years at the practice, so we are not new at it. It's an evolution."

Could a practised eye, I wonder, tell a Stirk from a Harbour building? "I hope not," says Harbour. (Though in fact, one might contend that Stirk buildings – such as the Leadenhall Building in the City of London, and Neo Bankside, a new apartment block next to Tate Modern – tend to be somewhat orthogonal; Harbour's buildings, such as Madrid airport, more expressive and sculptural.) This self-effacing attitude to individual style comes in part from that ethos Rogers mentions. The practice is run on idealistic principles; it has a manifesto that asserts the architects' responsibility towards "contributing to the welfare of mankind, the society in which we practise and the team with whom we work". (It is a moot point, of course, whether the creation of a building containing a £140m penthouse contributes to the welfare of society, a point to which we shall return.) Each Monday morning the staff gather for a discussion of current projects, in which everyone from the highest to the lowest can express views – along the lines of an art-school "group crit" session. There is a profit-share system, and the salaries of the directors cannot rise above a certain proportion of the lowest paid in the firm.

Rogers starts waxing lyrical about the profit-share scheme in answer to a question I put to Harbour about why he has never left the practice, which he joined as an architecture graduate in 1985 "to help out on the Lloyd's building for a couple of months". (Stirk joined in 1983, also cutting his teeth on Lloyd's, which was in December accorded Grade I listed status.) After listening patiently for a little bit, Harbour says: "Actually Richard, that's not the primary reason I am still here. The primary reason I am still here is … every Monday morning it is exciting to come into work because you never quite know what's going to happen, and the debate about architecture and the enthusiasm of the people here is infectious. Richard has been fantastic at encouraging us. I have always felt I can go anywhere within the practice, and I am more excited about tomorrow than yesterday. It's the intellectual environment that I have enjoyed. When I was at college I learned about learning. Here I learned about architecture." He suddenly gets modest. "Of course I know very little about architecture, and the older I get the less I know." He makes it sound a little cultish, as the passion burns in his voice.

Rogers tells me that "architecture is about public space held by buildings"; and civic space, both metaphorical and physical, and the architecture that holds it together, is the subject of a lecture the three are giving at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Tuesday. They gesture toward the public square outside the office, on the banks of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge in London, to illustrate what they mean. (Beside it is the famous restaurant, the River Cafe, run by Rogers' wife, Ruth.) It is privately owned land; but the architects take the view that it adds to the sum of human happiness if they don't lock it off from passersby. And that, in microcosm, is Stirk's argument about One Hyde Park. The important thing, he says, is what they didn't do: "We could have slapped up 12 storeys hard against Knightsbridge, and held the line of the street," he says. Instead, they built a series of pavilion-like structures at right angles to Knightsbridge, allowing passersby to glimpse Hyde Park between the buildings as they wander past.

According to Stirk: "We replaced one big slab building that was impermeable. The notion was to say: this is not a citadel. There are retail areas and garden areas at the base of the building. At least people can sit down on extended pavements; there is an area now where people can congregate and breathe." In short, whatever absurdities prevail upstairs, at street level it is still a better public environment than before.

The idea of the city has preoccupied much of Rogers' life as an architect and, in later years, a politician. He was chairman of the Urban Taskforce from 1998-2005, championing high-density cities; brownfield not greenfield for building. The taskforce was appointed by then deputy prime minister John Prescott, about whom Rogers has nothing but good to say. "Contrary to what everyone believed, I thought Prescott was a good minister, because he concentrated, and stuck around, and had a certain flair. It was a very important part of my life." The question of "how one builds at the density required of a city centre, and still achieves the right feel at the street scale", as Harbour puts it, is of urgent concern, they argue. "It's about humane scale in intensified development," adds Stirk. "It's about concentrating, rather than spreading," says Harbour. "You need good design to solve the problems of dense spaces."

Which is why Rogers has been speaking in the Lords about the government's draft National Planning Policy Framework. He agrees that the planning laws are due for rationalisation. But he fears the proposed reforms will loosen planning regulations too much: we could end up "like the south of France or the southern coast of Spain, with the whole south-east peppered with buildings". He agrees with the National Trust's campaign against the reforms, but from the other end of the argument – their potential effect on cities and towns, rather than just on the countryside. Cities that sprawl lose energy, he says. It's not so long ago, he warns, that post-industrial city centres, such as Manchester's, were bleak places, more or less uninhabited. Drawing residents back to the heart of cities has made them more attractive, safer, livelier. Intelligent density is the answer, with old and new buildings cohabiting gracefully, argue the architects. "Cities are about juxtaposition," says Rogers. "In Florence, classical buildings sit against medieval buildings. It's that contrast we like." Harbour adds: "In Bordeaux we built law courts right next door to what is effectively a listed historic building, and that makes it exciting. Can you imagine that in London?" There is some hope that the government will change its position – the MPs of the communities and local government committee have urged ministers, in a report published before Christmas, to drop the notion of the default "yes" to development. But the battle is not yet won, and Rogers will continue to campaign from the Lords.

The question of juxtaposition, of course, is one that has bedevilled modernist British architects in the past, particularly in relation to Prince Charles's views on architecture. In 1987, the prince spoke out against Rogers' plans for Paternoster Square near St Paul's Cathedral in a speech at Mansion House. ("You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.") In 2009, he attacked them again: this time, by warning the Qatari royal family off Stirk's plans for the former Chelsea Barracks in London. The practice was sacked by the Qataris at an hour's notice, and years of work went to waste.

Rogers says: "For a long time we thought we were going to be all right, because Prince Charles had other things to think about, like Princess Diana dying. But he has some strange ideas on medicine, some strange ideas on farming and some very strange ideas on architecture. He believes architecture is something that doesn't change. And the problem is he doesn't discuss things, he makes statements." Harbour adds: "He does believe architecture can make the world a better place, so in the abstract, we have a lot in common. But if you are not prepared to debate your position..."

Rogers continues: "He loves Christopher Wren! But Wren was hated during his life because he was too modern." Harbour expands: "The irony is that his 'monstrous carbuncle' speech was made in Wren's extension to Hampton Court, which was a modern monstrosity compared to the original building." Harbour once visited the prince's pet architecture project, Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorset, "when I was on holiday nearby". He didn't much like it.

His career, says Rogers, has never been easy. "It's been a bloody lot of work to get here. After the Pompidou Centre, my partner was threatening to become a taxi driver. We went through some pretty difficult times. I thought I was going to have to give up architecture at least three times, not because I wanted to leave architecture, but because it seemed to want to leave me." Despite the Prince of Wales's best efforts, though, Rogers has kept at it. And, says Harbour: "He has many years to go." He adds: "I am still younger than Richard was when I joined the practice." I ask why it matters; is it that he will feel truly grown up when he reaches that age? "A deadly concept, growing up," pitches in Rogers. Harbour adds: "What is work? It's part of your life. The idea of stopping work, if you are fortunate enough to love it, is something I don't understand – and I know Richard doesn't."

Rogers, Stirk and Harbour's lecture on Cities and the Language of Architecture is at the RIBA, London W1, on 31 January


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January 15 2012

A Room for London – review

A small vessel perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall has become London's most coveted hotel room

The river Thames has a way of defeating plans for its jollification. For decades architects have looked on its great, tempting emptiness and felt an irresistible urge to propose beaches, inhabited bridges, lidos, zones for festivals fluttering with pennants and balloons, places to promenade as if it were the edge of the Mediterranean. In the 1980s Richard Rogers imagined an archipelago of pleasure, with the forms and construction methods of oil rigs remade into towers and pinnacles of fun. Most recently, the architects Gensler proposed the floating hospitality suite they called the London River Park.

Mostly these plans don't happen. The river flows on, lugubrious and imperturbable, which is possibly because, as Joseph Conrad observed, it is not really a fun sort of thing. "And this also," he wrote in Heart of Darkness, "has been one of the dark places of the earth," as he embarked on that book's journey into forms of savagery that lay beneath a veil of civilisation. For him it was the "sleepless river" of a "monstrous" and "brooding" city. "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river," he also wrote, "into the mystery of an unknown earth!"

One Thames project that has happened is A Room for London, a boat-like object perched high on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth hall at the Southbank Centre, as if stranded there by a receding deluge. Where many Thames proposals want to put things of land on to water, this puts something riverine – a boat – on to land. It is a temporary structure, a cross between building and sculpture, by the architect David Kohn and the artist Fiona Banner. It contains a single hotel room which anyone can in theory book, if with rather more difficulty than Olympic tickets. When nights for the first six months were made available they sold out in 12 minutes; the next batch goes on sale on Thursday (at £120 a night).

This little space is the production of an impressive array of cultural impresarios: the Southbank Centre, Artangel, and Living Architecture, the organisation set up by the writer Alain de Botton to build beautiful new houses which can be rented for holidays. It comes, like many cultural projects in 2012, with an Olympic tag, being officially part of the cultural Olympiad. As well as paying guests, writers, artists and musicians have been invited to stay there, and be creative.

From the outside the jaunty vessel seems to fall within the "fun" category of Thames projects. It juts perkily into the void, and three little wind turbines, like displaced propellers, whirr on the top of a triangular rig. It is a toy, palpably and deliberately incongruous. It is a folly. But it turns out that its makers also had Conradian ambitions. The boat is called the Roi des Belges, after the vessel in which Conrad himself sailed up the river Congo, in the journey that would inspire Heart of Darkness. Inside there is a cabinet containing old maps of the Thames and the Congo, in reference to the parallels that Conrad made between the two rivers. An octagonal table and a box of dominos echo similar objects described in the master's novels.

There are other inspirations. The intricate house and museum of the architect Sir John Soane is cited by David Kohn as a help in designing the "episodic" sequence of small spaces that are inside the boat, as you progress from a little vestibule to a galley, to a bedroom that opens up to penthouse views of the river, bracketed by the Palace of Westminster to the left, and St Paul's Cathedral to the right. Alongside the river maps there is a copy of a drawing by Soane's collaborator JM Gandy that shows Soane's Bank of England as if it were a Roman ruin, and which might be taken as a comment, if desired, on financial calamity, or on the fragility of civilisation described by Conrad. Kohn also mentions the baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor as an influence, even though his heavy white stone churches would come top of most lists of Structures Least Likely to Float. The spire-like superstructure of A Room for London refers to these churches, and to the spires of London in general.

The main point, says Kohn, is to combine the intimate and the epic, in a way not unlike the relation of domesticity to vastness that you get in boats. "The interiors feel comfortable and you know what to do there, but it's not just an easy or twee kind of comfort. You are connected to the Thames, to a wider world, also to what one thinks of the world. You have a relationship to disputed, uncertain territory."

In all this the intention was to avoid kitsch and creating a one-line joke. The timber-lined interior, stained in places in rich pinkish-red, is not pushed to the point where it is literally boat-like in every detail, but rather seeks other architectural qualities, which is where the influence of Soane comes in. It was also important to Kohn and Banner that the structure was exactingly well made, by the specialist company Millimetre. "It is solid; it has a kind of earnestness," says Kohn, which keeps it away from being a stage set.

And so the lucky purchasers of nights in the hotel room, the intellectual aesthete's equivalent of Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, will be able to contemplate the "venerable stream" much as Conrad's characters did in the cruising yawl Nellie. At sunset they will be able to watch the gloom "become more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun". They can, should they want to, think their thoughts about the world and their place in it.

A Room for London is small, and temporary, and will only be fully enjoyed by a few people. It is not a prototype for future Thames-side development, and offers no solutions to the problems of urban regeneration. It may, even, not quite match the fathomless profundity of its inspirations, being rather an enjoyable and well-made jeu d'esprit. But I have a feeling it will give satisfactions that other Olympic projects will not match: it is intelligent, witty, pleasurable, and is based on observing its surroundings as they actually are, rather than imposing a bombastic idea of what they should be.


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November 11 2011

Eco-home developer BioRegional Quintain to shut

Property developer behind environmentally sustainable schemes will halt work after Middlehaven first phase

The UK's highest-profile sustainable developer, BioRegional Quintain, is to be wound up after its parent company, the property developer Quintain, decided to focus on the London market.

BioRegional Quintain, originally set up as a joint venture by the influential environmental charity behind "One Planet Living" and Quintain in 2005, will finish the 80-home first phase of the Middlehaven scheme in Middlesbrough, and then wind itself up.

BioRegional Quintain's chief executive, Pete Halsall, told this week's Building magazine: "It is extremely sad but it is part of a wider decision of Quintain's board to focus on its core business. My understanding is that Quintain wants to be able to express sustainability in its developments in a different way."

Halsall confirmed that the venture would shut, with the loss of five jobs. It leaves the Homes and Communities Agency's (HCA) £200m, 750-home Middlehaven scheme without a residential developer for its later phases, raising fears for the project's green credentials.

BioRegional Quintain will also withdraw from the London Development Agency's prestigious One Gallions project in east London, where it was selected in 2007 with Crest Nicholson and Southern Housing Group to build a model 260-home environmentally sustainable development.

At its peak before the downturn, BioRegional had a £350m development pipeline on six sites. Its most successful scheme was the award-winning One Brighton joint venture with Crest Nicholson, which completed last year and included allotment spaces for residents to grow their own food on the roof of the development.

The joint venture was dedicated to the 10 principles espoused by BioRegional Quintain's "One Planet Living" philosophy, including the need for developments to be zero carbon and zero waste, to use local food, and promote residents' "health and happiness".

Wembley developer Quintain bought BioRegional's share in the joint venture last year. Halsall, who will leave the business, said the move did not mean that the kind of development promoted by BioRegional Quintain was a thing of the past, and that he would shortly be announcing a new venture dedicated to "deep green" developments. "There is still tremendous potential. Quintain has to focus on its primary portfolio right now but this kind of development is absolutely still the future."

The firm's demise was lamented by two Stirling prize-winning architects, both of whom have worked with the developer. Peckham Library architect Will Alsop, who was the master planner on Middlehaven, said: "It is very sad news. This was a company very committed to doing things in a more responsible way."

Peter Clegg, of Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, which designed One Brighton, called the development a "great shame".

"It was a joint venture between some of the most conscientious sustainability thinkers of the past 10 years and one of the more significant developers, which had significant resources," he said.

David Curtis, HCA executive director, said: "While this is disappointing news, we remain firmly committed to Middlehaven. We are in discussions with BioRegional's parent company, Quintain Estates, to find the best way forward for their work at Middlehaven."


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October 03 2011

Ready steady glow

A river of colourful orbs in Canada, breathing trees in Germany, lasers on Brighton pier ... the world has woken up to light art. But can it help to regenerate the Ipswich waterfront?

Night has fallen on the waterfront of Ipswich but the windows of its historical buildings are glowing blue, purple and orange – while beams of wood above the promenade are ablaze with green.

These multicoloured flashes begin by pulsing out of the windows of the Dance East theatre before travelling to abandoned neighbouring warehouses. Pane by pane, cherry red replaces royal blue and suddenly dark, derelict buildings – once thriving and populated by workers – return to centre stage. It is a magical resurrection which gives the whole area the appearance of a fairground glimpsed through a dream.

This is Light Waves, an interactive piece of "light art" devised for the Ipswich waterfront by French art collective Creatmosphere. The team have been toiling over it since March, and it was unveiled on 30 September to an expectant crowd. Given the type of land Light Waves will spend the next two years illuminating, you can understand why they are so keen to see these changes in action.

Derelict buildings, abandoned developments and generically modern blocks of flats characterise the quayside of Ipswich. The Suffolk town, a thriving port before the economic crisis hit and the developers went bust, is now so poorly served by lighting that business owners have complained to the local authority, saying darkness is encouraging anti-social behaviour.

The purpose of this light art, capable of instantly bringing the streets to dazzling life, is to "connect people with the area and get them using it again", says Laurent Loyer, Creatmosphere's creative director. "The idea is if they connect with it, they will take ownership of it."

In fact, they will actually have control of it: the mere act of walking under a canopy outside the theatre will, thanks to a tracking camera, trigger a "change" in the light art. A number of interactive sequences allow pedestrians to play with the light: in one of these, the camera captures their movement and projects it back on to the ground in green, yellow and blue, so that they dance with their own multicoloured shadows. Other people will find their feet attracting swarms of light, or their steps could create a rippling effect – as if the ground they walk on were carpeted with Technicolor puddles to leap into.

Creatmosphere are also developing an iPhone App allowing residents to choose, in a more deliberate fashion, how to direct the installation. They also want the project to be a platform for local designers, who will be encouraged to create light sequences themselves.

Aesthetically and socially, Light Waves, which was commissioned by Ipswich Borough Council, could make a significant improvement to the waterfront. "It will do much more than a few lamp-posts could," says Greg Cooper, cultural development manager. "The intention is to improve the waterfront and encourage people to spend time there."

Although the borough and county councils have also contributed, Arts Council England put up a "huge chunk" of the cash needed. "This is a really interesting development for us," says Cooper. "We want to develop the arts we have here and show people Ipswich is a place worth visiting." Like Cooper, Loyer is keen for the installation to do more than just improve appearances. "Illuminating this space makes people look at it again. Their perception of the waterfront may change."

This is not the first time Creatmosphere have been tasked with resurrecting a derelict area. In 2010, Loyer and co were hired to find a way to illuminate Brighton's West Pier. Adorned with lasers firing out jade green beams, the pier went from being a reminder of a bygone age to a piece of 21st-century modern art. "It had a huge impact," says Loyer. "People didn't expect to see the pier looking like that."

Although London-based, the collective work with landscapes and buildings for brands, festivals and local authorities all over the world. Last October, the team designed Breathing Trees #3 for the Art-ort festival in Heidelberg, Germany. Using coloured light, trees were illuminated in the city's Bismarckplatz to a soundtrack of breathing and water. The aim was to highlight the importance of parks in urban areas.

Meanwhile, in the Canadian city of Calgary the previous August, Creatmosphere released a flotilla of 500 illuminated spheres on to the River Bow, lighting up a 7.5km stretch of its waters in spectacular fashion.

Now, though, all eyes are on Ipswich to see how the great light show pans out over the next two years. The past five months have been nothing if not challenging for Creatmosphere: at times, they had to clean out derelict buildings themselves; and, throughout the project, there has been a strong push to minimise fuel consumption.

Despite the graft, Loyer seems satisfied. "We have used less than 5,000 watts across about 700 metres of urban space," he says. "I challenge anyone to say we could have reduced this. I'm excited about how people will respond. I hope it makes them re-engage with the area. That is what we all want."


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October 02 2011

British Ceramics Biennial brings signs of a Potteries revival

The event, which opened at the weekend in Stoke, is a reminder to visitors that the city still has a pottery industry

Stoke-on-Trent: the city that produced the captain of the Titanic; elected, in recent history, nine BNP councillors; and is home to a once-proud, now shattered, ceramics industry.

But despite the Potteries' sometimes bleak reputation, there are signs of revival in Stoke's most famous industry.

With the second British Ceramics Biennial, which opened at the weekend, the city is aiming to present itself as the guardian of creativity for British ceramics in all its forms – art, craft, design, and industry – and to remind visitors that the city still has a pottery industry, even if it employs a fraction of the people it did 30 years ago.

Exhibits range from high-concept, elaborate installations, such as the innumerable, 5cm clay figures of commuting businessmen by artist Lawrence Epps that scatter Stoke railway station, to piles of bricks. Piles of bricks not as in the notorious Carl André sculpture in the Tate, but plain, honest bricks for building, still manufactured in Stoke.

The main part of the Biennial takes place in the now disused Spode factory, which occupies a four-hectare (10-acre) site in the heart of Stoke. It is a beautiful but rough-and-ready space, with wall signs still proclaiming the location of the "machine-banding shop" and warning that "ear protection must be worn when tapping ware".

The creative director of Portmeirion, Julian Teed, recalls the suddenness with which it was abandoned when Spode went bust in 2008, saying that when he visited the empty building some time later: "There was still a half-drunk cup of tea and the local paper open on someone's desk."

Now, though, here are Sarah Younan's sexual, Eve Hesse-inspired ceramic pieces – teapots strung from the wall with lids like nipples, others decorated with erect penises. But also on display are terracotta pantiles, artificial ceramic hipjoints, and the life-saving ceramic filters that are used in disaster zones to remove pathogenic bacteria from drinking water.

There is a certain irony to the location: the once-thriving Spode factory, until 13 November, transformed into a destination for visitors and part of the tourism industry, rather than part of industry. Bought by the council in 2010, the long-term aim, according to Stoke's regeneration chief Kevin Bell, is to transform the site into a mixture of shops, apartments and events spaces.

But the Biennial's co-director Barney Hare Duke argued that it is not "about celebrating the past, but about being a catalyst", citing seven artists that have been commissioned to create work. The first Biennial in 2009 attracted 35,000 visitors, half of whom were from outside the region, and £2.2m in economic impact. The budget for this year's biennial, supported by the local council, Arts Council England, and industry partners such as earthenware manufacturers Emma Bridgewater and hotelware producers Steelite who both produce pottery in Stoke, is £360,000.

Local employment in the pottery industry collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the giant manufacturers, notably Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, who between them employed 20,000 people in the early 1980s, switched production to Malaysia, Indonesia and China.

Then, the buzz word was "outsourcing"; ware could be produced at a fraction of the price in the far east.

Now, some companies, such as Portmeirion, talk of "insourcing". When Portmeirion, famous for its cheerful, affordable tableware with botanical decoration, bought the intellectual property rights to Spode's distinctive blue-and-white china after the company's collapse, they also, according to Teed, decided to bring back as much manufacturing to Stoke as they could. Eighty items that Spode had outsourced abroad were put into production at Portmeirion's Staffordshire factory, and the premises now produces 140,000 pots a week. (Even so, 40% of the Portmeirion Group's production is outsourced abroad.)

Outsourcing, through rising labour costs, ongoing transportation costs, and variable production quality, had proved less of a cure-all for the industry than it once seemed, said Teed. Meanwhile, customers have increasingly seen the value of Stoke-made pottery, a heritage drawn on by the successful Emma Bridgewater brand, for example, and by small companies such as Burgess, Dorling and Leigh, which uses 19th-century patterns from its rich archive and is produced with traditional skills.

"There is a rebirth of small, creatively driven companies," said Teed. "I don't think the pottery industry is in terminal decline. Things are swinging back in favour of the companies who had the balls to stay in Stoke when everyone else was jumping ship to China."

• This article was amended on 3 October 2011 to correct a line that said Portmeirion's Staffordshire factory produces 140,000 pots a day.


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April 13 2011

Will Turner Gallery help Margate to a brighter future?

Once a thriving seaside resort, Margate has recently become a 'dumping ground' for vulnerable people. But the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery could revive the town's fortunes

This weekend sees the much-publicised opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery on Margate's seafront, built on the site of the boarding house run by the painter's lover, Sophia Booth. Boarding houses and hotels have been this Kent coastal town's blessing and its curse.

During the 19th century, visitors flocked to the resort in their thousands by steam boat and railway and the hotel industry boomed. A new cinema in the 1930s and a Butlins holiday camp were followed by the mods and rockers in the early 60s. But when tourists fell out of love with Margate and sought fun and sun farther afield, hundreds of seaside hotels and guest houses were left empty. Unable to attract paying guests, unsuitable for family accommodation, but cheap and easy to convert into bedsits and small flats, many once elegant, tall, terraced buildings with many rooms were converted into high-density, poor-quality accommodation.

This has become a magnet, not just to individuals in need of a cheap place to live, but also to external agencies and local authorities who, according to the British Urban Regeneration Association, have used Margate as a "dumping ground" for vulnerable and highly dependent people. Such inward migration has created a huge imbalance in Margate's population with a disproportionate concentration of vulnerable people, including homeless families, care leavers and ex-offenders. Half of all ex-offenders in the Thanet area live in Margate and four ex-offenders are released into the town each week.

"Services – statutory and voluntary – are close to collapsing because of the concentration of highly dependent people in Margate," says Derek Harding, director of Margate Renewal Partnership, the town's regeneration body.

There are also high numbers of looked-after children who have been placed in the town by other authorities. Of the 500 looked-after children in Thanet, more than half have been placed by 58 out of area local authorities, including many London boroughs. Secondary schools are now refusing to admit looked-after children from other local authorities.

"We think it's wrong to place the most vulnerable children in England in an area that already suffers from significant deprivation and where our schools are under pressure to meet the needs of local looked-after children," says Andy Somers, chair of Thanet Secondary Heads Group and principal of Hartsdown Technology College. "It simply doesn't help the life chances of young people who are placed miles away from their homes, where their difficulties may in fact get worse and future prospects are limited."

Margate is also a popular destination for migrants, but without adequate resources to manage their arrival and integration, there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest economic migrants are easy prey to unscrupulous landlords and employers and victims of racism and crime.

Andres Balog comes from Slovakia and with his three children and their aunt Iveta lives in a rundown, squalid flat in Cliftonville, a once afflluent suburb of Margate. There are hanging wires, lethally gaping holes in the floor, a pipe that leaks into the flat below and the tiny kitchen bears the scorch marks of a previous fire.

The family pays no rent, Balog is unemployed and the local authority taskforce helping them has had great difficulty in tracing the landlord. When asked how they found the flat, 15-year-old Andres junior, acting as translator, vaguely says "friends", who also help to provide food. In effect they are squatting, although Andres says his father "wants a job to pay for a better place".

Beneath them live 19-year-old James Thompson with his girlfriend Josephine Brown, 18. Their six-week-old baby is in foster care but the couple are splitting up in order to improve the possibility of the child being returned, so Thompson needs to leave the flat and find somewhere else to live in the next few days. He has lived in Margate all his life and is currently on bail for burglary, awaiting a court date. Brown was placed with relatives in Margate, but was taken into foster care in the town following a violent relationship in her early teens.

"It's complicated. Our son is in foster care and my history is not too good," says Thompson. "I used to live with my sister and from the age of 10 I helped to bring up her kids. I'll be a brilliant dad." He hopes to get a community rather than custodial sentence and wants to find a job and a way to be part of his child's life.

Margate's problems stem from the fact that like many coastal towns, its economy has been over-reliant  on tourism. When that dried up, so did the jobs, and changes in farming meant that seasonal agricultural work was also lost. Unemployment in the poorest parts of Margate is around 38% – more than 10 times the south-east average. The recent announcement of the closure of the Pfizer pharmaceutical plant in nearby Sandwich will see another 2,500 people in the Thanet region looking for work. Some 63% of Margate's population are dependant on welfare and more are on incapacity benefit than jobseeker's allowance. What jobs there are tend to be in retail and administration.

Dependency industry

"Deprivation and dependency are an industry in Margate," says Sarah Woodward, director of the Margate Task Force, which brings together the district and county councils, police, probation, local NHS, housing and employment services.

Efforts to regenerate the town have so far only been a partial success. Some £40m has been poured into the area since 2007 to kickstart the regeneration programme in which the new Turner gallery is the centrepiece. While there are signs in Margate Old Town of a different type of business – boutiques, cafes, studios and workshops are springing up – sections of the main seafront remain a swath of boarded-up arcades, and parts of Margate have yet to benefit. 

Thanet's public services have struggled under the growing burden of care while the cycle of decline outside the old town continues, inextricably linked to social problems of worklessness, benefit dependency, poor health, crime and antisocial behaviour. Now, in an attempt to stop councils sending so many vulnerable people to Margate, Thanet district council and Kent county council are trying to dissuade external authorities from placing people in Margate.

Meanwhile, the taskforce is trying to improve life and prospects for residents at a grassroots level in the two most deprived wards in the town – Cliftonville West and Margate Central. This part of town is one of the 3% most deprived areas in the country.

Unemployment is running at two in five of the working population in these wards and Margate is seventh in the national rankings for welfare benefits dependency, with 63% of residents on benefits. When JMW Turner died in 1851, he was 76. The life expectancy of a man in Cliftonville West today is 69.2 – 17 years less than a man living just 15 miles away and more than a decade less than the national average of 80 years.

Woodward says despite a multiplicity of public services, agencies and initiatives over the years, little has been achieved apart from "fire-fighting" immediate crises. "More of the same simply isn't going to work, so we have to take a different approach using community-based programmes," she says. The taskforce is focusing on housing, employment and skills, health inequalities and street cleanliness and antisocial behaviour.

It is tracking down absentee landlords and enforcing regulation to deal with the estimated 800 vacant properties, in the hope of driving down the number of small, privately rented flats which represent 82% of the two wards' housing stock. It wants to get rid of dreadful landlords and owners by forcing them to improve properties, to make housing more suitable for families instead of numerous small flats and bedsits.

And it has introduced several neighbourhood initiatives, working to deal with issues ranging from flytipping, dog fouling and litter, to cracking down on truancy, and criminal and antisocial behaviour.

"We're on a journey and we've a way to go but I can see the fractures that exist between services. Now we're talking to each other, building relationships and that means we can respond more quickly so both long standing residents and the most vulnerable can see we are listening and responding," says Woodward. The taskforce has been operational for just six months but it has successfully enforced antisocial behaviour measures and issued arrest warrants for drugs trafficking, sex offences, theft and assault, inspected over 600 homes and carried out truancy sweeps. The visible presence is helping reassure people in the poorest parts of the town that they are not being ignored.

But the long-term prospects for Margate depend on whether the town can make itself more attractive to business. Richard Samuel, outgoing chief executive of Thanet district council says he is optimistic and pessimistic in equal terms.

"Turner, housing initiatives and regeneration will move the area on but I'm hugely nervous about the impact of benefit changes which will take £20m out of the local economy," he says. "It is not public money that will change places like Margate. Private investment creates wealth that creates jobs."

One of the major barriers to attracting inward private investment and creating more highly skilled, better paid jobs is transport and Samuel hopes the council's bid to upgrade and extend the rail line so that it services Kent's Manston airport is successful. Extending the high-speed rail link from London, which currently goes as far as Ashford, would cut the journey time from London to neighbouring Ramsgate to around an hour, opening up huge potential for Margate. It would cost £50m but the economic impact in the area could be enormous, he says.

The hope is that the Turner gallery will act as a catalyst for more regeneration. But Samuel is not getting carried away. "If Turner wasn't there, Thanet district council would still be tackling the problems," he says. "It [Turner] is the jewel in the crown but it is not the only thing." 

Some names have been changed.


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April 08 2011

Turner Contemporary gives facelift

The new Margate venue is the first of a trio of galleries set to give hard-hit regional towns a facelift this year

On Saturday 16 April at 10am, Tracey Emin will be back in her hometown of Margate to open Turner Contemporary, the £17.5m new gallery by David Chipperfield.

The £17.5m building – which stands tall on Margate's harbour, with the pounding, steel-grey sea filling the view from its broad windows – is the first of a trio of major new contemporary art galleries to open in Britain this year. The Hepworth in Wakefield, also by David Chipperfield, will open its doors on the banks of the river Calder on 21 May. And in Essex Colchester's Firstsite, Rafael Viñoly's elegant, dull-gold swoop of a building above the Roman town walls, is due to make its bow in mid-September.

The three are the last of a wave, unprecedented in Britain, of new regional contemporary galleries. Along with the Towner in Eastbourne, Nottingham Contemporary and Mima in Middlesbrough – all of which have opened in impressive buildings by internationally famous architects over the past four years – these projects "represent a state of confidence about the visual arts in Britain that has never been seen before", according to Nicholas Serota, director of Tate. Given the cold economic climate, they will also be the last of their kind to open for some time to come.

Twenty years ago, the idea of three contemporary art galleries opening within the year, and in areas outside the metropolis not famous for their prosperity, would have been hard to imagine. But two things have happened since then: the Guggenheim Bilbao, that shiny, angular, landmark building by Frank Gehry, has become a template for what a gallery can do for the regeneration of an ailing, post-industrial city. And Tate Modern in London, according to Serota, has "given people – including funders – the confidence that contemporary art can reach a larger, more general audience".

In Britain's new galleries, ideas from both are readily apparent. Kate Brindley, director of Mima, says she is explicitly "part of the regeneration department of Middlesbrough council". Pomery, whose gallery sits in one of the most deprived wards in the south-east, says that for the local council the project is "about cultural infrastructure and regeneration". Katherine Wood, director of Firstsite, talks of "visual arts tourism" and of "enhancing Colchester as a destination". Meanwhile in Wakefield, according to Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth, "there is a recognition that we are an investment – and there will be a return". The council, he says, expects that the gallery will bring £3.75m a year into the local economy.

Tate Modern has also shown that galleries can, in the words of Wallis, be more "than a place of private aesthetic experience. These places are becoming the social hubs of their cities." Just as the Southbank gallery is as much a place to hang out as see art in, so these new galleries are enthusiastically offering themselves as gathering places for eating and drinking, learning programmes and film screenings. Ahead of its opening, Firstsite is pushing its "function rooms, a spectacular restaurant and state-of-the-art audiovisual facilities", all of which can be hired. One of the directors, who asked not to be named, said: "People always remember two things about galleries: the temperature of the soup and the state of the loos." It is significant that none of the three new galleries has the word "gallery" or "art" in its title. Not that the art is not important. Both Firstsite and Turner Contemporary have, like Tate Modern, areas near their main entrances devoted to major commissions: "our mini-Turbine Hall effect", says Wood.

But unlike Tate Modern, which opened at a time of accelerating economic prosperity, these new galleries open just as there is a huge squeeze on public funding – especially local authority funding. The question is: can they survive and thrive, or are they white elephants in the making?

Mima, which opened four years ago, has just had its local authority grant cut by 17%. "Middlesbrough is a small local authority with a poor community that they have to support – they are under a lot of pressure, but still incredibly supportive of us," says Brindley. Nonetheless each of the new galleries, bucking the general trend, has had an uplift in Arts Council funding. They are also part of a recent venture called Plus Tate, a network through which regional galleries may draw on the collections and expertise of the Tate organisation, as well as each other's knowledge – even down to sharing business plans. Serota also emphasises that the Tate can learn from its smaller, leaner cousins. He says the programme "is born of a confidence that a regional gallery has a place in the community and can survive, and we will do our best to help them".

Nottingham Contemporary's director, Alex Farquharson, is also confident. "We have had 400,000 people through the door since we opened 17 months ago, and we have been embraced by the city," he says. "We are seen as a sign of success that goes beyond the cultural audience; a sign of the wellbeing and reputation of the city." But, like all the new galleries' directors, he speaks of the particular care required to create a programme that is both ambitious and artistically significant – and also embraced by the local community.

"We have a large new audience and in some ways, what we are doing is quite introductory. We are trying to give people a panorama of current artistic practice, introducing things that are quite radical and new," he says. But he also talks of accessible "hooks" – perhaps timely links with current affairs, as is the case with an upcoming show by a young Egyptian artist – to draw in non-specialists.

For Margate, the "hook" is the connection to Turner, who stayed in an inn on the site of the gallery; the opening exhibition, largely of contemporary works, uses a painting by the artist as its nodal point. In Wakefield, the obvious hook is that Barbara Hepworth was born in the town, and a major gift of works by her family will be a focus of the gallery. There will also be changing exhibitions of contemporary work, including an opening commission by sculptor Eva Rothschild – whose "seriousness of purpose as an artist" is akin to Hepworth's, according to Wallis. In Colchester, the opening exhibition will mix historic and contemporary work rooted in the area's history. "For each of these places a sense of place is hugely important," says Wallis, "whether it's the specialness of Margate and Thanet, or the ancient, sculptural quality of the landscape around Wakefield."

But will the newcomers really be embraced by their communities? They may have a way to go: one man in Margate dismissively called Turner Contemporary "an eyesore", adding: "Just look at it – it's completely out of keeping with the harbour. It looks like a warehouse."

Serota, though, is confident about the future. These galleries may be the last of their kind to be opening, but he predicts a fresh wave off the blocks when the economy recovers – perhaps ready for opening in the 2020s. Could we have a contemporary art gallery in every British town? "Why not?" he says. "Germany manages it."

It has been a long time coming. Pomery has been director of a not-yet-existant gallery for nine years (an earlier design, by architects Snøhetta and Spence, bit the dust just before it was due to be built in 2005). "At times," she writes, with feeling, in the opening exhibition's catalogue, "it is hard to believe that our wonderful new gallery building actually exists."

Turner Contemporary, Margate

Architect: David Chipperfield
Opens: 16 April 2011
Build budget: £17.5m
Size: 2,000 sq m
ACE grant: up by 9.8% in real terms to £600,000 per year by 2014-15
Collection? No. The programme of temporary exhibitions will explore Turner's links with contemporary art practice.

Hepworth, Wakefield

Architect: David Chipperfield
Opens: 21 May 2011
Build budget: £35m
Size: 5,000 sq m
ACE grant: up by 7.7% in real terms to £945,562 per year by 2014-15
Collection? Yes, Wakefield's municipal collection of 6,000 works, particularly strong in early British modernism; plus a gift of 40 important plaster models by the Barbara Hepworth estate.

Firstsite, Colchester

Architect: Rafael Viñoly
Opens: mid-September 2011
Build budget: £28m
Size: 2,400 sq m
ACE grant: up by 16.8% in real terms to £850,000 per year by 2014-15
Collection? No. A programme of changing exhibitions will mix contemporary and historic work.


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April 07 2011

Turner Contemporary gallery – in pictures

Photographer Richard Bryant gives us a preview of David Chipperfield's new Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, Kent



March 08 2011

Letters: Diverse mix makes for real communities

I was disappointed to read the scepticism towards the potential for "pepperpotting" in plans for the redevelopment of the Heygate estate (Homes under the hammer, G2, 4 March). Having lived on a Southwark council estate for three years as a private tenant, and served as an active member of the Tenants and Residents Association, I experienced the richness that a diverse estate community can bring. With tenants both private and council as well as homeowners working together to improve their communities, a wide range of interests and expertise can be drawn on to tackle local issues, support neighbours and lobby the council for change. Without a mix of residents, an estate may risk perceived "ghettoism" and development of social stigmas towards council housing. I hope that once the regeneration project is complete, relocated people will return to Heygate and take a role in building a new community in the area.

Elle Perry

London

• The reason Utopia on Trial is, as Stephen Moss says, influential – it continues to sell 26 years after we first published it – is because its evidence-based recommendations for changes in the design of housing estates, when put into practice, have improved residents' living conditions. Demolition is avoidable. The polemical extract quoted in the article is from Professor Alice Coleman's summing up, but her conclusions are based on a survey of over 100,000 dwellings, mainly in Southwark and Tower Hamlets, and not on a political view.

Hilary Macaskill and Michael Shipman

Hilary Shipman Limited


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February 07 2011

Demise of 1970s housing estate

Residents of Elephant and Castle's Heygate complain they were 'picked off' to make way for £1.5bn regeneration scheme

Preliminary demolition is due to begin next week of the vast Heygate estate in south-east London as part of a tortuous £1.5bn regeneration project which has angered many of its former residents and triggered political rows.

After a month of preparation by the demolition company, the serious work of dismantling the estate begins in mid-March, part of a plan to transform the Elephant and Castle, considered one of the city's architectural eyesores, into a "new town centre".

For months the Heygate, once home to 1,200 families, has been a virtual ghost town, with only a few people holding out. The water and heating have been switched off, passageways blocked and steel shutters placed on the windows.

Former inhabitants of the six huge apartment blocks have accused Southwark council, which signed a regeneration deal with Australian developer Lend Lease in July, of going back on promises to put local working class people at the heart of the redevelopment.

Progress on the scheme comes amid tough times for regeneration projects in the UK. More than 3,000 new homes planned for London are on hold because of restrictions on development finance, according to real estate services firm CB Richard Ellis. Elsewhere, there are early signs of progress with plans for regeneration schemes in Salford, Greater Manchester, Basildon, Essex, and the Longbridge area of Birmingham being submitted this month.

Despite the Heygate's unlovely grey concrete exterior and its reputation as a crime-ridden estate – undeserved say some of its former residents – critics acknowledge that the flats themselves were well-designed and spacious with fine views of London.

"It was well above average postwar housing but it suffered from a lack of maintenance and good management," said Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, an architecture conservation group. "It doesn't look pretty and it is architecture of a type that has a real stigma – incredibly repetitive and monolithic. But as a way of housing a lot of people, it has an elegance and simplicity."

Some who lived there speak glowingly about the estate, at least at its inception.

Terry Redpath, who moved in when the Heygate was built in 1974, said: "People took pride in the place and there was a community spirit. It wasn't badly designed and there was plenty of open space."

Redpath says he and the other 130 leaseholders were offered less than a fair price for their properties, but felt they had little alternative but to accept as the estate was being run down in preparation for demolition.

"We were picked off one by one," he said, "In the last four to five years things weren't being fixed, and people did not want to be the last ones out."

One of the last remaining residents, Oner Baduna, who has finally accepted alternative accommodation, said the estate began going downhill as more short-term residents moved in, conditions deteriorated and petty crime rose.

For Jerry Flynn, a Heygarth resident between 1974 and 1981, Southwark council failed to fulfil a key pledge of the Elephant and Castle regeneration programme. "We were told that we were going to be at the heart of regeneration, but local people are not benefitting," he said.

The council said its plans gave former Heygate residents the opportunity to return to 16 "early housing sites" or the Heygate site itself once the new homes were built. However, only three of those sites have been completed and the new homes on the Heygate are stillyears away.

In effect, the community brought together by the Heygate estate has been scattered throughout the borough and elsewhere because of the lag between the start and end of the regeneration programme.

"That community has been decimated. It was so callous and I'm truly disgusted," said Jackie Rokotnitz, a local activist and initial backer of the regeneration plan, who has since become a vociferous critic of Southwark council's handling of the project.

The Elephant's regeneration saga, dating back to 1999, began when the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were in power in the borough. It has rumbled on for a decade and the on-off deal with Lend Lease has been highly contentious. Lend Lease, an Australian developer, was selected by the Lib Dem council as the preferred partner in 2007, but final agreement was delayed, partly due to the recession and partly because of disagreement with Transport for London over the costs of rebuilding the local Northern line station and the remodelling of the roundabout system.

A deal was reached with Lend Lease only last July, after Labour won control of the council in May.

The new council insists that it's all systems go now that it has signed a contract with Lend Lease and claims that everybody in the area will benefit.

Councillor Fiona Colley, cabinet member for regeneration, said: "Local people will benefit not just from the creation of new affordable homes – which former Heygate tenants will have the opportunity to move into, but also from a new school, a new leisure centre, better transport infrastructure, jobs and training as part of the development, new shops, improved parks and possibly a new community centre."

The Lib Dems say Labour has lost tens of millions of pounds as a result of "incompetent renegotiation", but key sections of the agreement are confidential because of "sensitive commercial information" so the figures are hard to pin down.

One of the sore points is how much affordable housing will be included. Critics assert the commitment to make 25% of new homes affordable falls short of the original 35% target.

Flynn points out that affordable housing is still beyond the means of those who lived at the Heygate, most of whom were in social rented housing, paying rents below the market rate. He argues that the most telling comparison will be the loss of social rented units: under a revamped Heygate, including the off-site replacement housing, he calculates there will be 725 social rented units when the scheme is completed against the 1,080 of the original estate.

For now, the desolate estate looks like something out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but a hardcore of about two dozen people are refusing to leave because they feel they are not being offered a fair price for their properties or adequate replacements for the homes they are renting.

Teacher Adrian Glasspool, who livesin the centre of the estate, says he has been offered £168,000 for his three-bedroom maisonette, measuring 93 square meteres (1,000 sq ft) and argues he cannot buy anything similar in central London for that kind of money.

He said: "People went along with the regeneration plans on the promise they would be coming back to shiny new homes." But he feels let down and is a member of the Heygate & Aylesbury leaseholders action group, which is trying to get a better deal from the council.

Mickey Brooks, another holdout, has to lug water up 11 flights of stairs to his one-bedroom flat because the lifts are no longer working and the water has been turned off. He says he is hanging on until the police come to evict him and will be waiting with a video camera when they do.

The controversy over the demolition of the Heygate has echoes of the now defunct Pathfinder schemes that were supposed to regenerate rundown areas in northern England. The schemes were public-private partnerships in cities and conurbations from Birmingham northwards, that involved the demolition and, in theory, replacement of housing in working-class areas.

In reality, their residents moved elsewhere or were bought off, and, in many cases, the new homes were designated for sale to "aspirational" incomers, in attempts – which have mostly failed – to gentrify neighbourhoods.

With its close proximity to the City and central London, Lend Lease is unlikely to have trouble finding buyers for the new homes on the Heygate, but those who lived there originally will have long gone. "What sticks in my throat is that when redevelopment has happened 1,200 local residents will have made way for people paying £400,000 on the footprint of the estate," said Redpath.

Elephant and Castle regeneration

Elephant and Castle's £1.5bn redevelopment will include the creation of a pedestrianised town centre, a market square, green spaces and thousands of new homes by 2014. It will also involve a comprehensive tree planting programme and measures to reduce pollution from its roundabout system.

Southwark council says the Elephant will become a "thriving urban centre" once the shopping centre – nominated as London's ugliest building – and the six 12-storey blocks that comprise the Heygate are replaced. In 2009 former US president Bill Clinton praised the regeneration plan as among 16 worldwide projects which will release less carbon dioxide than they use.


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November 09 2010

Graffiti art divides councils' opinion

Is graffiti a renegade art form or a public nuisance? Hackney council is demanding a giant rabbit be whitewashed while Brighton is using graffiti as advertising

The subject of graffiti has always provoked comment, criticism and controversy. Local authorities and their cleaning teams have struggled to contain the perceived urban scourge of "tagging" (quickly executed stylised signatures) on any hoarding or derelict space that may lend itself to decoration.

Now it appears Brighton and Hackney councils have taken different approaches to the problem. While the south coast council has won plaudits for its actions, its east London counterpart is facing a public backlash for its decision to order the owners of a recording studio to "remove or obliterate" a giant rabbit painted on to its wall.

Secretive Belgian street artist ROA was granted permission last year to create the 12ft rabbit by the owners of The Premises music studio and cafe. Supporters claim that street art is of great benefit to the borough, attracting tourists and helping to overturn negative stereotypes of gang culture and gun crime. But the council policy is to paint over all graffiti and street art.

"It is not the council's position to make a judgment call on whether graffiti is art or not, our task is to keep Hackney's streets clean," it said in a statement.

As well as considerable local support, the online petition to Save the Rabbit has already attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

Last year, the council was criticised for erasing a cartoon from a block of flats by international renowned street artist, Banksy. Its latest attempt to get rid of a public artwork has created such opposition that The Premises' directors Julia Craik and Viv Broughton – who will be charged by the council for a contractor to paint over the rabbit – have issued a formal request to the council to debate its policy on street art removal. The council says that in order to trigger a debate at a full council meeting more than 750 people who live, work or study in the borough need to sign its own e-petition which is due to go live on 1 December.

In contrast to Hackney's approach, Brighton council has employed an innovative approach to graffiti in its successful collaboration with the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership. Graffiti artist Aroe has handpainted the logo of a seatbelt campaign, Embrace Life, on to 10 sites around the city to a height of 20ft in some locations. The sites for the logo were a mix of council-owned and private properties; selected by SSRP's communication manager, Neil Hopkins, the graffiti officer at Brighton council's clean team, Sarah Leach, and Aroe, with permission being given by each property owner.

Using derelict spaces for mural art, or in this case to promote a socially responsible campaign, deters taggers who, having seen the signature on the artwork, will leave the site alone in deference to accepted hierarchies in the world of graffiti art.

"From our point of view this initiative has deterred a significant numbers of taggers in the city, reducing our cleaning bill by an estimated £1,000 so far. However, an even greater value is improved public perception, reduced fear of crime and an improved local environment. These outcomes are very important and the project has been a resounding success for the council," says Leach.

Good advertising

Ken Seymour, SSRP partnership manager, adds: "With this campaign we have managed to help the council reduce its operating costs and improve the local environment, creating a high-visibility campaign at a fraction of normal advertising rates. In this time of fiscal austerity, such partnerships are vital in delivering best value while still maintaining innovation and quality."

Latest available figures show that councils across the UK spend an estimated £1bn a year on graffiti removal.

The success of Brighton's policy is reflected not just in reduced costs and fear of crime but in the phenomenal interest in Embrace Life which has gone from a county-wide initiative to outstanding international success. Its online film advertisement won a gold award at the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards (digital and interactive category), has had more than 18m online views and is a contender for YouTube's Ad of the Year award, which will be announced later this month.

Of the original 10 Embrace Life sites installed in Brighton in January, eight are still painted with the logo and generating ongoing savings for the city clean team. Leach says she would welcome involvement in another project of this kind.

The debate over good or bad graffiti will continue, but Brighton's experience shows that this art form has the power to inform, inspire and transform.


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October 12 2010

Pop-up culture

Temporary shops and restaurants were once a way for artists to subvert empty urban spaces. Now, they're just as likely to be part of a corporate marketing strategy

In a dark, dank nightclub beneath some railway arches, with the clatter and chug of trains overhead, I am having a minor Proustian moment. This London club was last open in the late 1990s, and its smell sends me straight back to that era, my student days: to Britpop and Blur, late-teenage clinches, 70p for a vodka and Coke. The aroma is strong, sour, specific, but it won't linger here for very much longer.

Over the last few weeks this long-abandoned club has been taken over by a group of young event organisers for an ambitious, 99-day pop-up project called Counter Culture. The programme will deliver photographers and DJs, comedians and poets, art exhibitions and parties, a different lineup each night, spiriting this sprawling, downtrodden building straight into the 21st century. One of the four organisers, 23-year-old Lee Denny, meets me at the door, apologises for his moustache ("I'm not trying to look cool, I promise") and shows me around the venue he first discovered when he came to an underground party here.

Denny has some experience of pop-ups: five years ago, he started his own small music festival, LeeFest, in his back garden, and he still runs it each summer, albeit from a larger venue. He leads me into the smaller of the club's two main rooms, kitted out with old, over-stuffed sofas and a much more expertly stuffed fox head. The artist responsible for the fox only works with roadkill, says Denny, and he's particularly excited about a live taxidermy workshop she's going to be running.

We move on through a small changing room, where a pair of grubby grey y-fronts hangs from a high ledge, and out to the main stage. On the opening night, in late September, the club filled up with 980 people, "and musicians kept arriving," says Denny, "people who remembered the place, and had heard about what we were doing. There was Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, and Suggs from Madness. He said 'Have you got a trombone?' and then he got up on stage and was like," he holds one hand to his mouth and slides a fist deliberately through the air, "rum-pa-pum-pum-pum."

Counter Culture is just one of thousands of pop-up events that have opened in the UK and beyond over the last few years – ranging from the small to the large, the cool to the rubbish, the sublime to the ridiculous. There have been pop-up shops, restaurants and gardens; pop-up galleries– one in an abandoned Woolworths in Leytonstone – and cinemas – Tilda Swinton even carted one around the Scottish Highlands. There have been pop-up gigs in launderettes; restaurants in front rooms; films projected in disused petrol stations or on to hay bales in fields.

Those are the more guerrilla projects, the grassroots events, often put together on a wing, a prayer and a stiflingly small bank loan. But alongside these are the corporate-backed pop-ups, the temporary shops and bars and restaurants that appear with increasing regularity, often hosted by well-known venues.

The Double Club in London in 2008, a part-Congolese, part-western restaurant and bar backed by fashion label Prada, was particularly successful. A branch of Central Perk, the coffee shop from the TV series Friends, which opened in London's Soho for a fortnight last year, was used to promote a limited-edition box set of the series. In 2006, Nike opened a shop in New York for four days, selling a special edition basketball shoe at $250 a pair. Gap has used a school bus, kitted out with merchandise instead of seats, as a travelling pop-up shop in the US.

There have been pop-up projects that have opened for an hour, like Mary Portas's vintage clothes sale in 2008, and others so successful that they've eventually become a permanent fixture, such as Tom Dixon's Dock Kitchen restaurant in Portobello Dock in west London. But what unites these disparate projects is essentially a strong fascination with the temporary, with the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, the idea of excitement, urgency and a dynamic interaction with urban (and it is usually urban) spaces. These are projects that stand in opposition to clone towns, to the idea of uniformity and unending drabness.

The debut of pop-up businesses is often traced back to 2004, when Rei Kawakubo of the cutting-edge fashion brand, Comme des Garçons, set up a temporary shop in a disused building in Berlin. Realistically though, while the "pop-up" description might be fairly new, the idea is as old as the hills. The current craze has echoes in everything from the restaurants traditionally run in people's homes in Cuba to the shop that artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened in London for six months in 1993, where they made and sold mugs and T-shirts and ashtrays.

The artist Dan Thompson set up his first pop-up gallery with friends in a bakery in Worthing in 2001; he now runs the Empty Shops Network, which advises artists who hope to start projects in one of the country's many disused high-street stores. (It's estimated that 13% of all UK shops are currently empty – and that one in five of those may never be used again.) He says that his inspiration comes from the magical curiosity shops that have appeared for centuries in fiction, "which no one can ever quite find again. I love creating something that's gone so quickly that people say afterwards: 'Was that you? Did that happen?' I love that excitement that you can create in a town, that sense of – what's coming next?"

While these businesses have counter-cultural roots, there's no doubt they've become a corporate concern. As Ali Madanipour, professor of urban design at Newcastle University says, there are two key readings of pop-ups, which aren't mutually exclusive. One is that they can be "a positive way of making more intensive use of urban space," he says, "bringing life to parts of the city that are under-used – they can provide space for local activity, civil-society events, impromptu gatherings. But on the other hand, they can also be an aid to consumerism, in which brands create a stage setting, adding colour and texture to the general mall atmosphere that is the backdrop to many of our urban spaces. Pop-up businesses support shopping – they bring a festival atmosphere to shopping."

The exclusivity of pop-up events means those that are ticketed often sell out extremely quickly. Denny says he now finds it "impossible to get excited about a new place that's opening indefinitely – you think, 'Oh yes, I'll go to that at some point' and you end up there in 20 years. Whereas if it's temporary it's like: 'We've got to do it right now.'"

When pop-ups are hosted by established businesses, this exclusivity and popularity can lead to obvious rewards for both host and brand. Over the last few weeks, the London restaurant Meza has been hosting a MasterChef pop-up, with former contestants from the TV show cooking for diners at a cost of £49 for three courses. When I went there last week, the atmosphere was loud, buzzy, excitable – obviously good for the restaurant, and good publicity for MasterChef. It apparently sold out in 72 hours.

One of the attractions of pop-ups for businesses is that they can act as an informal, unacknowledged market research project. Last week the smoothie maker Innocent ran a pop-up event in London called the Five for Five cafe – offering a two-course meal designed to deliver five portions of fruit and veg for £5. Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent, said that the event, held in a disused tramshed, was "a no-brainer. Put on a bit of a party for the people who buy the drinks, meet and hang out with them, and find out stuff you wouldn't discover in some weird research group . . . You get all these charts and graphs that say your customer is a certain age, that they live in a certain place, do a certain thing, and then you see the real people. We could just loiter in Sainsbury's by the fridges and watch the people who come and buy our drinks, but we'd probably get kicked out."

Like the MasterChef event, the Innocent cafe sold out quickly, and was cleverly run – the cavernous space was dressed with fairy lights, fruit trees and herbs on every table; there was friendly service, and good food. Any pop-up event this well thought out, prompting this much goodwill, is clearly an excellent piece of marketing.

Germain says a pop-up event is better value for money than running an advertising campaign. "You're getting a more intense return," he says. "Fewer people, yes, but you're hopefully forging relationships that will last a lifetime." Their pop-up event also enabled them to communicate their brand in an incredibly strong, concentrated way. "Everything we want to do was under that roof," he says. Their core message was literally: "up on the back wall, written in big letters: Eat your greens."

Stephen Zatland, a partner at management consultancy Accenture, says that pop-up businesses give retailers other benefits which might not be immediately obvious to the consumer. It's a chance, he says, "to try out a new store location, to see if the kind of people they want to attract will start flocking there before they invest in a permanent site. Manufacturers can try out new products, new services, deliver them direct to the customer, promote a new brand, or try and re-invigorate an older brand".

And they can carry out all this research and promotion for a relatively low price. Zatland says that compared to opening a permanent site, pop-ups are fairly inexpensive. The recession, with its surfeit of empty shops, has played a key role in this trend. "When a lot of Woolworths stores became available, for instance, retailers picked up on those and rented them for a short period to try out something new on the high street."

The pop-up trend has been so big, for so long, that there have been whispers that it must be about to fizzle and die. But Zatland suggests this is unlikely. "There's another interesting trend for a more permanent kind of feature," he says, "where there's a site for maybe eight different pop-up stores, and the content of that site will rotate, change, every eight weeks, or every three weeks. That will be good, I think, because it encourages customers to keep coming back to see what the new feature is."

When I ask Thompson about the corporate fashion for pop-ups, about the way they're being used to flog us more unnecessary stuff, I expect him to be disdainful. But it's quite the opposite. "I love it," he says, "I love the fact that such a daft idea, started by artists, has taken over. I went to a pop-up Gucci put on, and it was fantastic. It's like Quentin Crisp said – don't keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level. We've completely subverted all these great brands, who are now having to think differently, more creatively, and that has to be good for our town centres."

There's no doubt that pop-ups can aid regeneration and make a genuine difference. As Thompson points out, "if you live somewhere the size of Worthing or Coventry or Carlisle or Margate, and you lose a few shops, you really notice it. If that's your home town, and you're passionate about it, you'll fight to make it better."

Horton Jupiter (whose real name, he jokes, is "Mystic Rock") is less positive about some aspects of the pop-up phenomenon. He has been running a cafe called The Secret Ingredient from his front room in Newington Green, London, for over a year now, and says he prefers the term "home restaurant", because pop-up has "become something that people use as a marketing tool". He appreciates the temporary, impromptu nature of pop-ups, but projects like his, he suggests, are meant to be precisely an escape from capitalism, from the robot on the end of the phone, towards something more illicit, subversive, personal and warm.

For landlords whose properties have been empty for a while, these events are a great way to promote their building, bring people flooding back in, and perhaps get some free maintenance and decorating work done too. Thompson says he's never "paid anything more than a peppercorn rent – we cover business rates, we cover insurance, and in every shop we've been to we've left it in a better condition than we found it. We'll give it a lick of paint, a clean and tidy. We took a shop in Shoreham-by-Sea, initially for six months, but now for another six, and a place that had been derelict for 10 years has been completely refurbished – which has led to two other derelict shops nearby coming back into use as well."

Where artists go, corporations follow. And so does gentrification, as areas blossom, flourish and improve - and rents subsequently head skywards. Perhaps now, at a time of deep economic anxiety and trouble, we should just enjoy the most exciting of the pop-ups, those that bring life to depressed corners, flowers to abandoned skips, the flicker of film to the hollow beneath an underpass.

There is something slightly sinister about the marketing guile – and rampant consumerism – behind some of these projects, but many are straightforwardly brilliant, and there seems no shortage of people happy to get involved. "Every time I walk past an empty shop or building," says Denny, "I think: I've got to do something in there, I just have to! If I had time, every empty space that was remotely intriguing would be filled."


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October 02 2010

A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley | Book review

Labour's appalling architectural legacy is laid bare in a savage critique argued with wit and bitterness

This is a book of finespun rage, and at times its message is so miserable that it feels like having your skin scraped away. Its ending is desolate as a Cormac McCarthy novel. Yet its subjects are mere buildings. Who would have thought they could cause so much pain?

It takes the form of a tour of British cities by the author, a young architectural writer, accompanied by a photographer friend. They start in Southampton, where Hatherley grew up, "a muddle of railway sidings, level crossings, customs houses and dock sheds; something to be done with as soon as possible", according to JB Priestley. Other writers, such as JG Ballard and Jonathan Raban, were no more enthusiastic, and Hatherley is not much inclined to argue with them.

The tour takes in Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Manchester, Tyneside, Glasgow, Cambridge, several towns in Yorkshire, Cardiff and Liverpool. Near the end they go to Greenwich, where Hatherley now lives. His aim is to view a decade's worth of destruction and construction carried out in the name of "regeneration", while also noting the relics of previous attempts at civic improvement. His precedents are clear and acknowledged: Priestley's Depression-era book English Journey, Ian Nairn's furious attacks on "subtopia" – the detritus left by traffic engineers, bad planning and commercial greed – in the 1960s, Nikolaus Pevsner's cataloguing of English buildings. He also has something of Iain Sinclair, with the tone of wry anger that seems to come from walking round cities a lot.

He records the realities of the "urban renaissance" declared in the early years of Tony Blair's government with the help of a "task force" composed of lords, knights, professors and men of culture and business. He shows how "visionary" masterplans became huge holes in the ground awaiting the indefinitely deferred construction of shopping malls. Also how "world class design" became a series of gimmicks attached to failed property speculations.

As Hatherley tells it, decent, sound buildings were trashed to create tinnier, meaner but more marketable new ones. The victims included Victorian terraces cleared under the demonic housing market renewal programme and 1960s buildings that weren't as bad as politicians and developers liked to pretend. The author has a particular fondness for still-unfashionable regional modernism, such as Castle Market in Sheffield, which he praises as "montage, messiness, and the drama of multiple levels and scales." Also the Tyneside work of the unsung architect Rodney Gordon, which "hits in the gut and sends shivers down the spine".

Similar stories repeat themselves in different cities. Vapid aspirations – "visionary", "creative quarter", "renaissance" – becomes idiot PR – "make it an extra special place" – becomes brute exploitation. Ugly governmentese – "market renewal pathfinders" – assists. Out go dignity, memory, pride, quality and sense of place. In come pointy balconies and lime green plastic. People are forcibly moved and affordable housing stock is reduced. And we, the taxpayers, fund much of it, with grants for regeneration and rehousing and with quangos and local authorities nodding it smilingly through. The biggest shockers include the fate of student housing in Leeds. Old accommodation, integrated into the campus, is destroyed. In its place are the revolting silos of Sky Plaza, "with its mean, tiny windows, its chillingly blank facade, its desperate boredom." Often, as in Ancoats, Manchester, the credit crunch has bequeathed acres of mud. The promise that developers made above all was money – let us build and we will bring prosperity – but they couldn't even keep this one.

It is striking that, in the 60s, many housing towers were built according to policies that conventional wisdom soon pronounced disastrous. In the 00s many more housing towers were built, with meaner dimensions, shoddier materials and much diminished open spaces, with as yet less outrage. A vaunted discovery of recent decades is "public realm", the importance of spaces between buildings, yet antisocial works such as Sky Plaza, or Islington Wharf in Manchester, offer no prospect of coherent places forming at their feet. Some negligent compositions of roads, blocks and sheds are as bad as, or worse than, anything from the 60s.

The picture painted is so bleak that you wonder if it is really as bad as all that. Like all polemicists, Hatherley is not entirely fair. He doesn't give a right of reply to his arch-villains, such as Sir Bob Kerslake, who oversaw an "incredible destruction of public assets" in Sheffield, before becoming supremo of the nation's affordable housing and regeneration. We don't get an inkling of what he was thinking of.

Some successes are mentioned, such as the renewal of the centre of Manchester, but the book is not a balanced audit of what worked and what didn't. There are few voices of citizens and residents who may or may not like what happened to their homes and towns. Hatherley's eye and brain dominate.

He is also weak on proposing alternatives. According to his Twitter profile he is "writer, dilettante, Bolshevist", and in his book he alludes to a nostalgic socialism, but this does not coalesce into a structured ideology. He praises the "temporary autonomous zone" of the Climate Camp in Greenwich, or the "hidden socialist realism" of 80s wall painting, again in Greenwich. These seem of only partial use in addressing the issues he describes.

But there is only so much that can be said at once, and this is a book that had to be written. It is essentially right: for all the talk of renewal, renaissance, regeneration and world-class architecture, and all the billions expended, our cities are, with some exceptions, more screwed up than they have ever been. They are more ugly, divided and inchoate. Dignity, nobility and hope, also joy and playfulness, have diminished. It is a scandal whose monumental proportions are only now, and dimly, being perceived. Wittily, bitterly, pithily, mostly accurately, Hatherley tells it how it is.

Rowan Moore is the Observer's architecture critic


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May 05 2010

'This town has been sold to Tesco'

Are towns built by the UK's leading supermarket the future of urban development?

Imagine living in a Tesco house, sending your child to a Tesco school, swimming in a Tesco pool and, of course, shopping at the local Tesco superstore. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the government's adviser on architecture and design, this collective monopoly is not an imaginary dystopia. "Tesco Towns" on this model are already being planned across the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to Seaton in Devon.

While the economic downturn has hit many parts of the development industry hard, Tesco recorded profits of nearly £3.4bn last year. Its plans for expansion are reflected by a growing tide of what are described as "supermarket-led mixed-use development proposals" – entire districts of homes, schools and public places built by the company.

Cabe is aware of plans for 3,656 new Tesco homes, an increase of 1,300% on the 283 homes built by the supermarket giant between 1996 and 2009. This huge rise – which represents only nine new schemes – is a fraction of the total planned, as Cabe does not see every scheme. Indeed, Tesco recently announced it aims to ramp up its superstore expansion by 40%, largely as a result of the mixed-use development.

Yet when house building is at its lowest level since 1923, more than 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and the number of families in temporary accommodation are up by a third in the last decade, shouldn't we welcome anyone building new homes, especially when a percentage will be earmarked as affordable housing?

Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chair of Cabe, however, questions the quality of the proposed developments. "Retailers don't just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets," he warned in his valedictory speech at the end of last year. "Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer."

In Bromley-by-Bow, east London, a Tesco superstore, shops, primary school and hundreds of homes are planned. In Trafford, Manchester, a 168,000 sq ft Tesco will dominate a 50-acre site. Love Lane, Woolwich, and the Streatham Hub development, both in south London, and Queen's Square in West Bromwich are all home to similar proposed Tesco developments that are in partnership with the local authority. And in Seaton, a small seaside town in east Devon, a superstore, hundreds of homes and a hotel recently received planning permission.

Sandra Semple, the mayor of Seaton, is one of eight independent councillors elected on a platform opposing the proposals. Seaton, she says, is a traditional seaside town of 7,500 people on a World Heritage coast. "It's an old-fashioned town on a gorgeous bay, with nothing but individual shops, and no chainstores. Every other store is an individual trader," she says.

She points out that there are already 15 Tescos within 25 miles of Seaton, and says: "The town has always been against this, but the Tory-run district council completely refused to hear our arguments and says Tesco is the only company capable of regenerating our town. This will be an entire place. It's about 20 hectares – an enormous piece of land.

"This town has been sold to Tesco. We are not at the moment a 'Tesco Town', but this will make us one. We've lost our individuality, our identity – the very things that make this place special."

The irony is that there is little evidence that the superstores themselves want to create entire communities. Instead, policy is pushing them in that direction, with local authorities prepared to grant permission for superstores they may have previously refused, as long as they are accompanied by the sweetener of housing, schools and sports facilities, which the councils don't have the funds to provide.

This is what happened in Trafford in March, when a 168,000 sq ft store and accompanying development was granted planning permission, although an application for an 89,000 sq ft store on the same site was refused in 2006. The difference is that this time the redevelopment of Lancashire county cricket club is part of the scheme.

Friends of the Earth says the council's desire to develop the cricket ground "has been used as an excuse to back a superstore development which would otherwise be ruled out for its unacceptable negative impact".

It's a similar story in St Helens, Greater Merseyside, where Tesco is building a stadium for St Helens rugby league club, but the new superstore and massive car park will dominate, relegating the stadium to round the back of the site.

Cabe has attacked Tesco's plans, in partnership with the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, for a new district centre, including hundreds of homes and a school, in Bromley-by-Bow, pointing out that the housing overlooks either the motorway or the superstore, and that Tesco lorries heading for the servicing entrance would cut across the children's route to the primary school.

In this instance, Tesco has gone back to the drawing board, but Cabe is critical that a new district centre should be created on the site at all. Hans van der Heijden, a Dutch architect who also works in Britain, explains why: "It is slightly absurd to make private enterprises responsible for things that are, in the end, public. The interesting comparison is with other private enterprises that created places such as the garden cities, but in those instances there was an element of charity at work related to some form of emancipation and public interest. That seems to be absent here. It's a money machine."

How has this absurd approach to development – an anathema in mainland Europe – been allowed to take root? One reason is the bartering culture that developed between councils and developers as a result of the introduction of "planning gain" – or section 106, as it is known – by the Conservatives in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been customary for local authorities to negotiate with developers over the amount of community infrastructure they are willing to provide to accompany a development, including affordable housing, new roads and sports facilities.

For supermarkets wishing to build very large stores in towns and cities, offering such infrastructure, including schools, has seemed like a natural extension of this policy.

Another key factor is changes to planning policy made in 2004, when the benchmark test that a new development should be in line with "public benefit" was quietly dropped in favour of "economic benefit".

The Conservatives have voiced unease about Tesco Towns. Bob Neill, shadow minister for local government and planning, says: "I am concerned that the rise of so-called supermarket towns will lead to developments where small retailers have no place or face uncompetitive rents. Planning rules must be amended to allow councils to take into account the benefits of greater competition and the need to protect small business."

The party has pledged to introduce greater local participation in planning through its "open source" proposals if it wins tomorrow's general election.

But Neil Sinden, director of policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says the aspiration to return planning decisions to the local level is in contrast to the opening section of the Conservative manifesto, which emphasises that the planning system is a barrier to economic development. With the Tory planning proposals also including financial incentives for councils to provide more housing and development, Sinden believes they are unlikely to halt the onward march of Tesco Towns.

It is possible that Liberal Democrat plans for a third-party right of appeal for local interest groups would support struggles in places such as Seaton, but the detail is unavailable, while Labour is wholly behind the current approach, confirming that it allows councils to generate growth.

Sinden fears that, whatever the outcome of the election, Tesco Towns are the face of future urban development: "I don't see this going away. It's not featuring in any of the parties' thinking when it comes to reform of the planning system."

What strikes him is that although there is "huge public engagement", in policy terms "it's an issue which at the moment is being swept under the carpet".

Semple, who challenged the local authority head on, felt that every effort was made to muzzle her. "A regeneration board was set up, and I was one of the members, but I was told that my presence was no longer desired because I had the wrong attitude. I was asked to resign."

Tesco denies that its developments are poor quality and that the scale of development is new. A spokesman for the company says Tesco has been providing much-needed mixed use development since 1997 in deprived areas. "These are urban areas which have not received investment for a number of years. We are willing to invest, and that kind of investment has to be applauded and welcomed. We're looking at providing more than 2,000 jobs in these areas that can benefit the community for years to come. He adds: "Councils are very welcoming because we are bringing in jobs and investment."

• Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City, published by Penguin, £9.99. To order a copy for £8.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.


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