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August 18 2012

The future of the Olympic Park - in pictures

The London Legacy Development Corporation plans to build 8,000 new homes at the Olympic Park in Stratford. Here's how it might look in 20 years

How the Olympics will shape the future of east London

With plans to build 8,000 new homes at the Olympic Park over the next two decades, Stratford's future depends on a sympathetic approach to regeneration…

Long, long ago, I sat in a nondescript room with an official leading what was then a grand government project to regenerate a huge area called the Thames Gateway. Her organisation, she said, was supporting London's Olympic bid because it was almost impossible to make anything happen in the Thames Gateway, which extended from east London through south Essex and north Kent to the sea, and only the Games could change this.

She was in this position because even longer ago, in the John Major era, the relevant minister, Michael Heseltine, had made a speech christening the Thames Gateway and announcing that Something Must Be Done. So the vast effort of the Olympics had to be enlisted to make some sense of a politician's figure of speech. It was and is a seriously arse-about-face way of doing a bit of regeneration.

Over the next 20 years it is hoped to build 8,000 homes around the Olympic Park, in addition to the 2,800 already created by the athletes' village, and to create 8,000 jobs – that is, to make something like a middle-sized market town. In fairness, one should add the less tangible but real benefit of a feelgood factor to a wider area of east London. To achieve all this will have required not only the Olympic billions, but also investment in public transport in Stratford unmatched anywhere else in the country, an additional grant of £290m to be spent on legacy, and more hundreds of millions of public money spent acquiring land. Some of the public expenditure will be paid back as this land is developed, but there are no obligations as to how much or when.

But never mind. Not many people now care that Olympic claims for boosting business, tourism and regeneration are tenuous. Opinion polls show that most people in Britain think that £9bn or so is not too much to pay just for the national buzz and joy that came with the Games. So the question is: how can this place so extraordinarily blessed with aspiration and funding be as great as, in theory, it should be?

The new homes and neighbourhoods could be beautiful and desirable places that would create new models and set new standards for British house building. The park and venues, such as the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome, could be genuinely public assets, of easy access to all.

Most critically all this has to be done in such a way that the new wonderland doesn't turn its back on its surroundings but genuinely connects with them. Early in the Olympic project, the neighbouring areas were seen as destitute wastelands  be erased or shut out, and the main weakness of what has already been built is its lumpiness – the tendency of elements such as the Westfield shopping centre and the athletes' village to turn their back. It would be relatively easy, but a complete failure, to make an exclusive residential idyll here.

At the moment, hopeful signs are emitting from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body in charge. Its new chairman, Daniel Moylan, declares that he wants the Olympic Park and its surroundings to be "a very desirable area and we would like as many people as possible to live there". He wants alternatives to "the limited range of standardised products" that large house-building companies tend to produce. He wants property to rent as well as buy, and homes built by their owners. He challenges the common journalistic denigration of Stratford: "This place is not a dump. There are lots of people who are entrepreneurial and enthusiastic."

Sensible-sounding management arrangements have been set up for the park and for venues such as the Velodrome, and the Legacy Corporation swears blind that these will not be over-exploited in order to turn a profit. The park, it says, will be open to absolutely everyone, which presumably includes those who might be a bit annoying or unsightly and not good for property values. The LLDC is rightly proud that, compared with previous Olympic cities, London's planning for the future of the site is far advanced, and it has set up an impressive quality review panel to oversee the design of whatever is built.

The LLDC has produced a masterplan for the new neighbourhoods that suggests a large proportion of family houses arranged around pleasing open spaces, and with an overall coherence that is rare in regeneration projects. It is planning 29 playgrounds and has made impressive declarations of principle in relation to sustainability, accessibility and design.

In the scruffy fringes of the park there has been a change in attitude. Where earlier plans saw them as places to be obliterated by blocks of flats, the idea now is to make the most of what is already there, such as the artists' studios and small businesses and unexpected bits of canal and workshop. Muf architecture/art, a design practice that has helped lead this change of attitude, is now involved in the first of the new residential neighbourhoods, which is a good sign. "Obliteration is not in our lexicon," declares Moylan.

They still have some headaches, most notably the future of the stadium. But the real question is whether the current high ambitions can survive the pressures that will come to bear. How inclusive can the new developments be, for example, when changes to housing benefit are likely to push people out of places like this? How kindly will the big house-building companies take to alternative models to their preferred way of doing things? What if progress is seen to be going too slowly and pressure grows for quick results? It's too early to say. For now we can only observe that the masters of Olympic legacy are saying the right things, and wish them good luck. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 20 2012

Zaha Hadid says austerity is not an excuse for low-quality housing

Iraqi-born architect says use of the word austerity is a cliche and could be disastrous for the public

Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who designed the Olympic Park aquatic centre, has called on the government not to use the climate of austerity as an excuse for slashing budgets and building low-quality housing and hospitals.

Hadid, speaking in an interview at the Cannes International Festival of Advertising on Wednesday, said the use of the word austerity was a cliche to hide behind which would end up being disastrous for the public.

"I think that [austerity] is used as a cliche because people don't have ideas, they want to crib [old ones] to do bad stuff," she said, in a Q and A session with Guardian deputy editor Kath Viner. "Schools, housing, hospitals – I think the government should invest in good housing."

She added that the skyline of many of the UK's cities were "made horrible" by developments in the 1960s because they government "wanted to be cheap".

"There needs to be investment. We need some sort of quality," Hadid said. "All the privileged can travel, see different worlds, not everyone can. I think it is important for people to have an interesting locale nearby. [Buildings] need to do another job, enlighten people, space enlightens the same way as music art and technology."

Hadid was also asked about the cost of her projects. The Olympic aquatics centre was originally budgeted at £75m but has run to more than £250m.

"My buildings are not particularly expensive," she said. "It is not a tin shed. If you want a tinny car you pay for that."

I don't think it is just fashionable [to want a civic space], I think [buildings] do need that," she said. "The ground as public domain, no longer a perimeter or fortress where you cannot penetrate." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 07 2012

Red Road demolition ends Glasgow tower blocks' high art

Housing scheme became a byword for urban decay, but literature, photography and film flourished there

The demolition of a tower block on the Red Road estate in Glasgow on 10 June will mark the beginning of the end of one of Britain's most controversial housing developments.

Yet though the imposing high-rises became a byword for violence, alienation and crime, they will be missed by the many artists, writers and filmmakers who made it the subject of their work.

The most spectacular was a 2007 project organised by Artangel, in which artist Catherine Yass filmed and photographed tightrope walker Didier Pasquette attempting to cross the 45-metre (150ft) gap between the two tower blocks, which are 89m tall. High winds meant Pasquette had to turn back soon after starting his attempt.

The year before, director Andrea Arnold made her feature film debut with Red Road, a thriller about a female CCTV security operator who is haunted by a man from her past who appears on her monitors.

Arnold said of the buildings: "When I was driving about Glasgow I was very struck by them, they were an amazing sight. The filmmaker Tarkovsky said if you like a location and it really speaks to you then just use it and certainly the Red Road flats spoke to me."

Red Road was part of a huge programme of tower-block construction in 60s Glasgow as the city embraced high-rise living in order to find a quick and cost-effective solution to its housing crisis.

Designed by architect Sam Bunton, the estate was completed in 1969, by which time it was home to more than 4,700 people. The six grey tower blocks, combined with the estate's two 100m-wide sand-coloured slab blocks, give the impression of an almost impenetrable wall of concrete. The towers were the highest residential structures in Europe at the time.

Residents were initially enthusiastic but, like many similar schemes, the estate started to gain a reputation for antisocial behaviour. This ranged from disaffected youths throwing objects from the roofs to frequent burglaries, often carried out by drug addicts. In 1977 a 12-year-old boy died in a 23rd-floor fire. About 100 families had to be evacuated and many refused to return.

As people moved out, some flats were earmarked for use by students and then asylum seekers, who started to arrive in 2000. The suicide of three members of a Russian family who leapt from the 15th floor of one of the blocks in 2010 still weighs heavily on many residents.

Photographer Iseult Timmermans, one of the first artists to work at Red Road, initially came to the estate when taking home a young Kosovan asylum seeker who had been involved in one of her projects. "It was early evening and all the rubbish seemed to be swirling around and I remember looking up and feeling completely disorientated," Timmermans said. "It felt like being in a foreign landscape. I thought what does it feel like for someone who is coming from a completely different culture, often arriving at night, to be landed somewhere like this? It must have been unbelievable."

Timmermans started working at Red Road in 2004, developing photography projects that helped asylum seekers settle into their new surroundings. She was later joined by others such as Alison Irvine, whose novel This Road is Red was based on interviews with residents.

"The buildings are eye-poppingly mammoth," said Irvine. "The height and breadth of them is breathtaking and you really do feel overawed when you're standing beneath them."

Many of the artists, writers and film-makers were initially attracted by the architecture, but it is the residents that have maintained their interest.

"Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the harsh-looking buildings with the richness of the people who live in them that appealed to me," said Irvine. "The buildings house so many characters and you don't know who you'll meet until you get inside."

One of the defining factors of the cultural activity at Red Road has been the close relationship between many of those involved. Much of this has centred on a community studio where artists shared ideas and contacts.

The trust built up with residents has also been important. Some embraced the artists' work and became involved with Irvine's book, a series of illustrations by Mitch Miller and a short documentary film by Chris Leslie that highlights people's memories of the underground Mecca Bingo and Brig bar.

Much of the work by artists culminated in the Multi-story exhibition at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art in 2010. Work by Miller and Leslie was showcased at Red Road Underground, a multimedia exhibition held at the New Glasgow Society in February.

Some have used Red Road to portray a grim view of urban living – it was used as a location for TV crime drama Taggart – but many of the artists have looked beyond the architecture and tried to convey the complexity of residents' feelings about living there.

Arnold acknowledged at the time she made her film that, despite their nightmarish appearance, the flats have been home to many people who have brought up families there. Irvine's book communicates that as well as the suicides, crime and drugs, there are tales of friendship, love and good times.

Leslie's film also conveys people's affection for the place. "It was very exciting and every day was an adventure being in the Red Road," says Azam Khan in the film. "I made some really good friends out there."

Glasgow Museums has been racing to document people's recollections of Red Road before the flats are demolished. Those who have taken part include Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson, who lived with her family in a 21st floor flat of one of the blocks from 1966 until 1977, when the fatal fire broke out two floors above them.

"I think Red Road was a symbol of ambition coming out of the postwar years," said Ferguson in the interview. "If you watch some of the news footage at the time, they were heralded as the answer to everyone's housing needs. I don't think they really were that, but they did fit that time and they served a purpose for a good number of years."

Ferguson, who says she loved Red Road as a child, admits to mixed feelings about the demolition. "There will be a bit of sadness, but that's progress I suppose. People watched in awe when they were built and I suspect they will watch in awe when they come down too." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 22 2012

On the white bus to Wythenshawe – council housing by design | Owen Hatherley

A tour of the UK's second-largest estate, in Manchester, offers up some architectural gems and a few lessons on garden cities

In 1966, Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney and Cheltenham director Lindsay Anderson worked together on the film The White Bus. The titular vehicle, a white-painted Leyland bus with "SEE YOUR CITY" written across it, transports a strange retinue – local dignitaries, foreign diplomats, wistful office workers – around the lesser-known sights of Manchester, from newbuild estates and cleared slums to the industrial ensembles of Trafford Park.

Last week, I found myself in an inadvertent re-enactment of that film. A group of local residents, school and FE students, journalists and local councillors were taken on a coach trip around the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, led by writer and broadcaster Phil Griffin (who lives there), taking in everything from modernist churches to recycling plants. Uncannily, even the bus was white but, unlike in the film, you could see the reactions of passersby, who often stopped on the street corner, baffled.

As well they might be, as Wythenshawe's reputation precedes it. The second-largest council estate in the country, after Becontree in East London, it's best known of late for three media appearances – Sarah Ferguson's The Duchess on the Estate; Shameless, for which it provided many of the sets; and a photograph of David Cameron on the stump, with a hooded youth making gun signs behind him.

In appearance, though, Wythenshawe doesn't correspond much to stereotype. There's little in the way of concrete, and few flats – most of it is family houses with front and back gardens, and large green verges planted with trees create one of the few places where the phrase "garden city" doesn't feel entirely absurd. It was largely planned in the 1930s by Barry Parker, who had designed the first garden city at Letchworth. Due to the lobbying of Welwyn Garden City MP and housing minister Grant Shapps, garden cities have been held up as an alternative to "the big estates of the 60s", but they mostly catered for the affluent or at least the active. Wythenshawe, though, was real public housing – getting people out of inhuman conditions in the centre of Manchester and into a smokeless, verdant new landscape.

The difficulties in this were obvious in the tour's starting point – Wythenshawe Hall, a Cheshire stately home annexed to the new Manchester garden city. A public park was built around it, the lushness of which spills out into the area around. Our host informs us that Manchester city council fought a grinding battle with landed interests in Cheshire to get Wythenshawe built, and it's even harder now to imagine few in the shires countenancing a giant estate built around a manor house and its grounds. From there, the bus trundles round some of the original 30s houses – simple but exceedingly folksy, in red brick and tile, built around courts and greens – to the first of several modernist churches. Wythenshawe was heavily criticised for lack of amenities, but the spiritual needs of the population were hardly neglected.

St Michael and All Angels Church was designed by the architect Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day in the mid-30s, and is a piece of German expressionism come to Cottonopolis, with raw red brickwork wrapped around a plan forming an eight-pointed star. Inside, it's a strange and beautiful place, decorative and modernist, austere and lush. Later, we stop outside a derelict church by Coventry cathedral architect Basil Spence, and the group steps through the weeds to crowd round the locked door, peering inside at the wall paintings.

But the most remarkable of them is saved till last, the William Temple Memorial Church, designed by GG Pace in 1965. A collective intake of breath is audible on entering. Its small size hides the surprise of an incredible, wholly original interior, somewhere between the high-tech of early Richard Rogers and redbrick industrial gothic. It's not used for services, and our guide points out "this place has amazing architecture and no folk; the Forum has mediocre architecture but is always full of folk".

The Forum is just opposite, the town centre that was lacking for 30 years of the place's existence. A long concrete car park to the main road, but a dense, pedestrianised series of public spaces when entered, its central "Leningrad Square" (St Petersburg is twinned with Manchester) is busy and bustling. Outside the Forum library, people are queuing for something called "job gym". The level of unemployment is the only aspect of the place that really conforms to stereotype. The white bus takes us around one place of (often former) employment, though – Sharston, one of several light industrial estates which were meant to provide local work for Wythenshawe's tenants. Along here runs a railway line, to which Wythenshawe was never connected; only now, after 75 years, is it being properly connected to the city centre, via a Metrolink tram extension. Wythenshawe looks like it was built for the car, but even now it only has 40% car ownership.

The houses in Wythenshawe are mostly traditionalist, with no experiments – with the exception of the "Tin Town" in Newall Green, a mini-estate of impeccably kept, neat steel-framed prefabs, designed in 1946 by Frederick Gibberd, another cathedral designer (Liverpool, this time). We got a tour around one, home to former Durutti Column drummer Bruce Mitchell. The space standards and architectural quality are, as Griffin points out, way above those of contemporary central Manchester luxury loft living. "Seriously, sod Urban Splash."

Then, after a tour of an art deco cinema (now owned by Jehovah's Witnesses, who have restored it impeccably) and another Cheshire stately home (owned for years by Manchester city council and then English Heritage, who let it rot), the bus discharges its passengers and everyone goes home, some with longer journeys back than others.

What did we learn on the white bus? Griffin tells the passengers near the end that "I think I've shown you everything except Wythenshawe", well aware that a tour of its architectural monuments isn't enough to explain a place. Anyone who began with the assumption that "the state" or "the public sector" can only create inhumane environments would hardly be able to maintain it by the end. The bus went through a place with some astonishing public buildings, most of them derelict or seldom used, and looped between the iconic sites through pretty greens, disused wastelands and retail parks. "It works, and it doesn't work," our guide says, which sounds about right; a place with deep poverty, but where poverty might have been made more bearable through light, air and decent housing. It shouldn't need a bus and a guide to point out the seriousness and care with which places like Wythenshawe were built, but it's a start, to begin a long effort of reassessing and – hopefully – building them anew.

• More photographs of Owen Hatherley's trip around Wythenshawe are available on his Flickr page © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 02 2012

Nares Craig obituary

My father, Nares Craig, has died aged 94. An architect by training, he worked as a senior civil servant for the Building Research Station (now the Building Research Establishment) for nearly 30 years. During his time there he developed the low-cost Brecast building system, which was used widely in earthquake and hurricane-prone regions. The majority of his work was directed at improving conditions and alleviating housing shortages in poorer communities throughout the developing world. This meant a lot of travel, and Nares was proudest of his time in Chile, where he got to know Salvador Allende only weeks before the president was toppled by the Pinochet coup.

Cameron Nares Craig was born in the week of the Russian Revolution. He was educated at Charterhouse, Surrey, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became one of the "night climbers" of Cambridge during the 1930s. A strong believer in peace and disarmament, Nares became a conscientious objector when the second world war broke out, though by this time he was also a dedicated communist and, along with many of his peer group, he joined up in 1941 after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

After a spell in the ranks, he served as a captain in the Royal Engineers and, while commanding tanks in Europe, won awards for bravery and redesigning the Bailey mobile bridge, which the army used to great effect to cross the Rhine.

During the war, Nares met Thora, a nurse and firebrand trade unionist who had recently returned from the International Brigades in Spain. They married in 1946. Thora was the love of his life and his political soulmate; their relationship lasted for more than 50 years, until her death in 1999.

In his youth, Nares knew figures such as Virginia Woolf, Clough Williams-Ellis and HG Wells. Later in life, he met and befriended many remarkable socialists, communists and revolutionaries, including Paul Robeson, Melina Mercouri and Cheddi Jagan.

Politics and family were the constants of his life. Nares is survived by his son Jonathan and myself, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His elder daughter, Tina, died two years ago. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 12 2012

Artists come together in a Crisis

The Crisis Commission at London's Somerset House will feature new works by artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin

A small and poignant bronze sculpture of a young man called Craig – who became homeless after serving in Afghanistan – will greet visitors to a new exhibition to raise awareness and money for the charity Crisis.

The work by Gillian Wearing goes on display at Somerset House in London on 14 March along with new pieces by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Jonathan Yeo. All the works will be sold on 3 May, with the money going to the charity for single homeless people, Crisis.

Wearing said she was inspired by the real story of Craig O'Keefe who became homeless after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Eventually, with the help of Veteran's Aid, he managed to get work and a flat and is now a volunteer tutor for Crisis.

"Crisis were great because they really wanted artists to get involved directly with their charity," said Wearing. She was part of a workshop meeting people who work for and used its services. "It wasn't a passive involvement which I really thought was important."

Emin offered four works: two self-portraits and two neon signs saying Trust Me and Trust Yourself. She said they were words we often say to others and to ourselves. "Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive."

The two self-portraits, Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V, are part of a series Emin created for her forthcoming show at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in which she explores the idea "of the body becoming older, self-loathing and the notion of self-preservation".

Emin said she did not do anything different because the show was for Crisis. "I'm quite impressed at what a big show it is and how serious it is and not just a charity event."

Gormley has made a cast iron sculpture of a person we assume to be homeless. "The most challenging social sculpture of our times is made by the quiet performances of the homeless within the shelter provided by the doorways of the shops of our inner cities."

He said he was trying to evoke a fallen body which is, nevertheless, not at rest. "This exhibition allows one to think about those bodies that have no place. I believe that sculpture can powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless."

The Crisis Commission show raises money and awareness at a crucial time, says the charity. After years of declining trends, 2010 represented a turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. In 2010/11, 3,975 people slept rough in London, an 8% rise on the previous year.

The show runs until 22 April and will also feature work by homeless and vulnerable people who have been helped by Crisis.

The charity's chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "We are thrilled that so many leading contemporary artists are participating in the Crisis Commission. This prestigious event will raise much needed funds for our work and bring a new focus to the worrying current rise in homelessness in society."

Other works in the show include Yinka Shonibare's Homeless Man, 2012, which shows a vibrantly dressed Victorian man weighed down by 11 suitcases. The artist said: "The idea of the work is to suggest that any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time due to circumstances outside of their own personal control, such as illness, death of a relative, war or unfortunate economic circumstances."

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (also known as Patrick Brill) has made a piece called Kite because of its association with isolation and the elements. "My kite has 'help' written on it. It is a cry for help by the person flying it."

Brill said he was aware of homelessness rising and taught in an art school where some of his students are homeless. "Homelessness is about isolation. Homes are not just roofs and walls – they are networks – about nurture and care."

The show has been curated by Laurence Sillars, chief curator at the Baltic in Gateshead and the cost of creating the works has been met by GlaxoSmithKline. All of them will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 26 2012

Death of the American urban dream

A new film shows how an idealistic postwar housing project in St Louis, Missouri went disastrously wrong

"Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)." So wrote the polemicist Charles Jencks in the course of launching its replacement, postmodern architecture, and he was referring to the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, a 57-acre array of 11-storey slab blocks which, less than 20 years after they were completed, were destroyed by controlled implosion.

The architect of the project was Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and might be considered unlucky in the amount of violence done to his works. Yamasaki professed humanity, harmony and his opposition to prejudice, beliefs born of his experiences as a put-upon Japanese American. He laid out Pruitt-Igoe according to the best principles of the modern movement: an orderly plan in which cars and pedestrians were separated, ample open space was provided between the blocks, and flats were oriented to catch daylight and views.

By the time they were destroyed, the blocks were notorious for violence, vandalism, chaos and squalor. Police and firemen refused to go there, as missiles would be hurled at them from high levels if they did. If Yamasaki, in common with Le Corbusier and other modernists, believed that rational architecture could make people behave better, Pruitt-Igoe seemed to prove the opposite. So, in Jencks's words: "It was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom." Its fate became the prototype for the detonation of similar projects in the United States and elsewhere. By the 1990s, in Britain, the great kerflumpf of a collapsing tower block became a form of civic festival, in which politicians would preside over bacchanals of cascading masonry.

It was obvious. It became a certitude of the age that some silly architects had had a fantasy, which turned into the opposite, and appropriate measures were taken, but as with many certitudes the truth now seems to be not quite so simple. According to a film recently released in the United States, the causes of Pruitt-Igoe's end were many and complex.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History directed by Chad Freidrichs, is built around interviews with people who lived there, archival clips, and footage of the Blair Witch-like woodland that has grown up on the site. The residents recall their utter joy when they moved in, not only at the plumbing, heating and electricity, but also at views and the "warmth of community". "When I moved in, it was one of the most exciting days of my life," says one interviewee. "My memories of Pruitt-Igoe are some of the best I have," says another. One calls her flat a "poor man's penthouse". People remember "a wonderful building with so many different smells of cooking" and "so many kids to play with". To start with at least, Yamasaki's modernism was not alienating.

The film charts the degeneration – the lifts that stopped working, the rubbish incinerators that failed, the winter that the pipes burst, the rise of bullying and gangs. Eventually there is horror. A man describes how, as a nine-year-old, he watched his mother vainly trying to shove his brother's guts back inside, after he had been shot in the stomach with a sawn-off shotgun.

"It would be here today if it had been maintained like it was when it opened up," says one of the voices, "but it went down and down and down and down."

While government money paid to build the blocks, running costs were to be funded out of rents which, as the residents were poor, were not enough. Rents were raised, even as the blocks declined, such that they consumed three quarters of some residents' income. They were paying more for less.

Behind maintenance lay politics: public housing projects were viewed with suspicion, as un-American and socialist. They were bad for business, in that they deprived private landlords and real estate companies of opportunities. They were also good for business in that they made work for construction companies, but only while they were being built, which helps explain the decision to invest in their creation but not their maintenance.

And, with politics, went race. Pruitt-Igoe's residents were black, many of them recent immigrants from the depression-hit countryside, whose first homes in St Louis had been appallingly overcrowded slums, with nine people in three rooms, to give one example remembered in the film. The lifespan of the development coincided with the rise of white flight, the evacuation of white people to suburbs (whose growth was encouraged by government policy) beyond the city limits.

The film shows old footage of housewives saying "I moved here because it is a white neighbourhood" and "I could just not live alongside them… they want mixed marriages and to be equal with us". With white flight went the loss of tax income to the city. Factories and jobs also moved out which, combined with discrimination in hiring, left the residents of places like Pruitt-Igoe with minimal prospect of work.

Recipients of welfare, meanwhile, were treated brutally: there was a rule that families would lose their entitlements if there were a man in the home and one-parent families were thereby forcibly created. An adult recalls how, as a boy, he had to lie to inspectors when his father paid a visit. There were also bans on owning televisions and telephones. The attitude, says an ex-resident, was "we're giving you money so we control you". For another the effect was to "make people feel isolated and restricted". Their treatment was "void of humanity caring, like a prison environment". The "mindset for inhabitants was that they weren't cared about".

And so the place fell to pieces, despite the heroism of many of its residents. Vandal-proof fixtures were installed, but "the fact that it was indestructible made you want to destroy it". There were "bitter people, angry people" who would attack emergency vehicles, because "they wanted to make a statement". Drugs, prostitution and shootings took over. A rent strike by residents brought some concessions from the authorities, but it was a short-lived victory. Not long after, they were ejected, and the blocks destroyed.

Apart from the effects of policy and poor maintenance, Pruitt-Igoe was also a victim of events nobody foresaw. When it was planned in the early 50s, cities like St Louis were expected to keep on growing, as they had done for decades. As it turned out, the population halved. If the scale of the development made some sense in an expanding city, it did not in a shrinking one.

It is a striking feature of the film that no one mentions Yamasaki's architecture as a major factor in Pruitt-Igoe's calamity, except to praise the quality of the flats. No one calls it grim and inhuman, and when it is compared to a prison it is because of the management regime, not the design. There is no suggestion that a postmodernist treatment could have saved it. Perhaps if it had been lower rise, the problems with lifts could have been avoided, and perhaps the wide-open spaces contributed to the eventual lawlessness. Then again, there are perfectly successful social housing projects, in America and elsewhere, that have both lifts and open spaces.

If it was vain of modernist architects to think they could change people for the better, there is also vanity in their critics to think that design alone can change them for the worse. If there was an element of grand gesture, rather than close attention to the human detail, in the creation of vast projects like Pruitt-Igoe, there was equal gesture in their destruction. The effects of architecture alone are rarely as significant as people think: it can certainly affect your sense of wellbeing for better or worse, and it can aid or hinder the larger forces that it serves. But politics, economics, and such things as the presence or absence of prejudice are what really change people's lives. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 17 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

Artist Damien Hirst plans to build 500 eco-homes, RIBA puts 250 years of housing on display and the notorious Heygate estate is transformed from urban film location into romcom residence

It's all been about housing this week, spearheaded by the surprise announcement of a new celebrity developer in the game: Damien Hirst. It turns out the zillionaire spot-merchant is planning to build 500 eco-homes on land he owns in glamorous Ilfracombe, Devon. It's early days – building won't start till next year – but his architect, Mike Rundell, spoke to locals about Hirst's plans this week, according to the North Devon Journal.

"He has a horror of building anonymous, lifeless buildings," Rundell told the meeting. "He wants these houses to be the kind of homes he would want to live in." Although seeing as Hirst bought Toddington Manor, a 300-room Gloucestershire mansion, a few years ago, that might be a bit of a stretch.

Rundell is clearly in with Hirst and the gang. He is also restoring Toddington Manor, and has designed art galleries including White Cube, which represents Hirst. And judging by his website, he has a healthy selection of cultured and well-heeled clients.

What's in store for Ilfracombe sounds encouraging so far: "We don't want to make anything pastiche but we need to take into account the themes of existing local buildings," Rundell said. "We hope to incorporate features such as pitched roofs, bay windows, smart gable ends, short terraces and robust materials used in a decorative manner." At the same time, they'll incorporate photovoltaic panels, concealed wind turbines and other environmental features, he pledged. No transparent glass boxes then? No jewel-encrusted platinum facades? Not even a combi-boiler sliced in half? Come on Damien, think it through!

If Hirst is looking for more inspiration, he could always pop into the RIBA's new Home Season, which kicked off yesterday with an exhibition on 250 years of British housing, from Georgian terraces through the industrial revolution, garden cities and modernist utopias to, er, poky new developments. Guest curated by Sarah "Property Ladder" Beeny, it's a window on to changing public tastes and trends as much as architectural ones. Especially noteworthy are the photographs, by the likes of Eric de Mare, John Maltby and Tony Ray-Jones, the latter of whom was chronicling the eccentricities of English life when Martin Parr was still in short trousers. Ray-Jones's snaps of bold new British projects of the 1960s retain a human element, juxtaposing huge new schemes like Thamesmead with the people who live in them, and casting a sceptical eye on the high-rise ambitions of the era.

Still with housing, and in the week that Le Corbusier's famed Unité d'Habitation, the mothership of modern mass housing, caught fire, new buildings rose from the ashes of London's less successful experiment in mass housing, the Heygate Estate. The demolition of this warren of concrete walkways and relentlessly monotonous apartment blocks could send the British film industry into a tailspin, as it's become the prime location for dystopian "this country's gone to the bleeding dogs" urban movies – as seen in Harry Brown, Shank, The Veteran and Attack the Block.

Ex-Heygate residents began moving into two smaller pieces of the huge Elephant and Castle regeneration this week, both designed by London-based Metaphorm. More romcom than urban thriller, you'd never guess they were affordable housing. The block on Brandon Street has a curving facade of hexagonal tiles in sunburst colours, with built-in public seating facing the street. A larger scheme on Library Street also features a curving facade, in different shades of brickwork, and a new green square. "Urbanity" was the key, say the architects.

Which brings us neatly on to Urbanized, the first of two documentary releases architecture-spotters should look out for this week. Made by Gary Hustwit, of design-geek classic Helvetica, and out now on DVD, it's a scattershot survey of the problems of designing cities the world over – and the inspiring solutions planners, architects, grassroots groups and even politicians have come up with.

Position Among the Stars, meanwhile, is the final instalment of an acclaimed, decade-spanning documentary trilogy on modern Indonesian life. That makes it sound eye-rollingly studious, when in fact it's an entertaining family saga with incredible camerawork and "structured reality" TV dynamics – The Only Way Is Jakarta? It also offers a sobering perspective on urban life in the world's fourth most populous country. No minimum space standards here: the cramped family home we see is in the middle of a dense labyrinth of alleyways, only accessible by foot (though the cameraman seems to have wings). Scooters swarm like bees down the city highways, rats scuttle in open sewers, fumigation teams surreally shroud the neighbourhood in thick clouds of insecticide and local bigwigs throw wads of cash into the streets to show off their largesse. Rather than some urban hell, though, Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich's film portrays it as a neighbourhood where life is chaotic (you have to fight through a scrum just to buy a new canister of cooking gas) but overwhelmingly harmonious. There's a lesson there. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 31 2012

Antony Gormley: don't criminalise squatting

British artist, who inhabited empty factory in 1970s, defends rights of squatters to put unused properties to good use

The artist Antony Gormley put forward a passionate defence of squatting at the launch of an exhibition in aid of the homeless on Tuesday morning.

Gormley, famous for his humanoid sculptures, notably the Angel of the North in Gateshead, said: "I'm very against the criminalisation of squatting – I think it's absolutely criminal that many inner city properties are empty.

"Squatting is a very good way of preserving properties while at the same time putting them to good use. It's a no-brainer that properties that are awaiting renovation or don't have commercial tenants can be of use for creative things, and indeed to provide shelter for the homeless."

The government aims to criminalise squatting in residential properties, with squatters to be fined £5,000 or face a year in jail. Gormley squatted for six years in a factory in King's Cross when he was an art student in the 70s. "I have to say that the landlord of the factory was very, very positive about us being there.

"We had everything we needed including 25,000sq ft of work space. A lot of the artists' space organisation of the 70s was to use unused council and commercial properties for studios and they continued to do incredibly good work. I think it's a principle that should be continued."

Gormley said he applauded the group of young artists called the Da! collective who made headlines in 2008 by squatting in a house worth £6.25m in Mayfair, which they used for art projects, exhibitions, talks and events.

"I think my daughter made the kitchen for that. I think there are a lot of young, energetic but refusing-to-be-entrepreneurial people who want to put these inner city spaces to very good use. The Occupy movement has its university but that's suffering a bit from the chill winds of winter. I think that Mayfair squat, which was also a talk shop and exchange ground for ideas about collective futures, was a great example of what young people are doing today."

Gormley is one of several artists, including Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Jonathan Yeo and Yinka Shonibare, who have created new work that will be exhibited at Somerset House in London from 14 March then auctioned the following month, with the proceeds going to Crisis, the charity for single homeless people. Gormley's piece is called Contract and is "a recumbent body" made of iron and inspired by the homeless people he saw sleeping on the Lincoln memorial on his first trip to Washington.

Gormley said: "It's making reference to the bodies that we see who have fallen out of society or find themselves in the empty forecourts of everything from banks to chip shops. I think it is an indictment of any society that we cannot accommodate those without a place, and the single homeless are particularly vulnerable. They need shelter of every kind, particularly human shelter – a programme of therapeutic help which will enable them to recover their trust in human relationships." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 19 2011

A grand design for British housing

The Channel 4 presenter turned enlightened property developer just wants to make people happy, he says

A former editor of mine was fond of saying, as he watched his eminent colleagues accept toxic invitations to advise on projects such as the Millennium Dome, that "journalists can't do things". We might spend our lives telling others how to save the euro, or select an England team, or design a skyscraper, but when it comes to organising people to achieve a shared aim, we tend to lack patience or the ability to work towards a deadline months rather than days away. Writers tend to be individualists, looking for new discoveries, not methodical team players.

The same could be true, with knobs on, for TV presenters. So it is striking that Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, should now be trying his hand as an enlightened property developer. For years, he has cast his eye over the hopes, follies and struggles of people trying to build beautiful homes for themselves. Now he is daring to show how it should, or could, be done. "I would get on a train to go from one location to another," he says, "and pass another 5,000 houses in Ilfracombe or Norwich or Aberdeen and they would all look the same. I thought, 'Is this the best we can do?' "

Five years ago, he set up a company called Hab (Happiness Architecture Beauty) in order to "build houses that make people happy". The recession has slowed its progress, but its first creation, a 42-home development in Swindon called the Triangle, is now complete. Next month, Channel 4 is screening Kevin's Grand Design, a two-part documentary about the project, which was achieved in partnership with the housing association, GreenSquare Group. When it is suggested that the attention these programmes will attract will be a double-edged sword, he says: "It will be a one-edged sword with the blade laid across my throat."

He is addressing the great British housing problem. For decades, it has been plain that new houses are unimaginative, overpriced, undersized and resistant to the kind of technical improvement that is standard in industries such as car making. Changes in planning law, to improve design or make housing more accessible, are forever tried and forever failing. The rather daunting task he has set himself is to deflect the glacial flow of change, to make "a very significant difference from conventional development".

With his trademark energetic enthusiasm, he reels off technical details about attenuation tanks and swales. He wants to create a truly sustainable development. So the Triangle's open spaces are designed to soak up rainwater, so that the risk of flooding is lowered, the pressure on Swindon's drainage is reduced and the planting remains lush in hot weather. It has what Hab's design director, Isabel Allen, calls a "muddy, soggy landscape" which has the added benefit that it is fun for children to play in it.

The external walls of the houses are made out of hempcrete, a material that is not only highly insulating but, being made out of a plant – hemp – takes more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in. The houses also have chimney-like objects on their roofs, which are actually ventilators, that help the houses to cool naturally.

"Anyone can build an eco-home," he says, "but it doesn't solve anything. There is nothing to stop them turning up the thermostat. What's more interesting is the way people live and behave." So the Triangle has allotments and polytunnels where people can grow their own food, and a car club and a scooter club that make their use of transport less wasteful. He sees such things as more important than the design features of individual houses.

Most of all, McCloud wants to create a community. The houses of the Triangle are arranged in traditional terraces, enclosing a kind of village green. Here, children can play on slopes and interestingly arranged logs and splash in water. Conventional swings and slides are avoided, however, on the grounds that these would mark the place as only for children and alienate the adults and teenagers who, it is hoped, will also enjoy the green.

Part of the point of the allotments and polytunnels is to bring people together and such things as barbecues and Halloween parties are encouraged. Irrigation is achieved with old-fashioned water pumps – more fun than standpipes – around which residents might gather. Each house is fitted with a "shimmy" – a touch-screen computer that McCloud calls a cross between "an iPad and a parish magazine". This enables residents to exchange information, help and advice and tells them about upcoming events.

Of the 42 homes, 21 are what is called "social rented", which is for people on the local authority's list of people in need of new homes. Eleven are "intermediate rented", which is at 80% of the market rent. Ten are "rent to buy", which means people rent them at below-market rates, with a view to saving for a deposit and ultimately buying their homes. There is therefore a mixture of people: teachers, retirees, single mothers formerly in council hostels, families who were in accommodation for the homeless.

The Triangle is so designed that no distinction is made between the house types. This, says McCloud, is "unlike schemes, including one that won the Stirling prize" – he means the Accordia development in Cambridge – "where the houses for sale are lovely and the social stuff is behind a wall".

It is striking, with all this ingenuity in the design, how very plain-looking the houses are. Any Grand Designs fan expecting another of the exotic creations featured in the programme will be disappointed. They are pitched-roofed, in straight rows, partly inspired by the railway workers' cottages that Brunel built in Swindon. Their elevations are in shades of cream and grey that echo the existing terraces and semi-detacheds of this part of town.

Glenn Howells, the architect of the Triangle, says that "the conversation we had was, 'Do we have the nerve to do something very, very normal?' With Kevin, everyone was expecting it to be more eye-catching, more televisual. People go there and say, 'Blimey, it looks normal.' That's the point." The idea of the terrace, he says, "started a long time ago and it will go on for another 500 or 600 years. It is such a good form". The only problem is that "there is a perception in the housing market that it won't sell, so developers have to make things convoluted, even though those to-die-for streets of Islington, where Boris Johnson lives, are all repetitive".

The aim, says Howells, is to "prove you can do excellent ordinary housing that sells and that people want to live in". It is about little things achieved within the standard budget for housing association developments – apart from a little additional support for some of the more adventurous environmental features. Bedroom doors are placed away from corners, so it is possible to place wardrobes behind them, and windows are larger than in most new housing. Ceilings are higher than standard on the ground floor (which means, to stay within budget, they are lower upstairs). The porches include space for bike racks, so that they don't have to be lugged through houses from the back garden, which makes it more likely they will be used.

On the outside, architectural expression is sought in such things as oversize rainwater pipes, which, together with change of hue from one house to the next, and vertically proportioned windows, help to define individual houses. In front of each house are gabion walls, gabion being the form of construction used in road embankments, where loose stones are placed in wire cages. Here, they screen parking spaces, so that cars do not dominate the appearance of the space.

McCloud says that "the design of spoons and the design of cities is one process" and it is the totality of the Triangle's inventions that matters. He is particularly keen on the importance of landscape design. Usually, says the Triangle's landscape architect, Luke Engleback, his role is to "decorate masterplans by others". Here, Engleback was involved from the outset in shaping the concept and form of the development.

McCloud keeps saying that "it's about the residents – it's their happiness that will determine the success of scheme". It will take years to find out if it really works but, meanwhile, I am introduced to 64-year-old Maggie Lowton, who was forced out of her home of 38 years by negative equity. "Since I started my affair with Kevin," she says, she has bought into his dream. "We love the house and feel privileged and proud. It's lighter, airier and easier to clean. It feels too nice and too new." The architectural aesthetics are of secondary importance. "People say, 'What are those stones for?'" she says of the gabions.

She says you can see a community forming, even if there are some points of friction – "you do hear snippets, like someone parking in someone else's space". As a Christian, she is wrestling with the problem of other people's faiths, including paganism. "Perhaps we can have a multi-faith Christmas tree," she says, "but I don't know how to do that… maybe we can have a pagan log." She wants "it to work for everyone. I want Kevin's dream to come true. What a waste if it didn't".

For McCloud, the dream seems to originate in a love of the organic. "I grew up in the countryside – Bedfordshire. I was interested in birds and bees and flowers and mushrooms." He says there is "a spiritual dimension" to living with nature that he wants to give to the residents of Hab's developments. The village where he lived was also the kind of place where "kids played in the street on their bikes, and if a car came round the corner, it had to slow down".

Realising this dream requires a great deal of technical grind, of dealing with planners, highways authorities, water suppliers. It requires responding patiently to officials such as the one who, Engleback says, objected to fruit trees on the grounds that "someone might slip on a berry". McCloud's celebrity means that "doors are opened a little more quickly", but also that "it is very important for local authorities not to be seen to be granting us the smallest favour. We can't cheat or push or cut corners".

The Triangle has required an exceptional amount of effort by Hab, GreenSquare, their architects, engineers and other consultants, all to achieve a simple array of row houses which – albeit without such high environmental performance – would once knocked have been knocked up almost without thinking by builders. Larger developments are now on the way in Oxford and Stroud, but McCloud is not expecting these to be much easier. The hope is that others will follow the example.

He acknowledges that the Triangle is not as advanced as some of the continental schemes in Tubingen, Stockholm and elsewhere which were his inspirations. They "emerged from a culture of planning and construction that is far more evolved, and far more sophisticated, than in Britain," he says. "But," he adds, "I feel we have hit on the grail. We have made a very significant difference from conventional development… we're 90% there, and to do it in Swindon in a difficult economic climate – I'm happy."

He thinks he is doing better than the Prince of Wales's Poundbury. "One positive thing about Poundbury was the way perceived ownership of the public realm meant the residents adopted it," he says. But "one of the failings is the way the external appearance is at the expense of internal architecture". In order to achieve the look of old cottages, "you get low ceilings and tiny windows".

The Triangle is in a tradition of model villages beloved of aristocrats, princes, of Brad Pitt in New Orleans and the Bordeaux sugar-cube manufacturer who commissioned workers' housing from Le Corbusier. Such places can be over-scripted, too much about fulfilling their makers' picture-book fantasies about contented communities. There is a whiff of this with Hab's gooey talk about "making people happy", although they are conscious of the need not to over-control. "If they decide they don't want to grow food and just want to park cars, we'd be a bit upset," says Isabel Allen, but in the end it will be up to the residents.

Maggie Lowton sounds a note of caution by citing other communities in Swindon that started well but went downhill. No amount of forethought and attention to detail can guarantee the success of the Triangle. But at the very least it is an imaginative and well-designed project, which achieves about as much as can be done with its budget. It focuses on what matters most and gives itself the best chance of success. Which is far more rare than it should be in British house building and a much better application of celebrity philanthropy than most. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 09 2011

RIBA Manser Medal contenders up in the air

Shortlist for prize honouring best new private home in the UK has revealed a common quirk among cutting-edge architects

Those suffering from vertigo should look away now. The shortlist for the prize honouring the best new private home in the UK has revealed an increasingly common quirk among cutting-edge architects to go alongside the perennial fondness for floor-to-ceiling glass: rooms suspended in mid-air.

Two of the six contenders for the 2011 Manser Medal, organised annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), display this trick, known in the trade as cantilevering. One, Ty Hedfan in Brecon – the name means "hovering house" in Welsh – cunningly circumvents planning restrictions against building along the river bank which adjoins the plot by sending out a glass-walled spur to hang above the water's edge.

More dramatic still is the self-explanatory Balancing Barn in Suffolk, pictures of which resemble on first glance an optical illusion. At least half of the long, slim structure hangs precipitously over the edge of a steep, grass incline. It looks as if an escaped railway carriage has run out of track or, thanks to the shiny silver cladding, like a floating barrage balloon.

The barn, which is available for public rent, is "completely bonkers and very playful", said Tony Chapman, head of awards at RIBA and one of the five-strong judging panel. Most alarming, he said, is the glass floor inside the far-hanging edge: "It's so potentially unnerving for some people that they provide bits of carpet you can put over it, if you want."

The appeal for the judges of Ty Hedfan's cantilever was as much practical as aesthetic, Chapman said: "They weren't allowed to build on the river bank but there's nothing in the small print which says you can't build over the river bank. We like things like that, which get one over slightly on the planners."

The other four contenders are a varied bunch, albeit within a prevailing taste for generous glazing which blurs the boundaries between home and garden, and materials which seek to blend the building with the wider landscape.

There is one urban dwelling, not strictly speaking a new residence: a mid-century, brutalist home in Highgate, north London, remodelled to open the rooms out onto a secluded garden.

Another triumph against the planners is Watson House, an elegant glass-and-timber structure in the heart of the New Forest, which was only permitted on condition it was invisible from public sections of the woodland. The most modest home – a relative term within a selection with budgets starting at £500,000 – is New Mission Hall in Sussex, a pair of conjoined structures on the site of a Baptist chapel which offers a blank, brick facade from the road before opening out into a glassed rectangle at the rear.

The final contender, in the Surrey stockbroker belt of Epsom, most closely resembles the stereotypical notion of a modernist house, from its over 700 sq metres of living space and curtains of walled glass grand enough to satisfy the most demanding exhibitionist to its occupants who seemingly own little more than a few discreetly tasteful items of furniture and art, their toothbrushes presumably locked well out of view.

Inside, however, the design was clever enough to avoid severity, Chapman said, featuring touches like a cosy family TV room deep inside the interior. "You go in there and your first thought is, 'yes, this is an expensive, grand house'. But as you go round it you find lots of lovely little things that make it very intimate."

Overall, he said, the shortlist was perhaps the most diverse in the prize's 10-year history. The inclusion of the pair of cantilevered structures had not been planned. "Maybe subliminally we paired them off," he said. "But I don't think we did it deliberately."

While it would be "slightly arrogant" for RIBA to assume the prize had a direct influence on the wider design of housing, Chapman said, the hope was it might provide food for thought.

"The whole point of the medal, I think, is to try and improve the standard of all housing. We would like to think that there were things that fed into social housing in Hackney as well as the next rich person's house in Surrey.

"The standard of housebuilding in this country is not great. In fact it's pretty poor. It would be good if we could even just inspire clients to ask for things they might not have otherwise considered."

The winner will be announced at a ceremony on 10 November. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 27 2011

Homeless centre opens its doors with display of art

An exhibition and sale of art by homeless people begins at the UK's busiest homelessness day centre

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 14 2011

Letters: Architects and new-build constraints

It is encouraging to see government ministers berating the banality of many new homes (Fed up of 'Legoland' estates? Then reject plans, says minister, 9 March). Although there is a growing number of innovative, exemplar housing schemes, the bulk of the new-build housing is of an unacceptably poor quality and shows little regard for its surrounding area.

However, it is wrong to imply that architects are complacent about improving the delivery of good housing. There's nothing that depresses architects more than seeing the soulless, drab, identikit estates being built in our towns and cities. The reality is that those architects who work for major housebuilders face severe constraints. The traditional housebuilder-business model relies on pattern-book designs, which can be quickly and easily rolled out across the country, often with little consideration to the local context or the needs of the people who will live in them. The lack of empowerment that local communities have had on planning decisions to date, and consumers have had on the types of houses available to them, has let to the cheaply replicated housing models Grant Shapps has rightly criticised. Let's hope that localism really does bring communities, developers and architects closer together to deliver better housing.

Ruth Reed

President, Royal Institute of British Architects © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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


• 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 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 06 2011

Prefabs out

The Excalibur prefab estate in south London may be scruffy, but it's a precious chapter in the nation's story worth preserving

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan. But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition.

If this was Camden or Kensington or Islington such demolition would be unthinkable. Conservationist armies would rally round this eccentric enclave of 187 houses, complete with dig-for-victory outhouses and a curious tin-roofed church. But then if there were prefabs in those boroughs, they would have been demolished years ago. So is their surviving anywhere into the 21st century a vice or a virtue?

Prefabs were a blind alley of postwar rehousing. Churchill thought it a bright idea to use Spitfire factories to make components for mass-produced houses for people bombed out of their homes. They were bungalows of four rooms around a central service core, put down wherever a site was free, including if necessary a graveyard.

The project was a typical Whitehall cock-up. Five ministries were involved, delays mounted and costs soared. Originally priced at £500 each, which was already more than suburban semis had cost before the war, the prefabs cost £1,300. This meant they rented at 13 shillings, against a local council house at five shillings. Private and civic builders – who in France, Germany and Poland were busily restoring old homes – in Britain were starved of permits and resources, while Londoners squatted in ruins and slept in the underground.

Only 156,000 prefabs were eventually built, but they proved remarkably popular. They were not flats but "a home of our own". And they lasted. Though most were barely insulated wood frames, occupants were able to maintain them and keep them standing long after their official 10-year lives. Excalibur is the largest complete estate to survive, built by PoWs of Rommel's Afrika Korps before they returned to Germany.

This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication. Gardens are crammed with gnomes and some have smart cars parked in front. The estate's champion, Jim Blackender, whose website is a model of community action, has bedecked his home as if expecting the England football team to arrive.

The whole enclave is an anarchic contrast to the anonymity of the system-built deck-access slabs that usually supplanted the prefabs, now being demolished as uninhabitable and impossible to maintain. The tenants of the vast Aylesbury estate across south London scream, "Get us out of here", but their salvation is expensive and endlessly postponed. Yet no ideologues are so dyed-in-the-wool as Britain's public housing officials, who have long regarded the chaotic individualism manifest in the prefab as intolerably antisocial and to be "designed out".

Lewisham council wants Excalibur gone. Residents were recently offered Hobson's choice, of agreeing to demolition and rehousing or the estate being sold to a private developer – and demolished. Even under such pressure only 56% opted for the first choice. The government has meekly listed six of the 187 for preservation, but none is worth preserving on its own. It would be like listing six houses in Belgrave Square. English Heritage has also refused to introduce conservation area control, on the strange grounds that "this would be imposing our view from above". Surely that is its job.

What to preserve is always a balance. This week a more celebrated prefab was in the news, Captain Scott's hut in the Antarctic. The appeal to preserve it in situ has raised more than £3m. Hardly anyone can ever see it. It could have been lifted, lock, stock and barrel, to the Science Museum. But it must be right to protect it where history and circumstance put it, a memorial to an extraordinary moment in world exploration.

So why not Catford? Conservation is enveloped in class. Labour housing ministers such as Yvette Cooper spent millions on consultants trying to demolish 19th-century streets in Merseyside and elsewhere, on the patronising grounds that old buildings were too good for working-class northerners. Much of London's housing was likewise declared unfit for human habitation after the war. From Chelsea through Camden and Shoreditch to the docks, there are terraces, mews and warehouses saved in the nick of time from the bulldozer, offering acceptable homes for rich and poor. Every property, even a prefab, has its price, as those who bought houses in Excalibur attest. Lewisham, like Cooper, is using a bulldozer where a chisel and screwdriver would do.

All historic buildings might be moved to museums to make way for something more profitable, or merely new. We could move old theatres, pubs, council chambers, even Shakespeare's birthplace. The whole of historic Britain could be dumped in a museum. Prefabs have already been moved to the Chiltern Open Air Museum and Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, where they look most odd.

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities. I suppose the back alleys of Mayfair and the City of London, its churches, parks and squares, all get in the way of development. They serve no profitable purpose that cannot be supplied by a gherkin, a shard or a piazza. Yet we preserve them because we know they enrich the life of the city. They relieve its monotony and protect qualities of surprise and repose that modern design can no longer supply. There are no curved alleys or intimate lanes in today's architecture.

Excalibur is scruffy and working class. It probably offends a Niagara of government regulations. It costs someone's money to maintain and can, I am sure, evoke a pundit to say it is a reminder of a bad past. These arguments were used in the 1970s to fill in Southwark's Grand Surrey Canal with rubble, wiping out a slice of its people's history and an invaluable future amenity. The people of north London apparently merited a canal, but that was too dangerous for south Londoners.

We still find it hard to move forward without snapping the chains of the past. The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised. They had lost the castles of their dreams, and now found them again. To walk around Excalibur today is to know this is still true. Like Scott's hut, it is a passing moment made permanent. It should not be demolished. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Letters: Prefabs, Fabs and mass demolition

The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage are barking up the wrong tree in trying to "save" the prefab Excalibur estate in Lewisham (Anger over plans to demolish historic prefab estate, 3 January). The Excalibur residents' long struggle is a lesson about how people want to live together. It is not about preserving the fabric of damp, decaying homes well past their habitable lifetimes.

It is not a miracle that these homes have survived for so long. It is almost wholly due to hard work by the tenants and their management organisation. Stability and a supportive community at Excalibur grew from a feeling of "being in control", living in homes which are compact and easy to run, providing dignity and independence at an affordable rent.

Sadly, the pressures on housing in inner London don't encourage building detached bungalows. This has been taken on board by Excalibur residents, who for years have been developing plans to translate their ideals into achievable new homes, fit and decent, as they deserve.

Yes, let's study and respect the prefab history. A few examples to demonstrate one short-term solution, fitted to its time in the immediate devastation of war, would be better placed in a museum.

Caroline Mayow


• The campaign to save 9 Madryn Street is as much about stopping the council erasing an entire neighbourhood as about preserving Ringo Starr's birthplace (Comment, 4 January). The Ringo connection is important, and useful – as it grabs headlines – but the real story is the battle to stop a deluded council pursuing a regressive policy of mass demolition.

William Palin

Secretary, Save Britain's Heritage © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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