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June 13 2012

Letters: Street politics

The Secret History of our Streets which Lucy Mangan so positively reviews (7 June), while gripping viewing, distorted the facts. My dad, Nicholas Taylor, who Lucy thought should apologise for the demolitions shown in the programme, only agreed to be interviewed as an early and successful champion of saving London's inner-city streets from the bulldozers, which had been unleashed by the LCC development plan of 1952. Instead the programme cut and pasted snippets of conversation taken from hours of interviews and made it look like he was in fact a supporter of this appallingly misconceived urban planning. The demolitions were approved between 1961-64 and had nothing whatsoever to do with my dad. When he became chairman of the planning committee in 1972 he stopped numerous projects, preserving large areas of Deptford. He also wrote a prominent architectual book in 1973 calling for an end to the building of high-rise estates.
Martin Taylor
London © 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

Annie Lennox: why I'm against Aberdeen's City Gardens project

The same deluded vision that razed huge swaths of the historic city in the 1960s is being applied again today

The City Gardens project is something I took up arms against a couple of years ago, but in the end I put them down again, because I felt – and stated – that it is ultimately down to the citizens of Aberdeen to take the final decision.

But when I went back up to Aberdeen a few weeks ago and saw the state of the streets, I had never seen the city look so dejected. I felt very saddened by that. I had never thought I would see Aberdeen look like this.

Experience shows that city councillors, planners and developers, come together and offer a bright vision of the future, as they did in Aberdeen in the 1960s when they razed huge swaths of the historic city. They thought that would be their modernity. What we got was a ruination of history, and something put in its place which was cheap, crap and concrete. I knew at the time, when I was a teenager, that this was going to be pretty disastrous.

I have nothing whatsoever against modern architecture, but when it is cheap and crappy you usually look back at it in a few years time and say: "What a monstrosity." I think they are applying the same sort of deluded vision with Union Terrace Gardens. Instead we should look at what really needs to be done there: it needs a collective civic response.

What I see in Aberdeen is that there has been a lot of money made, but that money has not trickled through. You see strata of wealth in Aberdeen; there are expensive cars and glitzy restaurants but I don't see that reflected in the general civic state of the city. I feel the oil industry lives separately to the town.

My father and grandfather worked in the shipyards and shipbuilding industries; people built up wealth and then people who made their money put it back into Aberdeen, building the art gallery, the music hall etc and it served the community very well. It was beautiful. But walking around Union Street today you get a sense of a broken place. It is kind of degraded. It seems to me Aberdeen thinks in terms of a consumerist society, where the solution is: "Well, put more shops in and get more business." I think it's a mistake; the same mistake they made back in the 60s.

I think this phenomenon can be found through the whole of the country. It has wrecked the towns of Great Britain. I think it is a symptom; we used to have different types of flourishing industry, people had skills and crafts, they had a work ethic and were proud of their cities. But now it is very different. In some places generations have lived with unemployment for decades. We have a recession and we have imported American corporate chains on our high streets, creating a consumerist society in which we've lost a lot of our culture and a lot of our skills.

It's endemic and downgrading, and I don't think Aberdeen is much different to many other places that have lost their heart and soul. I don't think that oil money has brought a tremendous civic pride back to the citizens of the city. It's the fast buck: there's money being made but it's just floating on the top, separated from the rest of Aberdeen's citizens.

If Sir Ian Wood wants to invest £50m into the centre of Aberdeen, that is fundamentally good, but I disagree with the way he's going about it. It is not because I'm a reactionary, it is not because I'm against modernity or change. It is the way that this was done; it is short-termism, it is short-sighted.

From what I am gathering, he is not saying: "I have £50m, I want to talk to you, I want to hear what you guys want." He's telling the city this is what he will do with it. I think it's very imperious. I think it is very, very important to listen to more people, the people who are living there, the citizens of the town.

I don't have a great respect for the aesthetic values or vision of city planners or city councillors; I don't think that they've often got it right. Building a concrete piazza across Union Terrace Gardens, in a city that knows rain very well, I don't quite get that. It's not Italy. They don't get tourists coming to Aberdeen, and if they did, wouldn't they want to see something more real and authentic? © 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

London 2012 legacy: the battle begins on a Newham estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not the outcome legacy idealists say they have in mind. Time will tell if they manage to avoid it. © 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 08 2012

Another wind turbine rouses campaigners on Yorkshire's coastal cliffs

Protests supported by David Hockney are revived, as proposals for a Flambrough tower replace those recently withdrawn near Bempton's famous seabird reserve

Local people's defeat of a controversial wind turbine proposal at Bempon, close to the famous seabird nesting cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, has been followed by only the briefest of respites.

The call to arms has gone out again almost immediately, to fight a similar application close to South Landing and Danes Dyke on that famous county landmark, Flamborough Head.

Taller by 25 feet than Flamborough lighthouse at 112 feet, the tower is the latest of an extraordinary run of applications in the East Riding which have aroused huge concern and been the subject of previous Guardian Northerner posts. Opponents include David Hockney whose work and crowd-pulling exhibitions at Saltaire and the Royal Academy have been a tonic for visitor numbers to the quiet beauties of the Wolds this year.

Bempton parish council and the town council in Bridlington, where Hockney lives much of the time, voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday 6 June to object to the latest planning application. Flamborough parish council meets on Monday and is expected to take a similar view. Holiday camp owners, buoyed up by the Government's recent U-turn on VAT and static caravans, are joining the campaign.

The tower would be built at Hartendale Farm, some 600 metres from Flamborough village and fewer than 250 metres from the noble cliffs. David Hinde of No to Wolds Windfarms says:

The site is surrounded by some of the most important wildlife sites in the whole of the UK as well as the Flamborough Headland Heritage Coast Landscape, designated by Natural England and with the highest protection rating possible

The turbine would be be highly visually intrusive from Bridlington bay, Bempton cliffs, many parts of Flamborough, the heritage features of the ancient Danes Dyke earthwork and coastal footpaths around South Landing as well as the country park heritage trail.

Campaigners are also determined to keep turbines out of a proposed 'Yorkshire nature triangle' which would link the famous Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve at Bempton cliffs to the Living Seas Centre which is being built at South Landing. The RSPB plans to expand its facilities and the project is reckoned to have great potential in terms of attracting more visitors and creating tourism jobs.

So far, East Riding of Yorkshire district council has received 36 objections to the new application. The Bempton turbine, proposed for Norway farm on Cliff Lane, was withdrawn after 169 objections and well-publicised protests from local people, visitors to the bird reserve and the Ministry of Defence which has radar facilities at nearby Staxton Wold.

The Hartendale farm application is Ref 12/01846/PLF and can be seen on the East Riding council's website or via County Hall, Beverley HU17 9BA Tel: 01482 393939. © 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 21 2012

The view from Europe's tallest building

A trip up the Shard yields a 60-mile-wide panorama spanning London. But is its haphazard journey from pipe dream to reality a good thing for the capital?

'Save us from a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," I wrote in the London Evening Standard, in 2000, when property developer Irvine Sellar unveiled plans for a 1,400ft-high pointy cylinder above London Bridge station. I went on to say that if he wanted to build something this big, which would be visible all over London, the least Sellar could do was hire a decent architect.

The sharp stick is now there and a little while ago I found myself high up it, wondering at a 60-mile-wide sweep in which I could see Southend-on-Sea in one direction and Ascot in the other, or, rather, smudges I was told were these pleasure grounds of poor and rich. You can see more clearly Heathrow's Terminal Five and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge in Dartford and Hertfordshire and the North Downs.

You can see, in other words, the whole of London, until now an unencompassable splodge that could last have been captured in a single view perhaps 200 years ago, to its perimeter and beyond. Close to, familiar and not-small objects, such as the Gherkin and HMS Belfast, look like large toys. It is both implausible and real, something well-known seen from an unprecedented place. It's hard to know what to do except gawp.

The stick is now named the Shard and has been redesigned by celebrated Genovese architect Renzo Piano, co-architect with Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, who replaced the less glamorous firm of Broadway Malyan. The tower has also shrunk, to just over 1,000ft, as the Civil Aviation Authority was worried about planes crashing into it.

It is still big enough to be an object of urban fascination. A fox, a crane driver, base jumpers and other adventurers have all made headlines by getting to the top (or, in some cases, allegedly so). Unauthorised photos of the view from the top have gone viral, or viral-ish. Hacks and citizens are pouring forth their views: it's elegant; it's in the wrong place; it's a piece of international tower envy; it's a citadel of the mega-rich lording it over us morlocks below; it's a London icon. In truth, it is all these things. It is said to be penile, which can only mean that there are some odd-shaped penises out there.

It is also a monument to the hustling abilities of one man, Irvine Sellar. Sellar made his first fortune with what might then have been called groovy fashion boutiques in the 1960s, before moving into property, before going blazingly bust, before starting over again with industrial units in Portsmouth and Warrington. He is the sort of person who gets called a "barrow boy", who had limited experience of building above three storeys before he started on the Shard, and to whom the bigger, more established property companies would condescend.

Sellar bought the site of the future Shard, which is next to London Bridge station and was then occupied by a brownish 1970s building called Southwark Towers, in 1998. He had, he says, no idea it would soon be government policy to support dense development near major transport interchanges. But it was and he spotted a chance. "Railtrack didn't convey the site to me as well as they might have done," he says, "which gave me an opportunity to talk sensibly about building something tall." In other words, he had better lawyers than they had and he got his way.

He got London's newly installed mayor, Ken Livingstone, on his side and Fred Manson, a dynamic planner for the borough of Southwark. Sellar hired Piano, possibly because of criticisms in the press but more probably because he needed someone of Piano's reputation to get planning permission. They made an odd couple – Sellar is stocky and bustling, Piano is tall, well-tailored, and never visibly ruffled. It looked like a marriage of convenience: Piano would lend Sellar his cachet and Sellar would give Piano the chance to build the most conspicuous landmark of his career. Or at least, as few believed the Shard would really be built, Sellar would pay him handsomely to conjure up this spectacular fantasy. Sellar, it was widely assumed, would then sell the undeveloped site for a large profit.

In a few months, Piano ran up his designs. He came up with an elongated pyramidal shape, which he said was inspired by old pictures of spires and ships' masts in the Thames. He talked about its special, extra-white glass and how the canted surfaces would reflect the sky and produce "a nice light presence". Grasping for words at a press conference, he said it would look like a "… a shard … a shard of crystal".

The tower would be a "village", not a monolithic office block. There would be flats, a hotel and restaurants, as well as 570,000 square feet of office space. There would be public viewing galleries, so that Londoners could take possession of it and not just gawp at the exterior. It would be sustainable, to the extent that such buildings can be. Being next to a large railway station would mean that the thousands of people working in it would use trains rather than cars. A "radiator" at the top would use the effect of high winds to help cool the building.

English Heritage objected, in particular because of the Shard's effect on the view from Hampstead Heath, where it would loom over St Paul's. There was a public inquiry, which decided that the tower was a good enough piece of design to overcome such concerns. John Prescott, then the minister in charge of such things, declared that it was "of the highest architectural quality" and granted it planning permission.

Still, there was doubt whether it was possible to finance such a building, in an unfashionable location. Livingstone gave a leg-up to his favourite project by promising to move the offices of Transport for London there. Sellar signed up the Shangri-La hotel group. The credit crunch hit, which might have been terminal to a project so palpably of the profligate boom years, but then the cavalry appeared, in the form of the property arm of the ruling family of Qatar. As their oil wealth means they have no need for credit, the credit crunch did not bother them much.

Sellar now says that "there were moments when things weren't particularly good, but I have never thought that we wouldn't win this". He says he is "not smug or complacent. There is still plenty to do… a beautiful building apart from its architectural merit is not completely beautiful until it's fully let" and they are still looking for tenants for some of the office space. He also says that "it is not about being tall, by the way. It will never be the tallest, but it is the most beautiful". It's not quite believable that height is unimportant to Sellar, although he's right that it's fatuous to chase superlatives, given that the Shard does not quite equal the 82-year-old Chrysler building in New York. It is none the less the tallest building in Europe.

What is there now is more like the designs that Piano produced almost 12 years ago than seemed likely. The ecological radiator has been omitted, on the grounds that it would be expensive and that other equipment would do the same job as well, but otherwise his office has seen off most attempts to cut costs. The glass he wanted is there, as are the public viewing galleries.

He will have his "village", although it will be no Little-Mouldering-on-the-Marsh, and it is hard to see how the social mixing that is presumably part of the attraction of the village idea will take place. The different parts of the building have different lifts and entrances, which reduces the chances of maypole dancing or whatever its modern equivalent might be.

The Shard will have a luxury hotel, and 10 flats near the top, each one of which entirely occupies either one or two floors. These are currently shells, but it does not take much to see that their overflowing abundance of space and views will put them beyond the reach of all but the most hyper of the hyper-rich. Each is rumoured to be worth between £30m and £50m, which means that the 10 of them pretty much pay for the £450m construction cost of the whole building.

So there it is, impressive and with a certain stylishness, even if not quite achieving the "nice, light presence" that Piano promised. It will certainly become – is already – a London landmark and will take its place on T-shirts and tourist shows along with Tower Bridge and the Gherkin. It is made more interesting, if not really a village, by its multiplicity of uses. With its fantasy flats and Hollywood panoramas, it will feed the collective mythology of the city. Rich people may not be fashionable at the moment, but we still like to hear stories about them.

It is also a work of the punk urbanism in which modern London specialises. Other cities would look at the question of increasing development around railway stations and aim for some sort of coherent plan for achieving it. In London, they declared an intention and then gave first prize to the man – Sellar – quickest off the mark. They then dressed the consequences in "outstanding architecture". The Shard was the first and unfortunately the best of such developments. After it came other towers, such as the Strata in Elephant and Castle and the Vauxhall Tower, which repeated the same formula of height next to a station, intrusion on important views, an eco-doodad on top and architecture declared outstanding by John Prescott. The spawn of the Shard come nowhere near to the quality of the original.

So is it worth it? You might say that it depends whether you think London is more like a novel or a painting, about cracking stories and crazy contrasts or about harmonious compositions. Or rather, given that London is in fact a city, and therefore about the play of individual and collective, whether it falls within the hazy rules of the game. It is a thing that pops up everywhere, in views down streets, from parks, from the M25. It is the most conspicuous object in London. It seems to proclaim something significant, yet all it really says is that we have a wonky planning system and that someone called Irvine Sellar was smart enough to exploit it.

I appreciate that anarchy is part of London's DNA, but it is not all of it. I also appreciate Sellar's energy, Piano's skills and the thrills that the Shard offers. I like the view. But not that those skills and energy have gone into making something that, at bottom, is profoundly random. © 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

October 25 2011

Urbanized: a documentary about city design in the nick of time

As the global population teeters on 7 billion, Gary Hustwit's film portrays the world's exploding number of city dwellers as the solution rather than the problem

A series of familiar images unfolds on the screen: a wall of glass towers, a Brazilian favela, the Shibuya pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. Visual shorthand for a crowded planet, they are accompanied by an equally familiar sequence of statistics: half of humanity – or 3.5 billion people – now live in cities, and urbanisation is so rampant that by 2050 this figure is projected to be 75%. So begins Urbanized, a new film about the challenge that cities pose in the 21st century, which had its London debut this weekend, playing to a packed house at the London School of Economics. It is directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the cult hit Helvetica in 2007 (an unlikely film about a Swiss typeface) before taking on the much broader topic of industrial design in 2009's Objectified. With Urbanized, he zooms out even further to complete his trilogy, a cinematic story about design moving from the micro to the macro.

With each leap in scale, Hustwit risks pointing his camera at a topic so big he ends up saying nothing at all. Yet Urbanized is a brave and timely movie that manages to strike almost exactly the right tone. For a sense of the scale of the urban problem, simply look at Mumbai, a city of 12 million people that is set to be the world's biggest by 2050. Already, 60% of its population lives in slums with such poor sanitation that there is only one toilet seat for every 600 people. The municipality is reluctant to build toilets for fear that it will encourage more migrants to come. "As if people come to shit," retorts the activist Sheela Patel in the movie. Quite. Most people come to work. Cities are basins of opportunity, and their citizens drive national economies. It is peculiar, then, how poorly cities reward their citizens for that contribution.

The film takes a clear line on what makes a city habitable. Why is Brasilia, for all its drama, inhospitable? Because it was designed with a bird's-eye view that left the poor mugs on the ground hiking across town beside a highway. The movie illustrates the catastrophe of designing cities for cars rather than people with the battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses – the saintly advocate of Greenwich Village's street life and the panto-villain masterplanner who scarred New York with his highways. These days the Big Apple is starting to atone for Moses's sins with public spaces such as the High Line. This new elevated promenade doesn't make up for the growing inequality that is turning Manhattan into an island for the rich, but it is a noble case of the city giving something back to its citizens.

Even more impressive is the way the former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, changed the dynamic of the Colombian capital by creating a network of cycle lanes and a public bus service. In a city known for its crippling traffic, it is now the poorest – those without cars – who move the fastest. As Peñalosa points out, showboating on a mountain bike as he overtakes a car squishing through the mud: this is democracy in action. Only by prioritising pedestrians have cities rediscovered their vibrant centres. In the 1980s, by contrast, cities were hollowing out as the middle classes fled to the suburbs. Here the camera pans the suburban sprawl of Phoenix, all identical houses and driveways, as land use attorney Grady Gammage epitomises the selfishness of the American dream with the words "I like the way I live". Nowhere has that dream gone more wrong than in Detroit. The most powerful scene in the movie is an eerie train ride through the deserted city, now depopulated thanks to its dying car industry.

There we have the full spectrum of the problem: some cities are bursting at the seams while others are becoming ghost towns. Who has the answer? Is it Norman Foster with his Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi? Is it Rem Koolhaas with his behemoth of a headquarters for Chinese state television in Beijing? To its credit, the film is unequivocal that architects – especially starchitects – are not the solution. What happened when Brad Pitt rallied a group of well-meaning architect friends to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? The city got an odd assortment of houses that look like they were parachuted in from Malibu sitting amid a sea of devastation. Not all that effective.

If there is a new orthodoxy in urban design, it is citizen participation. And Urbanized revels in this so-called "bottom up" approach. It depicts several cases of community engagement, from an energy measurement scheme in Brighton to a new pedestrian area in the South African township of Khayelitsha. It devotes a good chunk of time to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, whose system of half-houses that residents complete themselves is often cited as a paragon of "participatory design". The idea is that citizens, not god-like architects and planners, are the solution to the urban question. And Hustwit knows just how effective people power can be: his movie was partly paid for through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.

This aspect of the movie is very much in tune with the zeitgeist. 2011 is the year of people power after all, the year when across the world, from Tahrir Square to the streets of Santiago to Wall Street, citizens have been making themselves heard. Indeed, there are several protests featured in the film. The message is undoubtedly a positive one, and the focus on small-scale, tangible solutions is at pains to be uplifting. The only caveat is that at times this borders on the naive. Watching people plant community gardens in the abandoned lots of Detroit, or plaster New Orleans with stickers that let citizens have their say, creates a cosy feel-good factor, but the problem is scale. On one hand, favelas and shanty towns are emblematic of the tremendous capacity of people to look after themselves. But no amount of self-organisation is going to introduce running water and sewage to the favelas. That kind of infrastructure requires politicians, not just residents.

Perhaps that's where a film such as Urbanized can be useful. Undoubtedly there are limits to what can be said about cities in a one-and-a-half-hour documentary – for instance, maybe this notion that 75% of us will live in cities by 2050 is bogus, and that as the global economy falters so will urbanisation. But this is not the purview of films like Urbanized. Whatever the drawbacks of a mass medium when it comes to nuance, it is redeemed by its ability to reach a mass audience. The more people who see this movie the better. And the more politicians who see it – and are persuaded to look beyond the vested interests in front of them – the more powerful a tool Urbanized will be. © 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

October 11 2011

Mr Cameron, it's time to get the designers in

Ageing populations and budget cuts mean devising a new social contract. So why not use real designers – it's worked in Finland

If a country has the best education system in the world, it could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. Yet Finland, which routinely tops the Pisa education rankings, refuses to do so. The country has other major issues on the agenda, such as how to become carbon neutral and how to look after the most rapidly ageing population in Europe. And when the nation wants to address these questions, it turns to Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. Most governments have a cluster of thinktanks and policy groups at their disposal to tackle their country's challenges. But what's different about Sitra is that it uses designers.

Sitra's strategic design unit is made up of an international team with backgrounds in architecture and urban planning, web and interactive design, and they are used to thinking at varying scales – from the pixel to the city. "Strategic design" is still a nascent discipline but, put simply, it means applying a design method to a system, rather than an object. So for instance, car designers create sleek objects, but producing them demands a sophisticated manufacturing system, so that everything from the engine to a door handle can be delivered with second-by-second precision. If you were to redesign that system – or indeed the broader network of showrooms, roads and petrol stations in which it sits – you would call that strategic design.

The interesting thing about the strategic design unit (SDU) is that it takes this approach to matters of public policy. In particular, it watches the massive social and economic changes that governments, including our own, are struggling to cope with. When the welfare system is straining because there's less tax revenue to go round and an ageing population demanding greater care, how do you make it deliver? The answer lies partly in the minutiae of, say, how you deliver food to the elderly, but also at the macro scale. The SDU has found itself rethinking the social contract. Do you allow people to work less and contribute to society in other ways, such as part-time volunteering? It sounds something like David Cameron's big society, but in the UK there was no detail about how that would work, just the unrealistic expectation that we would all do more.

While strategic design can't necessarily find the perfect answer, it at least begins by asking the right questions. For instance, what was really wrong with the Finnish education system? The only fault the government could find was in what it perceived to be a high level of dropouts – a paltry 50 students per year. It thought that if it could reclaim those "lost" students, it would have perfected the system. The SDU pointed out that this was the wrong way of seeing the problem: those 50 students are an early symptom of changes coming Finland's way. With rising immigration, Finnish society is diversifying and it is going to have to design an education system built not on homogeneity and cultural consensus, but on diversity and non-conformity. Sitra found this to be true not just in education but in politics – the trick for Finland is in how to incorporate outside voices.

Another topic on Sitra's agenda is food distribution. How do you give local organic food an advantage in a competitive marketplace full of multinationals? It's not easy for smaller suppliers to get a foot in the door when supermarkets snap up the best retail spaces. This is even more pronounced in the UK, where the high street is dominated by chain stores. Here, the developer's motto seems to be "Build it and Tesco will come". Sitra's answer is to design a system connecting organic retailers with developments before they're even built.

It's true that we expect this kind of thing from wealthy Nordic countries, with their tiny populations and social democracies intact. But what about the UK, which is altogether bigger and messier? With our government currently casting around for ideas, it's no wonder that it looked at Sitra. In London last month – almost unnoticed in the bustle of the London design festival – Sitra launched a book entitled In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Afterwards, the authors paid a visit to the cabinet office, where they'd been invited to explain the ideas behind strategic design. After all, one of the biggest problems facing the UK government (indeed, any government) is the gap between policy and how it's realised. You can reform the health service all you like, but if a patient still has a seven-hour wait to be seen at the hospital, the system is failing.

Often, policies that look effective on paper have perverse outcomes. Putting a cap on fishing quotas has resulted in fishermen dumping tonnes of dead fish back into the water. And allowing universities to charge "up to" £9,000 in tuition fees has led to most of them charging full price, for fear of looking second-rate. These outcomes are failures of the policy implementation process. Much more successful examples would be London Underground's Oyster card system or the city's bike hire scheme – both, perhaps not coincidentally, systems where designers kept the user experience in mind all along.

One of the problems is that politicians deal in general principles and then ask bureaucrats to fill in the details. This is problematic when an issue spans multiple departments and funding structures, as environmental issues often do. Who is charged with seeing the process through from the initial idea to the final goal? This is something designers are practiced at. At the SDU, they describe this as a process of "stewardship". "Good designers and architects are very skilled at manoeuvring a team from a sketch to an outcome without losing sight of the vision along the way," says Dan Hill, who joined the SDU from the engineering and design consultancy Arup.

In the business world, plenty of design consultancies offer to redesign systems and improve customer experience – they call it "design thinking". However, they are increasingly discredited for their vague promises to make executives "think like designers". Strategic design, however, is not just about thinking, but about how to bring that thinking to an effective outcome. That doesn't mean hiring in McKinsey or Ideo to do a bit of consulting, it means having a design professional embedded in the process. Apple is a case in point: its chief designer, Jonathan Ive, is on the board. It's no coincidence that while Nokia had touchscreen phone technology before Apple did, Apple was first to turn it into a product and to turn that product into a phenomenon – in spite of Nokia's good Finnish pedigree.

If the UK government takes one lesson from Apple, it should be that one. However, the likelihood is that the reason the government is entertaining the idea of strategic design at all is because it wants to cut costs, not improve services. If so, it has its eye on the wrong ball. The lesson from Finland, which sought to reform its education system while it was still the world's best, is that you do these things for their own sake. Strategic design is simply good practice, it's not a recession-buster. © 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

August 12 2011

London riots: lessons for urban policy

At architecture journal bdonline, Wouter Vanstiphout's piece about the planning and related political implications of the riots begins in urban France:

In November 2005 French President Jacques Chirac welcomed back normality, after weeks of riots in the French banlieues. Instead of 1,000 to 1,500 vehicles being burnt every night, it went back to 163, and then kept to the normal 50 to 150. Every night of the year dozens of cars are being set on fire in the French banlieues and this had been going on for years on end.

What is normality to a French banlieue? It can mean that in the morning the elderly, women and children – and sometimes architects and historians looking for modernist housing projects from the sixties – can freely roam between the slabs and blocks, shop, play and look around.

After that the unemployed young men appear from their bedrooms and take up their positions near the entrances of the apartment blocks and on street corners. The elderly, women and children scuttle back home and the tourists leave altogether. The young men whistle and sign to each other, taunt and threaten the belated visitors and the semi-militarised police that buzz by in vans.

In many French banlieues, day turns into night around noon. Once, in one of these places, we approached a group of heavily armed policemen to ask for directions on the central square of a French housing estate.

They looked around nervously and said we shouldn't stand still for too long, because one of the gangs could start throwing rocks. They then said that we should really really be back in the historic city centre within the hour; it was 3pm. They themselves would be out of there at dusk, at the latest. This was between riots, this was normality.

I know of nowhere in London that matches that description, but can we rule such scenarios out of the capital's future? The comparison is inexact: "banlieue" means the urban outskirts, not the inner city areas where our riots began and mostly occurred. However, some fear that the effect of the government's housing and other benefit reforms will be to foster banlieue-type concentrations of social marginalisation in London's poorer suburbs, making the capital's current situation even worse.

Vanstiphout continues:

In many ways, the [French] riots were "just" spectacular worsenings of a chronic condition, extrapolations on a permanent crisis lived by millions, but neglected by tens of millions. Something became visible for a moment, and then disappeared again, as a bad dream. Behind the scenes however a mechanism is in place that contains the badness, that keeps it from spilling over again, while making it inevitable that it will...the banlieues and their inhabitants have been effectively abandoned...

One person did well out of it, though: Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a minister of the interior fanned the flames by going on television, standing shoulder to shoulder with the riot police and calling the rioters scum (racaille) who would be wiped away; then rode the wave of popular fear all the way to the presidency, from where he invited a battalion of international architects to give back France its glory, by designing futures of the French capital, "Le Grand Paris"....

Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way.

I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental [my emphasis].

Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups, their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.

Something there for politicians of all persuasions to reflect on. And there's more:

It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities.

The first would be to work against the ever sharpening inequality of London, making it one of the unfairest cities in Europe, in poverty levels, education, crime and other indicators.

But then the reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and citizens looking away even further.

After a riot, your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.

A "normal" that is unacceptable.

Wouter Vanstiphout is a partner at Crimson Architectural Historians in Rotterdam and professor of Design & Politics at the Technical University Delft. He is currently researching the relationship between urban riots and urban planning. I'm very grateful to @amarkodio for bringing Vanstiphout's article to my attention. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 24 2011

The shape of things to come?

Westminster's Chelsea Barracks planning decision is the latest in a series of victories for the heritage school of HRH. And there are signs that his views are falling on friendly ears in government

Not so long ago it seemed that Prince Charles, architecture guru and scourge of modernists, was safely shut up in his box. He seemed finally to have listened to shadowy advisers telling him that it would be inappropriate to get involved in public wrangles. The public and political mood had shifted in favour of the new. Contemporary buildings – the Gherkin, for example – were popular. The Prince's old adversary Lord (Richard) Rogers had the ear first of Tony Blair and then of Ken Livingstone, and some version of his theories influenced the planning system.

Furious letters would still spew from the prince's desk, urging developers to sack architects he did not like, or ministers to save an old building that he did, but these were private, and often ignored. The days when he could have multi-million pound developments ripped up and redesigned were seemingly consigned to the era of Wham! and Brideshead Revisited.

Now, however, he is enjoying his greatest influence in two decades. Last week Westminster city council approved prince-backed plans for redeveloping Chelsea Barracks in London, two years after his intervention led to a previous plan, by Rogers, being abandoned. The classicist architects the prince favours are quietly busy producing new country houses for the rich, "urban extensions" to country towns, and rural and suburban housing developments. The government is paying the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment to advise local groups on planning their neighbourhoods. The government's localism bill, currently winding through parliament, is supposed to empower villages and small communities to draw up their own development plans. If it works as intended, the future built environment of Britain, outside the big cities, could be prince-flavoured.

The first version of the architectural prince was launched in 1984 when, invited to mouth platitudes to a dinner celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he shocked his hosts by denouncing them. He famously called a proposed extension to the National Gallery a "monstrous carbuncle", though its architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek were then up-and-coming and, as it happened, noted for their skill with building in historic settings such as Keble College, Oxford. The prince's words dealt them a blow from which they never fully recovered. In further speeches he attacked other projects, and jumpy developers would then install architects, regardless of their ability or experience, blessed by the prince for their use of a classical style.

These architects would not always last the distance, being themselves replaced in due course by practices better able to deliver commercial projects. Often the effect of the Prince's actions was to delay development by many years, while developers worked the planning system to get the most they could out of the site. At Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, he had objected to an initial scheme partly on the grounds that it was too big and greedy. What was eventually built, much later, had a classical look but was even bigger. At London Bridge City, next to Tower Bridge, a prince-friendly, mock-Venetian proposal transmogrified into Norman Foster-designed grey glass blocks around what is now City Hall.

With the National Gallery, however, and some other sites, he got his way, while the mere thought of him could drive developers into a pre-emptive cringe, dressing up their blocks in columns and pediments in case they attracted his displeasure. Not that they were unhappy to do this – the prince captured a common mood, in the Thatcher years, of yearning for past glories and returning to supposedly traditional values. Architects, meanwhile, were still widely reviled for their actual and alleged failures in the 1960s, so their complaints at the prince's highhandedness got short shrift from the press. They objected that his actions were an abuse of his position, that he was ignorant and petulant, and that, while he was only too happy to launch attacks on others, he resolutely refused to engage in any kind of debate himself. But these objections did not get very far.

The prince had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, a book, a TV programme. He founded an architecture school based on the premise that there was an untapped hunger for learning architecture in the traditional way, and in 1994 he launched a magazine, Perspectives, promoting his views. In 1988 he commissioned the visionary urban theorist Leon Krier to produce a plan for developing Poundbury, an area of land outside Dorchester, Dorset, belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. Krier had famously declared ,"I am an architect, therefore I do not build", meaning that the modern world was too benighted to produce good architecture. The prince managed to persuade him otherwise.

There were separate strands to his philosophy, not wholly intertwining. One was populist, arguing that most people liked old-looking buildings, so experts should not impose modernism against their wishes. Another was nostalgic, with a preference for English classical architecture of about 300 years ago. Another was mystical, arguing that there are deep harmonies in the universe which are reflected in the sort of buildings he liked.

Perspectives did not thrill the masses, and closed. Nor did students flock to the architecture school, which was restructured as the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, with a reduced emphasis on education. Meanwhile the prince's architectural court was subject to intrigues that would have delighted the Borgias. Fashion changed, architects became less hated, and a few more people than embittered professionals began to see that there was something wrong with the prince using his fame and status to intervene in debates which he possibly did not understand. Apart from Poundbury, the prince's influence seemed to shrink to the area around Buckingham Palace, where one of his pet architects, John Simpson, rebuilt the Queen's Gallery, and another, Liam O'Connor, designed the Commonwealth Memorial Gates as a reduced-scale version of Lutyens's monuments in New Delhi.

But Poundbury was his lifeline, and his biggest success. Here he was doing what he wanted with his own land rather than meddling in the affairs of others. Although Poundbury got the look – it is a medley of Georgian, Dorset cottage and pointy, Gothicky bits – it also embodied principles which went beyond his stylistic taste, and which were not so different from those of adversaries like Richard Rogers. It mixes uses, putting offices and workshops in among houses, rather than in separate zones. It mixes affordable housing with market housing, such that it is hard to tell the difference. It is built at higher density than typical suburbs, so that it consumes less land and encourages neighbourliness. It promotes pedestrian movement over driving.

Buyers liked it. It achieved above-average values, and properties appreciated. Its periphery is now a whirr of construction, as more and more homes are built to meet the demand to live there. Personally, it makes my flesh creep, with its winsome, confected quality, and with its paranoid insistence on conjuring a bygone world that never existed, which illusion is painfully punctured by the appearance of modern steel frames in the half-built buildings. As even one of the Prince's allies says: "You can't claim it is traditionally Dorset by any stretch of the imagination."

But I wouldn't live in Dorchester anyway, and I can see that it works, and that it is much better than the average housebuilders' wares. I can even see some charm in the winding lanes, now softened by well-established planting.

Similar ideas were applied on other Duchy of Cornwall properties, in places like Shepton Mallet and Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Meanwhile the foundation, repurposed as an advisory, thinktank sort of body, made itself more credible. Its chief executive, Hank Dittmar, was formerly a leading light of the American New Urbanism movement, which has been pumping out walkable, compact residential developments for some time. Its most famous work is Seaside, the holiday town in Florida where The Truman Show was shot. Under Labour the foundation talked the government-approved talk of sustainability, regeneration and public participation. It developed something called Enquiry by Design, where local residents and experts come together in workshops before plans for new development are completed: the idea is that local knowledge and wishes are incorporated into the final designs. The foundation won the attention of John Prescott, and advised on the planning of Upton, an extension of Northampton, on Poundbury-esque principles. Now, in Sunderland, Ayrshire, Swansea, Burnley and elsewhere, there are foundation-led plans in various stages of completion. The foundation has even been hired by the developers First Base, usually known for their use of contemporary design, to advise on a classical-looking development in a conservation area in Highbury, north London.

It has published a book called Tradition and Sustainability, and is building a prototype, called the Natural House, which aims to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not require modern-looking gadgets but can be achieved with something that looks like an approximation of an 1840s villa. The foundation has gone international, with projects in China, the Galapagos, and Haiti, the latter a plan in the heart of Port au Prince, which looks wildly optimistic in its serene orderliness.

The foundation apart, architects from the princely fold are doing well. Robert Adam, of Adam Architecture, has long been the most business-like of traditionalist architects and, having designed some projects for the Duchy of Cornwall, is now masterplanning an extension to Dover with a whopping 5,750 homes, and residential developments in Waterlooville and Aldershot. He also has a nice line in huge, brand new country houses, which he says reflects the fact that "London is a global city". His clients are "Russians, Indians, Middle Eastern: they want the English dream but they want to be able to do what they like with their house, which they can't do if it's old". Adam recently lost a planning inquiry into his enormous £20m Athlone House proposal in Hampstead, but has plenty more opportunities of a similar kind.

At Chelsea Barracks the prince had written a personal letter to the ruler of Qatar, as his family's property company Qatari Diar were owners of the site, urging him to abandon Richard Rogers's plans. His "heart sank" at the sight of what he called "a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city". He punted an alternative scheme by Quinlan Terry, the doyen of modern classicists, and his son Francis. Ultimately the Terrys did not get the job, but Rogers was fired and a collaboration of Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and the landscape architect Kim Wilkie, produced designs which aim to reproduce the virtues of Georgian and Victorian terraces and squares. This was a turning point, a moment of regime change. Lord Rogers's project would, if built, have been the fulfilment of years of campaigning and building influence with the likes of Ken Livingstone in order to realise his vision of the city. Its dumping, supported by Tories like the deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, marked the end of that particular era.

The Chelsea Barracks Action Group, made up of local residents, were vociferous opponents of the Rogers scheme, and were delighted with the prince's actions. Now, however, they are disappointed that a change of style has not changed the fact that the proposed housing blocks are up to 100 feet high. "They will be regarded in history as the beginning of the end of our gracious English city," says the chair of the group, Georgine Thorburn, using prince-like language. She also says that the Qataris have "duped" the council. Alas for the group, unless Boris Johnson can be persuaded to intervene, her words come too late. In the latest version of prince-ism, the pragmatists have won over the mystics and true believers, which means that, as the prince himself inclines to the latter camp, his own input is diluted. His recent contribution to the mystic cause, a book called Harmony, failed to set the world on fire. Quinlan Terry, always the purest of the classicists, is doing perfectly well with country houses, buildings for Downing College, Cambridge, and occasional commercial work, but he is not shaping whole towns.

The Prince's Foundation, according to Elliot Lipton of developers First Base, "is very flexible. It has no preconceptions, which isn't what you might expect if you listened to their leader. They're very good at understanding real world trade-offs."

The foundation gets into bed with developers such as Wimpey in Westoe, South Shields, with the result that they achieve an arguably better version of usual Wimpey fare, rather than a radical alternative. Upton, the extension to Northampton, as Hank Dittmar acknowledges, is a partly compromised version of the original intentions. By being more pragmatic, the foundation gets less distinctive: plenty of others have put forward energy-efficient houses, and public consultation, and walkable, high-density communities. These ideas are "sort of the norm, mainstream", says Robert Adam. Works outside the princely sphere, like the Greenwich Millennium Village, and the Accordia development in Cambridge, put them into practice.

What remains distinctive is the look, the preference for a randomised variety of traditional styles, with Georgian and Country Cottage foremost among them. This is a source of strength, as a lot of people like this – according to Robert Adam, 70% prefer old-looking buildings to new. The competition, in the form of volume housebuilders' standard product, is largely poor. In combination, these factors are effective when it comes to reducing outrage at controversial plans, which, with continuous pressure of development in town and country, will continue to appear. Poundbury itself is the expansion of Dorchester into green fields, and many locals still object to it on those grounds. The Dover expansion, as Adam recognises, met strong opposition on the grounds of its size. The switch of styles got Chelsea Barracks through the planning system, to Georgine Thorburn's dismay.

Under the localism bill, communities and villages will have the power to draw up their own plans for development, in ways that benefit them. There is scepticism as to whether this will really happen, but if it does, communities will face the central problem of rural planning: how to reconcile the pressures for new development, the high values that housing can yield, the need for affordable new homes, and the preservation of villages. The models offered by the Prince's Foundation, with a combination of public consultation, and a style that tries to disguise that change has happened, will be attractive. Even if localised planning does not work, the palliative effect of traditionalist design will still be in demand.

I have long believed that the prince should keep his mouth shut rather than use his inherited status to give weight to views greater than his wisdom alone would merit. He should not change policies, lives and careers with the force of his name. Sometimes he might be right, sometimes wrong, but that is not the point. In 2009 the RIBA, ever masochists, invited him back for their 175th birthday. Sitting through his talk I felt growing rage at his tendentious nonsense – the demonstrably untrue statement that modernist architects were nature-haters, for example – and at the fact that no one was allowed to challenge him directly. He sallies forth to attack others then immediately takes shelter behind the dignity of his position. I also find depressing the idea that a modern house can be no better than a half-convincing photocopy of an old one, or that, as we live in a time when large windows are easy to achieve, we should build small, mean ones, as in Poundbury, just because they look old.

Yet he is entitled to do what he likes, within the constraints applied to any landowner, with his own property, and he and his associates have come up with ways of building new rural developments that have a certain logic. The range of alternative models is not abundant, and architects and developers who would do better should study the reasons for the appeal of the prince's way. As things stand, Poundbury is a glimpse of the future. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 30 2011

A symbol of towering ambition

It's the dream of a former rag-trade baron, designed by Renzo Piano and financed by Qatar. And the Shard, even in its incomplete state, is already dominating London's skyline

It's a punt, a hustle, a gambit, a try-on. It is a trophy of punk urbanism, dressed by a Pritzker-winning architect. It owes its life to a motley band that includes a socialist mayor, Qatari royalty and a developer once treated as a bit of a joke. At one time, it looked like a fantasy or a stunt but, now rising fast next to London Bridge station, the Shard is undeniably there. It is the tallest building in Britain, even in its far-from-finished state. It is fast becoming London's, and the country's, most conspicuous monument.

Its progenitor is Irvine Sellar, who first made his name as a baron of boutiques in the 1960s rag trade, before moving into property and going spectacularly bust in the early 90s. When, in 2000, he revealed the tower that would become the Shard, he was better known for developing business units in Warrington and Portsmouth and he had limited experience of buildings over three storeys. The big, established property companies doubted almost everything about him: his expertise, his backing, even whether his luxuriant hair was really all his own.

His site was a cramped piece of space next to London Bridge station, then occupied by a brownish, 1970s structure, the 24-storey Southwark Towers. The location was a poor relation of the City, just across the Thames, but it was one favoured by the London Plan, drawn up under the then mayor Ken Livingstone. This encouraged tall buildings on sites next to large interchanges, on the grounds that it would concentrate people as close as possible to public transport.

The London Plan also said that tall buildings should be well designed, whatever that might mean. Sellar brought in Renzo Piano, the suave Genovese architect who designed the Pompidou Centre with Richard Rogers, and, more recently, the New York Times Tower. Piano had a reputation for refinement and craftsmanship and an aura of fame. He replaced the project's less glamorous first architects, Broadway Malyan, although they were retained to assist with the project.

Piano declared that his design was inspired by old pictures of church spires and ships' masts on the river. It would, he said, "have a nice light presence". At the bottom it would "melt with the City" and at the top it would "come to almost nothing". "Towers belong to our imagination," he said, "and if a new one can fit with the dream of people it will be a success." He said it would be a "shard of crystal", with angled planes in a special kind of glass, that would catch the changing light.

Unusually, it would not just be a stack of office floors, but a "vertical village", including a hotel, public viewing deck and luxury apartments near the top, with a "radiator" at the very pinnacle which would catch cooling breezes as part of the project's effort to be sustainable. The tower's height was to be 310 metres.

The Shard got planning permission from the London Borough of Southwark, but then had to survive a public inquiry, which examined whether it interfered unacceptably with views of St Paul's Cathedral from Hampstead Heath. It was decided it did not. John Prescott, then the minister in charge of planning, declared that he was "satisfied that the proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality".

Ken Livingstone was also an enthusiastic supporter, keen to set a precedent for the many towers he wanted built in London, and he promised that Transport for London would move its offices there, in a bid to make the project more viable. Even so, it seemed unlikely that such an expensive and complex work could be built, especially when the financial wind changed. Many expected Sellar to sell the site and pocket the profit that came with getting planning permission.

It was saved by the Qataris who, as part of a strategy of acquiring glamorous London developments, bought an 80% stake in 2008. And now it is appearing, with that quality of unarguable but implausible fact that often accompanies skyscrapers. The offices, flats, hotel and viewing gallery will all be there. Its glass currently looks more prosaic than the magical stuff Piano promised and the tower doesn't look quite as light and melting as he suggested, or as shimmery as the computer images showed, although final judgment should be reserved until the whole form is there. The main thing Piano has brought, that firms like Broadway Malyan have not, is single-mindedness, consistency and confidence. This building doesn't dither.

It does indeed dwarf St Paul's when seen from Parliament Hill, especially when captured with a telephoto lens, but whether it is a stab in the heart of London's scenery is debatable. I don't favour the random desecration of views, but this one was already more haphazard and compromised than most. If you peer at the distant dome with the big spike behind it, it's uncomfortable, but not to a degree that should be outlawed. Many of the heath's strollers, snoggers and dogwalkers will not give a second glance to this architectural knifing dimly visible through the haze.

What the Shard does do is change the sense of scale in the whole centre of the City. It's as if a zoom-out button has been pressed, making hefty works like Tate Modern and Tower Bridge look a bit smaller. This is not the first time such a shift has happened: Inigo Jones's Banqueting House, which now looks petite, once dwarfed its neighbours and buildings such as St Pancras station and Harrods led previous jumps in scale. The Shard happens to be the biggest yet. It is a visitation from a hyperverse where different dimensions apply and also different orders of money. In this, the Shard resembles One Hyde Park, another creation of the coalition of Livingstone's politics, Qatari finance and eminent hi-tech architects.

It is a symbol, but of what? Not of an ideal or a heroic event, obviously, but not exactly of the inexorable march of economics, either. It is not a pure expression of land values or of profit-and-loss calculations. It's more eccentric than that, something that popped through a gap in London's wonky, many-layered planning system, where opinion and discussion counts for more than clear rules, and where many years and hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent deliberating arbitrary questions of taste. It is the crystallisation of a series of deals, involving players from Cricklewood, Hull, Southwark, the Gulf and Italy.

If anyone had sat down to plan the most sensible distribution of towers in London, they would not have come up with the Shard, standing alone on a crowded site in a location that is still a bit rackety, with little apparent relation to the things around it. But no one plans London like this and it's unlikely to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, the startling, part-graceful, part-clunky, impressive, slightly nutty Shard is a true monument to the city that made it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2010

'I defend people against property developers'

Prince's private secretary claims he opposed modernist design out of duty to make ordinary people's views heard

It is an unlikely claim for a prince who enjoys a £17m private annual income and employs 16 gardeners but Clarence House today said that Prince Charles believes it is his duty to defend "ordinary people" against profiteering property developers.

The claim was made as part of a fightback following a high court ruling that appeared to check the prince's ability to intervene in major planning decisions.

A judge ruled last week that the prince's campaign against the design of a redevelopment of the Chelsea barracks in London was "unwelcome". The judgment sparked criticism that Charles had overstepped his constitutional role by secretly lobbying at the highest levels against planning applications he disliked.

Today Sir Michael Peat, the prince's private secretary, claimed Charles opposed Lord Rogers' £3bn modernist designs because "it is part of the Prince of Wales' role and duty to make sure the views of ordinary people that might not otherwise be heard receive some exposure".

The prince wrote privately to Qatar's prime minister voicing his opposition to the plans for apartments on the Qatari-owned land. But far from acting in his own interests against designs, "he was only writing to the Qataris because he was asked to do so [by local residents]", Peat claimed. The emirate's state-owned developer scrapped the scheme after Charles had proposed an alternative design by Quinlan Terry, a classical architect he admires.

"For many developers, hearing the views of local residents is very unexpected and unwelcome," said Peat. "They are there just wanting to make money."

The claim that Charles is duty-bound to stand up for ordinary people's interests in disputes with major property developers came as it was announced that the prince earned a record £17.2m last year from the Duchy of Cornwall, a professionally managed £664m property empire run solely to fund his lifestyle which has been criticised for failing to listen to the views of its tenants on new developments.

"It is frustrating to hear he thinks he is on the side of ordinary people against developers, because villagers and the parish council here have sent him dozens of letters over the last few years," said Jane Giddins, parish council chairwoman at Newton St Loe, a duchy-owned village near Bath, where the duchy has been planning 2,000 new homes on neighbouring fields.

"We have only ever received replies from the Duchy of Cornwall, fobbing us off. People in this village are at best bemused and at worst feel let down by His Royal Highness. No one can understand why he has not been listening."

Opponents of his interventions believe the prince cannot claim to represent ordinary people because he cannot be held accountable by them.

"Any individual who feels strongly about representing the people should stand for election," Lord Rogers said last night. "There is a carefully organised democratic system of electing councillors who appoint planning officers and there is a process which allows the public to hold open meetings where they can air their feelings. All of that happened over the four years' planning process for Chelsea barracks."

Peat said Charles only intervened on Chelsea barracks after local residents approached him about their concerns.

"They had commissioned Quinlan Terry to propose an alternative design which they sent to the Prince of Wales," said Peat. "They asked him to do what he could to ensure their views received exposure. Their views represented the views of the majority. They asked whether he might be able to raise the issue with the Qataris and so he did."

But Charles' letter to the Qatari prime minister on 1 March 2009 contains no reference to any local opposition to the scheme or anyone asking him to write on their behalf. Charles told Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani he was writing because "quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans". He indicated he was motivated by personal concerns, saying: "For the entire duration of my life we have had to witness the destruction of so many parts of London, with one more 'brutalist' development after another."

Even though the existence of the prince's letter decrying the scheme only emerged in full in a high court dispute between the developers after the designs were scrapped, Peat denied the prince was trying to secretly undermine the project.

"He wasn't writing and expressing views that were private and weren't in the public domain," he said. "He was representing what the local residents were saying all along, so it was well-aired."

Campaigners for a democratically elected head of state said the royal household's claim that the prince has a duty to get involved in planning breaches constitutional principles.

"The role he is making for himself contradicts a well-established constitutional principle that the monarch and the heir to the throne keep out of politics, and that includes planning, for the very good reason that they are not accountable," said Graham Smith, campaigns director of Republic.

"It also appears he is only the people's representative when it coincides with his own views. Someone genuinely representing ordinary people would do so regardless of his personal views." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 10 2010

Save Hadleigh from Tesco

The final leg of Jonathan Glancey's road trip follows the route of consumerism to his hometown, where residents are fighting a proposed superstore

June 09 2010

Road rage

Jonathan Glancey stops off at the M1 service station that used to be Newport Pagnell, before taking in the old towns of Cambridge and Ely

June 08 2010

Planning to fail

Jonathan Glancey continues in the path of architecture critic Ian Nairn, visiting the once-proud market town of Northampton and the vast goods depots of Daventry

June 07 2010

Outrage revisited

In the first of a four-part series on Britain's postwar architecture, Jonathan Glancey travels to Milton Keynes – where idealistic town planning became corrupted by commercial realities

February 04 2010

Foundry to make way for hotel

Beloved centre of London's alternative art scene for a decade is set for demolition, but six-metre Banksy mural to be preserved

Pete Doherty used to host its poetry nights, the band Hot Chip formed there, and artists from Banksy to Gavin Turk have adorned its walls and propped up its bar.

But now the Foundry, an east London gallery and pub that for more than a decade has served as a focal point for the area's alternative art scene, is set to be demolished after the site's owners drew up plans for an 18-storey hotel and retail complex.

Hackney council last night approved plans to pull down the building which houses the much-loved if rather ramshackle space in Shoreditch close to the edge of the City, despite protests from the gallery's founders that it performs a vital artistic function in the London borough.

In what its supporters regard as a particularly ironic twist, the council intends to salvage a wall painted with one of the biggest Banksy murals in Britain, even as the remainder of the building is demolished. The planned redevelopment, part of the Art'otel chain, will also incorporate gallery and retail space and a spa.

Foundry founders Tracey and Jonathan Moberly expect to be evicted by April, when the site will be cleared for the construction of a circular tower block by award-winning architects Squire and Partners. The Moberlys said they were "pretty resigned" to the fact that the art space would close, and had no objections to the conduct of the architects or the developers, Park Plaza hotels. "That's fair enough. This isn't our building, we've been renting, and they have been supportive in helping us look for another premises," said Tracey Moberly.

But the couple are angry with Hackney council, which they accused of refusing to designate the Foundry as an artistic space, which they say would require the council to seek to resettle it in other premises, preferring to refer to it in planning documents only as a pub.

The council has also specified its intention in the planning officer's report for the "safe removal and retention of 'Banksy' art work" – a six-metre high painting of a rat with a knife and fork over which the building's owners have constructed a protective wooden covering. A spokeswoman for Squire and Partners said: "The aim of the client and design team is to permanently locate the artworks on site, in one of the public galleries at ground floor – this is to be agreed with Hackney council."

A council spokesman said it would not comment on any aspect of the development ahead of the planning meeting.

The Moberlys, an artist and a former art publisher, opened the gallery in the former bank building in the late 1990s, intending it to be a place where any artist, regardless of experience, could exhibit free of charge. The couple opened a bar on the ground floor to cover their expenses, but have always considered its two basement galleries and performance spaces, linked by graffiti adorned walls, to be the building's main focal point. They have forged long-standing links with artists in Russia and Haiti and regularly display works by international artists.

The comedian and activist Mark ­Thomas, who has performed there, said the Foundry was "one of the most truly artistic spaces in London". He described its battered sofas and graffitied walls as "the fixtures and fittings of London's underground art scene" and the Moberlys as "the Saatchis of alternative art" in the capital.

"What's unique about it is their ethos that anyone can exhibit there, from Gavin Turk to a student who just happens to have an interest in maps, or something," Thomas said. "It's totally unique. And now in its place we'll have another hotel, another shopping mall, another huge cinema."

"If you go there you realise that it's not like any other space in London," said Turk. "Shoreditch has become so commercialised, like the new West End, and there isn't really anywhere that runs like the Foundry does."

Darren Coxson, a co-founder of a welfare charity for London bike couriers, said his colleagues loved the Foundry for other reasons – namely that it offered so much space on its pavement outside to park their bicycles.

"We are quite a transient, international community and the non-corporate, artistic atmosphere fits with the courier lifestyle. For me, these modern developments completely take away the character of an area," he said.

But Squire and Partners said there was also "significant local support for the scheme, which will help regenerate this part of Shoreditch".

The Moberlys are looking for alternative premises, but are eager to stay close to the area's transport links and diverse community. "We'd like to dig our heels in and stay in this area," said Tracey Moberly. "It's not going to be easy, but it has to be possible."

First, however, they would like to talk to Tate Modern about the possibility of relocating the gallery's subterranean graffitied walls, where early murals by Banksy and New York street artists Faile have been scribbled over by countless art lovers, poetry fans and drinkers. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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