Architecture: the triumphs and the tragedies
We ask leading figures in the architectural world to take stock of what’s happening in the profession, to nominate praiseworthy projects and to name and shame the blots on the landscape
Leading figures give their verdicts— good, bad and otherwise—on the profession today
Alan Powers, London School of Architecture The good
Small houses in the country with consistency of materials and ideas, such as Edinburghbased A449’s conversion of a family home in Gattonside in the Scottish borders—a simple house-shaped house clad in scorched larch.
Tasteful house-shaped houses with unusual materials. Too many self-admiring, gimmicky, designs. All the Classical ones are disappointing—old songs played slightly out of tune.
Buildings can play a major role in resilience to extreme weather. Moving towards low-energy homes is straightforward as technology improves and costs come down, but, in 2016, the Government lowered standards on energy efficiency in building, deferring the Code for Sustainable Homes until 2021 and removing the incentive to create products that could be global leaders in the field.
In cities, the conspicuous vanity projects of the past 10 years will appear as arrogant blunders. Aim for modesty and reticence.
Catherine Croft, director, 20th Century Society The good
All credit to Leicester University for the recent replacement of the amazing, prismatic glazed roof structure of Stirling and Gowans’ Grade Ii*-listed engineering building and to York Theatre Royal for the upgrade of the Peter Moro Foyer.
I really regret the Design Museum scheme for the Commonwealth Institute, W8, where little of the original building and landscap- ing survives, and the recent scheme for the refurbishment of Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, E14, which rejects authentic Brutalism in favour of a hipster faux-brutalist makeover.
People rightly rail against schemes that ‘preserve in aspic’, but there are too many projects that see existing 20th-century buildings as little more than flawed raw material in need of a new image. This might sometimes be fair, but it is a disaster if adopted as a starting point.
Good conservation schemes start by understanding why the building was built as it was and, from that base, finding a way to keep as much of the original fabric and reinforcing the interesting, successful aspects of it. Change will be needed to suit new users, to upgrade environmental performance and improve disabled access, but the end objective should not be to create a different species.
Lachlan Stewart, Angus Black and Iain Vaughan Levens of ANTA The good
In Scotland, creative approaches to building houses through community groups and Government-funding initiatives for selfbuilders are helping to diversify building stock. Social housing at Burnside, Plockton, in Wester Ross, by Rural Design Architects is using two different housing forms and Highland building materials, such as stone, harl, timber, slate and corrugated sheeting. The collective efforts on Harris to open a distillery and the economic benefits the community has enjoyed have been inspiring.
In Scotland, there has been an unfettered, profit-led developer rash of ill-conceived housing that, although meeting demand for numbers, fails to deliver on quality of space and community. The Public Private Partnership school programme from Highland Council, delivering bad architecture that has no place in the Highland urban context, has produced a series of monster buildings that will be a maintenance headache for years to come and have a life expectancy of less than 25 years.
There is a group of Highland architects working within the Scottish tradition, creating interesting vernacular buildings that respond and work with the landscape, are
energy-wise and are fit for contemporary life. Not enough affordable land is being made available to small-scale builders and we need to promote more community engaged developments.
Adam Wilkinson, director, Edinburgh World Heritage The good
The mix in Edinburgh Old Town in Advocates Close: Morgan Mcdonnell’s approach included modern and traditional elements, but, importantly, it tried to work with the weft and weave of the complex, layered north side of the Old Town. Generally, it seems that Edinburgh architects excel at stitching small buildings into the city, but struggle with larger developments.
In the Chapel of St Albert the Great, tucked into the garden of a George Square town house, Simpson & Brown’s poetic addition continues the tradition of extraordinary spaces behind seemingly uniform Georgian façades.
What goes down, must come up—sir Basil Spence’s unloved Brutalist St James Centre, long a brooding presence on Edinburgh’s skyline, is coming down. What should be a cause for celebration has not been met When rebuilt, Park Crescent West in W1 needs to reflect Nash’s intentions with universal acclamation, however. The bar set by the quality of the surrounding New Town is high and its replacement, designed by Allan Murray Architects, does not appear to speak of Edinburgh.
Thomas Hamilton’s Greek-revival-style Royal High School remains in the balance. On one hand, there’s the hotelier’s approach, via John Mcaslan Architects, that seeks to add two large extension wings to the Classical-
Romantic composition, and on the other is Richard Murphy’s discreet—and fully funded —design for a music school, neatly tucked into the landscape and restoring the building’s wider setting. We are 250 years on from the acceptance of James Craig’s winning entry as the basis for a New Town in Edinburgh, yet we’ve not seen a new Classical building in the city centre for 20 years.
Marcus Binney, president, SAVE Britain’s Heritage The good
It took a 12-year campaign by SAVE to rescue 400 Victorian terraced houses in Liverpool’s Welsh Streets. These are now being renovated by Placefirst as an attractive mix of affordable rental properties and shared-ownership properties; 194 will be let at market rents and 35 will be available to buy. Thousands more houses can be rescued in this way.
Another pioneering scheme is the Portobello Square estate in Kensington, a 1960s and 1970s failed housing estate being rebuilt as mansion flats by Catalyst Homes. The first phase, in partnership with Peabody, comprises 91 homes, of which 36 are for social rent, 37 for shared ownership and 18 for private sale.
The greatest need is for more attractive new homes at affordable prices. Government figures quoted by the Empty Homes Agency cite more than 200,000 empty houses.
The country can teach the city. Many of the best new houses, built of local materials—notably flint in Norfolk—are in smaller towns and large villages. They may be small-scale developments, but they meet a need. ‘Small is Beautiful’ can produce more homes than ‘Big is Best’.
Matthew Slocombe, director, SPAB The good
Architects in training often imagine they will be designing shiny, sculptural buildings that will sit in isolation, when the reality is that much work involves adaptation or addition and that the new work will sit within a many-layered historic landscape. We generally embrace sensitive adaptation where it contributes to the ongoing life of an old building and is not constrained by style.
Sometimes, a form and materials that reflect the old will be most appropriate, but, on other occasions, as at the Landmark Trust’s Astley Castle in Warwickshire or the Churches Conservation Trust’s All Souls, Bolton, Lancashire, something more radical will be entirely appropriate.
Where architecture particularly goes wrong is with schemes that, through an empty gesture towards conservation, leave a building that has no value as something old or something new. There’s an example of façadism near Liverpool Street station in London that is so woeful, it nearly makes me weep.
We’re trying to be more constructive through our annual Philip Webb Award—which aims to encourage good new design for old buildings among students and early-career architects—but it’s an uphill struggle; training still seems geared towards new design out of context.
Christopher Costelloe, director, Victorian Society The good
British architecture can boast many recent conservation successes, such as King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. The adjacent Goods Yard development shows how high-quality refurbishment of historic buildings and extensive development can transform an area without skyscrapers. The popularity of inner-city living has enabled the rejuvenation of many such places, from London’s Shoreditch to Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Lack of proper strategic city planning has led to tall buildings being erected with little regard to their impact. Much is made of their effect on skylines, but the poor way in which many hit the ground is arguably of more importance. Compare the aridity of The Shard with the vibrant streetlife of nearby Borough Market: it’s unacceptable for redeveloped city blocks to have nothing at ground level save an office entrance, a service entrance, acres of plate glass and a chain coffee bar.
Housing, perhaps the greatest failure of governments over a generation, is the great challenge. We are not building enough houses and those we do build are of the smallest average size in Europe and frequently of poor quality. We have a lot to learn from countries such as the Netherlands, which deal with similar challenges better, and from our Victorian and Georgian forebears, who developed simple, but effective, adaptable housing types of high density that have stood the test of time.
Kenneth Powell, author of New London Architecture The good
From my home on the southern fringe of Battersea in London, it’s a short hop to Burntwood School in SW17, winner of the RIBA’S Stirling Prize in 2015. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris brilliantly extended an existing post-second World War campus with half a dozen new buildings that take their cue from the humane 1960s Modernism of Powell & Moya and Howell Killick Partridge Amis.
The ongoing restoration of Battersea Power Station, with its four chimneys rebuilt, equally raises the spirits, although there is little to be said for the ‘luxury’ apartments engulfing this great monument. Contrast them with the new housing at Burridge Gardens, by Clapham Junction, designed by Hawkins/brown for Peabody: beautifully detailed and in tune with its context. Similar projects surely offer the way forward for social housing.
How tragic that Wandsworth Council has encouraged the despoliation of the riverside upstream from Nine Elms with a series of overbearing residential developments.
I can only hope that Sadiq Khan, as Mayor of London, can use his powers to reverse the steady erosion of the city’s historic character.
Simon Jenkins, author of England’s Thousand Best Churches The good
The greatest debt we owe to Britain’s historic buildings is their instinct for context. The greatest betrayal is to neglect that instinct in the buildings we bequeath to the future. The Georgians knew how to set buildings in landscape and the Victorians knew how to adapt style to place and purpose.
The visual tragedies of our age: the random towers, warehouses, turbines and housing estates that litter town and country without care for design or context, bearing witness to the collapse of Britain’s finest cultural invention —planning—with the emasculation of planners and inspectors through political override.
The Stirling and other architectural prizes invariably go to isolated buildings, usually large ones pictured exclusive of their setting. The character once given to towns by street and square has vanished: gated towers are mendaciously called villages, slabs are called communities and, in the countryside, the ideal of the village cluster is crushed by the economies of the volume estate.
We need to recapture confidence in the word ‘beauty’, especially in the countryside, where it comes more naturally to mind. Rural buildings are not ‘in’ the country—by virtue of location, they ‘are’ the country. Like the vexed question of houses in the green belt, the issue is not just whether they should be there, but, if they are, how they should look. We must find a new language to describe what we value in our surroundings or we will value nothing.
David Mckinstry, secretary, The Georgian Group The good
Kilboy, Co Tipperary (Country Life, September 7, 2016), where a new Palladian villa has replaced a post-second World War bungalow on the site of an 18th-century house. Its quality rebuts the assertion that Georgian architecture is either impossible to replicate or that Classical design is irrelevant in the 21st century.
Examples of restored detail improving buildings or neighbourhoods include 31, Great James Street, WC1, where the replacement of plate glass with glazing bars to an early Georgian town house transformed the building and enhanced the street. Park Crescent West, W1, was rebuilt in replica after the Second World War and listed Grade I. During its recent demolition, we argued that rather than rebuild the 1960s interpretation of Nash, the original designs should be used to ensure the new building will reflect Nash’s intentions accurately.
Following bomb damage in the Second World War, Barry’s 1835–9 interiors of the Royal College of Surgeons were faithfully rebuilt in replica. Recently, the college submitted an application to remove its ‘ageing’ interior in favour of a ‘modern, light and flexible facility’. We argued that, as the 1950s restoration was done accurately to the 1830s designs, it should be retained. The argument was not, however, heeded because planners consider the age of fabric to be the only criterion for its retention.
Clandon (Country Life, May 10, 2017) remains at the forefront of our interest, exemplifying the problems of restoration after a fire. We have argued for accurate reinstatement of fabric and design where records exist, echoing our belief that it is original design, not just original fabric, that is important. Our recent exhibition of traditional British craft skills shows a field full of fresh blood and vigorous public appetite for such work. Local is best: Rural Design Architects has used Highland materials to create social housing in Burnside, Wester Ross
Gavin Stamp, architectural historian The good
I have no doubt that British architecture is much better than it was half a century ago: Grenfell Tower has, so unfortunately, confirmed just how cheap, shoddy and inhuman much 1960s mainstream architecture was. Even without the lethal cladding, it was a product of the doctrinaire, arrogant Modernism that now, mercifully, seems to be a thing of the past.
The blinkered polarity between Modern Movement and traditionalism has gone and —hoorah!—the pernicious cult of the ‘starchitect’ seems to be waning. Buildings today can still be (mock-?) Modern, but ‘High-tec’ has gone off the boil and they are allowed to be more traditional; even Classicism is tolerated. The pity is that there’s not more Gothic around.
There are too many vulgar (empty) towers going up, particularly in London, thanks to the greedy ‘phallomania’ of the past two mayors, but what I find cheering and interesting is that so much civilised housing—blocks of flats— is in a sort of rectilinear brick vernacular that seems to echo the standardisation of the Georgian terrace. However, the average suburban house on the average estate remains inept and plain.
What’s the point of all our schools of architecture if their products are not employed to design the thousands of decent, ordinary new houses we so desperately need?
‘In tune with its context’: Burridge Gardens in Battersea, SW11, by Hawkins/brown
Above: Burntwood School in Wandsworth, SW17, won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2015. Left: The Shard may dominate the skyline, but it offers nothing at street level