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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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 bad

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 future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

How tragic that Wandsworth Coun­cil has en­cour­aged the de­spo­li­a­tion of the river­side up­stream from Nine Elms with a series of over­bear­ing res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ments.

The future

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 bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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.

The bad

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.

The future

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

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