Build­ing a fu­ture in har­mony

Nottingham Post - - UNDER THE HAMMER - with Nigel Kirk, of Mel­lors & Kirk Auc­tion­eers

“THEY’RE not mak­ing it any more”. So said Mark Twain about land. But what about the build­ings we put on it? Who re­ally de­cides where we live, work and shop, where we go for leisure and how to get there?

The in­ter­ests of prop­erty de­vel­op­ers and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are, ob­vi­ously, di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed. The al­ter­na­tive is a to­tally con­trolled econ­omy.

Whilst nei­ther op­tion is de­sir­able the con­se­quences are of­ten un­for­tu­nate. It’s why im­por­tant towns and cities sel­dom end up with re­ally ex­cel­lent modern ar­chi­tec­ture.

Most modern re­tail, leisure and of­fice prop­erty lacks even a glim­mer of orig­i­nal­ity and will not stand the test of time.

Many new build­ings seem pre­ten­tious or rely on ar­chi­tec­tural gim­micks for ef­fect.

The rea­son for this is that ar­chi­tec­tural ex­cel­lence - a build­ing’s aes­thetic - will not be re­flected in the rent.

En­ergy ef­fi­ciency and a build­ing’s sus­tain­abil­ity are, even to­day, still mostly re­garded as hur­dles by prop­erty de­vel­op­ers for the same rea­son.

In Not­ting­ham the de­mo­li­tion of the Broad­marsh car park and clear­ance of other large sites around the city presages the con­struc­tion of some ma­jor devel­op­ments, rang­ing from the new li­brary to colos­sal of­fice blocks.

The rail­way sta­tion, one of Not­ting­ham’s best build­ings, has long been sur­rounded by a scene of ur­ban de­cay and dere­lic­tion, pre­sent­ing vis­i­tors with a most lam­en­ta­ble im­pres­sion.

That is why the “South­ern Gate­way” pro­posed scheme re­ally mat­ters. So does the huge in­vest­ment and jobs that will re­vi­talise the area and greatly ben­e­fit Not­ting­ham.

Take as an ex­am­ple the two 10 and 13-storey of­fice blocks of 667,000 sq ft that are pro­posed for Unity Square. They will oc­cupy the site of the long de­crepit and re­cently de­mol­ished car park op­po­site the sta­tion.

It is said that if ap­proved, the build­ings would sup­ply much needed Grade A of­fice space and “would be ex­pected to ad­vance the £250 mil­lion South­ern Gate­way re­gen­er­a­tion project.”

The site orig­i­nally had plan­ning ap­proval for a mixed-use scheme of ho­tel, shops and leisure fa­cil­i­ties, as well as of­fices. Such a ma­jor in­vest­ment is to be wel­comed, but there is a prob­lem.

The size of these build­ings will alarm many, but I am more con­cerned by their de­sign.

Quite sim­ply, what is pro­posed will be ar­chi­tec­turally an aes­thetic dis­as­ter.

This is an es­pe­cially high-pro­file site, such as in any ma­jor modern Eu­ro­pean city would de­serve a build­ing of real and last­ing merit.

Judg­ing by some of the de­ci­sions made in re­cent years this would ap­pear to count for lit­tle in the grant­ing of plan­ning per­mis­sion. Taste in ar­chi­tec­tural mat­ters is sub­jec­tive, as Prince Charles knows from the re­sponse to his oc­ca­sional com­ments on modern ar­chi­tec­ture. But such brick­bats can turn into bou­quets.

Lon­don had its Wren and Hawksmoor, Paris its Baron Hauss­mann, Barcelona its Gaudi, but short of find­ing such ge­niuses there will be those that pro­pose ill­con­ceived build­ings if it is clearly in their in­ter­est to do so. To such de­vel­op­ers their cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis is short-term, with price more im­por­tant than last­ing value.

Why is it that modern build­ings in the “Ge­or­gian” or “Vic­to­rian” styles are hardly ever in­dis­tin­guish­able from the real thing? They are sim­ply fakes and re­pro­duc­ing for­mer styles is nei­ther prac­ti­cal or right.

But can the new and the old har­monise? Of course they can. Many old build­ings, al­though poorly de­signed, are re­deemed by the use of high-qual­ity ma­te­ri­als, qual­ity of con­struc­tion and close at­ten­tion to de­tail. That’s why so many are still stand­ing, of­ten de­spite years of ne­glect by their own­ers. (Some of the big­gest cul­prits in this re­gard are lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and the Churches.)

On a 10-minute stroll around the city cen­tre you will see many sim­i­larly “bom­bas­tic” build­ings in highly vis­i­ble lo­ca­tions that were built over the past 50 years. No longer dis­tinctly new, they have be­come quickly ob­so­lete or are oth­er­wise well past their sell-by date.

There is no rea­son to sup­pose the build­ings un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by Not­ting­ham City Coun­cil for Unity Square will be any dif­fer­ent. Prop­erty may be built to last but it should not be im­mor­tal.

So-called brown­field sites in cities should be seen in a new light, not eye­sores to be filled at any cost with dull ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause of an ex­pected but not proven re­gen­er­a­tive ben­e­fit. The eye­sore car park was once deemed a good idea. That such sites are gen­er­ally not, at a time of ris­ing and dispir­it­ing lob­by­ing to slacken the green belt, should con­cern all who care about the built en­vi­ron­ment of this great city.

An artist’s im­pres­sion of the Unity Square of­fice block de­vel­op­ment with Not­ting­ham Sta­tion on the left

View of the city after the de­mo­li­tion of Broad­marsh car park

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