I'm fed up with the impossibility of knowing what the coming year holds and go along with RSA's Matthew Taylor who writes in today's Observer that perhaps it's best to "abandon the task of objective prediction in favour of the search for hope". So my new year's resolution is to get on with projects that can make a difference without waiting to find out what's going to happen in the rest of the world. Here are ten of them.
Bob Hoskins’ character Harold Shand in the film ‘The Long Good Friday’ was both a gangster and a visionary. Back in 1980 Harold understood the potential of London’s docklands: ‘….having cleared away the outdated, we’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity… so it’s important that the right people mastermind the new London…’ he says to a boatload of US investors as they pass under Tower Bridge on a trip to the east.
I was reminded of the iconic film while putting together a lecture recently for a conference in Shanghai on the subject of waterfront development. Harold’s vision actually came from script writer Barrie Keeffe who had been a reporter on the Stratford Gazette and got the idea for the storyline from overhearing local councillors discussing the regeneration of the area. Much of Docklands was deserted at that time and good for little else but filming gangster car chases. The London Docklands Development Corporation was set up by the Government in 1981 and as a result, today Canary Wharf stands sentinel at the riverine entrance to London - an iconic reminder of the UK capital’s transformation from a maritime and manufacturing economy to a service economy with a significant focus on the financial sector.
Like Shanghai, London exists because of a river. The Romans who arrived in Britain 2000 years ago selected the area that is now London because it was the earliest spot where they could build a bridge. Because of the River Thames London became a busy port in the medieval period, beginning a relationship with the wider world that remains to this day.
The Chinese have historically appreciated the benefits and delights of waterfront locations; but it has taken us some time to catch up. When Surrey Docks was developed - 90 per cent of the water spaces were filled in. Until recently we have associated waterways with pollution and the big stink. This suspicion of water can be seen to this on the canals where most development turned its back on the water. The fact that an unencumbered waterfront view can provide an uplift in value of anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent means that attitudes are now very different.
Chinese developers have snapped up some of the larger waterfront sites in London. The Lots Road Power station in Chelsea is being developed by Hutchinson Whampoa with a couple of towers by the river, shops and restaurants in the old power station building and a series of bridges that link the two sides of the development along Chelsea Creek. The same developer is building the new Convoys Wharf at Deptford. Chinese developers Knight Dragon are building 15,000 homes at Greenwich Peninsula. Chinese developer Asian Business Port is constructing a new business park overlooking Royal Albert Dock.
But with Silvertown Quays only receiving planning permission last October and with Greenwich Peninsula on a 20 year development programme Bob Hoskins would have been alarmed to find out that it was going to take over fifty years to replace the docks and industry of the East End. If you’d told him that then you’d probably have ended up in the meat freezer.
First published in On Office magazine
The CAZ (Central Actitivity Zone) is to London what Manhattan is to New York. Its the bit most foreign visitors think of as London and it is where jobs, places of entertainment and amenities are most dense. Mayoral policies support the expansion of the CAZ on the basis that clustering is good for the growth of the knowledge-based and service economies. It also, of course, reflects the City of London’s role as the historic centre of the region to which all roads lead.
Rasmussen in his book ‘London the unique city’ called UK capital a ‘scattered city’; it is also known as a city of villages (so is Sydney) which suggests a certain deference to the densified core - a core that in recent years has been spreading outwards from the traditional centres of the West End and the City to Nine Elms, Paddington and Elephant and Castle.
But London is also a city of towns: places like Richmond, Redbridge, Walthamstow, Merton, Barking and Croydon. Or as the bus driver’s prayer goes “Our Farnham, who art in Hendon, Harrow be Thy name.Thy Kingston come; thy Wimbledon” all the way through to “for Esher and Esher, Crouch End”. Many of these towns are struggling economically, their high streets hit by the growing power of the internet; many of them have even been losing workspace because of the Government’s Permitted Development Rights legislation that allows offices to be converted to residential without planning permission.
At the same time new tech firms, creatives and start ups are moving out of London because they can’t find affordable workspace in Clerkenwell or Shoreditch. They disappear to Bristol, or Birmingham or even Berlin in search of cheaper accommodation when Barking or Barnet should be a better option.
As London’s population continues to grow (in spite of Brexit the demographers still say it will, although some commentators are starting to query the pace of this) we will need to densify London’s towns if we are to fit everyone inside the Green Belt. It is important that such future development is genuinely mixed use instead of the preponderance of residential that we have been seeing in recent years.
In Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan he must make sure that London’s towns provide employment space as well as places to live so that people can work close to home, reverse commute from the centre or travel orbitally. Because of London’s focus on the centre, the latter has always been the most difficult. The completion of the Overground circuit connecting such diverse centres as Dalston, Peckham Rye, Shepherds Bush and Gospel Oak has been transformational. But it’s not enough. We also need better orbital bus services - perhaps demand responsive services that can be ordered via an app like a large scale UberPool. Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross should roll out the Mini Holland cycling programme across London and ensure there are the appropriate links between boroughs.
Cedric Price conceived the city as an egg: the ancient city was a boiled egg - with a defined centre and a hard shell; the 17th and 18th century city lost its walls and had a more amorphous edge, so it was a fried egg. The modern city has multiple centres and is more like a scrambled egg.
As Mayor Khan defines his ‘City for All Londoners’ he should remember that the twenty first century metropolis is scrambled, not fried.
First published in On Office Magazine
First published in the Clerkenwell Post
Dutch architect/planner Jan Gehl’s triumphal appearance at the Hackney Empire in January following the showing of his film The Human Scale must have given heart to the thousands of cyclists who commute through Clerkenwell: maybe it is possible to envisage a city where the streets aren’t dominated by the deadly automobile.
Biking through London’s creative capital is at record levels - but you wouldn’t know that from the infrastructure. In Theobalds Road bikes make up 64 percent of vehicles in the morning peak, in Old Street it’s 49 per cent but the non-segregated bike lanes are scrappy, discontinuous and junctions are dangerous.
“Something must be done” said Andrea Casalotti, biking activist and former owner of the Velorution bike shop who can regularly be seen putting his vintage bikes through their paces on the Clerkenwell Road. So Andrea is campaigning for a 'Cycling Boulevard' from Old Street roundabout to Bury Place in Bloomsbury. The 2.7 km through-traffic-free boulevard would be mainly for bikes, buses and pedestrians.
It will be safer for people walking and cycling, faster for cyclists and bus passengers, air and noise pollution will be reduced and we will enjoy a much more pleasant environment. It will also be good for businesses - research in New York has shown that such changes are a boost for shops and restaurants
I was in Seville not long ago looking at their excellent cycling infrastructure. There, the central shopping street has been turned into a similar style boulevard - except they have trams instead of buses. And it works: the Avenida de la Constitucion is pleasant to walk in, bikes and pedestrians happily coexist and cafes line the street. One day perhaps Clerkenwellians will be able to enjoy a coffee in Look Mum No Hands and experience the same quality of life and place as the Sevillianas.
I heard this great story about Mike Davies of Rogers Stirk Harbour, a distinctive chap who wears his hair long and is never seen without a red suit. some years ago he was discussing a new job with Canary Wharf that they wanted to keep under wraps and so they asked him not to come in his signature whistle and flute for fear he be recognised. Davies agreed to break a habit of a lifetime, and duly turned up in canary yellow one. Apocryphal perhaps, but it highlights the practice’s interest in colour which has been a key element of Richard Rogers’ work ever since the built a bright yellow house for his parents in Wimbledon in the 1960s.
I was reminded of this recently when visiting the Matisse exhibition at Tate modern - the gallery was festooned with the primary colours of the artist’s famous cut-outs while outside Piers Gough’s 15 storey Bankside Lofts designed for Harry Handelsman (yellow again) seemed to sing along nicely with the multi coloured structure of RSH’s Neo Bankside apartments. Pity, I thought that Herzog and de Meuron were going for boring old brick on their Tate extension.
Then a walk across the river to the City to enjoy the undercroft space of RSH’s Leadenhall Building where you are greeted with huge nautical ventilation funnels in blue and red and, to the north, a whole facade of brightly coloured lifts speeding up and down in the world’s largest kinetic sculpture.
One of the most successful uses of colour by RSH is at Barrajas Airport where the columns of the kilometre long terminal building are coloured in a graduated rainbow - in stark contrast to the airports of Foster and Partners which tend to prefer the monochrome look and brings to mind a comment made by Alan Fletcher, Pentagram’s graphic designer who was doing the signage on Stansted Airport. Interviewed on television he showed his frustration over attempts to put a bit of colour into his work: “the problem with Norman is that he thinks grey is a bloody colour!” he exclaimed.
James Stirling of course liked lots of colour. Not far from the Leadenhall Building is No 1 Poultry with is deep blue tiled atrium walls and yellow, red and aquamarine reveals to the punched out windows. At this Staatsgalerie in Frankfurt huge hand rails of bright pink and blue lead the eye to lime green mullions of the sloped curtain walls. Some of his colour mixes took a bit of getting used to!
You have to be careful with colour. I’m a big fan of the work of Sauerbruch Hutton. Their GSW building in Berlin is a great building, and illustrates how colour can enliven a facade. But the idea has been recycled on too many low cost residential blocks in recent years where spattering coloured glass fins across a building seems to be used as a substitute for design and a mask for indifferent elevations.
But when properly integrated into the architecture it can be magical. David Walker’s design for Riverbank House in the City of London, overlooking the Thames is a great example of flamboyant but subtle use of colour, the yellow undersides of the balconies, slightly upturned so they can be enjoyed form the South Bank, seem to bring a bit of sun to the City even on the dullest days.
First published in On Office Magazine
Simon Jenkins in his Evening Standard review of Renzo Piano’s designs for The Cube at Paddington attacked the new proposals while repeating the hoary old chestnut about the arrogance of architects: “Paddington Pole may be dead but the vanity of architects lives on”. My first response was something along the lines of “pot” and “black”; my second was that he had got things wrong, again: parading personal taste as informed criticism.
Unlike Helmut Jahn who resigned from the Bishopsgate Tower in the City of London because of the interference of the planners, or Santiago Calatrava who did the same over City Point, Renzo Piano has been the epitome of humility, willingly agreeing to abandon his tower design for a more modest and minimal design.
Jenkins makes fun of the Architect’s Journal’s description of the “clear floating cube levitating above the ground” which he calls “tosh”. If anyone can make a building appear to float, it is Renzo. One wonders even whether Jenkins has studied the designs in any detail. He talks of “street-crushing decks and walkways” to describe the £60million improvements to the ghastly exit from Paddington station and its link to the Bakerloo line. Although he might well enjoy a certain nostalgie de la boue in the slum conditions that currently surround the station, that is not something commuters whose daily lot it is to fight their way up to a crumbling Praed Street have said they would prefer.
I do however agree that it would be appropiate to see this development in the context of the wider site. The Cube should be viewed as part of the wider regeneration of the St Mary’s Hospital site next door, as well as the taller buildings located around the east end of the Westway. This has had a cluster of towers since the 1960s and is an appropriate place for more. Westminster planners need to give local communities and Londoners generally a better idea of what the future holds for the area. The Skyline Campaign has suggested the building is out of scale with its surroundings, ignoring the fact that the scale of the whole area is changing and densifying as directed in the London Plan.
The proposals also need to be seen in a wider economic context. Seventy five percent of Westminster is covered conservation area. Five designated viewing corridors cross the borough constraining the location of higher buildings. Much of Westminster’s recent additional office capacity has been provided within Paddington because it is one of the few places where it is possible to provide the large floorplates corporate occupiers require.
While many of the protests over the Pole proposals came from the well heeled Little Venice and Kilburn area, much of the North West of the borough suffers significant deprivation and has been designated as an economic development area to encourage growth and jobs.
The Paddington Opportunity Area has been a key part of the Mayor’s London Plan since the days of Ken Livingstone. The Plan decreed that development should take place next to transport interchanges like Paddington. Central Westminster suffers badly already from congestion and overcrowding, so new offices that allow commuters to go straight from train to desk are to be welcomed.
Over the last five years Westminster has seen a significant loss of office space due to the greater profitablity of residential space. This has been exacerbated by Government policies on permitted development which allowed conversion of offices to residential without planning permission. While Westminster successfully applied for exception in the central area, the north west area of the borough had no such luck.
The Cube is not as Jenkins might believe, a product of developer greed or architectural arrogance, but as part of the wider strategy to provide jobs in a part of Westminster where many people are less well off than is often thought.
Architects have been dealing with security in buildings for centuries. Medieval cities were defined by their walls. Castles, some of our greatest early buildings. were predicated on the need for protection - castellation, drawbridges, turrets were part of the architectural language; in Italy and Spain ground floor windows were protected by elegant filigree ironwork. In London the railings of Georgian London, of houses and squares, are one of the great delights of the city. Today cities are crammed with the tools of the security services, yet they are disguised, hidden or ugly and utilitarian.
I first became aware of the impact that security could have on modern architecture - which throughout the 20th century had been celebrating openness, light and accessibility - when the 1972 Spence and Webster proposals for an extension to the Palace of Westminster, which included a large open public space beneath the raised up building, were abandoned because of fears that the IRA might blow it up.
Since then I have seen security play a larger and larger role in the design of buildings - from the obvious controls in the reception of office buildings to disguised bollards, blast proof glazing and things that no one without clearance even knows are there. But we have never really come to terms with how we deal with the problem in design terms.
Today the walls around the City of London and their iconic gates have been replaced by the ring of steel, a policeman in a plastic booth and multiple CCTV cameras connected to a central database. The Houses of Parliament are surrounded by hideous, temporary steel barriers. Just up the road in Whitehall these have been subtly integrated into stone balusters indistinguishable from their 18th and 19th century setting.
Plans for the land around the US Embassy in Nine Elms use that most discrete security device - the ha-ha, supplemented by a whole set of gizmos hidden in the reeds and grasses of the landscaping. It is a massive improvement on the grim fences and walls with which the US likes to surround their embassies in other cities. I went to a presentation on this very topic by one of the project managers of the Kieren Timberlake building, who was not at all amused by Wandsworth Planning Department’s insistence that the land surrounding the Embassy should connect with the local environment rather than turn its back on it.
Are security devices are either hidden - like in Whitehall and Nine Elms - because we cannot come to terms with the reality they represent? Are they temporary, as in Parliament Square, in the hope that the world will soon return to ‘normal’. Even security personnel are disguised, muscled men in tight executive suits politely stop you to check your credentials as you enter a city office block - in contrast, say, to the guards at Buckingham Palace whose role is made more obvious by their attire.
Should we, as in previous unstable times accept that insecurity is the norm and design for it - should we make the elements of security more obvious both as a deterrent and as something that expresses more honestly the world we live in?
While cycling with a group across the US, we stopped in Pierre, the capital of South Dakota. On Saturday morning we walked around the city and entered the State Capitol. There were no security guards, no barriers, no cctv. A place far from the political tensions of the rest of the world or indeed of the US itself. It brought home to us the restrictions and controls that we now live with and accept, yet try to disguise in the hope that the need for them will go away.
The NLA recently put on an exhibition and public meeting for Camden Council to assist them in their consultation programme on the ‘West End Project’ which will transform the area around our HQ at Store Street by removing the Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street gyratory in order to cater for the massive increase in people coming to the area when Crossrail opens in 2018.
The one-way system will be replaced with two-way streets, some protected cycle lanes in Gower Street, and new public spaces. Initial design work for the £26 million project has been carried out by DSDHA and includes turning Alfred Place, which runs north from NLA, from roadway into a small park. We hope that this will link into the work we have been doing ourselves to convert the Store Street Crescent into a public space. The temporary installation this year of (very convincing) plastic grass, as part of the London Festival of Architecture and the FitLondon exhibition, meant the space was packed each lunchtime with picnicking local workers highlighting the desperate need for such amenity in the area.
The changes to the roads in the area have been made more feasible by the 30 per cent reduction in traffic using Tottenham Court Road as a result of Crossrail construction activity. This has happened without undue impact on traffic flow in the area and traffic will remain at those levels after 2018. In Camden’s plans Tottenham Court Road will be restricted to buses and cycles between 8am and 7pm and Gower Street will be two way with separated cycle lanes in each direction.
This will transform the area, the racetracks of Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street will be tamed and public spaces will be improved. But not everyone is happy. Some cyclists don’t like the fact that there won’t be separated lanes in TCR; but the width of the road varies from 8m to 12m and there is just not enough road space to provide one traffic lane in each direction as well as 2m wide segregated cycle lanes in each direction. The Mayor’s cycling tzar Andrew Gilligan, who is keen on segregated lanes wherever possible, will be keeping a close eye on how well it works. UCL is concerned that Gower Street will be too busy and that the widened crossing outside their main campus isn’t enough to protect the thousands of student who cross the road daily. Local residents are unhappy with the increased cross traffic; taxi drivers want to be allowed to use TCR.
In London’s dense central activity zone such changes are frought with difficulty and perfection is impossible. I think these plans are transformational and fully support Camden’s enlightened approach. We have a long way to go before we get the right balance between various road users but this is a major step in the right direction. The work of the GLA’s Roads Task Force and TfL’s response, the new London Cycling Design Standards, all reinforce the fact that we must treat our streets as public spaces for all and not polluted death traps.
In the 70s, Shad Thames was a dark and dismal place. The warehouses, still smelling of spices from far flung outposts of the Empire, had been made redundant by when dockers were replaced by containers and the port of London moved out to Tilbury. The derelict buildings and the iconic zig zag bridges that spanned the street were a symbol of the capital’s changing role as a post-industrial city - a shrinking metropolis reduced in size by the changing structure of business and by government policy. The Location of Offices Bureau was set up in 1963 to disperse office jobs from the centre of London to Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Watford and beyond, encouraging the reduction in population.
In its ruinous state Shad Thames became a squat. Architecture students colonised the huge floor plates, subdividing them with high fire risk polythene partitions, huge parties were held amongst the grand cast iron columns and the solid teak floors; the artist Derek Jarman lived in a greenhouse to try and keep out the cold.
Mrs Thatcher binned the LOB is the 80s and set up the Use Classes order of 1987. This gave a new lease of life to redundant warehouses and factories. The B1 business class “Offices (other than those that fall within A2), research and development of products and processes, light industry appropriate in a residential area” was just the thing that empty spaces from Butlers Wharf to Wapping, in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch needed - B1 covered design studios, architects’ offices and creative industries generally who were looking for large, cheap spaces with a bit of character. They became nurseries of talent, and locations for SMEs (who, it is often forgotten, make up some 60 per cent of private sector employment).
Now the Government is changing the use classes order to permit change of use from commercial (B1a) to residential (C3) without the need for planning permission. All but three local authorities in London requested exemptions from the changes. Westminster doesn’t like the proposals because it thinks that the high price of residential property in Soho would start to squeeze out the film production cluster around Wardour Street and Dean Street. Hackney wasn’t keen because the technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) sector - ‘Tech City/Silicon Roundabout’ - will be priced out of the market as their low tech work spaces are converted to high end residential lofts.
Apart from 19th century industrial buildings, according to a report by architects Child Graddon Lewis, the most likely types of commercial buildings to be appropriate for conversion are pre-1970 post-war office buildings - although these require a lot of work to comply with building regulations. It is likely that re-cladding will be necessary and with re-cladding comes the requirement for a planning application for external alterations, thus removing some of the benefits of relaxing the use class order in the first place.
But whatever the short term local issues might be in Hoxton or Hackney, the idea that buildings can change to suit the demands of new generations is key to the concept of a sustainable city. Forty years ago RIBA President Alec Gordon called for buildings to be “long life, loose fit and low energy” - a call that was never more relevant than it is today.
I’m a great fan of Rowan Moore’s weekly architectural column in The Observer and generally enjoy reading his elegant prose over my Sunday breakfast. Of course I don’t agree will all that he says; like any good critic he can be very annoying. A recent column in which he wrote about Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s seminary near Glasgow caused me to choke on my muesli.
Spectacular photography (there’s even more on the website) of this rotting concrete hulk brilliantly illustrated the power of the Corbusian architecture by the then young partners of Gillespie Kidd and Coia, Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein. But the story also talked about the building’s failures: “The junctions of its ambitious geometries did not prove equal to the temperamental Atlantic weather, nor walls of single glazing to the cold. The specification of hard-to-replace lightbulbs from Denmark meant that students would take still-functioning bulbs to meals with them, for fear they would be un-Christianly pinched.”
Fine. Lots of buildings have teething problems for a variety of reasons, but what stuck in my craw was MacMillan’s response, reported by Moore, when asked why his buildings leaked: “I think it’s because we had to build them outside.” !
Such black glaswegian humour might raise a laugh in Kelly’s Bar but would not go down too well with clients who have had to suffer from some architects’ casual attitude to detailing. Indeed it sneers at the very idea that we build in order to keep the outside out and is sadly a view held and joked about by other great architects. Frank Lloyd Wright famously told clients to get a bucket when asked what to do about the myriad of leaks that occurred in his buildings (Falling Water was a “seven bucket” house according to the client). I heard Arthur Erickson make a similar response about leaks in one of his houses.
I understand that designing innovative architecture can lead to technical challenges of various kinds - but it is no joking matter and gets architects a bad name. I just don’t buy the idea that to be a creative architect you have to be technically incompetent. There was once a time when it was accepted that great opera singers could not act, now, with better training more and more can now sing and act at the same time - with inspiring results.
A few days after Rowan’s piece, the saga of V&A in Dundee’s escalating costs broke in the press. Launched in 2010 with a budget of £45 million, the museum's price tag has increased to £80.1 million. Not all Kengo Kuma’s fault I’m sure, but not good for the profession’s reputation and reminds me of the year the RIBA really put it’s foot in it by giving the Stirling Prize to the Scottish Parliament Building whose final costs were ten times the original estimate.
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities