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A building alone cannot remake a town

A long day out proved that the Bilbao Effect is dead, if it ever existed at all, writes Christine Murray

My cousin has now passed away. So life is life, again. Last Thursday, I travelled to Margate and to Leeds in the same day. To Margate, for a preview of David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary, and to Leeds, to chair a debate for 4x4 Making Places, an annual series of talks which for 11 years has debated best practice for the regeneration of towns, cities and spaces.

Despite the geographic mismatch, which meant spending most of the day on trains, an impressive synergy emerged between the two events: variations on the single theme of regeneration. In Margate, Chipperfield addressed speculation on whether the Turner Contemporary would singlehandedly regenerate the town, while at the 4x4 lecture, four speakers debated the future of regeneration now that public money is scarce and the sustainability mantra writ large.

At the architectural preview, Chipperfield said he thought the ‘Bilbao Effect’ had confused the public about the role of architecture in regeneration: a building alone cannot remake a town, there also has to be a complex mix of factors in place, from infrastructure to education. ‘I’m not a great believer that projects like this should be commissioned on the basis of regeneration,’ he said. ‘It’s about building an institution which is important for the town, and regeneration will come, inevitably. But the purpose of the architecture of these institutions should not begin with regeneration. The building has to serve the community.’

Up in Leeds, the speakers at 4x4 also discussed how the regeneration of a place cannot rely on any single endeavour, be that a development, an industry, an event or infrastructure. Kate Welch, chief executive of Acumen Development Trust in Peterlee, spoke about how her work in County Durham deploys a number of simultaneous activities, from private counselling to flower shows to business training, to socially reinvigorate a place devastated by the loss of its colliery.

Presentations by Leeds Met’s Greg Keeffe, Downing Professor of Sustainable Architecture, Rachael Unsworth of Leeds Sustainable Development Group and Mike Duff of Happold Consulting all similarly revealed how sustainable, long-lasting regeneration is best achieved with joined-up, life-cycle endeavours.

The consensus bridging the day’s north-south divide seemed to be that the Bilbao Effect was dead, if it ever existed. Its myth was a convenient one, as it ultimately recast architects as superheroes with the power to transform cities into cultural capitals with one building. It will hopefully be replaced by a more realistic, if humble, understanding of the incremental, beneficial changes architects can bring.

As Chipperfield said of the Turner, ‘This building has potential as a public space. It shouldn’t be seen as an elite cultural institution.’ As I left, I learned a yoga class had been held in the gallery the night before, and a community gathering for young and old meets regularly in that same space – less catalyst for regeneration than civic space by the sea.

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