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‘Localism can, and does, improve the quality of the built environment’

In this personal account of urban regeneration in south London, Rory Olcayto juxtaposes a top-down development in Elephant and Castle with ground-up localism in Peckham

You could not imagine a greater contrast. One project is an £114 million tower in Elephant and Castle, south-east London – the tallest residential building in the capital and the first building in the world with integrated wind turbines. Designed by BFLS for developer Brookfield Europe, Strata is the only one of a proposed high-rise cluster to have weathered the credit crunch. It looks filmic and futuristic, like a bad guy’s headquarters. Its penthouse is on the market for £2.3 million, and internet gossip says footballer John Terry has already bought it.

The other project, the Hannah Barry Gallery’s Bold Tendencies, is an annual sculpture show ranged across the concrete decks of a unused multi-storey car park off Peckham’s Rye Lane. The top floor is crowned by a parasitic structure seemingly inspired by experimental American architect Lebbeus Woods. Designed by young firm Practice Architecture, Frank’s Café is a social venue for the exhibition commissioned by Barry and handbuilt by the designers for less than £5,000 (AJ 08.07.10). Art dealer Jay Jopling and other art-world luminaries turned up for its opening night. The view from the bar, you could argue, is just as good as Strata’s.

As this long, hot summer continues, the potency of each tower seems to grow – to me at least. I live in Peckham and see both every day as I travel to work in Camden. One is a giant sundial marking the true centre of London; the other is a surreal dreamscape in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. From within these projects you can sense the pride of south London and its desire to be taken seriously by its other half across the River Thames. Yet they also embody something more critical, which has nothing to do with civic rivalry. Each is a symbol: one of the recent past; the other of a possible future. Together they ask: ‘How do we regenerate? Top down or ground up?’

London’s planners have apparently enjoyed using Elephant and Castle for experiments in what Rem Koolhaas describes as ‘the architecture of Bigness’ in his book S,M,L,XL (Monacelli Press, 1995). Strata, in fact, looms over what it and forthcoming developments will ultimately replace: a 1970s ‘Bigness’ project. Within metres of its front door is the dilapidated Heygate Estate. This sprawl of deck-access groundscrapers adjoins a giant shopping centre, a rail and tube transport hub, and long stretches of pedestrian underpass.

A quarter of Strata’s 408 flats are classed as ‘affordable’, and, as a result of the unfortunate hierarchy that Section 106 leads private developers to impose, they also occupy the bottom quarter of the tower. Twenty of these ‘intermediate homes’ have been reserved for residents relocated from the Heygate Estate. Like the paid-for flats, however, all of them boast floor-to-ceiling windows.

From Strata, you can see two wind turbines on the top of the Heygate’s Ashenden House. Southwark Council installed them in 2007 to test the viability of urban wind power but the results do not bode well for Strata, which is set to benefit from the feed-in tariff system, launched by the previous government in April. Not only did the more sophisticated turbine fail to operate for 36 per cent of the trial period, but when it did, it consumed more power than it generated.

Strata marks an endpoint with its iconic, opinion-dividing form, the class divide imposed by Section 106 and its tokenistic turbines, as well as the more positive aspects of its regenerative offer (it is both brownfield and high-density). It embodies much of what the previous government and former London mayor Ken Livingstone came to understand urban regeneration as: a checklist of climate-change politics, a tall-buildings fetish and a speculative-development culture in tribute to its local-authority host.

Yet Strata will enliven Elephant and Castle. More development will surely come, including a cluster of tall buildings, and investment and jobs will surely follow. And while architects find it easy to mock a project like Strata, its imposing form and technical prowess are impressive. Practice director Ian Bogle and project architect Robbie Turner were key members of Foster + Partners’ Gherkin design team and are part of an elite band of British skyscraper architects whose ability enhances the profession. Nevertheless, even they might find it hard to argue that Strata isn’t a box-ticking monument to a culture overturned by recession and the coalition government’s small-state strategy.

In Peckham, localism has already taken root, and its proactive sense of community, characterised most stridently by Bold Tendencies, challenges the Broken Britain narrative used to kickstart prime minister David Cameron’s ‘big society’ plans. Bold Tendencies grew out of the influential Hannah Barry Gallery, a warehouse exhibition space behind the mighty Bussey Building (a former cricket-bat factory), set amid import-export storage hubs and countless African churches, small businesses and studios. It has happened quickly. Gallery founder Hannah Barry moved into the warehouse in February 2008, and the neighbouring car park hosted the first Bold Tendencies show that summer. Last year, Practice Architecture came on board with Frank’s Café, and this year the firm revised its design, making the kitchen bigger and creating more seating space.

If Elephant and Castle is characterised by ‘Bigness’, then Rye Lane and the area surrounding the Hannah Barry Gallery is all about subdividing and ‘going small’. Shop units are quartered up. Street booths stretch back several metres. New premises are carved out of spaces you didn’t know were there. And parts of it are a mess. Localism can, and does, improve the quality of the built environment by enabling professional skills and community ideas to coalesce.

For example, Peckham Vision, a consortium of residents, artists, businesses and The Peckham Society, campaigns for a renewed Peckham town centre. The consortium is an important force for change. Its main focus is the improvement of the public realm in Rye Lane, making it more amenable to a wider demographic. One guerilla project it has enabled is the refurbishment of the billiards hall in Peckham Rye Station, carried out by local practice Morris + O’Looney Architects. The hall is yet to be fully opened to the public, but this year students from Canterbury University, which has been investigating the built environment of Peckham since 2008, showed their proposals for the town centre there. Last year, Lettice Drake and Paloma Gormley of Practice Architecture, also local residents, used it to showcase plans for the station.

New-build is not the only way forward. Bold Tendencies simply adds to a building that already has multiple functions. The multi-storey car park wraps around a cinema and it hosts a car-boot sale every Sunday. This imaginative take on mixed-use suggests new ways to transform our cities. It reminds me of something architect and developer Roger Zogolovitch said at MIPIM this year, speaking on the future of regeneration (AJ 08.04.10): ‘Sometimes we forget how robust our townscapes are.’

Yet for Peckham to be fully revitalised, ground-up planning and activist architecture only go so far. Capital projects like the new East London Line, which links nearby New Cross with Shoreditch and Dalston in north-east London, has already made a massive difference by making one of London’s unfairly maligned locales available to a young, curious demographic who flock there for the (slightly) cheaper rents.

Curiously, the Rye Lane car park resembles Herzog & de Meuron’s just-completed 1111 Lincoln Road project in Miami, USA. This remarkable £42 million scheme mixes retail, restaurants and art within a purpose-built car park. Developer Robert Wennett describes it as ‘an urbanistic, friendly, connected building… a public place for anyone who wants to enjoy the city’. It includes ‘a cultural plane where people can produce culture’ and ‘mixes programme in unique ways that people have not seen before’. Wennett, I’m guessing, has never been to Peckham.

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