Housing associations must allow architects freedom
Last night I met with 10 people from St Paul's Church in Rotterdam. I am designing a new series of buildings within the city which includes the demolition and rebuilding of the church. The meeting was my first with them, and therefore laced with a little nervousness on my part and scepticism on theirs. Both these conditions were partially eased by the presence of red wine.
Their first question to me was to enquire whether or not a 'church'had any special meaning to me. Did this amount to interrogation of my attitude towards religion - in which case, which religion? Or were they referring to the materiality of the building? I took it as the second point. I said that a church is one of the building types where it is expected that the architect will create a space that will elevate the spirit and that it was a pity that this was not so for other building types such as hospitals. 'Ah - you mean a place of hope, ' replied one of the 10. I said yes.
It was only later, lying in bed, that I thought about the implication of the word hope.
Embedded within it is an assumption that people require hope, because all around them is hopelessness; an assumed condition from the perspective of someone in the church.
We should not confuse the Rotterdam church with a typical country parish church in England. St Paul's deals with refugees (illegal entrants to Holland) and drug addicts. In fact, in Rotterdam the addicts and psychotics would be out on the street; there is nowhere for them to go. The word 'hope' for the people in this particular church is measured against the nature of the congregation and in this case 'hope'means what it suggests. It emerged that they would like the whole cross section of society to come to the church but the presence of the addicts frightened 'ordinary'people away, particularly those with children who do not want to contaminate their offspring with exposure to addiction. Ironically, the traditional 'good' people turn their backs on the needy. I was asked if I could help with this and I replied that I did not know.
As I write this, I am sitting on a plane from Rotterdam to Manchester where I will walk the site of the card room in the east of the city, which is the subject of a current project for Urban Splash, relating to the urban regeneration of a run down part of the city that people do not want to live in. There will be a number of workshops - painting and drawing and talking and drinking - my favourite form of public consultation.
This process is based on exercising people's imagination and also on hope. As with the church, once areas of cities become associated with a particular section of society they become ignored by 'good'people, ie those with relatively secure lifestyles, children and annual holidays recorded on video tape.
These people insulate themselves from undesirables and create a suburban culture that is all too often misinterpreted by house providers as the market that conditions the phrase 'market led'. To me this phrase falls into the same category as 'well, business is business', as though that legitimises unethical behaviour.
Sadly, at the Aylesbury Estate, the housing association would not allow me to work with the people. It insisted that everyone wanted a brick building with a pitched roof. It failed to obtain the support of the estate. Housing associations must allow architects to build relationships and discover what an area could be and not to give them their own preconception of what 'housing' is.