It's time to straddle the great divide of rural and urban
The battle lines are being drawn. Housebuilders have 'welcomed' the Crow report's call for 1.1 million more homes to be built in the South-east by 2016. Conservation groups and local residents have greeted it with horror. So which side should architects be on? Eager to distance themselves from mere housebuilders, and traditionally at loggerheads with conservationists, they do not fall naturally into either camp. A seemly horror at the prospect of urban sprawl encroaching on the countryside is countered by a more self-interested concern that the proposed building programme may go ahead with negligible benefit to the profession. Whether we like it or not, it seems that Britain's built environment is on the brink of dramatic change. Architects have a duty to demand that developments are well planned, executed and designed.
We need to attack the assumption that large non-metropolitan housing projects are an issue for housebuilders and not designers. Obsessed with developing urban prototypes, the profession is surprisingly silent on the subject of innovative rural or semi-rural typologies. Part of the reason Crow's proposals seem unpalatable is that they are planned for the urban peripheries. But urban peripheries can be rural peripheries too. Where are the British equivalents of the Swiss carpet-housing of the 1960s, or some of the recent Dutch dyke housing? Verdant turf-roofed structures combining an ecological agenda and high-density design with an aesthetic anything but urban.
But the debate is not simply about housing. Fears that the new communities will affect existing centres detrimentally - over-stretching amenities, congesting roads, etc - suggest not that the report will spawn too many buildings, but too few building types. Ambitious housing programmes need to be accompanied by new cultural centres and schools, new hospitals, public spaces, transport links and roads. For an intelligent profession with a fertile imagination, the possibilities are endless. What could be more appropriate for the millennium than the development of a contemporary British architecture which embraces all building types, and is neither sub-urban nor sub-rural, but a threshold architecture, enriched by its position between the two?