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Keeper of a gateway Barry Shaw's North Kent Architecture Centre is more than just a showcase - it has wider aspirations for the community

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Most architects probably see architecture centres as showcases for the work of architects. The North Kent Architecture Centre, of which Barry Shaw is chief executive, is different. The centre’s official sub- title ‘North Kent Focus on Regeneration, Planning and Conservation’, hints at a wider, more outward-looking remit, in which urban design and the regeneration of the Thames Gateway area south of the Thames are key components, and the interface between the profession and a lay public is seen not so much in terms of ‘showcase’ as practical working relationships.

It has, to be sure, run a number of exhibitions; but also several successful design competitions, typically leading to firm commissions. Its use of community workshops has ensured that the competition and design briefs take account of local needs and context. The centre has exploited Kent’s links with France’s Nord/Pas de Calais region and had considerable success in attracting ec funding - though money, as with every architecture centre, is a constant preoccupation.

Shaw is an architect and town planner whose career includes Milton Keynes Development Corporation, Southwark Council (Surrey Docks team) and lddc (11 years, ending up as head of urban design). He in effect created the post he now holds. Leaving the lddc in 1992, he became a consultant, applying his urban-regeneration experience to such disparate locations as Tower Hamlets, Hamburg, Cork, Paris and Indonesia. Then, working with Urban Initiatives, he put together successful Arts Council bids for two architecture centres: Plymouth and North Kent.

At North Kent, the Arts Council brought him in after receiving two separate bids, which came together under the chairmanship of Bruce Robertson, then chief executive of Chatham Historic Dockyard. His steering committee valued Shaw’s contribution so highly it asked him to stay and make it work.

The aim of the centre, launched in April 1995, is to provide ‘a focus for urban regeneration and good design’. It has generated such practical initiatives as competitions, work with schools to develop design consciousness, and workshops to involve local communities in reshaping their surroundings. Its philosophy is that to create attractive, well-designed and user-friendly environments, architects and the the lay public need to work together. A two-way process of education is involved, and an opening up of the ‘blinkered’ approach of all too many architects, who must look beyond site boundaries, adopt a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach: in effect, work as ‘city doctors’.

The industrial and dockyard towns of North Kent, battered by years of economic decline, now face awesome competition from the giant Bluewater Park shopping and leisure centre. If they are to find new economic roles, it will require more than a lick of paint and new street furniture; architects, urban designers and landscape architects will have to bring the community on board as partners in shared regeneration enterprise.

This is especially clear in the workshops set up for Kent County Council on an early-years centre in Folkestone. The client team worked with mothers and children to explore both what the building needed to provide and its impact on the surrounding area, with architectural students from the University of Greenwich putting up a series of schemes and inviting local people to come in and discuss them.

‘It opened the eyes of both the client and the community,’ says Shaw. A client who had visualised the building as a box accommodating certain activities soon recognised that external space was as important as internal. Moreover, the students had to work in public and explain what they were doing, using real words - not words like ‘architectonic’.

Competitions have included the conversion of an abandoned laundry in Gillingham into a community centre (£3000 prize, winner Morrison Brink Stonor); a sustainable environmental centre on the River Medway (£4000 first prize, winner Adams & Sutherland Architects); and designs for a twenty-first-century settlement to extend the town of Sittingbourne (£2000 first prize won by a trio from W S Atkins Planning). Shaw drew on old colleagues and contacts for his assessors: these competitions were chaired by Piers Gough, Nigel Coates, and David Lock.

The centre’s education work is at two levels: schools of architecture, and workshops at local primary and secondary schools. As well as Greenwich students, those from the Kent College of Art and Design have taken part in workshops.

The University of Greenwich potentially has another role: as partner in a new ‘institute’ to act as North Kent’s ‘environmental memory’. So often, argues Shaw, design professionals laboriously set about finding answers to problems that have already been solved. The institute will be able to offer tried-and-tested solutions or warn against mistakes, acting as a permanent resource underpinning design quality both in regeneration areas and new development, like that around the proposed international station at Ebbsfleet. pf editorial Responsibility and power are different

Listening to the unelected and unaccountable (also intelligent and articulate) representative of Demos telling us on the Radio 4 how the Queen should behave in future, it became clear that the authority this tribune was exercising derived from a survey in the Independent on Sunday. It was a reminder of the old criticism of newspapers that they have ‘power without responsibility’. Perhaps this is the reason for the eliding of these two ideas in what passes for the media mind in relation to the Queen’s ‘powers’. Constitutional monarchies have responsibilities rather than powers, as was established in Britain in 1688; on occasion they may exercise influence, but only within a constitutional framework long ago defined. (The correct response to being told we have an unwritten constitution is to ask what the Parliament Acts are, and how we know when we are entitled to elections.)

There are, by contrast, institutions which have responsibilities but virtually no formal powers at all. An obvious example is the Royal Fine Art Commission, which can demand to see planning applications but has no power to prevent any development from taking place. It does, however, have a certain moral authority derived from the responsibilities placed up on it, and from the fact that it exists independently of the formal planning system. It can say what it pleases, and it is scarcely surprising that some subjected to its crits and criticisms find its conclusions not to their taste.

The position of the commission is under scrutiny as the the government struggles towards a coherent attitude towards the role of architecture in both public and private sectors, and how it can best be championed. Should it be replaced, and if so by what? Thus far, the suggestions for replacement, in which the commissioners (who work free) would become a sub-group of whatever may replace the Arts Council, sound less than convincing. The commission exists to scrutinise, recommend and report, independent of party interest. This is a useful role.

Paul Finch

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