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Black architects - time for doing, not talking

I am writing further to returning to the uk last week. I was touched to find that the aj had featured Paul Hyett's article opening up the discussion about institutional racism. Architecture at the policy, programmes and projects levels suffers from bad governance. The Society of Black Architects, the riba and the Stephen Lawrence Trust are talking. The doing is going to be the exciting bit.

Many people in the construction industry see, and to a great extent consider, that architects have an elitist approach when engaging with the wider public. It becomes more challenging for the general public when a black architect appears on a building site, a lecture theatre or an advisory board. Most institutions have to re-examine their systems of governance. We hope our industry will have the courage to look us in the eye. It will not hurt much, just a little, for the original pain of ignorance to retreat to the cage.

Education, education, education. No joined-up thinking please.

Kwasi A Boateng

Chair of the Society of Black Architects

Brownfield debate should be less exclusive

Martin Pawley's attack on Lord Rogers and the idea of brownfield development (aj 1.4.99) was delivered with his usual gusto, and some of his points were undeniable. But once again we are listening to a commentator intent on polarising the argument: you have to support greenfield development because that is what buyers are claimed to want, or you have to support brownfield development because that is the only sustainable way forward.

In reality, as the government has readily acknowledged, we will require new housing both in the countryside and in the city. The argument is partly about the proportions which will go to each sort of area, and partly about sequencing: should we build on the easiest sites first, or mix them up?

Pawley recently expressed his support for the Foster gla office scheme, on the Thames. Presumably he also likes the Foster residential proposal, also on the Thames, which has just been withdrawn because of local opposition. If we do not have dense urban development for the queues of people who wish to live in our cities, then the inevitable consequence will be more suburban sprawl and invasion of the countryside, because that is the only other option. Pawley should speak in favour of real choice, not Hobson's choice.

Gerald Sansom

Eccles, Suffolk

Just how is housing density defined?

As housing densities are being talked up in national and local guidance, I have, despite asking, not seen a common definition in recent years, ie do we measure to site boundaries or to the middle of adjoining roads?

Common sense suggests we measure to the middle of roads which serve the scheme, and, having just roughly applied this to two 1990s redevelopment schemes of mostly terraced family housing in Blackburn and East Manchester, both come out close to 45 houses or 175-195 bedspaces per hectare. Their layouts make use of existing roads and services, all have private parking, while Planning Privacy Distances are closer to 18m for facing habitable rooms instead of the usual 21m.

Their occasional weakness is of course sound insulation - as one resident said: 'You can hear it splashing in the pan.' While more use of sound testing and prompt claims to the nhbc will produce better party walls, we have to remember that they can be defeated by any decent amplifier and speaker system playing the heavy bass soundtrack of most current films.

So, to carry on from Martin Pawley's aj 1.4.99 article, can we see 50 homes per hectare as a reasonable general target for producing a marketable and sustainable product for either private or rented housing? I think you will find that it is the higher-density parts of schemes which are harder to keep let and hence more likely to be demolished.

There is in housing design often a temptation to reinvent the wheel - well argued to avoid the real reasons of designer vanity and boredom. Courtyards and lightwells will be transplanted from their strong high Mediterranean sun to wither under our cloudy wet skies.

My favourite and rather obscure example is the contrast between boarded- up terraced housing built with modern mains drainage which allowed narrow alleyways and high densities, and those built for night soil collection with wide 'backs', as we call them in Warrington. Looking down from my brother's bathroom window on Good Friday, you could see a rich mixture of adaptations, all made possible by the accessibility to vehicles and the lower density.

Brian Michael

Northern Counties Housing

Association, Manchester

Listing decision raises problems over authority

Save Britain's Heritage was obviously cock-a-hoop over its legal victory against the culture secretary, judging by the tone of your lead news story last week (aj 8.4.99). But is it an automatic cause for rejoicing that the secretary of state should have to give detailed reasons if he or she rejects recommendations from English Heritage? Recommendations are just that, otherwise legislation would have been drafted giving eh absolute authority in these matters. What the courts seem to have decided in this case is that Mr Smith should have delivered a legal judgement as to why eh had got it all wrong.

This is not reasonable. The next thing that will happen is that Save, or some other busybody conservation group, will then dissect any such reasoning from the elected politician, and rush into court (at the taxpayers' expense) to prolong the agony of those whose budgets and livelihoods can be eaten up by maintaining buildings long past their sell-by date. Our elected representatives should be free to reject advice from paid officials unless and until legislation exists to compensate owners for the vagaries of the listing system.

Juliet Harris

Brighton

Return of prefabrication is more than welcome

Speaking as an unreconstructed supporter of prefabrication and modular building systems, it has been refreshing to see the spate of articles in aj on steel housing, particularly the news story (aj 1.4.99) on the Peabody Trust and its Yorkon housing designed by Cartwright Pickard. I do not know how old this practice is, but I suspect it may be young enough not to have been infected by the understandable but often unjust reputation earned by building systems during the 1970s.

Prefabrication in the housing sector has a long tradition in Britain (think of the Elizabethan timber frame). There is no reason why we should have waited so long to experiment with some truly sophisticated latter- day equivalents, especially given the continuing need to provide housing for lower-income families which does not sacrifice space standards or internal comforts to the need for low rents.

Amid all the talk of 4.4 million homes, the advantages of the modern system have so far been underplayed - keep up the good work.

Peter Warrington

Chesham, Bucks

Death in Venice or a

witty Vegas reference?

Astragal's witty caption to an image of the Sands Hotel and Casino (aj 8.4.99) suggests that the old hotel has been dismantled brick by brick for re-erection in Venice, while a reproduction of the Piazza San Marco arises in the Nevada desert. This is good stuff to scoff at - all those Americans reliant on Europe for cultural references - but there is a serious point too. The exemplary care with which architectural copies have been achieved in Las Vegas has considerable lessons for all those architects who find themselves in the position of having to replicate in historic contexts. Las Vegas just takes this one step further. But is there anything particularly bizarre about this, any more than awarding the riba Gold Medal to an entire city? If Barcelona can travel to Portland Place for an award, surely Venice can fly to Vegas?

Jeff Bramall

Peterborough

The MoD should care about architecture

Having returned from a pre-Easter holiday, I have just caught up with the story about how the Ministry of Defence is planning to procure buildings in the future, putting the emphasis on the builder as being the 'prime contract' partner rather than design professionals (aj 11.3.99). I suppose it was too much to hope that traditional relationships would find any sort of champion, and your story suggests that the Treasury would be equally happy with 'design build'.

As your editorial rightly says, the mod has always been at the forefront of efforts to redefine contractors in favour of whoever it is who says they can organise things best. But where is the evidence that British main contractors are the right people for the job? If they are, why are their margins so low? Why has the sector taken such a beating in the City? Why are they all desperate to get into Private Finance Initiative schemes where they take on responsibilities for almost everything instead of sticking to what they are supposed to know about?

The truth is that the whole thrust of the Egan debate is misplaced: true partnering should be taking place between client, designer, specialist subcontractor and materials supplier - the folk actually responsible for getting buildings built.

Ian Johnston

Liverpool

Make up your mind

over heritage value

Your editorial last week on the one hand stated that heritage was of little importance compared to the war going on in the Balkans, but on the other was ultimately much more important because architecture would be remembered long after the 'guns of war'. You can't have it both ways.

Darren Elliott

Newmarket

Curious story needs

more explanation?

Was I alone in reading with some astonishment your small news item (aj 1.4.99) about Frank Gehry's American Center in Paris? This building, opened to great fanfares about the joys of freeform shapes, digitised architecture etc, is so unsuccessful that it is to be turned into a cinema museum - at an additional cost of ff160 million! What an advertisement for the avant-garde (not).

Simon Crabtree

London W11

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