Urban Splash, the North-west development company with a reputation for commissioning good architects, must be pleased with its first venture into the world of the open design competition. When it launched the Britannia Basin competition, for a derelict site in the St George's area by the Bridgwater Canal, it could scarcely have expected to receive 400-plus registrations and more than 130 entries.
A preliminary judging whittled the numbers down to 32, with some well- known names falling by the wayside. The judging took place, courtesy of Lord Rogers (one of the judges) in the House of Lords, where he could slip away to vote if required. The slightly surreal surroundings of Committee Room 2 in no way inhibited the judges, including Andrew Taylor of Patel Taylor (the riba-nominated judge), Hugh Pearman from the Sunday Times, and Alan Cherry from Countryside Properties, from undertaking a difficult but satisfying task. As Lord Rogers remarked, the standard of designs on display was significantly higher than the usual fare dished up for the housing market.
The final six shortlisted for interview by the developer encompassed different generic approaches to the problem. Some schemes occupied the whole of the canal frontage with a continuous strip of housing, while others broke it up with water, or placed blocks at oblique angles to the water. Few entries were able to combine convincing planning with technological innovation and environmental awareness - this was a tough brief in terms of density and cost requirements.
Two entries which attracted most comment from the judges were the Rotterdam scheme, which put full-height cuts into a brick building, creating internal space reminiscent of converted warehouses elsewhere in the city; and the Novo Architects proposition which had immediate attractions in terms of the way it improved the attractiveness of the site. But the other finalists all had merit, and the next stage will be hard fought.