Taken to task
Lynne Sullivan may not seem an obvious choice for the government's Sustainable Housing Task Group, but she is clear eyed about the job she and her colleagues face Hackney is a very strange place.Many would argue the strangest in London. Which must make it one of the strangest places on Earth.
It is also highly corrupt. It can lay claim to being the most corrupt borough in the UK.
It is surely the only council in the country where even a special Anti-Corruption Unit is being investigated by the police for, you've guessed it, corruption.
Never let it be said, however, that it does not have its fans. Among the grime, crime and widespread despair is a small army of people who will not hear a word said against the place.Charming, ethnic, real, diverse, and bizarre are just some of the many adjectives they use without (it seems) any irony.
One of the earliest members of this unofficial fan club was Lynne Sullivan, an architect and former employee of the London Borough of Hackney. For the best part of the 1980s Sullivan managed the extraordinary achievement of both living and working as an architect in this swathe of London's hinterland. Even by Hackneyphile standards, this is a little extreme.
But as unusual as this accomplishment undoubtedly is, it is not the reason for her agreeing to be interviewed in the Waterloo offices of Broadway Malyan. The real reason is that she is the only architect appointed to the government's latest 'good idea', the Sustainable Housing Task Group.
Launched at last year's Better Buildings Summit, not many people have heard of the task group yet, but hopefully this will have changed by the spring. If it is not widely known by then, something will have gone seriously wrong, because the deputy prime minister has given the group a very important task. It will set targets and performance indicators to 'ensure' the Thames Gateway doesn't turn into a homogenous plain of Noddy-boxes with all the ecological credentials of a gas-guzzling Skoda.
One would have thought that this challenge would require a serious and lengthy timescale. But no. The government, in its urgency to ensure that what is left of the rural South East is swallowed by hungry housebuilders, has given the task group just three months to produce a report for John Prescott's consideration.
This is, undeniably, a very short time to produce a document that will influence how millions of people live for generations to come. With this in mind, one might expect Sullivan to look as if she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sullivan breezes into the meeting room seemingly without a care in the world. She couldn't look more relaxed.
There was a time not so long ago when the idea of mentioning Broadway Malyan and innovative sustainable design in the same sentence would have induced a quiet smile of cynicism from anyone listening.
Although this is still to some extent true, it illustrates how far both architecture and construction have come that a major commercial practice has given the likes of Sullivan a directorship and the authority to influence each one of its projects.
Sullivan was not part of the very beginning of the environmental movement in the 1970s but, following the decade working for Hackney, she was certainly close to its inception when she joined Energy Conscious Design (ECD), one of Britain's first sustainable-focused practices. In the 10 years that followed, the energy-saving issue was catapulted from the liberal fringe of society to the mainstream.
In many ways, Sullivan followed this same path two years ago when she decided to make a move into commercial practice. 'Broadway Malyan was the first practice I wrote to expressing an interest in joining and they immediately wrote back inviting me to come in and see them, ' she says, 'I was very lucky.'
But for all her pleasure at having joined the mainstream, Sullivan remains deeply unconvinced about how completely the sustainable agenda has been embraced. 'I'm amazed at how ignorant developers and architects are about this very serious subject.
Clients often simply don't understand it.'
Surprisingly, however, she is understanding about the reasons behind these attitudes.
'I don't think one can look people in the eye and tell them that it really is cheaper to build in an environmentally friendly manner.
'Interest is growing, but only in those aspects of sustainable construction that are cost-effective, ' she adds, 'not in the others.'
And this healthy cynicism seems to stretch as far as the Communities Plan, the government's policy document that outlines how it will 'solve' the drastic under-supply of housing in the South and over-supply in the North.
'Some of the concepts are fairly arguable, ' she tells me diplomatically. 'The government ought to be aiming at growth in the North, not just writing it off as a non-growth area.
'The government also needs to be careful in the South, where it is aiming for major growth. There has to be a question about whether these targets can be achieved without the delayed major infrastructure investment, ' she says.
This doesn't mean, however, that she feels the Sustainable Housing Task Group has no future. She is convinced, probably with good reason, that it is better than nothing. 'This is an opportunity that needs to be grasped.
The fact is John Prescott is committed to building huge numbers of homes and we have to deal with it.'
Which brings us to a difficult question.
Why did Prescott and his advisers decide to pluck Sullivan from the relative obscurity of the Broadway Malyan office to be sole representative of the profession in the task group?
Surely there are more famous architects suited to the role? Bill Dunster, for example?
Sullivan is discretion itself. 'I think Bill has achieved great things, but I'm not driven in the same way as him, ' she says with a knowing smile.
'I'm very interested in building sustainably, but my experiences in Hackney have showed me that we need to make sure we get people on board.'