‘Context’ in planning terms is a perilous place, but one that, if mastered, is your right of passage to something unexpected, writes Joe Morris
Duggan Morris Architects and its history is rooted in the fabric of our capital city, which has cultivated an intrinsic awareness of our responsibilities to its continuum: an effervescent cycle of growth and reuse. Working in a thriving historic city, constructing and adapting buildings, brings many factors into play, all of which require careful management; factors governed by policy and politics, by programme and economics, and most pertinently, by context.
Context and character are constant challenges, particularly within, on or next to something of ‘value’, historic or otherwise. This issue is most evident when working with listed buildings, conservation areas or something of ‘townscape merit’. This latter term recognises a building on the strength of its contribution to townscape setting alone - for example, one which forms an integral element of a town square.
But what is context, if not an overused, lazy reference to the physical fabric of a site or place? Context is not a fixed entity: it moves, it evolves. It is both age- and site-specific, and can be described in purely cultural terms. But can context be quantified in a clear and objective manner? Or is it subjective, speculative, an abstract concept measured only by the knowledge, experience or intelligence of an individual or a group of individuals - call them a planning authority, perhaps? In our experience, the field of ‘context’ in planning terms is a strange and perilous place, but one that, if mastered, is your right of passage to something unexpected, unique and specific to the conditions of that site for that programme. In fact, one could reasonably argue that the strength in context is its ambiguity, its openness to translation and interpretation. Thus, context can return power to the skilled and informed architect; the architect who can be bothered to invest time and energy in getting to know the character of a place, forensically, before placing pen to paper.
So what of character? ‘Character of a place’ suggests a generic reading, in the same lazy way that context might have a singular interpretation. The act of architecture is continually challenged by the sense of scale and appearance of a place; ie what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character. How often have we heard ‘…in addition, the proposal would have a detrimental impact on the openness, character and visual amenity of the surrounding area’, often without any recourse to intellectual challenge through reasoned discourse?
London is not a place with a single definition or interpretation, nor is it defined by a material or a thing. It is rich in meaning and offers those interested deep interpretations which can inform a well-judged architectural response. I am not talking about applying the rules of Georgian detailing to a rebuilt facade. I am talking about the opportunity for an expression of something imperfect, something daring. I am advocating the conjunction of something old or found with something new, alien perhaps, as a means to enhance the character of an area.
It was John Ruskin’s view that, ‘Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of process and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent…and in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies, which are not only signs of life but sources of beauty.’ This matter was brought home to me recently, travelling through Umbria and Tuscany, visiting Florence, Siena, Perugia and ancient towns such as Gubbio; places unchanged over centuries.
Are they more or less beautiful than Hackney? Well, I’ll take Hackney’s imperfections every time.
Joe Morris is director at Duggan Morris Architects