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Thames Gateway, Mark Brearley and a call to arms

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[THIS WEEK] At London Met, Mark Brearley urges young architects to become planners, writes James Pallister

‘Now isn’t a time to mince words,’ said former AJ editor Kieran Long. He was introducing Design for London head honcho Mark Brearley, who took to the floor a day after the Comprehensive Spending Review for the third in London Metropolitan University’s much-hyped Rip it Up and Start Again series.

Brearley came to London in the early 1980s. Eschewing the city he struck eastwards, to London’s underloved east edges; embattled landscapes of approach roads, canals and industrial sheds. Zoom forward and many of these places have become part of what’s packaged as the Thames Gateway, a 70km-long stretch of land from Westferry to the Isle of Sheppey.

Brearley took Long’s straight-talking instruction to heart. He gave a charming and disarmingly frank account of his 20-year engagement with the region, particularly of his time ‘inside the cockpit’, heading up the UK’s largest planning department, Design for London.

The Thames Gateway’s dream is now somewhat deflated. The luxuriously designed information packs from the boom time documenting consultation strategies, the area’s historical narratives and the local flora and fauna have disappeared.

The development that happened in that period hasn’t. Suburban housing tracts, Westfield shopping centre, the Thurrock business park, a prison, an exhibition centre and an airport have all sprung up in the area. Much of it, says Brearley, has been poorly designed, poorly sited and poorly executed. One of the (many and complex) reasons behind this, for him, was our country’s inability to execute long-term plans. Charming national idiosyncrasy this ain’t. In Brearley’s experience projects work, plans fail. With an injection of design talent this needn’t be the case. ‘Are you the cavalry?’ he asked the audience. ‘There is still a chance, against all the odds, that if we fight, it might turn out well.’

- Rip it Up and Start Again lecture series, 6.30, Thursdays until 13 January, London Metropolitan University, see www.asd-realtime.org

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