The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (cabe) is to be congratulated on its website, particularly for the summaries of design review reports (aj 25.11.99 et al). However, cabe's approach to design review raises some concerns.
There seems to be undue reliance on the reputation of the architectural practice concerned. But most practices have off days and large, long-established firms inevitably produce uneven quality, partly due to changes in their design leadership over the years.
In Bristol we have one very fine Arup Associates building, the cegb headquarters. We also have a much more recent building - the Lloyds tsb Bank hq on Canons Marsh.
The footprint of this complex, geometric and formal, might be at home on a business park, but is quite inappropriate on this urban renewal site. As the first new building on Canons Marsh, it has left real urban-design problems for adjoining development. Sitting on a high plinth, with elevations of almost fascist pomposity, this building is a mile away from this firm's best work.
The current planning application by Arup Associates is for a single development covering the remaining 6.5ha of this important city centre brownfield site, now renamed Harbourside. But the submission is in outline, showing site layout and building height only, with minimal supporting information about design. cabe has asked for more detail of one block but otherwise is virtually rubber stamping the whole scheme on the basis that it has confidence in the design team.
On performance so far, it is impossible to share that confidence. At the very least cabe should press for the design of all six of the large buildings that comprise this development, and the spaces between them, to be done at this stage. cabe agrees this is normal practice in a conservation area, probably because it is notoriously difficult for the development control process to secure good architecture at detailed design stage.
Community involvement is noted as one of cabe's concerns. Here there is a strong, informed community that says this is a flawed plan, which cannot be adequately redeemed with as yet invisible architecture. How does the community get its concern over to cabe, which has seen the scheme presented by a supportive planning officer of a council which has a financial interest in the site?
Most importantly, can we be assured that cabe's recommendations will be founded on the architecture in front of them, and not on the names on the plans?
Roger Mortimer, Bristol
NB: the cabe website's address is www.cabe.org.uk.