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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .the Lansbury Estate, the wallpaper of the street

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Clare Melhuish reviews.....

Living Architecture 2001, a conference held at the 1950s-built Lansbury Estate in the shadow of Canary Wharf tower, showed how far attitudes to regeneration have changed in the past 50 years.

A series of film clips produced in the post-war period, presented by Patrick Keiller, revealed the conviction in the power of the built environment to change people's lives for the better - leading to the demolition and rebuilding of much of London. The Proud City, produced by the Crown Film Unit, highlighted the fact that the industrial boroughs, where schools with few playgrounds were located much too near factories, were in need of reconstruction even before the Blitz. Their Majesties in Poplar showed the public celebrations that attended the opening of the Lansbury Estate itself, designed as a model neighbourhood.

According to Anne Matthews of Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association), spearheading regeneration of Lansbury, it is people rather than buildings that create successful neighbourhoods. HARCA's programme is not concerned with the built fabric; its focus is to create opportunities for people through educational and training initiatives - notably English language classes - to help build a stronger sense of community.

All this is happening in 'oddgey [sic] little buildings', none purpose-built - which begs the question whether it is worth pouring Lottery funding into new community buildings.

As Matthews said, the Lansbury Estate was mocked in the 1970s for being vernacular in approach, 'a little British village in the city' demonstrating a different scale of ambition from that of grander projects inspired by Modern Movement ideals, but one which worked.

For Piers Gough, however, it represents a view that 'housing is somehow anonymous - the wallpaper of the street', which he opposes. 'It's different now. Houses are a very important part of people's lives. . . more than the town hall, ' he said.

He presented CZWG's scheme for redevelopment of Glasgow's Gorbals area, demonstrating an idealism about the importance of buildings - grand multiple dwelling-houses on tree-lined boulevards - which approaches the idealism (admired by Peabody Trust design director Dickon Robinson) of many architects at the time of Lansbury about the role of design in creating neighbourhoods.

But, as Gough lamented, there is little political will to realise such initiatives. His 'tiny little effort' comprising 1,000 houses took Glasgow's authorities 10 years to build, where once they were building 10,000 homes a year. Even an 'ideal client' like Peabody was creating the first model neighbourhoods more than a century ago, but Robinson refrained from presenting examples of the Trust's built work, and had little to say about design - except that 'high-density living and cultural variety require more thought than ever before'.

Living Architecture 2001 was organised by the Architecture Foundation for the Lansbury Festival

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