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Roundtable: mastering the masterplan

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Hosted by Capco, developers of Earl’s Court, a select group of architects and planners gathered to debate the challenges of masterplanning large-scale projects, creating liveable places and the shifting sands of planning policy


- Paul Finch, editorial director, AJ (chair)
- Tim Makower, partner, Allies and Morrison
- Jerome Frost, head of planning, Arup
- Richard Powell, director of planning and development, Capco
- Mike Hood, project director of Seagrave Road, Capco
- Nahid Majid, director, Design Council CABE
- Malcolm Kerr, partner, DP9
- John Letherland, partner, Farrells
- Paul Karakusevic, director, Karakusevic Carson Architects
- Gene Kohn, chairman, Kohn Pedersen Fox
- James von Klemperer, principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox

It was near the close of MIPIM when we gathered around the table at a rooftop restaurant in Cannes to discuss the challenges of masterplanning and delivering liveable, large-scale developments in London, or indeed in any city.

At the heart of the discussion, hosted by the AJ and developer Capital & Counties Properties PLC (Capco), was the new Earl’s Court, a Capco project to which most of the players at the roundtable had contributed. The Earl’s Court masterplan, designed by Terry Farrell of Farrells, transforms the south-west London neighbourhood into four villages with a 21st-century high street.

The discussion took place around a five-course lunch, with AJ editorial director Paul Finch as chair.

Paul Finch, editorial director, AJ

Paul Finch, editorial director, AJ

‘I want to kick off this debate with a simple question,’ Finch began with playful congeniality, as the amuse-bouches were served. ‘What constitutes a large urban development? We would all agree that a big project like Earl’s Court is not just an enlarged version of a small thing. There’s a point where its characteristics differ.’

‘For me, it’s not to do with the size of it,’ replied Malcolm Kerr of planning consultants DP9. ‘It’s the complexity relating to the number of government bodies involved, each with their own agenda. Some relatively small developments can be complicated when there’s more than one local authority, plus the Greater London Authority and Transport for London, involved.

‘At Earl’s Court you have two local authorities and hundreds of residents around you,’ Kerr continued. ‘You’ve got to engage and listen to what they have to say, and that takes time. If you have few residents, or a single local authority desperate for inward investment, no matter how big or complex the plan is, you can actually deliver it very quickly.’

‘So it’s more to do with the number of influences, than the size of the scheme,’ Finch summarised. Turning to Tim Makower, partner at Allies & Morrison, Finch asked: ‘Tim, for an out-of-London example, what was your experience in Liverpool in terms of speed?’

You can make quite nasty places if you don’t get the right balance between scale, speed, and authorship

‘The speed of Liverpool One was truly extraordinary,’ he replied, referring to his practice’s work on the development’s Paradise Street. ‘But the challenge of speed at such a large scale is character. You can make quite nasty places if you don’t get the right balance between scale, speed, and authorship. The approach in Liverpool was to get a load of really good architects. There was the acknowledgement that authorship has to be rich and multiple, while leadership must be centrally controlled – in that case, by BDP, who masterplanned the project.

‘I’m fascinated by the Olympic Village, which I haven’t been involved in personally.’

‘I have,’ said Jerome Frost, head of planning at Arup. ‘I spent a huge amount of time working on engagement, when I would have liked to have spent more time looking at the architecture! Most people would have thought we were in a position to rubber stamp, because we were our own planning authority,’ Frost continued, ‘but the Olympic Village is at the boundary of four boroughs, and dealing with four different communities makes for a very complex process.’

Earl's Court Village - CGI

Earl’s Court Village - CGI

‘I’ve noticed that a lot of people get very nervous in the development process,’ contributed Nahid Majid, director of Design Council CABE, ‘especially councillors, junior planning officers and junior urban designers when they’re approached by massive developers. The work that DC CABE is doing with councillors and planning officers is to educate them more about the possibilities of development and pushing that boundary.’

‘I find when you have an agreed design strategy and masterplan, it’s much easier to get people on side,’ Majid added. ‘Once people buy into it, the process is much easier.’

‘It’s about building momentum,’ Frost said, ‘building buy-in and building understanding that the legacy isn’t going to be delivered immediately.’

‘How does it differ in New York?’ Finch redirected, turning to Gene Kohn and James von Klemperer of KPF, whose main offices are in New York and London.

‘Development is a right and hands-off to any public approval process,’ said von Klemperer.

‘If you don’t want to go through any political or public hearings, you just build what it says,’ Kohn added. ‘The New York zoning tells you how tall, how many square feet, and you follow it. When there were a great many sites available, developers didn’t need to get greedy or add more area to the buildings, so they built as-of-right. If you go the other route, and try to change the zoning, the development will take an extra year or two, because you open it up to the community and the public, who will object. Good or bad, a lot of developers have avoided that.’

‘But because of this, one doesn’t think about moving across streets as part of the building process,’ von Klemperer said. ‘The developer only thinks about the site. Linkages and deals between private and public players allow big-scale synergies to happen, such as central plants or co-generation. These are larger scale economies that no one site can allow.’

Earl's Court CGI

Earl’s Court CGI

At this point, Finch turned to John Letherland of Farrells, architect of the Earl’s Court masterplan: ‘John, you often work at the scale of an urban framework, as opposed to a great single building.’

‘That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on,’ Letherland replied. ‘There is an important word that hasn’t been mentioned yet around this table, and that is place. Neighbourhoods make a city liveable.’

Letherland continued: ‘London thrives on disorder and chaos, however, and to some extent, so does New York. The amount to which you control a city in that context is important, because you might lose the charm of a place. The balance is very fine, so we let London find its own way. I think at Earl’s Court we did that very successfully, and the two boroughs have engaged in it very positively.’

‘What would you do with Nine Elms, if you had a magic wand?’ Finch put to Richard Powell, director of planning and development for Earl’s Court at Capco. ‘I always had it in mind that Capco might hold the solution. You’re a south Londoner, Richard. Do you think there are any easy wins there?’

Powell said: ‘Nine Elms is burdened by Battersea Power Station. It needs a big strategic move to plug it in. At the end of the day, any developer who looks at that site has to solve the power station problem before they can look at creating a place there. Until we come up with a pragmatic solution to how we deal with that building, it will be a barrier to seeing that part of the world come forward.’

Can you make a community within Battersea without huge transport infrastructure?

‘I wonder if you can make a community within Battersea without huge transport infrastructure?’ said architect Paul Karakusevic of Karakusevic Carson. ‘You have huge swathes of Hackney and Tower Hamlets which are miles from any Tube but they function pretty well: people cycle, walk to neighbouring high streets and local workplaces. Do you always need infrastructure and hundreds of millions of pounds to connect an area?’

‘Perception is important,’ countered Frost. ‘When you talk to investors about Stratford now, they consider it to be inner London – there are actually many places between Stratford and central London that are better connected, but the Olympics is a wonderful marketing tool and the perception of Stratford has completely changed.’

‘Mike, if there was one thing you could change which would make large-scale development easier, what would it be?’ asked Finch, turning to Mike Hood, project director of Seagrave Road at Capco.

Mike Hood, project director of Seagrove Road, Capco

Mike Hood, project director of Seagrove Road, Capco

‘I believe we need to empower clarity and better decision-making within the local authorities, especially in regeneration in housing, where indecision can often frustrate a scheme for years and years,’ said Hood. ‘Rather than a restrictive process, if we made planning a more positive collaboration between applicant, developer and planning authority, it would be a much more successful process.’

‘I think we need to get our heads around long-term residential property ownership as well,’ Hood continued. ‘The really successful bits of London have come about as a result of the great estates. I think if we can stop wanting to develop and immediately sell, and move towards a model of long-term stewardship, then we might find some interesting solutions.’

‘But one of the most important things is a consistent, long-term policy environment,’ Hood said. ‘I don’t think I’ve been involved in a planning application in London where the policy hasn’t changed part-way through the planning process. That makes planning risky for developers.’

Letherland agreed. ‘We see policy change so often, by the time we see anything built, it’s completely different. We need less dogma, less focus on buildings, and more focus on space and place.’

‘Yet despite the problems often cited with planning, at least planning in London is a conversation, rather than a “yes or no” binary system,’ Finch said, over the clinking of plates as the table is cleared and coffee poured. ‘There is at least the possibility of doing something interesting in London.’ ‘We have done King’s Cross; we are doing Earl’s Court; we have done the Olympics,’ Finch continued, summing up. ‘The more we say we have a problem with planning, the more we apparently find a way around it, which I suppose one might describe as the architect’s stock-in-trade.’

Frost agreed. ‘Increasingly there is a skills base in Britain which is being developed around the delivery of these major projects,’ he added. ‘It’s very exportable.’

Sated from a pleasant meal and engaging debate, the roundtable guests were left with the shared view that architects are crucial to the success of any masterplan, to imbue a city with character and a sense of place. The roundtable adjourned, and the guests, still full of ideas, continued their conversation as they walked back to the Palais for the final evening of MIPIM on a seaside promenade bathed in the warm Mediterranean sun.

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