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Small is not so beautiful

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The infatuation with environmental impact has meant that, building big or small, architects are lowering their horizons

When Piercy Conner, recent sponsor of the AJ Focus gallery at London's Store Street Building Centre, designed its 32m2 micro-flats so they could be modelled in Selfridges' shop window, some people likened them to executive crash-pads in Japan. But Japanese capsule building, best exemplified in Kisho Kurokawa's Nagakin Tower, was intended to be temporary accommodation, additional to, not in lieu of, a main family home.

As the micro argument is being discussed, so there is a dynamic debate about the need for tall buildings, from Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower to Heron Tower (remember that? ), not to mention high-rise ambitions from Newcastle to Croydon. It seems that we have an architecture riven with contradictory desires. On one hand, designers want to build smallscale, low-rise, dense living spaces; on the other, architects are aspiring to high-rise, corporate, globalist structures. While this dichotomy has existed for many years between different architectural schools and competing client interests, it is fascinating to note that in today's climate, the differences between the two are much more difficult to discern.

Much is being written about what should or should not be built, but very little is actually being built.We have the lowest levels of house building since the war (if you ignore the war economy 'boom'). In parallel to this, commercial firms are tightening their belts and increasingly risk-averse shareholders are less keen on new build and are turning to refurbishment.

Underlying this debate is a general mood of anti-consumptionism.

Refurb is deemed to be more 'sustainable' than the profligacy of new build; large houses are condemned for generating more carbon dioxide than small houses. If our expectations for housing are too high, maybe we should reduce our aspirations a bit, or so the contradictory argument goes.

If overt expressions of corporatism are bad, then maybe we shouldn't advocate tall buildings that reflect it.

Obviously, the UK is still a dynamic economy, which will continue to build for different sectoral requirements, but what we build, and why, is becoming more uncertain.

Piano has said that 'we need to move from growth to sustainable growth; cities should move from explosion to implosion'. It seems that expansion is bad, contraction good.

In this respect, the terms of the tall buildings argument are based on the same foundations as the small buildings' debate. They are two sides of the same coin.

Think big again

On a political level, there is a lack of conviction. Admittedly, there seems to be a growing conviction (unless you are Simon Jenkins) and lack of embarrassment in the defence of skyscrapers, but this is coloured by a political and aspirational timidity.

Whereas the legitimisation of tall buildings used to rely on simple factors like whether it worked, aesthetic judgement and commercial arrogance, we now seem to have a confusion and denial of the merits of all three. Today, high-rise buildings are presented as eco-friendly structures, minimising their impact (their footprint) and hence reducing their so-called 'detrimental' impact on the city - effectively justifying a skyscraper on how small it is. No wonder the designers of micro-flats take heart at providing tiny student accommodation as adequate for low-paid workers.

None of this would be so bad if micro-flats were temporary prefabricated structures in which to house people while large areas of London were demolished, making way for a radically holistic new plan for the city. Unfortunately, the micro-debate is proposed as the answer.

If the argument for improved space standards has been lost, then it is only fair that new build houses will erode the human scale of decent dwellings since the post-war period.Densification sounds like such a nice word.

As long as architects justify their projects as having nominal impact on the urban or natural environment, tall buildings will be no challenge to small thinking. Indeed, architects should stop celebrating - and lauding - the natural environment. Whether that means building big is for individual architects and related professions to decide. But at the very least they should start thinking big again; challenging social, infrastructural and environmental constraints, rather than accepting them as boundaries.

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