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Anglo Saxon vernacular

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The UK’s volume housebuilders are creating swathes of developments around our cities that demonstrate little or no interest in the creation of place

It has been more than 30 years since Kenneth Frampton published his seminal essay on Critical Regionalism. The arguments – calling for a unity between the abstractions of Modernism and the particularities of the genius loci – have not only been won but have assumed a central position in architectural culture. In planning systems across the world the value of ‘place’ and a local architectural culture is recognised, and is valued alongside the universal needs of programme.

What makes regionally distinctive architecture is a combination of materials, climatic design and custom. Most countries have complex histories, evidenced in the evolution of building types, adding to a unique sense of place. The shophouses of Melaka speak of a complex history of Dutch colonial rule, of Chinese traditional courtyard houses, as well as ingenious response to the specific climate of Malaysia. In Britain our own complex history in relation to the rest of the world is evidenced in what is indigenous as well as what is imported, from Palladio to Bungalow. We have a rich and varied vernacular heritage to draw on and (apart from the parametric razzmatazz or the craze for building ever taller) contemporary architects take this on in recognition of the contribution a single building has to the wider context.

We have a rich and varied vernacular heritage to draw on

There is another force shaping our country, fast becoming a new vernacular, if vernacular architecture is the result of unself-conscious building according to need. Housing estates are already forming ‘doughnuts’ around many towns, in a recognisable pattern-book model. The big housebuilders now account for 68 per cent of all new housing, as those smaller have gone out of business or been subsumed. Here, the needs extend beyond the immediate and the local. Our towns are being radically changed by those whose ‘unself-conscious building’ serves not only the housing needs of the people, but those of the boardroom and the balance sheet. This is coupled by an increasing dislocation of communities where economics determine that housing is located remotely from centres of work. As we look to the next government to take the issue of housing supply more seriously, we are also seeking an expansion of housing estates and should be interested in how they will shape our country. The RIBA awards schemes have been poor in recognising the contribution that architects have made in housing, a sector that is stubbornly unimaginative and operates a cost model that mitigates against the establishment of good urban places.

For centuries buildings were made as they were required, which Paul Oliver describes as ‘by the people, but not for the people’. The resulting houses, streets and neighbourhoods are delightfully human in scale. It is these places that people seek while travelling – places that are good to walk in and for meeting and observing others. Theories by Jan Gehl or the New Urbanists that espouse the creation of walkable neighbourhoods are now accepted, and we see the desire to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over cars in city centres around the world. Efforts are made to avoid the destruction of historic neighbourhoods by new development that fails to take note of the human scale of an existing street pattern.

Swathes of land are being carved out for development that shows no interest in the creation of place

Meanwhile in the UK swathes of land are being carved out for development that shows little or no interest in the creation of place.  The mechanism of Local Plans to control the quality of development is necessarily restricted, and dependant on the resources available at local government level to produce plans with sufficient design input to effectively dictate future development quality. Despite the NPPF having design quality embedded into the text, good design can only be achieved by good designers, and then only if they are employed early enough to make a substantial difference. Usually by the time the Local Plan has been adopted, the horse has already bolted.

Here in Cambridge we have seen how long-term investment in the future growth of the city has made a difference to the quality of the neighbourhoods that are now being built. It isn’t perfect, but is better than most.  Long-term planning has meant that transport infrastructure was built ahead of development, with significant local authority investment in a guided bus system. Car transport is not the only mode – offering alternatives is the first plank of an integrated suburb and a walkable neighbourhood. The local authority was instrumental in pushing for greater quality on a site near the centre that ended up becoming the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia. In the university expansion to the north-west of the city, the value of long-term ownership and investment in a detailed masterplan has made a tangible difference. It isn’t simply about numbers and zones, but actual urban design: streets, spaces, routes and squares. Architects have been employed to continue the design, rather than start it; too often a masterplan is a two-dimensional exercise in highways and densities, backed up by design codes with ‘character areas’.

There are some developers out there making a difference, taking the need for housing and making good-quality places and new neighbourhoods that are good to live in. Among them are Countryside (the developer of Accordia), Urban Splash, Hill Residential, as well as smaller developers such as Baylight, Cathedral, Carillion Igloo and HAB. In Norwich, developer Beyond Green has outline permission for an urban extension comprising 3,500 homes designed around the principles of walkable neighbourhoods. It has shops and businesses integrated into the development, as well as an energy centre and extensive parklands within the site. The ambitions are impressive. 

What is disappointing is the effort that it will take to ensure success. It is curious that creating a place that feels like a historic neighbourhood is so antithetical to the way in which the volume housebuilders work.  It’s a tragedy that the creation of the next generation’s urban experience is mostly left to companies whose motive is profit and which talk about housing as a product: to them, terraces are a problem; cars on the street aren’t acceptable; mixed use reduces value; landscaping needs maintenance. There’s an Anglo-Saxon vernacular out there that needs to change.

  • Meredith Bowles is a director of Cambridge-based Mole Architects
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