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All architecture is political

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Politics are not necessarily architectural, writes Paul Finch

Before turning to the question of the Scottish independence vote, let us at least acknowledge just how political architecture, planning and design can be.

A good example came following the publication of proposals by David Rudlin and Nick Falk of Urbed, about how we could double the housing capacity of many of the UK’s historic towns and cities. Their ideas, which have won the excellent Wolfson Prize, are the first I have come across where I felt happy to accept the idea of giving up chunks of green belt in order to create bigger (but significantly improved) city environments.
This is not a proposal for London, which has plenty of empty land within its borders, but for smaller cities which face different expansion problems, Oxford being an obvious example. The idea is not to plonk brand new ‘garden cities’ into remote countryside, but to ‘grow’ the existing city with a series of well-connected satellites, typically only 20 minutes by public transport from the historic centre. Assuming farmland can be purchased at current-use value, the quid pro quo is that, for every acre of mainly inaccessible green belt which is developed, an equal amount will become available as amenity for all the citizens of the expanded town that is created.


Anyone interested in planning and urbanism should read the full report - with a far more open mind than that of the current housing minister, the fourth in four years, one Brandon Lewis. Before any public discussion, and apparently without using any of the brain power that may be available to him, Lewis announced that the ideas were no good, and suggested we should be building more bungalows. What his boss Eric Pickles thinks about this can only be guessed at. The secretary of state is intelligent and experienced, whatever one may think of individual policies he promotes. Lewis appears to be a complete idiot, with no regard for the merits of ideas that are about development and growth.

Let’s hope wise heads prevail, and that more responsible politicians recognise that the Urbed proposition suggests a real way forward in addressing what had appeared to be an intractable issue. It is not about architecture, being more about economics than anything else, but it is informed by a lifetime of work in the field of planning, construction and architecture.

Incidentally at the level of individual experience, the forthcoming Design Council summit on ‘Active by Design’ environments is a reminder that decisions about buildings and town planning have profound implications for individual lives at multiple levels, all of which relate in some way to political attitudes.

Cue the predictable spectacle of Howard Davies doing David Cameron’s bidding and ruling out the Norman Foster estuary airport (and much more infrastructure besides) in favour of yet more noise-nuisance flights in and out of Heathrow, with a nod to the merits of expanding Gatwick (AJ 05.09.14).

Politically Davies is a busted flush following his disastrous leadership of the Financial Services Authority, and his ‘let’s-suck-up-to-Libya’ overseeing of the London School of Economics. A failure, but one who does what he is told, which is what politicians like Cameron love. Boris and Norman must not give up, and fortunately show no sign of doing so.

And so to Big Politics. When it comes to the Scottish independence referendum, I feel depressed by the whole affair. Even though Sean Connery may not be able to vote, I will continue to think of him as a Scot, whatever happens. Ditto Rab Bennetts and John McAslan. Being Scottish, like being British or being a Londoner, is a state of mind - not a postal address entitling you to vote for one demagogue or another.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Paul, my wife is English, runs a successful practice in Scotland and is fervently for "Yes". She - as all of us here - understands that this is not a vote about ethnicity but democracy - the basic principle being that we vote where we live. Please pay attention...

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