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Architects must engage public on emotional level to win planning

Rory Olcayto

Sincere engagement with the public on an emotional level is vital, says Rory Olcayto

Could the number of intrusive large-scale developments in London – from skyscrapers on the South Bank and in the City to the Garden Bridge and Crossrail – be skewing how citizens of the capital view any new development? I think it might. It’s partly why the Spitalfields Trust refers to British Land’s Blossom Street proposals as a ‘glass and steel’ development. As British Land has pointed out, the only glass is in the windows and there is no visible steel. By and large the scheme is brick and stone.

Nevertheless, perception matters; and for some reason developers – and architects – are failing to communicate their plans effectively. Sometimes the most obscure places, often without architectural merit, matter to people, for all sorts of emotional or – dare I say it – pyschogeographical reasons, whether they live there or not. (More than 85 per cent of objection letters to Tower Hamlets came from outside the borough.)  The Blossom Street lesson? Engaging the public on this emotional level is more important now than ever before. But it has to be sincere. 


This week marks the start of our new series, Eurovisionaries, in which acclaimed writer Owen Hatherley conducts his own grand tour of European Union cities. Each month, over the next year, Owen will file a report from a different EU city, sharing his thoughts on the urban design and architecture of each, and exploring the politics and personalities that shaped them.

The idea for Eurovisionaries sprang from Owen’s desire to extend his tour of British cities, which formed the content of his controversial book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. His publisher, Verso, describes his analysis of Blairite city-making as an exploration of ‘the buildings that epitomised an age of greed and aspiration’. Eurovisionaries, however, takes a different tack. In some ways it is a celebration of European town planning. As Owen points out, whatever anyone thinks of the UK’s EU membership, for ‘British architects and planners and for those interested in buildings and cities, the EU is where things are done properly’.

There is another facet to the series: in the run up to the in/out referendum, it explores the common ground we share with our European neighbours.

Hello twisted steel: what do you want to be?

News that the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower in London’s Olympic park is to be fitted with a corkscrew slide to boost visitor numbers has largely been greeted with hoots of derision. As Chris Rogers commented online: ‘Perfect silly season story. Insert your own joke.’ Still, if you’ve ever been to the top of it, sliding back down through the looping steel structure must have crossed your mind. To paraphrase Louis Kahn, the Orbit has become what it always wanted to be: a giant helter skelter. Personally I think it’s a great idea even if the refit means the Orbit can no longer be considered an artwork (Carsten Höller be damned). Perhaps now, Londoners will take to it – and critics will hate it less.



Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Rogers

    "there is no visible steel" Apart, presumably, from the metal in the spandrels in the photo?? Not steel maybe but still metal. As for "Sometimes the most obscure places, often without architectural merit, matter to people, for all sorts of emotional or – dare I say it – pyschogeographical reasons, whether they live there or not", that sounds a tad patronising - people like what they know, are familiar with and grew up with, yes, but they also like architecture with a scale that is human and materials that feel natural. And please don't use the old 'no merit' argument; all buildings matters at the grain of a city street. I'd rather retain the facades and build behind.

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  • As a journalist Rory, I'm sure you appreciate the old saw - "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."
    My experience would suggest that asking architects to engage on this level with any serious intent is a pipedream.

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