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Buildings without people are like fish without water

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Is property really a ‘people business’?

Two recent conferences prompted thoughts about the relationship between people and architecture. The first, ‘World Class Cities’, took place a fortnight ago in Istanbul, which is itself a good example of a fabulous, complex global metropolis. Inevitably, the question of what constitutes such a city arose, and produced a variety of responses, much of which had to do with provision of buildings and infrastructure.

A city without an airport, without adequate sanitary systems, without universities, or without sufficient housing stock can scarcely be described as world-class. But as soon as you start to dig into this question, it becomes apparent that it is difficult to separate physical attributes from the relationship with their users, many of whom will be less interested in the quality of their physical context than with their general feelings of wellbeing.

Most surveys that ask what people want from their environment cite security as an important factor, since there is little use in a lovely street if you are afraid to walk down it at night. Similarly, what use is a good transport system if it cannot take you to good-quality health facilities? Even if you have a good mix of facilities, is it acceptable for them to be ruthlessly zoned so that you can never find the life of the city, in all its complexities, in a single area?

An excellent presentation by Ross Donaldson from Woods Bagot illustrated this very perceptively, using mapping techniques to explore the relationship between individual elements of a city in terms of distance and type. As ever, the danger seemed to be monotype schemes that appear to be popular with some developers in Istanbul, who think business parks with replicant towers and large spaces between them are the answer. If so, they are asking the wrong question, since the clues as to why Istanbul is a great city are on the street, on the water, and in existing neighbourhoods.

Back in London, I took part in a light-hearted debate at the Workplace Trends conference with construction advisor Paul Morrell, who has just been re-appointed by the government for another year to see at least some of his work through. I was proposing a motion that ‘Property is a People Business’, and felt on safe ground since that was the title of the conference.

Although the motion was carried, Morrell delivered an excellent illustrated rebuttal, pointing out that one could equally regard property (at least the commercial side of it) as being about the imposition of ugly buildings, the expression of power relationships, the creation of assets to be traded as commodities, and the suppression of the individual through the worst sort of workplace plans and layouts.

It reminded me of the old joke about the advantage of neutron mortgages: they kill the developer but save the building. Someone else has to take over the building, and if no one is interested it has no value. It only has value if there is an occupant willing to pay rent. An office without tenants is not an asset but a liability. A cinema without a film to show or an audience to watch it is of interest only to architects. Ditto a closed cathedral. A house is not, as the old song has it, a home – unless it has people in it.

On this latter point, not the least alarming aspect of our current housing condition is the fact that, in central London at least, many of the high-end units being built cannot really be described as homes. They are commodities to be bought and occasionally occupied by overseas investors, who make fleeting appearances when the weather suits. These people are the undead of our cities, here in theory and paying their council tax, but non-existent when it comes to community life.

On an average salary, a Londoner cannot now afford a mortgage until they are 52. Whatever happened to Harold Macmillan’s property-owning democracy?

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