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Haworth Tompkins: we need to create places people want to live in

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The market incentive to create high-quality, sustainable homes is being compromised, says Haworth Tompkins

Homes provide the backdrop to our lives and shape the way we relate to the world around us, and should encourage neighbourliness, tolerance and cohabitation – essential ingredients in what Richard Sennett calls the ‘contract of true urban existence’. The mistake of much post-war housing was to view housing in purely functional and empirical terms, overlooking the more intangible issues of identity, scale, place-making and social interaction. This oversight has left a long lasting social and urban legacy which will take generations to fully address; but as a new consensus emerges about the need to build more homes, are we sure we are not making the same mistakes again? Is there once more a disconnect between the housing we are building and the homes that people want to live in?

There is a concern that the paternalistic attitude of the post-war era that overlooked the complex social context that it needed to address, has been replaced by the similarly myopic ‘market knows best’ attitude of today, and that much of the housing that we are producing is not in tune with the way we want to live, but reflects the new status of housing as an internationally tradable commodity. With over 60 per cent of market housing in London now being bought as an investment rather than a place to live - and 25 per cent of these going to oversees purchasers - who rarely if ever step foot in their new acquisitions – it is arguable that there is less concern and scrutiny by purchasers in relation to the quality of what they are buying than would be the case with the traditional owner/occupier market. Add to this the shortage of affordable housing and the need to ‘take what you can’, and it is apparent that the market incentive to create high-quality, sustainable homes is being compromised.

Our concerns for the design of new homes is to create places that people would want to live in, to create stable communities that help reconcile the individual to the city. This is managed through considering the relationship to the street and the clear definition of the thresholds from the public to the communal and from the communal to the private spaces. This is evident in our early housing projects for Iroko Housing for Coin Street Community Builders and Peabody Avenue in Pimlico and continues to guide our work even as the scale and density increases. Recent projects in Canning Town and Latimer Road demonstrate how difficult former 1960s housing estates can be revitalised to create new urban communities. The design of both projects create urban blocks that re-establish the street as the primary public face of the building with front doors and other uses reinforcing the public life of the city, and create a quiet communal landscaped garden in their heart. Both projects establish an architectural hierarchy that celebrates the scale of the individual home whilst addressing the wider urban condition. We believe that these concerns are timeless, and whilst there will continue to be pressures to increase the density of our crowded cities, we need to ensure that these key qualities are not lost in the name of expediency or to satisfy a short-sighted and distorted market.  

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