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Masterplanning is not a matter of observing ‘rules’

Paul Finch

News that Foster + Partners’ mega-plan for the Royal Docks has been rejected by Newham Council is not particularly surprising, because the bigger the project, the more potential there is to find fault with it

So the planners’ observations on the proposals, including the novel criticism that the masterplan does not prove whether more affordable housing could have been provided, resemble the classic scattergun attack, where, if one bullet misses (affordable housing), you hope to hit with another one (too many homes in relation to public transport availability).

This unhistorical criticism ignores the fact that in London it has frequently been development which has prompted transport improvements – not always the 19th-century model of housing following new railway lines. The entire history of nearby Canary Wharf proves the point: it was the decision to invest there on the part of the developers which cemented public investment in the Jubilee Line).

Reflections on the nature of masterplanning were aired at three recent events hosted in its office by Allies and Morrison, based partly on its own extensive experience. I had the pleasure of chairing the sessions, with a wide range of invited guests, which examined three sorts of masterplan: the catalytic (prompted by an event, such as the London Olympics); the organic (for example the evolution of development in the area around the practice’s Southwark offices); and the curated (as at King’s Cross), where masterplanners and client determine as best they can how an area will look and feel, and how it might evolve.

The masterplan recently given permission for Canada Water, where Roger Madelin is using his King’s Cross experience to create a community-supported development, was the nearest thing to the Foster proposal discussed, but differs from it in significant ways. For example, Canada Water has a successful shopping centre and is already the focus for substantial development, and a landscape heritage created by the old London Docklands Development Corporation.

Despite the fact the proposal is based on private sector land ownership, it won unanimous support from Southwark Council’s planning committee, and is a tribute to political engagement on the part of client and masterplanner. Newham is a different kettle of fish: and even though the land is in public ownership (it belongs to the Greater London Authority), this has clearly cut little ice with Newham Council, under new political leadership since the removal of Sir Robin Wales, who was obviously not edgy enough for Labour’s new apparatchiks.

The complaints about height, density, proximity, and so on look like a shopping list of reasons to refuse

Not having had the opportunity to study the masterplan, all I can say about the multiple criticisms of it is that they sound a bit contrived. The complaints about height, density, proximity, and so on look like a shopping list of reasons to refuse, rather than an attempt to engage with a project that would provide what is in dreadfully short supply in Newham: housing and jobs.

The planning refusal is now being referred to the GLA and the mayor. A tricky political decision is on the way, which won’t have much to do with planning.

A handbook for combining new and old

I have enjoyed reading Richard Griffith’s book Old Buildings, New Architecture, published by his practice. He is a thoughtful architect who dislikes the idea that ‘conservation architects’ are technical specialists who can only deal with restoration.

In his case, a huge range of work which involves additions (both connected and stand-alone) is a confirmation of his proposition that it is a holistic architectural attitude which is critical, not simply an ability to repurpose the old based on purely functional requirements. This is a history of 25 years of work, beautifully illustrated, which will appeal to any thoughtful architect.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Surely surprising that one sort of masterplan could be described as 'organic'.

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  • Yes; what was discussed was what happens over a period of time in a particular area where there are local plans and heritage contexts, but no overall property control or formal masterplan. Does what emerges look as though it might have been the result of a masterplan? It was an interesting conversation.

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