The row over Amin Taha’s Islington office reveals the poverty of the planning system, says Owen Hatherley
You can read the controversy over Amin Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close as a variant of one of HM Bateman’s inter-war cartoons. In these, appalling breaches of decorum in upper class social scenes are made by unknowing (or, sometimes, knowing) individuals: ‘The Man Who Lit His Cigar Before the Royal Toast’, ‘The Girl who Ordered a Glass of Milk at the Café Royal’, and so forth.
Here, it’s ‘The Man Who Built a Block of Flats in a Conservation Area in London That Wasn’t Clad in Brick’. Taha is now playing the part of the individual battling against the man in the Town Hall – anyone walking around the building is currently liable to be accosted by its architect and invited in, as he explains exactly why he did this ‘naughty’ thing.
Context is all. On either side, there are fake 18th-century buildings. One of them is just a copy, an imitation bit of rough Georgian vernacular, and the other is more broad-brush, where the ‘masonry’ is in the style made famous by Asda in the 1980s.
Clerkenwell close 99
Source: Agnese Sanvito
Clerkenwell Close is a quintessential London conservation area, in that nothing awful has been allowed to happen but, aside from the Baroque church at the centre of it, nothing particularly interesting, either. It has been maintained, nothing more.
Irrespective of the legality of the building, it really is a challenge to how conservation areas are meant to work. With fake load-bearing brick on either side, No.15 is held up with a giant grid of limestone. ‘Couldn’t you have done an Eric Parry?’, Taha was asked at one point in the process, in this case meaning: couldn’t you have treated the limestone just as a façade, a smooth skin wrapped around a steel frame, so that we wouldn’t have noticed it?
The controversy is partly about the alleged misuse of the planning system. Partly, it seems likely, it’s also about clashing personalities. But it is also about something the British planning system usually does reasonably well – conservation.
After the battles of the 1960s and 1970s, most 18th and a great deal of 19th-century townscape is reasonably secure from having a giant concrete slab or a fluorescent piloti’d blob inserted into it. The problem is that this version of conservation is based on a philosophy that sees townscape as a sort of landscape painting, to be carefully restored to look as much like an imagined original as possible. That’s a long way from how Townscape was envisaged when the term was coined by Ian Nairn and Gordon Cullen – to mean montage, more than continuity.
This version of conservation is based on a philosophy that sees townscape as a sort of landscape painting
A lot of the things that make 15 Clerkenwell Close so much fun are actually made possible by conservation’s constraints, from the intense, Greek-ruin roof garden to the grid that follows the line of the neighbouring buildings. Rather than seeing the past as a picture, it incorporates it as archaeology, with its basement office full of traces of the buildings that were there before. There is an aspect of wind-up about it all, to be sure, but the result is not jokey, but generous and rich.
It’s hard not to blame the now ubiquitous ‘New London Vernacular’ for the building’s possible fate. Necessary, no doubt, to stop any more Stratford High Streets, its concentration on the façade has encouraged one of the worst things in British architecture – the facile obsession with the ‘in keeping’.
Taha’s 15 Clerkenwell Close shows that you can build with history, avoiding either pointless flash or dull copying. New ideas about how to build in historic areas of London could start from here – if it survives.