Aylesbury Estate anger at architects is entirely misdirected, says Paul Finch
More than 600 people attending the AJ120 dinner at the Tower of London last week were harangued on their way in by a group of protesters furious about what is happening – complete demolition and replacement – to the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, south London. They were even crosser that at least one practice involved was receiving an award at the dinner, although it was not for work on that project.
In general there was some sympathy for the views of the protesters, who were the same sort of people who disrupted the opening of the inaugural MIPIM UK event last October.
But apart from some housebuilders, who are by definition ambiguous about the joys of home supply more than meeting demand, property types are far more appalled by the 30-year failure to supply affordable and social housing than politicians, of whom one can only observe, in the words of the country and western lyric, ‘You don’t need a handkerchief for crocodile tears.’
Whether it was the sale of council housing and now housing association homes, taxes on so-called mansions, or mortgage subsidies to the non-needy, the political classes seemed to have abandoned any idea that governments should predict demand and try to provide, as they do with most other aspects of areas for which they are responsible. We build more schools and hospitals and prisons, so why not homes?
A deliberate policy of predicting but not providing was started under Margaret Thatcher and has been continued by both main political parties ever since. This is why the Southwark protesters are utterly misguided in shouting at architects. They are doubly misguided in respect of the Aylesbury Estate because, far from being an inappropriate place for ‘gentrification’, a far more disparate social mix is exactly what it has always needed.
The decision to demolish was made by elected members of the local authority, and transferred rage is rarely impressive once you think about who really holds power. Far from being complicit in the housing numbers failure, the architectural profession has at its best been a stern critic and deviser of new approaches – for example, the big RIBA inquiry into new forms of funding. At worst it has been an irrelevant bystander – too worried about being seen as a trade union for special pleading.
A witty barb on the AJ120 awards night came from a man with a microphone who bellowed the question ‘Why do architects all wear black?’
He answered himself: ‘Because you are funeral directors presiding over the death of working-class housing.’
A good line, but it is not architects who voted to end council housing, and it is not architects who distorted space standards following the scrapping of Parker Morris minimums by that guilt-edged national treasure, Michael Heseltine.
London mayor Boris Johnson has restored minimum space standards for most new homes, and the government should follow suit shortly. The profession should urge government to adopt the Johnson standard and not the current ersatz version.
In the meantime, the argument about numbers will continue to be played out on the political stage, where direct experience of delivering any sort of building type is in short supply. This is big picture stuff, and it will be big voices with big ideas that will make the difference. If the Prince of Wales were more interested in a mass housing programme than he is in fiddling about with six-unit schemes for villages that would be ‘ruined’ if the number rose to 15, he could no doubt lead the charge.
As it is, we look as though we are likely to get more of the same, but not nearly enough of it.