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Weekend roundup: A broken political system

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Watchdog warning over housing emissions • Threat to Grimshaw Sainsbury’s scheme • Oxford college to demolish Maguire and Murray building

The past week has seen MPs from both Labour and Conservative ranks improbably leave their parties to combine forces, declaring that the political system is broken. Brexit may be the issue foremost in their minds, but if there is one topic that exemplifies a broken system, surely it is climate change. 

This week the Committee on Climate Change, an independent panel set up to advise the government on reducing global warming, warned that the government would miss its legally binding climate-change targets unless the UK adapted its existing housing stock while ensuring new homes are low or zero carbon.

We have known about the threat posed by global warming for many years, yet the political system seems to conspire against the long-term measures needed to cut carbon emissions. 

As recently as 2015, then chancellor George Osborne scrapped plans to make all new homes zero carbon in their day-to-day running. Chris Stark, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, told the AJ: ‘The zero-carbon homes policy was pulled [just] as the whole sector was gearing up.’ 

Osborne’s stated reason for the u-turn was to boost house-building, a goal in which it would appear to have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Four years on, there is still a housing crisis and we are four years closer to a global-warming catastrophe. 

It also exemplifies how politicians seem happy to pay lip service to sustainability while letting it slip by the wayside as soon as some other priority emerges. 

Witness the extension of the recent combustible cladding ban to include timber – what architect Andrew Waugh describes as ‘the government’s knee-jerk reaction to a tragic fire in a concrete building’. The Committee on Climate Change says all new homes need to be timber-framed where possible, yet a ban on its use in new residential buildings over 18m will frustrate this. 

There is nothing intrinsically left-wing or right-wing about tackling global warming – people of all political persuasions surely have no reason to hasten the destruction of the planet. Yet too often the remedial measures are seen as being at odds with a growing economy; seen as vital to the governing party winning re-election, so politicians in power will baulk at taking the necessary action. 

But the big politically divisive issues of the day surely all take a second tier to ensuring that our planet remains habitable.

Grimshaw’s supermarket sweep

Camden sainsbury philafrenzy

Camden sainsbury philafrenzy

Nicholas Grimshaw may have won this year’s RIBA Gold Medal, but that in no way gives his buildings any special protection. This week fears were raised over the future of the High-Tech architect’s mixed-use development in Camden Town

The scheme, completed in the late 1980s, centres around a branch of Sainsbury’s and also includes canal-side housing, workshops and a former creche. 

While no one has expressed designs on the supermarket or homes, developer Camden Mixed Developments has revealed plans to partly demolish the workshop building, Grand Union House, rebuilding from the first floor upwards to create a new office building with roof terrace. 

The scheme will also demolish the creche building and replace it with a four-storey affordable housing block. 

The Twentieth Century Society is furious and has applied for the entire Grimshaw scheme to be listed. It says the site’s complexity is a key aspect of the design’s success and that demolition will ‘destroy the visual consistency’. 

Grimshaw’s practice has also chipped in, with partner Neven Sidor saying the application ‘destroys the integrity of what we achieved’. 

The proposed changes have been drawn up by architectural practice Andrew Phillips, which says that Grand Union House is ‘dated, unattractive and has a neglected appearance’ with the area suffering from ‘relentless anti-social behaviour’. 

Indeed the building seems to lack the distinctive qualities of the supermarket and housing and is a separate building on a separate street. You can admire it on Google Streetview here. The idea that the remaining buildings would lose something from the workshop block’s redevelopment does seem somewhat tenuous.

Oxford college looks to the past

Trinity college

Trinity college

In other demolition news, Trinity College Oxford has won permission to raze its 1960s Cumberbatch building, designed by Robert Maguire, who died earlier this year, and Keith Murray.  

Earlier this month, the AJ reported that the higher-education construction boom seemed to be coming to an end, with a renewed focus on refurbishing existing building stock. Trinity, however, seems determined not only to buck this trend, but to ditch contemporary architecture altogether, hiring traditional practice Adam Architecture to design a replacement.  

To be fair, the Murray and Maguire building is no looker – perhaps time has not been kind to it. Historic England described it as ‘not of the very high quality needed for a post-war building to qualify for listed status’. 

The Twentieth Century Society, however, praised its ‘bold form and striking appearance’ while Purcell heritage consultant Jon Wright argued: ‘Trinity does not need a cluster of Neo-Georgian blocks; it needs the confidence to reimagine what it already has and the creativity and skill to adapt it.’ 

Also this week

Heatherwick toronto picture plane

Heatherwick toronto picture plane

  • Very much getting with the low-carbon programme, Heatherwick Studios and Snøhetta have revealed plans for an all-timber development on Toronto’s waterfront for Google’s parent company Alphabet. The scheme (pictured) features around 3,000 homes, space for nearly 4,000 workers and will be built ‘entirely of tall timber’. Technical innovations include ‘next generation infrastructure systems’ such as ‘digital electricity, a thermal grid and an underground waste system run by robots’. The new district is also expected to be built from modular components. 
  • Studio Egret West’s proposal to build homes on the site of an arts hub in Hackney Wick, east London, has been rejected by the London Legacy Development Corporation’s (LLDC) planning committee. It said the six-storey scheme for 60 Dace Road, near the London Stadium, was of ‘excessive height, scale, massing, detailed design and inappropriate siting’. The site is currently used as a café-bar, woodworking workshop, artists’ studios and creative office and event space. 
  • A large number of big architecture practices are preparing to slash staff numbers as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms, according to the RIBA’s latest Future Trends survey. Four in 10 of respondents with more than 50 employees said they expected to reduce headcounts over the next three months. None expected to grow their teams.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The Grimshaw building is grim, a blight on the public realm at pavement level where it presents no active or attractive frontage, only tat, wire fence and barbed security measures, more appropriate to the back of an industrial estate. for an excellent critique on such affronts to the public realm watch this. https://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia?language=en

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