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Weekend roundup: Panic on the streets of Thamesmead

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: 

The spectre has reappeared of replacing an architect once their design has won planning. It emerged this week that Proctor & Matthews had been unceremoniously booted off Peabody’s £1.5 billion overhaul of Thamesmead in south-east London.  

The practice had been working with Dutch architect Mecanoo on Southmere Village, built around Southmere lake and including 525 homes along with 3,716m² of commercial space. It had also designed a civic building to provide a social hub for the area, containing a library, nursery and gym.  

The scheme won planning permission three years ago, but when it came to who would see it through to completion, the housing association decided to go in a different direction, as I believe the phrase is.  

In this instance, that different direction was awarding a design & build contract to contractor Durkan, which then brought in north London-based Fourpoint Architects. The project started on site late last year.  

This sort of thing happens and there is no reason to presume that Fourpoint will do anything less than a professional job – but there have been previous incidents where the original architects have not been novated and have then been disappointed with the final result, as the AJ documented in 2016.  

And in the case of Thamesmead this probably matters more than your average scheme.  

Thamesmead was built in the 1960s and early 70s, with the best of intentions – to create a Futurist alternative to London’s existing housing estates, featuring a landscape of lakes and canals.  

Sadly the result was grim and soulless – Brutalism at its bleakest. There was a reason why director Stanley Kubrick chose it as a location for A Clockwork Orange, a film set in a dystopian near-future.  

Crucially, Thamesmead’s originators had not thought to include adequate infrastructure, such as shops or transport links – quite an omission for a development stuck out of the way on former marshland. These flaws made it a particularly undesirable place to live, exacerbated by a vicious circle of vandalism and social problems. 

So the news that Peabody – a highly regarded housing association with a great history – was taking on the job of turning it around filled many with optimism. When it embarked on its mission, in 2014, its director of Thamesmead strategy announced it was ‘making top-quality design and extensive community engagement our top priority’.  

This is why it’s so concerning that it chose to drop its architects, a move far more likely to have been driven by cost-cutting than maintaining ‘top-quality design’.  

While remaining diplomatic, Proctor & Matthews director Stephen Proctor told the AJ that ‘to meet the proposed push towards design quality, it is crucial to create design continuity from concept to completion’.  

Reader John Kellett commented: ‘When will clients realise that design & build cannot deliver the best building as more work is needed by design teams to reach an end result so, in order to compensate, the quality has to drop? Retaining design teams throughout a project is the most cost-effective method every time.’ 

Serpentine intern concern

Junyaishigami

Junyaishigami

Junya Ishigami, the designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, has come under fire over his practice’s use of unpaid interns.  

A student who sought an internship at the architect’s Tokyo studio, received an email stipulating the terms of such a placement. As well as not being paid, these included a six-day working week and office hours of 11am till midnight. They would also be expected to provide their own computer and software.  

Who could resist such an offer? Not the student in question, who told the AJ: ‘I just realised how ridiculous the terms are. I can’t afford to do that, considering that Tokyo is not at all a cheap place to live.’  

Others, however, will consider the experience of working for a prestigious, award-winning practice – and the boost to their CV – worth the ungenerous conditions.  

This does, of course, rather limit those able to gain this experience to those wealthy enough to work for no money, which is why such arrangements are increasingly frowned upon in the UK. Since 2011 the RIBA has compelled chartered practices to pay at least the minimum wage to its student placements. In Japan, however, unpaid internships are apparently common practice.  

The Serpentine Gallery said it was not aware that Ishigami’s practice used unpaid interns and had contacted him to ‘rectify the situation’.

Another string to the ministry’s design bow

Triumverate

Triumverate

Among the competitions the AJ reported on this week was an interesting one from the Ministry of Housing, which is looking for a team to draw up a housing design guide. Those chosen for the £50,000 contract will create an illustrated toolkit intended to promote quality in new developments.  

The Ministry of Housing has given several indications in the past year that, as it seeks to tackle the housing crisis, it also wants to ensure that new homes are well designed. The design guide will join Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission and government architect Andy von Bradsky in nudging developers and architects in the right direction.  

But what is this direction, and will this newly formed triumvirate all be preaching the same message?  

We can have a fairly good idea what Scruton’s report will conclude. While the commission has three architects advising it, including AHMM’s Paul Monaghan, the appointment of an arch-traditionalist as its chair will surely be reflected in its findings. Von Bradsky has lamented the ‘cynicism’ shown to that commission while making it clear that he is separate from it and remaining notably circumspect as to what he thinks of Scruton’s opinions.  

So will the team drawing up this new guide be expected to take their lead from von Bradsky, Scruton or their own tastes and experiences?  

There’s also the question of whether it is, in fact, possible to create a guide to ‘good’ design as opposed to a particular style. Wouldn’t it be more effective to just say: hire an architect and then listen to what they say – and, you know, don’t then replace them once you’ve won planning permission.

Channel 4 play

Majestic leeds

Majestic leeds

If nothing else, Channel 4 seems to be getting with the low-carbon club, the first rule of which is: don’t create a new building when you can retrofit an existing one.  

Having been forced to move its main headquarters out of London, the broadcaster last autumn announced it had opted to make Leeds its new home. And now it is believed to have chosen a Grade II-listed former cinema and dance hall as the site for the base.  

The former Majestic nightclub is a handsome building in a central location and features a 21m-wide domed roof. It was damaged by fire following an arson attack in 2014, which halted plans to turn it into a ‘leisure destination’.  

It is currently being converted to offices by DLA Design for developer Rushbond, which bought the building in 2010. And offices are all Channel 4 requires since it doesn’t actually make any programmes, commissioning them all from independent producers.  

While Channel 4 has yet to confirm the choice, it seems to have been received well in the city. Ian Briggs commented on Twitter that the rumour ‘was doing the rounds at the fairly recent Ilkley Beer Fest [held at the start of February]. I thought it was the real ale talking. Be a cracking location for it’.  

The publicly owned but commercially funded broadcaster is expected to move 40 per cent of its 800 staff from the capital to Leeds, as well as creating two smaller creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow. 

Also this week

Heatherwick vessel

Heatherwick vessel

  • Heatherwick Studio has completed the Vessel (pictured above), a 16-storey viewing platform at New York’s Hudson Yards scheme, which is being built on a former railyard on Manhattan’s West Side. The 46m-high steel structure features 154 interconnecting flights of stairs, 80 landings and 2,465 steps. 
  • Carmody Groake’s Windermere Jetty Museum opens today (Saturday). The £20 million, copper-clad building is based around a collection of approximately 40 boats, ranging from 18th-century skiffs to 19th-century luxury steam yachts. The scheme has been a long time in the making, with the architect winning a competition to design the museum in 2011. The AJ’s Rob Wilson says it has an engaging bluffness in its materials and forms, leaving the poetics to the surrounding landscape. 
  • Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat holiday house in Devon is among 14 projects shortlisted for this year’s RIBA South West Awards. The scheme, a rammed-concrete five-bedroom house, is the Swiss architect’s first permanent UK work. It was built for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture programme. The seven holiday homes by prominent architects also include FAT and Grayson Perry’s House for Essex, which famously failed to receive an RIBA East regional award three years ago.

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)

  • On the subject of Heatherwick Studio's project in Manhattan, the Hudson rail yards are still very much alive and well - having been designed with air rights development in mind.

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