Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Create Streets founder replaces Scruton • Adjaye and Arad redesign Holocaust memorial • Architect arrested for Extinction Rebellion protest
When the government appointed Roger Scruton to chair its Building Better, Building Beautiful commission last November, a Weekend Newsletter poll found that while a sizable 67 per cent of respondents objected to his views on non-architectural matters, a massive 80 per cent felt his views on architecture made him a poor choice for the role.
So those 80 per cent may be disappointed by the news that, following Scruton’s sacking for his non-architectural views, he has been replaced by Create Streets director Nicholas Boys Smith, whose architectural opinions seem closely aligned to those of his predecessor.
Certainly Charles Holland wasn’t thrilled, tweeting that the Wicked Witch of the West had been replaced by the Wicked Witch of the East – presumably being of the opinion that he wouldn’t recognise a well-designed building if it landed on him during a cyclone.
But is this a fair criticism? Create Streets, which Boys Smith set up in 2013, argues that high-density street-based housing is preferable to living in tower blocks. It believes its favoured option is cheaper to build and maintain, less conducive to crime and antisocial behaviour and, crucially, where most people would choose to live.
The counter-argument is that negative attitudes towards high-rise living are down to poor maintenance and security rather than the buildings themselves. Indeed when towers are well looked after and have concierges they can be highly sought after. This, however, has seldom been the case with social housing – so maybe it is time to accept that as a model for such homes, it is never likely to work.
As well as its broader polemics, Create Streets has involved itself in particular schemes, notably being behind an alternative proposal for Royal Mail’s controversial Mount Pleasant site in north London.
It commissioned Classical architect Francis Terry to design some eight-storey mansion blocks for the site as an alternative to Royal Mail’s development, which included a number of 15-storey towers. Islington and Camden councils had been set to reject that scheme before then-mayor Boris Johnson used his powers to override them.
So while Boys Smith may have Conservative Party connections, simply casting his views in party political terms is not entirely helpful. When it comes to the actual style of architecture, Boys Smith is less didactic. He says housing should be ‘beautiful’ – which isn’t really a word architects should allow to raise their hackles.
More telling is his organisation’s use of surveys to gauge public architectural preference. Its 2015 survey showed respondents single images of five housing schemes and asked them which they would support being built near where they live, a methodology open to criticism for being superficial and simplistic.
Reporting the result in the AJ, Boys Smith concluded: ‘The most conventional in form, style and building materials won 75 per cent and 73 per cent support. Less conventional, more innovative homes won 23 per cent and 34 per cent support.’
Highest rated was a street of housing in arch-traditionalist Poundbury. Boys Smith made the point that these ‘are widely reviled by the profession’ while the two lowest-ranked schemes have won nine architectural awards between them. He took this as proof that the profession is entirely out of tune with what people really want. No consideration of the fact that most architectural awards are given based on actual site visits rather than looking at one exterior image.
He does, however, stress that ‘such homes do not need to be strictly traditional to win support’ noting that the housing ‘that respected historic forms and materials but did not follow them slavishly came a very respectable second. The public are very open to variety and novelty but ideally within a familiar pattern’.
Nevertheless, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire felt uneasy enough about Boys Smith’s appointment to say he had warned him about ‘casting our profession as an obstacle to progress’ and urged him to listen to ‘the wise counsel’ of the commission’s two architect advisers, Paul Monaghan and Sunand Prasad.
Ever since David Adjaye and Ron Arad won the competition to design a national Holocaust Memorial in Westminster, the project has been riven by protests against the scheme, mostly focused on its location in a small park, which objectors argue will be entirely overwhelmed by the presence of the structure.
As recently as February, Adjaye was taking a robustly bullish attitude to the objections, saying that ‘disrupting the pleasure of being in the park is key to the thinking’.
So it was quite a surprise to learn that the architects have now redesigned the scheme, replacing the original boxy entrance pavilion with a ‘lighter, more transparent’ structure – as illustrated above.
It is a U-turn that appears to have pleased no one. For those who feel that Victoria Tower Gardens is the wrong location for such a major memorial, this argument remains unmitigated in any way. Supporters of the project in its previous form, meanwhile, can justifiably question the legitimacy of making substantial changes to the design that won the competition.
Very much in the former camp, architect Barbara Weiss, a member of the Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign group, said the ’chaotic, piecemeal and expensive’ redesign had only made things worse, adding, ‘The eleventh-hour changes underline how the whole project has been beset by confused architectural thinking’.
The AJ’s Paul Finch, meanwhile, wrote: ‘It is not a happy situation when a serious cultural and symbolic building starts being redesigned as though it were a speculative office proposal.’
Artist Marcus Taylor, who collaborated with Caruso St John on one of the shortlisted competition schemes, said all of the entries were submitted ‘in good faith specific to the site offered and attempted to address the legitimate concern of dominating a small park in central London. Art cannot be designed by committee.’
He called for the scheme’s backers to choose a new site and rerun the competition.
Poll: What should the backers of the Holocaust Memorial do?
• Stick with the original competition-winning design
• Go with the revised design
• Find a new site and hold a fresh competition
Last week’s poll asked how much the RIBA should charge students for their annual membership. In the newsletter’s most decisive poll result to date, 82 per cent said it should continue to offer free membership. Of the other votes, 12 per cent favoured a £16 fee; 4 per cent opted for £144; and a paltry 2 per cent went for the compromise of £50.
Nick & tom at oxford circus crop
Architects, many argue, have a key role to play in tackling climate change. Usually this is understood to take the form of designing buildings that minimise carbon emissions both in their construction and in use.
But some architects have extended their role by taking part in last month’s Extinction Rebellion protests. And architect Tom Bennett (pictured right) of Studio Bark went the extra mile when he refused to move from Waterloo Bridge when asked to do so by police officers, who then arrested him, carrying him off the bridge, and putting him in police custody overnight.
Writing in the AJ about his experience, he wonders whether he has broken the ARB and RIBA codes of conduct, which oblige him not to bring the profession into disrepute, citing being convicted of a crime as an example. Though it should be noted that Bennett has yet to be charged with any offence.
The ARB code does make a reference to backing sustainability, saying that ‘you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources’ while hastily adding ‘where appropriate’ – nothing about getting banged up in the slammer to save the planet.
Some of the reader comments on his article are decidedly unsympathetic to his actions and those of the Extinction Rebellion movement as a whole.
One reader berated the AJ for even running Bennett’s piece, saying it reminded them why they were glad to cancel their subscription (though it seems they still find themselves mysteriously drawn to its content). ‘Tom … you are part of the extreme minority, create a horrific impression of the profession and are completely misguided,’ they wrote; while other comments referred to wasting police time, middle-class naive kids and ‘a brainwashed snotbrat in the person of Greta Thunberg’.
Yes, because sitting on the sidelines wringing our hands has been so effective, right?
Let’s hope those commentating don’t turn out to comprise the members of the ARB’s Professional Conduct Committee.
Also this week
Adam knibb gas guzzler wv
Car trouble Adam Knibb Architects has designed a £600,000 timber-framed home (pictured) for a climate change scientist. Work has started on the low-energy house in Liphook, Surrey, designed to minimise use of concrete as well as containing solar panels and a sedum roof.
There was some surprise, though, that these eco-friendly credentials were accompanied by visualisations prominently featuring a luxury gas-guzzling vehicle. Might not a bicycle have been more appropriate? Or at the very least a Tesla?
RMJM is back! It’s a warm Weekend Roundup welcome to RMJM, back in the news this week. The practice used to regularly make headlines with its various antics but has been lying low more recently. Alas, the latest attention is not for some exciting building, but a £2.75 million legal case. In 2011, US engineering firm Ted Jacob purchased RMJM’s Dubai engineering business. But because it did not have the necessary licences to operate in Dubai, RMJM remained the contracting party on existing projects.
Ted Jacobs has taken legal action alleging that RMJM collected ‘substantial sums’ from clients which it then failed to pass on. It claims RMJM bosses Peter Morrison and Declan Thompson are personally liable to repay the money. The two had been disputing this liability, but Edinburgh’s Court of Session has now ruled that the case should be allowed to proceed.
Piano out of tune Heritage groups have laid into Renzo Piano’s £100 million mixed-use scheme in Bermondsey Street near London Bridge station. The project features a glazed tower sitting above a 19th-century warehouse building, Vinegar Yard. It is backed by Sellar, the developer of the nearby Shard, also designed by Piano.
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