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What comes first? The location or the idea?

Paul Finch
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Sometimes a predetermined design idea finds the perfect site, but more often the location of projects cries out for a broader strategy, says Paul Finch

Last week I visited the brilliant Marks Barfield i360 vertical pier in Brighton. The story of its creation includes the question of location. An enthusiastic Brighton Council showed the architects a variety of potential sites, but was a bit reluctant to endorse the one the architects loved: on axis with what is left of West Pier, and on the site of its entrance.

Battles to save the pier had made it a political hot potato; there would be conservation concerns and so on. Happily, the architects managed to convince everyone that this was a great idea (it includes the faithful rebuilding of the old pier’s ticket offices). In this instance, a predetermined design idea was in search of the perfect site and found it.

Generally that is not the case. Architects tend to be given sites for which they must then devise a design from scratch. There is, however, a third situation which is fraught with difficulty: an idea for a building and use rather than a design, for a site that has yet to be confirmed.

Quite why two major concert venues should be located on the same estate is not entirely clear

That was the case in respect of the proposed London concert hall demanded by the LSO’s incoming music director Simon Rattle to keep London in the top league of classical music providers. It was a neat idea to propose the site being vacated by the Museum of London when it moves to Smithfield. The government was ready to lend a helping hand, subsequently withdrawn, but the City Corporation says it will raise the money.

This does mean, however, that since he who pays the piper calls the tune, the City will build a second major concert venue to accompany the existing Barbican Centre. Quite why two major concert venues should be located on the same estate in an area with a tiny residential population is not entirely clear from the point of view of London as a whole.

Central east London has the Barbican; central south London has the Royal Festival Hall; central west London has the Albert Hall. You might have thought that someone would make a case for central north London getting a look-in – for example on that silly car park site near London Zoo in Regent’s Park itself. There is plenty of street parking on the park’s two circular roads. Or what about the new arts location, Olympicopolis, out at Stratford? 

My point is not the specific virtues of one location over another, but why these matters are not the subject of more general discussion. And when you look at other locational decisions, you find the same reluctance to think broadly – that approach being generally trumped by specific proposals from parties with particular interests.

Take the ongoing charade at Euston Station, where one set of masterplanners has been replaced by another as part of the usual bean-counter procurement tick-box routine. Who exactly took the decisions (and when) about where HS2 would land? Who has looked at long-term transport strategy across the South East, including all modes of transport, trying to work out what should link up with what?

It doesn’t look too different from decisions about routes and terminals taken by 19th-century railway companies – resulting in an understandable but still hopeless lack of connectivity. This had to be resolved at vast public expense by the London Undergound system in the 20th century, and now the 21st by programmes such as Thameslink and Crossrail.

With transport in particular, thinking needs to be joined-up, metaphorically as well as literally. On which note, congratulations to Terry Farrell on being awarded the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Gold medal, which it gives rarely. An acknowledgement of an urbanist who really thinks in the round.

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