Paul Finch is dumbfounded by London’s irrational planning and political environment
It may sound a bit parochial to be discussing the replacement of a multi-storey car park in the London Borough of Islington, but bear with me. The building in question is the usual example of an unpleasant, ill-planned and now outrageously expensive piece of architectural junk that is a disfigurement to street, neighbourhood and area. It is doubtful if anyone ever designed it in any meaningful sense.
The only reason I have knowledge of it is because it was very close to the old AJ offices in Clerkenwell, dominating a chunk of the unlovely Farringdon Road, whose immediate saving graces were and are the Betsy Trotwood pub (shades of David Copperfield), the Quality Chop House (‘London’s noted cup of tea’), the trend-setting Eagle gastropub, and the excellent Italian deli Gazzano’s.
Anyone who knew the area was delighted when Sheppard Robson came forward with a mixed-use proposal to replace the dreaded car park, and are now rather baffled as to why the substitute is being given such a hard time. Is this proposal a worse piece of design than others recently approved by the council? Perhaps the planning committee would like to hold a public exhibition of what it has supported in recent years, and what it has turned down, giving a reasoned explanation in all cases. Of course this won’t happen because there will be bleating about resources.
Planning committee members these days expect their officers to do what they are told, rather than offer professional opinions
A good policy to ensure that people understand what is being done in their name, for good or ill, would be to insist that significant proposals that have been approved or refused should be the subject of public exhibition, where the reasons could be spelled out in language that voters could understand. For example, Tower Hamlets council could be invited to explain why it led David Chipperfield and Tracey Emin, for 18 months, down a path that turned out to be a cul-de-sac. This is in respect of a proposal to create a distinctive piece of architecture out of the building where she has lived and worked for long enough to have noticed some of the rubbish that the council has approved, for example a student housing slab-block which has visually blighted the entire neighbourhood.
For some reason there is no sense of irony at work in the minds of planning committee members who, these days, expect their officers to do what they are told, rather than offer professional opinions which in theory should determine the outcome of applications, unless there are compelling reasons to reject them, compelling not meaning ‘I don’t fancy it’.
5278 68 86 farringdon road 2
It is tempting to see the attitudes of some planning authorities/elected councillors as being determined by an embarrassment about past mistakes, and a desire to punish today’s architects and developers for the sins of those pasts, even where they may have had no involvement. A good example of this is Camden Council in relation to Richard Seifert’s Centre Point building at the eastern end of Tottenham Court Road. It has granted consent for an excellent conversion project, turning offices into apartments – unfortunately eliminating the quasi-public uses of the top two floors as bars and restaurants.
Why didn’t the council insist in the retention of these public uses, if necessary by allowing a few floors of extra height as compensation for the inevitable cost involved? We have the weird situation where the City Corporation, apostles of capitalism, do a better job in promoting the public interest in access to the tops of tall buildings than supposedly people-oriented councils like Camden. This is a topsy-turvy world where rationality and principle, on occasion, seem entirely to have been abandoned.
One can only sympathise with architects and clients trying to achieve rational outcomes in an irrational planning and political environment. How mad do you have to pretend to be in order to make the system work?