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We're stuck in a rut

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Just look at the proposals for the seafront at Weston-super-Mare to see how far the UK has come from location-specific architecture, says Kieran Long

I was having lunch with a partner of a large, design-led practice this week. ‘I think we’re stuck in a bit of a rut,’ he told me. ‘I think everyone is.’

He was referring to design quality on an urban scale, arguing that despite high aspirations and decent architects, no one is really making new towns and developments that are authentically rooted in their locations. He was lamenting the kind of deployable, non-specific architecture that exists all over the country, from Kent to the Borders, from South Wales to Belfast (as also noted by Alan Jones and David Brett in their provocative book Toward an Architecture: Ulster, published this month and to be reviewed in the AJ next week).

Our news about the future of the seafront in Weston-super-Mare (see pages 12-13) is instructive. The runners and riders are as follows: a selection of blobs and mounds on the Urban Splash competition shortlist for Birnbeck Pier; a hotel that will, I’m willing to bet, be one of Foster + Partners’ less-published schemes; Acanthus Ferguson Mann’s proposal, which looks like a Connecticut boathouse, with its inexplicable symmetry and jolly flag poles; and Mountford Piggott’s leisure-tecture confection, which comes on like a steroidal De La Warr Pavilion and hoves into view bringing old-school values of a leisure destination under one roof, surrounded by car parking.

What will future generations think of a town that has four such contrasting visions of its future? Will they celebrate our open-minded pluralism, astounded at the breadth of imagination of planning authorities able to judge these schemes alongside one another?

Or will they just demolish the crap and make the considered judgements about quality that we seem unable to make?

I think we’re stuck in a rut, too. A new conversation about a regional UK architecture needs to begin. kieran.long@emap.com

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