Split Pediment

The musings of a Brighton-based architecture dweeb and town planner in training.

Category: Bloggage

Brownfield when?

I don’t entirely agree with Daniel Knowles’s piece in the Economist, but I agree with the general thrust – that we shouldn’t let people like the CPRE bully us into fear of building on greenfied sites.

The New Labour approach of brownfield first was an impressive piece of policy-making. We saw a major increase in city-centre (re)development rather than loads of new suburbs (although we still saw plenty of those too), which was made viable largely due to the willingness – even the encouragement – to build with much higher densities than had been previously envisaged.

The bursting of the housing bubble seems to have stopped this glut of city-centre blocks (although I remember plenty of people at the time warning that people didn’t really want this sort of development). But what we must avoid is a rush back to unfettered countryside development and sprawl. The government make noises about garden cities (I’m more of a new town person myself, aesthetically-speaking at least) but don’t have a coherent plan for getting these in place. No county council are going to decide to turn a village into a town with 60,000 residents, let alone the sort of socialist joint-land-ownership utopia that Ebenezer Howard raved about. We would need a nation-wide campaign (hello TCPA?!) and a serious project led by government to make anything like this into a reality. Labour’s Eco Towns came close to this, but failed due to the lack of public support and the end of their tenure.

Actually, we’re also missing one of the major drivers behind the brownfield first policy: rebalancing the country. Besides London (specifically the Thames Gateway, much of which is pretty deprived) the cities that most benefited from the brownfield/high density policy were northern ones – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle… you don’t need me to list northern cities for you… were all part of the urban renaissance, inspired by Richard Rogers. This was (from what I remember) not really admitted by Labour, though Prescott’s remit – which included other North-strengthening proposals, like city mayors, regional development agencies and regional assemblies – seemed to be pretty obvious in what it was seeking to do. Instead, we now get High Speed 2, which is somehow meant to strengthen the North by making it more reliant on being able to get quickly to the South.

If we are to build on greenfield sites (oh, and it’s worth saying that we never actually stopped doing so, we just re-prioritised. But speaking generally) if we are to build on greenfield sites, then we need to decide where we do this at a strategic level, given the apparent apathy of local communities to such development. This government has so far failed to show any willingness to tackle the problem, and their approach so far (some of which is commendable, other bits not so much) smacks of the do-as-little-as-possible attitude to governing that our leading parties share.

The housing crisis is too important to be left to the hope that, with a bit of a leg-up, developers will be able to magically provide. They won’t, and it won’t help either if we could manufacture another housing bubble through the government taking on directly the risk of high loan-to-value mortgages to people banks deem unworthy of credit. We either need massive public investment in council housing (ha!) and – if necessary – the infrastructure and decontamination works that brownfield redevelopment requires, or massive public investment in something like a new New Towns project. Or both. If someone wants to come up with that in their manifesto, I might be interested.

design.uk

Neither of you have likely noticed, as you are both – by my reckoning – not frequently involved in dealing with matters governmental, but the government’s website has changed. gov.uk is now the British government’s website, replacing (mainly) direct.gov.uk. And gov.uk has just won the Design of the Year award. We should all be a little bit sad about this.

Throughout my career in local government, one of my primary gripes has been about communication and how government both local and national have failed to appreciate the potential of using the internet for interacting and communicating with citizens. I don’t know when the last time was that you used a governmental website, but I’m fairly sure that it was clunky, flimsy, appallingly written, messy and confusing. And that’s probably a page I put together!

When I first heard about gov.uk maybe a year ago when it was still in beta, I was quite excited. This was mainly because they advertised their design principles at an early stage. You can still read these here: https://www.gov.uk/designprinciples. I still think these are generally good principles; except for number 2. Number 2 is this:

Do less.

Previous government websites tried to do everything. And this was a failing of them. If you were to look at local government websites, which don’t enjoy the resources of national governmental sites, these frequently take the old approach: put everything on there. EVERYTHING. Preferably twice. Given the massive range of services you get for your council tax, plus all the “back office” stuff that you might actually have some involvement with, that’s a hell of a lot of stuff. Replicated 326 times in the local authorities of England alone. So it’s understandable that the designers of the gov.uk website wanted to pare down the content to the essentials.

So why is “do less” a problem? Let’s see what gov.uk says:

Government should only do what only government can do. If someone else is doing it — link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things — do that. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.

The irreducible core of government? Hell, that’s fightin’ talk! Or at least part of an undergrad political philosophy essay question. In fact, this whole paragraph is tantamount to an astonishing small-state retreat and a capitulation that the civil service really are running scared. They even link to a comedy example of the old direct.gov.uk site about keeping bees. The problem here is not that government should be telling us how to keep bees and now they aren’t; it’s that government should have the balls to say: yes, we know that someone else is doing this, but we’re going to do it better. Maybe not bees, but maybe, well – discovering the Higgs Boson or inventing the World Wide Web.

Let’s look at one particular area of gov.uk to see what impact this has had. Let’s choose… oh, I don’t know… planning! Big surprise there for you. Firstly, you have to know to click on the Housing and Local Services link, under which it says “owning or renting or council services”, which doesn’t really sound like “I want to build a conservatory” to me. But whatevs. Then three clicks later (fine) you get to the Planning Permission guide, which basically tells you the absolute bare minumum about what getting planning permission might be, whilst linking to the Planning Portal website, which has adverts on it and therefore feels untrustworthy, even though the information on it is sound. There’s nothing on what urban planning is, why it might be a Good Thing that governments do, how it’s come about, nothing on listed buildings, nothing on the government’s changes to planning.

This is poor design. It pretends that the organisation (in this case, the government) that makes the rules has no interest in them. It pretends that there is no flow or change to systems and processes, that the operations of government are as ancient as the black and white livery of their fancy new website. And by trying to do as little as possible, gov.uk undermines its own worth.

Of course, the real culprits here are the judges of this award, who have failed to realise this. I went to the Design Museum exhibition that features all of the so-called designs of the year. I was really disappointed; so few of them have any serious merit above looking pretty (and lots of them didn’t). Sadly it seems that, with gov.uk, the award has been given for the triumph of simplicity over content, of rebranding over passion, of cool disinterest over messy but honest helpfulness. Oh, and it really doesn’t look that pretty.

 

This is a conspiracy

Hello. Both of you were no doubt as saddened to learn of the death of Margaret Thatcher as I was. The absolutely very latest most up-to-date latest recent latest news on her death and its aftermath is that there’s been a campaign to raise funds for a memorial library. Which has been running since 2009. As well as portraying this as sudden and surprising, our thoroughly partisan news sources have slathered over this not-really-news their inevitable sheen of invisibly veiled distaste or celebration.

But it is interesting. The library is claimed to be inspired in particular by Reagan’s presidential library; not surprising, perhaps, although I think it’s salient to understand a little more about the US presidential libraries before we decide whether this library is A Good Thing.

It wasn’t until toward the end of watching all of the West Wing that I became curious about US presidential libraries; at the start of season 7, we are saccharinely tantalised with a reunion of some of the main players at the opening of Josiah Bartlet’s Presidential Library. Chortles are exchanged, elbows are meaningfully gripped, rueful glances shared, as we and Martin Sheen’s teeth wait for the arrival of the sitting president, Bartlet’s successor. Of course, at this stage we still have a whole season to wait to find out whether [oh cripes, how shall we play this…?] Senator Ralph Owen Brewster is victorious over Senator Bail Organa [yep, I think that went well]. Spoiler: OBAMA TOTALLY PWNED THE OTHER GUY!!!

Read the rest of this entry »

Modern Colour

Modern Colour

There’s probably an awful lot to be written about colour photography and its relationship to what we consider the Modern or perhaps current world. There’s also a fair amount to say about monochrome photography of supposedly Modern buildings, about how this is used to denote timelessness and how it has influenced the colour pallettes of architects in the 20th century. I’ve not got time right now to explore any of that. These early colour photographs of Paris in the early 20th century, however, are a valuable antidote to the too-easily accepted dichotomy between colour=modern/monochrome=old. Here we see a Paris that is remarkably, incredibly, polychromatically similar to the Paris we know and – more importantly – represent today.

Dockyards

Hello both. You’ll be thrilled to hear that I’ve (more or less) settled on a subject for the dissertation. The next six months will be a rollercoaster ride following the rabbit down the plug hole of post-Naval redevelopment. Lured by majestic masonry and impressive ironwork we’ll be figuring out what to do with all those victualling yards you’ve had stashed behind the sofa since the mid Eighteenth century.

Why Naval sites? In many ways it fits in to the longer-term theme that you’ll have been exposed to as regular readers of how we treat our existing architecture; it’s all very well delighting in quoins and corbels but unless we can find ways to use our architecture then we’re effectively living in ruined states or museum cities (which is not to say that a certain amount of redundancy isn’t a necessary lubricant to the change that cities need). It’s no secret that the MoD have been selling off significant parcels of land over the last, what, fifteen years, and that this is only going to accelerate – so there’s a number of interesting sites around – and crucially there’s invariably decent, if not splendid, Georgian or Victorian architecture involved. Or if we’re talking Greenwich (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be) then you might find a little work by some jobbing Baroque architect called Christopher:

Image

So there’s the architecture, which is usually grand and imposing whilst having a thoroughly practical purpose. It’s clear from this view of the Royal William Yard in Plymouth that these impressive structures were efficiently designed for – in this case – loading ships with food and drink:

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Geographically speaking, there’s the seaside connection (the specialism for my Masters is “coastal” planning) but – to my mind more interestingly – the urban connection. It’s not the worst generalisation to say that for most of the history of civilisation, cities were ports, and you still don’t find big naval bases in the middle of the countryside. Well, except in Scotland.

The reprioritisation of cities under Major’s and then (more significantly) Blair’s terms of office coincided nicely with the sale of many a prime waterfront plot from the Navy, and – whilst the facts on the ground have often led to unexpected delays – we now have many cities and towns that have found a use for these sites, from the houses squished around each other at Chatham, or the recommandeered fine quarters of Woolich Arsenal to the Urban Splashed bits of Plymouth or the leisure destinations of Portsmouth.

Still, some sites remain untouched. Sheerness seems very much to be the runt of the Naval litter, with a cluster of officers’ houses, a church and quite a bit of industrial warehousing now being rudely ignored by everyone, perhaps fearful of the explosives sunk with the SS Richard Montgomery. More likely, it’s in a part of Kent with lame transport links and zero culture. A more intriguing site is Haslar hospital, which hasn’t been able to cut the sort of breaks that other more central sites in Portsmouth have.

The dissertation, of course, can’t cover all the sites and all the issues. But at this early stage my interest is piqued by a whole load of questions.

  • Why do some sites get redeveloped and not others?
  • How much public sector involvement is crucial in providing a framework for redeveloping around (including, of course, the cost of repairing old buildings)? 
  • What influence do local people have?
  • What value does historic architecture bring to a site, and when is it more help than hindrance?
  • Is the history of a site more than an asset for heritage tourism?
  • Can we consider former naval bases a tabula rasa, and – if so – does this make them unusual?
  • Is the consolidation and abandonment of Naval bases further sign of the de-industrialisation of the UK?
  • Can these sites ever give us an opportunity for social justice, or are all regen attempts bound to end in gentrification?

Just a few small questions, then. Anyway, I’ll try to keep up my posts on what I find, including some actual real-life photographs of buildings and stuff.

 

Normal service will be resumed soon

In the meantime, you might be vaguely interested to know that this reminds me of this, which I took (nearly two years ago) on my last visit to the hallowed land.


No time to write something meaningful at the moment I’m afraid: too busy participating in a “visual study” for The Course. Lots of badly produced maps of a certain part of Brighton. But it has given me a chance to take the camera out on a wander. Results contained herein:

The song and dance, man

I’ve been meaning for a very long time to write a long piece about the musical. And when I say “long”, I really mean “book”. But I haven’t got around to that. And today’s an auspicious day. Two of the finest talents in the world of Musical Theatre share a birthday – that’s right. My cousin Henry shares his special day with Sondheim (yay!) and Lloyd Webber (boo!). So instead, I’ll content myself with some meandering wonderings on the disparate contributions of these two collossi.

Let’s start at the top with some mud-slinging. Lloyd Weber is man amongst the richest hundred or so in the UK. He – very occasionally –  sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. He has a “foundation” that has – thank the Lord – saved three whole works of art for the nation. Except they’re selling one of them. He personally owns six of London’s least comfortable West End theatres, where he puts on his own shows and cashes in on other people’s. He has successfully infiltrated the BBC with his Saturday evening entertainments that provide him with the perfect platform for advertising whatever forthcoming show he’s developing.

Can the man write a tune? Oh, probably. Let’s not begrudge someone just because they’re wildly, inexplicably successful. It’s just that most of them are poor songs coupled to sappy lyrics and unoriginal storylines. Musicals that bash you around the head with their clunking fists of obviousness, their sheer determination to do precisely what’s been done before except with songs that just never go anywhere. Take the chorus from “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina”. You have to wait nine – count ’em – nine whole bars before you get anything resembling a proper chord change. No wonder the tunes rout their way into your brain – there ain’t nothing going on underneath!

So, a Conservative stage show impresario who writes dull tunes, is crap at philanthropy and doesn’t believe in competition. There’s a conflicted guy, surely? And yet he always looks so happy, that toad hall face grinning inanely at the camera…

Let’s turn our thoughts to a better place, to a better man. Sondheim is 80 today. No glossy titles, just a string of awards including a little something we like to call a Pulitzer. Here’s a man who clearly cares deeply about musical theatre. His first major success was writing the lyrics for West Side Story. He followed that nonsense up with another rum egg – Gypsy. And then he started writing the music too, and things really got going.

I know what you’re going to say – he can’t write a tune. Or at least not one you can hum. It’s all too clever by half. It’s depressing – you don’t see a musical to be told that marriage is really hard work! HE’S NEVER USED A DANCING CANDLESTICK!!

To which I say, “bunkum and bollocks”. He writes great tunes and complex ones. Company is a great. Yes, he there should be more anthropomorphic tableware in musical theatre but maybe not in a Sondheim show.

And he seems like an actual nice guy. He’s a patron of Mercury Musicals, one of the few rays of hope in the dire landscape that is the UK Musicals scene.

So, happy birthday to these two fellows. Musical theatre wouldn’t be the same without them – for better or worse.

UPDATE: Radio 3, from the BBC, has Mr. Sondheim as their composer of the week. Enjoy.

PCC

Anyone else noticed how slow the PCC website is at this precise moment (17:46 16.10.2009)? I wonder why that could be…

102

This is what happens when I leave the country. Sheesh.