Split Pediment

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

Why Plan?

Hi both. Sorry for the lack of posts. Two predictable excuses – the job, which means that when I come home, the last thing I want to do is write about planning; and the dissertation, whereby when I come home I have to write about planning. So unfortunately you’re both getting ignored. One other, less predictable, reason. My previous usual schtick was to talk about a new building in the vicinity and critique it. But since I work in the local authority planning department, this might be a little inappropriate. Fine for when I’m in different places, but not here in Brightonandhove.

So I thought for today’s post I’d take a step back from the specific, and look at some basics. A few weeks back, Ben Goldacre – a writer and man I otherwise admire – wrote some tweets that showed a (I think deliberatively) provocative attitude to planning. Goldacre was ostensibly praising the work of George Osborne, taking at face value the Chancellor’s claims to be getting rid of all sorts of unnecessary planning guidance. This isn’t going to be an analysis of Goldacre’s misreading of Osborne’s posturing – I’m no expert on the mind of either men. Rather, what I want to start to do is put together a basic, lay-person’s guide to why we plan (and why we plan in the way we do, in this country at least). I’m not sure whether this will be more of a myth-buster or more of a philosophy. Maybe bits of both.

Green Belts don’t protect the countryside

When trying to understand what planning is for, green belts are a great place to start. Green belts don’t protect the countryside. Well, they do – but that’s secondary. One thing people know about the greenbelt is that it’s land you cannot – must not – build on. That’s not strictly the case, but we’ll go with it for now. The more important thing about greenbelts is that they are a tool to curtail urban sprawl. They’re not just there to stop us building all over our green and pleasant land; they’re there to make sure that our cities remain cities.

The first green belt was introduced back in 1938 to deal with the enormous pressure on London to expand into endless suburbia and what were known as ribbon developments on its metropolitan periphery (Herbert Morrison‘s your man on this one). The act allowed local authorities to enter into covenants with landowners preventing development, or to buy land for the purpose, thus halting the sprawl. Other parts of the country got green belts later.

1947 – The Year Planners Saved the Nation from Itself

It’s worth noting that the local authorities had no right just to say no to development in the way they do now – that tool was only brought in with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Basically everything before ’47 is considered (for planners) a sort of pre-history, a dangerous time when anyone could build anything; and there was a pressing fear that if we the heroic planners hadn’t intervened, then you idiotic capitalists would have smeared the nation in semis.

So. Back to green belts. They’re there to stop cities fractalling away into enless culs-de-sac. Why is that important? The sell was – and still is – protection of the contryside (not just protection of the greenbelt – there are many more important bits of countryside outside green belts than in them). But equally important is the need to maintain cities that are operable. With sprawl public transit becomes exponentially expensive so the relationship between employment sites (for cities this usually means city centre) and residential becomes untenable. Then there’s the other infrastructure – schools, fire stations, hospitals and so forth. Below certain housing densities these cease to be economically viable. The green belt, if you like, is a tool to stop your child walking seven miles to school.

Yeah, but there’s a housing crisis

The country is desperately short of housing. This is not the same, although is related to, the house price bubble; we simply don’t have enough places for people to live. Goldacre’s tweets suggests that the solution is to allow building in the countryside (of which he considers us to have plenty). I agree with him, and so would Herbert Morrison and Patrick Abercrombie (who wrote the County of London and Greater London Plans of 1943 and 44). The green belt is designed to prevent the sprawl of a city; but you need to build somewhere, and the tails to the heads of the greenbelt is the new town.

Basildon, Bracknell, Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead. (Arguably, of course, Milton Keynes is the most famous new town, although that wasn’t designated for another 20 years.) These were outside of the greenbelt, and designed to take the overspill from overcrowded London. This fantastic animation pretty much explains everything I’ve said but in a much more entertaining way:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:New_Town_COI.ogv

So that’s pretty much why we have greenbelts and new towns. Although we’ve not really had any new towns in 45 years.

Of course, it’s all much more complicated than this. So if you want to do further investigations, you may want to look at, and I might try to write about,:

  • New Labour’s ecotowns
  • Regional Spatial Strategies and the politicisation of housing targets
  • New Right planning theories, and letting the market control land
  • New towns as victims of the 1960s Modernist planner backlash

 

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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:

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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.

 

Birmingham: the unfinished revolution

Hello both. I’m meant to be writing a project about refitting an office building to the highest standards of sustainable energy excellence. But I’m not. I’m writing instead for your reading pleasure about a city I have a soft spot for, and how it was treated in the first decade of this century.

For three delightful years, I studied Philosophy at Birmingham. I learnt a smattering of Nietzsche, a smattering more of Schopenhauer and had my first, tentative forays into somewhere that was beginning to describe itself as a “gay village”, with that post-QAF new sense of pride – and marketing potential – that was taking root in queer communities in English cities.

Whilst I was there – in 2000 – the Mailbox opened. This behemoth was noted amongst my Brummie friends as something of an ananchronism: it was due to house a Harvey Nicks, amongst other things. Jeez, this wasn’t what Birmingham was known for. Trashy hen weekends, yes; car manufacturing, sure; a strange round 60s tower called the Bull Ring, kind of. But high-end retail? Nah. I mean, that was what Rackham’s was for, right? And only your posh cousin Stanley’s grandma shopped there.

The Mailbox, in typical Birmingham style, was a building that fronted a busy A road and had a canal out the back. The site had previously housed an enormous sorting office (hence the referential name), built in 1970 with mechanised sorting and a tunnel link to the nearby New Street station; it had been the largest building in the city and its core steel structure was re-used in the new building.

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Know thy station; or, the various fates of three north London termini – part 2

Greetings one and both! I hope this finds you well. St Pancras was a Christian zealot, apparently decapitated at the behest of Diocletian in 303AD. He was fourteen years old. There are three fine nineteenth century buildings that, directly or not, memorialise this headstrong lad. The station – of which more later; St Pancras new church (built, anachronistically, in the supposed Greek renaissance style, fashionable in the early 19th Century); and the old church (the fabric of which is mostly newer than the new church. Natch), in the churchyard of which stands Sir John Soane’s memorial to his wife and in which Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin plotted their elopement. And they say romance is dead. Or something.

Pancras means, literally, “the one that holds everything”, and the station that bears this martyr’s name tries to do precisely that. “fine” burgers, “natural” remedies, “authentic” fossil (apparently that’s a distinctive modern vintage global lifestyle company specialising in consumer fashion accessories). You can even go to somewhere that helps you to “transform daily routines into the special rituals they once were”; going to the toilet never sounded so appealing. You can see a giant statue of two people melodramatically kissing, a much smaller statue of that wonderful old curmudgeon Sir John Betjemen, and – presumably for the next year or so – some Olympic-sized rings. If you’re really unlucky you might get to hear someone as arse-crushingly anodyne as Ed Sheeran whipping a crowd of international commuters into a frenzy of bedraggled bemusement as part of the “station sessions” series of unfortunate concerts.

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Know thy station; or, the various fates of three north london termini – part 1


Howdy. Where is this?

Bright sunshine gleaming off the polished granite, metal frames and glass of crisp, late international style office blocks. This could be somewhere on Park Avenue or – just perhaps – one of the less showy buildings in the Chicago Loop. Except not.

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The pediments of Birmingham

Longer posts will – eventually – be forthcoming following my recent trip up midlands. Meanwhile, a few of the curvy pediments of Birmingham:

Two split pediments, canoodling behind a hedge:

A nice bit of stonework, snugly supporting a friendly cherub:

A rather pristine swoop of terracotta:

The Brighton Astoria, or; Art Deco ain’t what it used to be

Hi both. What what, two posts in as many days? Cripes.

Yesterday afternoon, whilst you mere mortals were scrabbling around for an invite to Google+, the decider-actioners of the Brighton & Hove City Council Planning Committee were ringing the death-knell for one of the few remaining grand cinemas of our fair city.

“Eco-offices and jobs replease [sic] empty cinema” went the press release. (Which makes the classic press office mistake of not being able to spell overestimating the numbers – apparently the offices will bring “almost 200 jobs”. No, the actual estimate is 170 jobs. Is 170 almost 200? No. It’s exactly 170. Most of the populous can quite easily grasp the number 170. Perhaps if there were 192 jobs, you might call that almost 200. But 170 is nearer 150 than 200. Oh, OK are we rounding up to the nearest 50 now? So 151 is actually almost 200. *Sigh* I know a four year old that counts like that. Seriously. Grr. Calm down.)

Under different circumstances you might have found me rallying to the defence of a grade II listed building, if all they’re planning to replease replace it with is some rubbish offices. But in this case, the Councillors made exactly the right decision.

Let’s talk about planning policy. No! Sit down, Smithins! If you pay attention at the back you might actually learn something.

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Space Syntax, or; a little semantics goes a long way.

So there’s this slightly shady organisation called “Space Syntax” who’ve been a little bit silly.

I’ve not really talked about the riots on here. Though I’m not devoid of thoughts on the subject, this is mainly because I think that riots are an incredibly complex urban phenomenon and it’s not something that I feel particularly qualified to comment on. During the riots I was merrily commuting between leafy hove and a bit of lovely Frank Bridge at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m not saying that nice, side-parted middle class vicar’s sons can’t ever comment on matters that don’t concern their immediate experience. I’m merely saying that the impetus behind rioting and looting is so foreign to me, and the brew of complex and contradictory motivating factors – coupled with the inherent randomness of big cities – such a vast area to try and comprehend, that this subject seems a little above my proverbial pay grade.

Having put that thrilling caveat in, I do feel entirely qualified (by which I mean brain-between-the-ears qualified) to tear apart the analysis offered by Space Syntax. (Of course, you dear readers both don’t actually need telling any of this. You’ll read their work, scoff, chortle, roll your eyes and reach for the skittles. I do this for my own smug self-satisfaction.)

Space Syntax claim that “the spatial configuration of large post-war housing estates is the key influence” behind the riots. Yup. Uh huh. Why? Well, according to Bill Hillier of Space Syntax, large post-war housing estates are full of “over complex” spaces, where the kids can hang all on their lonesome and come up with nasty plans to steal dvd players from cash converters, unsupervised by adults. The hanging about that is, not the stealing. Moreover, “this pattern of activity … is not found in non-estate street networks.” Huh. So kids never hang around unsupervised on, I don’t know, street corners. Or in car parks. Or playgrounds. Or at school. Or at home, ffs.

Look, I’m not a romantic for “post-war” housing estates (by the way, it’s been 65 years, when do we stop using that term please?). I’ve read my Lynsey Hanley, and I’ve walked around enough housing to know that some housing estates are shit holes, some are poorly designed, some are interesting and stimulating, some are great. And I’m not going to pretend that the design of places doesn’t influence people’s behaviour. Of course it does; I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it didn’t. But this sort of “research”, that tries to hitch its flimsy waggon to the runaway cargo ship of the latest public catastrophe, this futile attempt to posit a singular, subjective, pseudo-quantifiable constant as the catalyst for the most random of urban events, is demeaning to all involved.

Right, well done for getting to the end of that. Have a pretty picture.

 

Wonky policy; or, why you should care about the NPPF

Hi both. Hope you’re exceeding well. Well, isn’t it exciting?! No, not simply to be young on such a night as this. I am, of course, discussing the furore – nay, the incredulity – with which our sainted government’s latest wheeze has been welcomed. You will no doubt have heard of the National Planning Policy Framework, and will eagerly have submitted your responses to the consultation. What do you mean, you’ve been too busy alphabetising your Morrissey back-catalogue?!

Yeah, OK. I know it’s not the most thrilling of subjects. I mean, what fool would actually consider working in planning? I ask you. No really. And I realise that our beatific overlords are responsible for some other – how to put this politely? – execrably malodourous behaviour, but if you have a passing care for our environment (natural, built, or otherwise) then I would suggest that this NPPF is something that ought to concern you.

The background. Currently, the country has a lot of planning policy. A lot less than it used to, but quite a lot none the less. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (though my views on this aren’t the same as a lot of planners’); our government, however, believe that it is, and have basically replaced a whole load of respected planning policy with 60-odd pages of astonishingly light-touch regulation. Which worked well for the banking industry, I think we can all agree.

Planning, it is deemed, is now basically in existence to encourage growth. No longer is it a tool to, er, plan. It is there so that we get growth. What is growth? Development. Apparently. “Development means growth“. Wha?!?! Is it growth when you knock down a school to build houses? Is it growth when you build an Asda on previously agricultural land? Is it growth when you, I don’t know, stick in double glazing? Planners, if the NPPF becomes policy, will be people you have to ask nicely to say yes to you. They won’t be able to say no, except in the most unusual circumstances. (By the way, planners say yes to about 85% of all applications at the moment. So we’re not talking about planners needing their wings clipped, we’re talking about removing their ability to say no to the 15% of rubbish that comes in.)

The National Trust and the Telegraph have both dug in their heels, mainly concerned about the threat to the countryside – and they’re not wrong. However, being an urbanite I’m particularly concerned with the diminishing of the reasons planners will be able to reject development on design grounds – only “obviously poor design” can be refused. Whilst I don’t claim that the last fifteen years have been salad days for architecture, at least planners were able to say no to the mediocre and unsuitable, the crass and the jarring; no longer will we strive for good design. If the NPPF goes through, we will see a decade of cheap, tacky, boorish buildings in nasty spaces. That’s a promise.

Good Scott

A fuss (and given we’re talking about architectural history here, you can imagine the sheer scale of said fuss) has lately been made over George Gilbert Scott. See, for example, the oaf that is Simon Jenkins do his level best to portray Scott as a victim of an incomprehensible miscarriage of historical justice. Jenkins’ major argument is that nobody’s yet written a biography of Scott; this may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t exactly make him an architectural pariah, weighted down as he was with those triple guarantors of obscurity, a knighthood, RIBA’s royal gold medal and being buried here.

Scott’s name was one of the first I learnt as an autodidact of architectural history. Difficult to remember exactly why one remembers something, but I suspect it had something to do with the name’s dynastic tendencies and trying not to get into a muddle over my Gileses and (multiple) Georges. Indeed, both Jenkins’ article (now corrected) and the Mirror (brava Kirsty Henley-Washford! We commend your architectural predilections if not your accuracy!) cocked up the lineage. Of course, I need not have bothered. That excruciatingly embarrassing faux pas never occurred; very few people have heard of George Gilbert Scott (or his progeny) because very few people have heard of any architect. And, yes – I realise that you (dear readers both) have heard of all the architects, but that’s because you’re special. Seriously, though, which Victorian architects are better known? I offer Charles Barry and Pugin, but only because they did this. Waterhouse, maybe. Butterfield? Blomfield? Street? Hardwick? I can barely remember what they built, and I actually care about these things. Sigh.

Of course, this is all due to a bicentenary and the trend-setting power of Google. More interesting to me than whether this man deserves a biography (what a dreckishly dull conceit to hang an article on!) is the architectural furore that Sir GGS provoked.

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