Debate 2 - Paper 1

An Architect’s View:

Edward Cullinan CBE RA RIBA HonFRIAS
Edward Cullinan Architects

For many years now, among architects of the more sophisticated kind, it has been normal to extol the city, to decry the suburb and to ignore the countryside. So sipping in the boulevard café, Blueprint on ones knee, or standing one-legged in the private view facing away from the work on the wall, the gossip is almost always about the latest creation in the city which usually means London. All the words and phrases tell you this; phrases like “address to the public realm,” “ordering facades,” “framing space,” “responding to context,” urban intervention,” and so on.

So the suburb, the nineteenth and twentieth century’s biggest contribution to the pattern of living, has been left to itself and to a discussion between government, planners, road engineers and developer/builders. If by suburb, one means true city suburbs, expanding towns in their expanding parts and the greater part of New Towns, that is all places where dwellings are usually built on the ground, and possess a bit of ground in front and behind and sometimes at the side, one finds a rather bleak situation today. Houses, which are themselves little more than an agglomeration of features from catalogues, appear to have been dropped indiscriminately onto the landscape without respect to contour or aspect, so that the whole place never seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

One need only visit a typical housing estate of today and Hampstead Garden Suburb as laid out by Parker and Unwin, to know what I mean. The sprinkling layout of today can then be compared with a layout in which houses, grouped and separate, are both individual and unitary but contribute to making roadsides, framing junctions and extolling entrances and corners; where each separate piece contributes to the making of the public places between them. Some recent estates, by Wayland Tunley in Milton Keynes for example, have returned to this understanding of composing the separate parts to create a greater whole; and to see a more progressive and inventive house type, look at Julyan Wickham’s scheme of houses at Almere in Holland where each refers to each, as illustrated in BD last November. But earlier Milton Keynes examples, in which a city at an essentially suburban density had areas designed as though they were real traditional cities, were not so successful. In this model you take two and three storey houses and suppress their individuality by building them 3.6m wide in terraces and with the smallest possible areas of private open space, all for the purpose of establishing the whole at the expense of the part. This results in oversized areas of undefined, unmaintained, unused public open space behind the houses and trees or boulevards in front of them for which the small row houses are a quite inadequate frame: no where, no place, sad. So, if we are to build communities on transport corridors as Peter Hall suggests, let us make sure that the composition of the whole and the reciprocal composition of the parts is taken seriously and is put into the hands of skilful designers who are also skilled at public participation in the process. The assumption that designers of places can be disposed with is a false assumption, as is rapidly being realised in every other industry from cars to carrot packing.

One of my favourite collections of suburban houses anywhere is in West Cambridge in which almost every house was separately designed by reasonably progressive architects of their day - Bailey Scott, Lutyens, Voysey, Murray Easton, David Roberts - and some fine white cubes from the thirties as well. All are stitched together by a good road layout, high hedges, trees and gateways. You can compose the gardens as well as you can compose the houses, and the whole group.

And we too will need to devise new models of buildings from houses to supermarkets; models which respond to the need to save energy, save resources and protect our environment; models which might thereby find an aesthetic which is not a feeble imitation of past styles and so-called vernacular buildings. Think, for example, of the fantastic transformation which would result if all single storey buildings of above a certain area were required (as in parts of Germany) to have highly insulated green grass or other plant-topped roofs, for good sound ecological reasons: immediately supermarkets and other large storage structures would refer more to their greenfield sites than to some imagined pseudo vernacular tradition.

So now for the city. We are told that the aim is to make up to 60% of new households on existing urban land, whereas we have only recently been able to rise to 50%. Like most architects, I love the idea of building in the city; all that power, bustle and cosmopolitanism shoulder-rubbing. I also like living in the city but must admit to going to the country too; to hide away at times; the best of both worlds.

It is only recently that we have rediscovered or re-understood the fundamental structure of the city; a structure of streets, boulevards, squares, crescents, mews, parks, courts, alleyways; a structure of framed connecting spaces and places, off which front doors and shop doors and public doors open. Before that, we were trying to rebuild our cities with extremely tricky pieces; freestanding towers and slabs, and tiny row houses. The freestanding tower and the freestanding slab, derived as they were from the idea of the Villa Radieuse both needed much parkland to sit in, hence the comparative success of Roehampton; but when stitched into the street pattern of the city, they could only achieve a poor fit, like an inflexible Gulliver in Lilliput. And brilliant towers, like Lasdun’s in Bethnal Green or Goldfinger’s Trellick were very rare; most were too cheap and ill-considered, undesigned, rottenly composed. None had the warmth, privacy and security of a good mansion flat, and if I could single out the single most disastrous aspect of these buildings, it would be the publicly available open access gallery high up in the wind, weather and the lashing rain. It is interesting that when these galleries are enclosed and the flats get private call systems, the buildings can become fairly satisfactory.

The other tricky piece I refer to as the tiny row house. During the seventies, in a well-meaning attempt to promote convenience and comfort in housing, the DoE decreed that two floors of walk-up was all they could allow and the general assumption was made that 3.6m frontage row houses were ideal. The resulting Lilliputian rows of houses were quite inadequate for building a decent bit of city with and the answers are two-fold: firstly, with disabled access an issue, we need to put lifts in lower smaller buildings than we are used to doing, and those lifts need to be paid for and become cheaper (as in Europe): secondly, the presence of lifts will allow us to make a domestic architecture that is far more varied in height, breadth and content, allowing us to compose suitable volumes with suitable facades for the purpose of framing the public spaces and places within the city. You need only look at a two-storey late 20th century neo Georgian, 3.6m frontage terrace when dutifully placed beside an original four-storey true Georgian terrace to see the problem very clearly; almost any, and I mean any, other solution would have been better.

A final word on aesthetics or the composition of buildings, especially domestic buildings, needs to be stressed. Copying or half copying the adjoining buildings we receive from the past is nearly always a mistake. Carefully composed balanced contrasts offer far more potential for making a good, coherent place; a place which like many of our market towns is composed from a juxtaposition of buildings which frankly declare their provenance.

The whole of the above is, of course, a plea for using good, careful, inventive, sensitive designers when composing houses and apartments, and when grouping them together with other buildings. This becomes doubly necessary if most of our new households are going to be made in or on the edge of existing cities, towns and villages. But if we are to do this and at the same time thereby to curb our tendency to invade the countryside, two further steps will be necessary. The first is an extension of public consultation, by which I mean something you might not expect. Consultation only with the immediate neighbours of a new scheme will nearly always produce a negative response, understandably. Consultation, therefore should be extended as far as possible to representatives of the people who are going to move there, to people in the larger urban or suburban area, to experts in sustainability and to the national interest as a whole. Otherwise consultation need not happen at all, since in its present form, it so frequently ends up as a session of head butting. The second necessary step is closely related to the first; it is to allow densities to rise when necessary and suitable. Villages have turned into towns, towns into cities, villages and towns have also coalesced into cities; their densities rise as they do so. Why not now?

The extra 4 million households, 80% of them single person households need pose no threat at all if carefully composed as unique groups for unique places, well connected by public transport. And given the same skills and the same commitment, I can see no reason at all why some bits of countryside which are no use to use for growing crops or for recreation might be similarly used.

I’ve enjoyed walking and playing on many a lonely hill and through woods and crags, but I’ve also had fun as one of the two million people a year who visit Thorpe Park, so let us decide which bits of country we need and which small bits we can spare.

Four million households does not mean any more people, it only means a decent way to live for most people. I am suggesting that with care, that could be a perfectly sustainable process.

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