This post originally appeared on the Royal Academy of Arts website on 23 April 2014.
The planning system in Britain is a mess. We see the results everywhere: from out-of-town retail parks that force everyone to drive and thereby clog up the roads while stripping our high streets, to the wanton inadequacies of new housing and proliferation of over-sized towers shooting up all over London. Britain has no shortage of first-class architects, but so often they are curtailed by the commercial priorities of private developers after a quick buck from London’s overheated property market.
For those lucky enough to be on the property ladder, it’s not unusual to go out to work and find that over the day your flat has earned more than you have. For young people on anything less than an investment banker salary or without help from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, the hope of owning your own home is a distant and increasingly forlorn one. Buying a house is usually the biggest financial transaction any of us make in our lives, but with fewer and fewer ever likely to make that leap, property ownership is becoming one of the main drivers in the seemingly ever widening chasm between the rich and poor. The debate about planning is, therefore, far from being one of aesthetics – it’s an argument about the sort of society we want to live in, indeed, whether we believe in society at all.
This is why I have some reservations about the recent ‘Skyline’ campaign launched by the Architects’ Journal in partnership with The Observer. The campaign’s aims are laudable enough. They seek to draw the public’s attention to the imminent transformation of London’s skyline by over 200 buildings more than 20 storeys tall. But the campaign’s objections are couched in terms of these new towers being ‘grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline’, their ‘mediocre architectural quality’, and their ‘generic designs’ that ‘threaten London’s unique character and identity’. It’s hard not to disagree when you look at some of the examples the campaign cites: the proposals for the Shell Centre just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, and the area around Vauxhall that is already plagued by some of London’s very worst architecture. However, the pièce de résistance of this crass collection of interventions on London’s skyline has to be the Doon Street Tower. It promises to ruin views not only of the adjacent National Theatre but, because of its colossal size, it will be visible over the Somerset House courtyard and destroy one of London’s greatest architectural compositions. It’s not necessarily a bad building and Doon Street is certainly ripe for development, but it has to be one of the worst places in the whole of London for a building that tall to be placed – a disastrous failure of planning.
The ‘Skyline’ campaign rightly notes that these towers have been waived through with little or no public consultation. But the argument still boils down to one of aesthetics: the individual and collective impact of these towers on London’s skyline. It should be so much more. These buildings will have a detrimental impact on London, for sure, but they are the consequence rather than the cause. We should be aiming to treat the cause of this plague upon London’s skyline and not the symptoms. The unerring power of the market aided by the lack of a coherent planning strategy makes buildings of this sort – machines for making money – nothing short of inevitable.
It was interesting, therefore, that the launch of the ‘Skyline’ campaign coincided almost exactly with the publication of the Farrell Review. The background for this is that a year ago the architecture minister, Ed Vaizey commissioned Terry Farrell, one of Britain’s leading architects, to look into the state of architecture and planning in Britain and to produce a series of key recommendations for its improvements. The result is an impressive and wide-ranging document. Farrell’s recommendations are nicely varied, from broad brush, long-term proposals to the particular and – dare I say it? – easily achievable.
One of the most ‘common sense’ recommendations is that architecture be taught in schools and there be much needed reforms to architectural education. An emphasis on ‘place’ recurs throughout the Review with the most striking proposals deriving from it. They include the appointment of ‘civic champions’ to act as advocates for the built environment in local areas; linked this would be the creation of ‘urban rooms’ in each town so people might better understand the past, present and future of their area; new PLACE review panels (an acronym standing for Planning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation, Engineering) to take a more holistic view of a building’s impact than is often done so currently.
Farrell also suggests a new role of a government-appointed ‘chief architect’, to mirror other professions. It’s here though that the Review’s biggest weakness comes very obvious – and it’s nothing to do with the Review itself – it’s the reliance on government to take notice, let alone any appropriate actions. Let’s hope, then, that the Review’s impact is more than simply mollifying those profession insiders who’ve now had their voices heard and it doesn’t end up on a Whitehall shelf like so many reviews before it.