We had lunch in Highpoint 1 – a great treat because it is the subject of so much of the literature of early modernism in England, still with a strong atmosphere of émigré life, but hard to comprehend without going up in the wire cage lift and seeing the way the windows concertina inwards to see across the tennis courts to distant vistas of Hampstead Heath:-
Several people have asked me if the decision on the Whitechapel Bell Foundry would have been any different if Michael Gove had been Secretary of State instead of Robert Jenrick, who seemed notably ineffectual, if not totally incompetent. What four years of fighting for the preservation of the Bell Foundry taught me is:-
1. The statutory authorities (ie Historic England) are inclined to be arrogant and complacent. Once a decision had been made by a junior official to support redevelopment of the building as a hotel (the authorities are in bed with the developers), the door was closed on any discussion as to whether or not this was the correct advice and everything became very adversarial and long-drawn out to no-one’s benefit.
2. Historic England comes under the Department for Culture, whereas housing and development come under the Ministry of Housing, so they don’t appear to speak to one another, whereas surely the key to good new development is that it is done alongside and in sympathy with the old in a creative way. Historic England could be moved to the Ministry of Housing.
3. Key planning decisions are taken by the local authority – in this case Tower Hamlets. The planning committee will consist of two or three local councillors making big decisions which affect the future of whole areas, as in the development of Spitalfields and Brick Lane, without any sense of the overall rationale or direction of travel. This is surely pretty bonkers, all of it unstrategic, ill-informed and purely reactive.
4. Just liberating planning controls as Jenrick proposed doesn’t feel like the right answer because it produces swathes of characterless new volume house-building across the green fields of southern England, and doesn’t solve the problem of how to produce – and subsidise – imaginative new building development in the north.
5. So, what is the answer ?
6. Having just listened to Ellis Woodman, the Director of the Architecture Foundation, talk about what should happen on the Open City podcast, I think Gove should invite the Architecture Foundation to come up with imaginative proposals. At speed. The issues need fresh thinking.
One of the pleasures of going to Aldeburgh was the fact that the official photographer at the Festival was Eamonn McCabe, one of the best portrait photographers, who used to take a photograph every week for the profile in the Saturday Guardian and whose work is rightly well represented in the National Portrait Gallery. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce the photograph he took of me with a look of relief after I got down from the stage:-
I went to the launch party for the publication of George Saumarez Smith’s beautiful measured drawings of the different aspects of – mainly – classical buildings, done over the last twenty five years since he bought a cloth-bound sketchbook from Cornellisen before travelling in 1996. Of course, this was until recently part of the training of architects, so that, as George describes, they were required to engage with the details of form and proportion: a good discipline for the understanding and appreciation of historic buildings by studying them closely. Published (very handsomely) by Triglyph Books.
An interesting choice of shortlist for the Stirling Prize, not least for its inclusion of of Amin Taha’s rough-hewn block in a conservation area of Islington, both traditional in its geometry, but at the same time very handcrafted, with evidence everywhere of its processes of construction. Its inclusion is odd because it was finished some time ago, but was then caught up in a planning dispute with Islington Council who wanted it demolished. I like the look of the Windermere Jetty Museum by Carmody Groarke and the beautiful elegance of the Tintagel Castle footbridge by Ney & Partners, a Belgian firm of bridge designers. It doesn’t say anywhere that I can find who picks the shortlist and now who picks the winner, which would be good to know, as it’s not going to be an easy choice.
Sadly, but entirely predictably, Tower Hamlets has voted in favour of putting a large shopping mall into a deserted car park half way up Brick Lane without regard for its impact on the character of the area. One sees the relentlessness of the process of gentrification: artists discover an area; urban pioneers move in; then the big brands begin to take over, eating away and progressively destroying the character of an area, while developers cream off the profits; small businesses are driven out and it becomes soulless like the Kings Road and Covent Garden. The decisions lie with the members of the Tower Hamlets planning committee who, as they say, are simply applying the rules. It seems odd that the character of this part of London and its future should depend on such a small group and if they are just applying the rules, then surely the rules should change. But then one remembers that developers are the biggest donors to the conservative party, so you realise that the system has been effectively stitched up. Sad, but true.
I have been meaning to write a post about a book I read after staying in Beaune last month. It’s called Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy and it taught me more about the culture of wine growing – the conservatism, curious obsessiveness and phlegmatic character of the villagers who create some of the world’s greatest wines on small vineyards which are multiply sub-divided and re-sold. The author, Simon Loftus, was himself a grand wine merchant, chairman of Adnams, a family brewery in Suffolk. He got to know all the people involved and was lent a barn to write the book, which reminded me of the work of LeRoy Ladurie, a deep analysis of local village culture, but in a modern setting. By accident, the first print run of the book was lost in a flood in the warehouse, so when it was first published in 1991, it had less impact than it might otherwise have done, but it has recently been republished by Daunt Books, which is how I got to read it. I don’t know much about wine, but I know a great deal more about how it is produced now that I have read his book.
I always like Aldeburgh – the way one can walk down from the church to the beach, the way that cottages abut straight onto the beach, how the beach is surprisingly unmanicured and the town not too chi-chi. I was told that it was wealth which kept it undeveloped and probably lots of people who have been there for years and know how to protect its character. Anyway, it made for a very nice audience for a literary festival, as interested in the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as in what I had to say about the future of museums:-
I’ve come to Aldeburgh for a talk this morning about museums. I managed to get here in time for a conversation between Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Defence Correspondent, and Alex Younger, the former ‘Chief’. We are not allowed to say anything about what was said, except I hope I am allowed to say that both of them were extraordinarily impressive, widely and deeply well informed and whatever the mess we may have made in withdrawing precipitately from Afghanistan, it is somewhat reassuring that there are still people close to government who are able to talk about international strategic objectives on the global stage in a way which is convincing. Or it was to me.
The Gentle Author is doing a good job trying to save Brick Lane from redevelopment; but, as he makes clear, the problem is wider than a single site on Brick Lane.
Spitalfields as a whole remains – but only just – an incredibly lively, interesting, mixed-use, historic neighbourhood with streets of fine early eighteenth-century Huguenot houses, jammed up alongside the energy of the Indian restaurants and local community in Brick Lane. It is this mix which makes it interesting. It is being developed at great speed with the support of Tower Hamlets, whose councillors are presumably attracted by the excitement of it all, encouraged by the Mayor, John Biggs, who detests conservation. They will destroy the character of Spitalfields and are doing so surprisingly fast.
It’s an area like the North End in Boston which needs a plan on how to protect it creatively and imaginatively, not just allowing piecemeal, out-of-scale commercial shopping malls.