Italo

As therapy from wandering round the wastelands of north Vauxhall, I had lunch on the pavement outside Charlie Boxer’s delicatessen, Italo in Bonnington Square. It’s everything the new developments aren’t: anchored in a sense of local community, with streets and a small garden, a sense of human interaction and human scale.

Is it impossible to reproduce this sense of humanity, localism and streetscape in new building or have we just decided to give up on it ?

Standard

Vauxhall

I walked through the new Vauxhall, a City which has grown up in the last ten years. I don’t object to it in the way I dislike so much of the City itself because it occupies riverside which was previously nondescript, an area of old warehouses and the relocated Covent Garden market, the wrong side of the railway tracks, but with the benefit of proximity to the river. I assume it attracts capital to London because the voices were international and the cars plutocratic. It does nothing whatever to solve the problems of London housing since it all looks unaffordably expensive, sold in the Saturday property supplements in Singapore and Hong Kong.

At its heart is the new American embassy, designed by Kieran Timberlake, not a bad building, but characterless:-

Embassy Gardens has the curious feature of a swimming pool suspended between two buildings: no-one was swimming in it and the experience might be vertiginous:-

Round about are a mass of new tower blocks which are scarily nondescript. No doubt the Mayor of Wandsworth finds it exciting and everyone is probably congratulating themselves on the speed with which it has been built, competing with the tiger economies. Of course, it’s hard to manufacture character. But these guys don’t hit first base:-

Standard

Battersea Power Station

In advance of an article that I’ve written for the October issue of The Critic about 22, Bishopsgate, the new anonymous monster now dominating the skyline of the City, I thought I should explore some of the new developments in Nine Elms, which I have hitherto only seen and disliked from Westminster Bridge.

I started at Battersea Power Station station, which has been the subject of grandiose plans for development ever since John Broome bought it from the government in 1987 for £1.5 million to turn into a theme park.   It’s now all been cleaned up and the towers rebuilt, ready to open next year as the headquarters of Apple:-

Standard

Phil Eglin

On Monday, I went on a day trip to Neath in South Wales to visit the potter/ceramic artist, Phil Eglin, whose work I have always admired, ever since buying a recumbent figure from the Crafts Council gallery in the V&A, long ago. But I have delayed posting photographs of his work, at his request, until his latest exhibition, Strange Bedfellows, had been launched at the Scottish Gallery (https://scottish-gallery.co.uk/exhibitions/strange-bedfellows).

He has a beautiful daylit studio with sheep in the field beyond:-

It was a treat to see so much work of different periods of his career – Madonnas, jugs, tiles – casually displayed throughout the rooms of his house:-

He was a student at Stoke-on-Trent, then the Royal College of Art when Eduardo Paolozzi was a visiting tutor and one can see some of Eduardo’s influence in Phil’s eclectic absorption of imagery, high and low, his use of historical reference but in a witty and generalised way, and his interest in popular imagery, as well as medieval:-

He also has an unrivalled collection of watering cans:-

Standard

Saving Spitalfields (3)

I admire the writing of Brice Stratford in The Critic (see below). He manages to be both immensely well informed about local politics and absolutely brutal in describing how it operates – the lack of any care for the communities represented, its arbitrariness, and the long-term consequences of the developments they facilitate. The Council may feel that allowing a shopping mall is a one-off development and will bring jobs to the area, but it is part of a pattern of new development which risks changing the character of Spitalfields forever, losing its individuality and making it much blander. Of course, people say that the area has always been subject to change – the arrival of new communities, and has been being gentrified since the 1980s at least. This is true. But it is surely worth trying to retain the historic character of Spitalfields, especially small businesses, rather than just turning it into a tourist mall.

https://thecritic.co.uk/the-bludgeoning-of-brick-lane/?s=09

Standard

Dorman Long Tower (2)

I am very interested in the attached account in the Architects Journal of the circumstances which led to the demolition of the Dorman Long Tower. According to Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Teesside, Historic England has admitted that it listed the Tower in error, which is presumably why Nadine Dorries felt able to de-list it and allow its demolition. But for Historic England to admit that it listed the building in error without visiting it would be to admit immense incompetence on the part of the official advisors to the Secretary of State and a procedure for listing which is utterly flawed. So, it would be useful by an easy process of formal enquiry to ask Houchen to produce this written statement.

If it doesn’t exist in writing, as he claims, then he is presumably lying and his demolition of the building should be subject to judicial review.

https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/brutalist-tower-demolished-after-new-culture-secretary-ordered-delisting?s=09

Standard

Dorman Long Tower (1)

The demolition of the Dorman Long Tower at 1.55am this morning feels like a curiously emblematic moment: the apparently wilful destruction of a monument of the old northern industrial culture because a property developer wants to create an estate of new homes. As those who have followed the story will know, the building was listed by Historic England only a week ago ‘as a recognised and celebrated example of early Brutalist architecture, a fine example of austere design that simply, yet wholeheartedly expresses its function: a deliberate monumental architectural statement of confidence by the then newly de-nationalised Dorman Long company in the mid-1950s’. As anyone who knows how the system works, this means that it will have had a great deal of public support for its listing: a view that it should be preserved as a record of the now defunct steel industry, standing fairly isolated in a vast area of post-industrial dereliction. But no sooner had it been listed that Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, approached Nadine Dorries, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to ask her to rescind the decision. She agreed on her first day in office and, in case she were to change her mind, the building was immediately demolished. It doesn’t look good for statutory controls of historic buildings. It doesn’t look good for her interest in the preservation of the industrial past. But it probably does look good for those who think that we should wipe out all memory of the industrial past and build a new north of standardised houses, a Free Port and retail parks:-

Dorman Long tower
Standard

Virtual Neighbour

It was the opening of Virtual Neighbour last night, an exhibition of objects both real and simulated in the front room of a house in East Arbour Street. It included a new, very beautiful sculptural piece by Romilly SS, which have turned virtual surprisingly successfully. I’m not sure my photographs convey either the real or the virtual adequately:-

There are other things by her on display as well:-

https://www.livingobject.co.uk/

Standard

Highpoint 1

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:-

Standard

Planning Reform

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.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9999977/Michael-Gove-shelved-planning-shake-just-hours-named-new-Housing-Secretary.html

Standard