It’s only just over a year since my book on art museums was published. It seems longer ago, partly because the text was delivered on 31st. March 2020, a week after lockdown and so inevitably reflects a more confident and optimistic era. I added a final conclusion to reflect the changes which I could see were coming. It is possibly too apocalyptic. But I hope the book still stands as a historic record of museums as they developed in the post-war era, becoming ever bigger, more architectural, more civic in their view of their responsibilities.
It’s five years since the Garden Museum, so Dow Jones, its architects, gave a talk about the nature of their practice in the nave surrounded by their earlier interventions: thoughtful, lowkey, interweaving sometimes lightweight architecture with the natural world. Their extension to the Garden Museum has worn well, inserted to the north of the church, with the effect of a cloister surrounding Dan Pearson’s small garden at its heart and retaining the adjacent medieval wall of Lambeth Palace. Their other projects obviously have many of the same qualities, particularly their Maggie’s Centre in Cardiff, although on a difficult site, which also has a garden at its centre; and I’m pleased to see that they’re working on the Bevis Marks Synagogue.
I very much enjoyed Peter Guillery’s online description of the origins of the Survey of London in C.R. Ashbee’s decision to document the history of the Trinity Hospital on the Mile End Road as a way of recording local history and establishing the importance of memory and local community against the trend of massive new construction; and its relationship to their decision to go back to Whitechapel for their forthcoming two volumes which will document, not least, the history of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for which they did important documentary research. Its record of the area round Aldgate will be invaluable because so much is unrecognisable from what it was like even five years ago: even the streets have changed, vast tower blocks have gone up, so that it is hard to remember what it was like before.
In amongst so much bad and depressing news, it’s a pleasure to read a good story about an imaginative developer and architect making imaginative conversions of disused buildings for local community use, financed not by local authorities, but investors:-
I have been sent a copy of a book to be published by Artifice Press on a strange and unexpected house built in the veldt north-east of Pretoria by Sydney and Victoria Press. Sydney Press owned Edgar’s, a big chain of stores. His wife, Victoria, was a designer from New York. They commissioned an Italian modernist architect, Marco Zanuso, who had edited Domus, on the basis of a picture of a Sardinian house he had designed which they had seen in a magazine, invited him out to South Africa and he proceeded to design an astonishing, enormous and bold house on an immense scale, which the book documents:-
Since planning reform is on the agenda following the Queen’s Speech, I would like to make some suggestions, following my experience of observing the system in action with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and, more recently, the planned building by Make on the South Bank:-
1. Since the abolition of the GLC, planning in London is in the hands of the local boroughs. Owing to long periods of budget cuts, they will often have only a single very over-stretched conservation officer who will be relatively junior. Moreover, the income of planning departments now depends on offering paid pre-application advice to developers. This inevitably makes them friendly with developers who will concentrate resources on buttering them up.
2. Decisions on planning are then in the hands of the relevant planning committee, a group of only six people who will be making huge decisions on development without any particular architectural knowledge or expertise. They are more likely to be interested in jobs and income from business rates than issues of architectural quality and character.
3. Bad projects can be called in by the Mayor or the Secretary of State, but this is a hugely expensive and laborious system. With the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the Inspector found in favour of the New York-based developer’s scheme to turn it into a luxury hotel, since which nothing has happened. The climate of investment has changed and post-COVID the City may not need quite so many luxury hotels. So, the whole procedure is very laborious and excessively expensive.
4. Michael Gove seems to be inclined to put planning out of the hands of politicians – I agree with this – and into the hands of local people. I am in favour of a non-specialist element in planning decisions, but I can’t see how the new system will work.
5. The whole system is rigged in favour of new development against restoration, conservation and retrofit, which isn’t great. This may be something to do with VAT. Or the way grants are administered. Or the way planning decisions are made.
6. Developers choose big commercial practices like Make to navigate their way through the planning system. But actually smaller practices are often more attuned to adaptation and sympathetic new development. This should be reflected in the way grants are administered and projects assessed by planning committees.
I’m sure there are other things that need to change. But these are some suggestions, based on recent experience.
I’m very delighted to read that Michael Gove has ordered a halt on the works proposed for the old ITV studios near the National Theatre. If planning is to have any authority, then the proposed scheme by Make should not be allowed: not because of its architecture, but because of the extreme sensitivity of the site immediately opposite Somerset House and on the bend of the river between the Houses of Parliament and the huge scale of the proposed building, making the National Theatre look like a dwarf. This comes after denunciations of the project by Rowan Moore in the Observer, Richard Morrison in the Times, an editorial in the Times, and by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. It demonstrates that Gove may not be such a puppet of the developers and provides an opportunity for the planning system to review an appropriate balance between conservation and new development, particularly in the central heart of London, where the scheme by Make would be such a damaging intervention. I’m so glad that Gove recognises this and has intervened.
Given the fact that the Daily Mail has been hounding the Durham police to prosecute Keir Starmer and seems to have been the organisation which by its daily coverage persuaded them to re-open their investigation quite contrary to their stated policy; and given the fact that they published a story today that we should feel sorry for the Prime Minister that he was so sick before his recent television interview that he puked all over his nice blue suit, so was unable to answer any of the questions very well; we should perhaps remind ourselves that it was Downing Street that persuaded/ordered its proprietors to ditch their editor when he was critical of it (see below). Criticism used to be the role of the Fourth Estate, but not apparently any longer in the Johnson State.
Do the people in Downing Street really think that voters are so colossally naive that they can’t differentiate between the Prime Minister having booze-ups in 10, Downing Street in the early stages of a lockdown which he himself was promoting on a daily basis and the Leader of the Opposition having a meal with party workers nearly a year later after the government had themselves blown up the moral consensus behind the original lockdown and themselves been encouraging everyone to get back to work ?
And do they really think that we should feel sorry for the Prime Minister that he may have been so hungover that he was so useless at answering questions in a rare television interview ?