We have acquired a taste for fresh air and clear daylight

I recently went to see a new housing development in Whitechapel: Darbishire Place, by Niall McLaughlin architects, for the housing association Peabody.

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Darbishire Place is named for the architect of a collection of 1881 apartment buildings amongst which the new development stands: it replaces a block that was lost to wartime bomb damage. The new building has almost the same footprint as its lost predecessor, and matches its neighbours in height, and number of floors. That is, the new building is deferential. Excessively so. A similar layout is used at every floor, including the ground, which means that bedrooms and living spaces and balconies are placed hard up against narrow pavements. You can tap on the glass as you walk past.

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The older Peabody housing in many places has the same fault: this is ‘rent barracks’ accommodation which refuses to make sufficient plan and section offsets (i.e. a small garden, a flight of steps) to give relief and dignity to occupants. It’s true that some of the historical models for urban housing are unworkable under current disabled access rules, but what seems to be missing at Darbishire Place is the recognition that the ground condition is special and designs should respond to it.

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The bigger question at Darbishire Place is whether or not the whole development – old and new together – represents a good response to the need for a reasonable urban density. Considering this question leads the visitor towards questioning the project’s brief. It’s hard to imagine any building on this limited site improving the qualities of estate’s central courtyard, a hard-surfaced and meanly proportioned space in which 1,100 litre wheeled refuse bins are prominent because there is nowhere else convenient for them to go.

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My photos, taken in mid-summer, don’t convey the echoing acoustics and the cooking smells (and the bin smells). Experience of this space suggests that the twentieth century modernists – both architects and planners – were right to fix their attention on things which their predecessors ignored:

Instead of our towns being laid out in massive quadrangles with the streets in narrow trenches walled in by seven-storeyed buildings set perpendicular on the pavement and enclosing unhealthy courtyards, airless and sunless wells … no more courtyards, but flats opening on every side to air and light, and looking, not on the puny trees of our boulevards of today but upon green sward, sports grounds and abundant plantations of trees.

– Le Corbusier, “Towards a New Architecture” (English translation), J. Rodker, 1931

As Britain’s oldest housing association, Peabody carries a legacy of nineteenth century building stock. They are as limited by economics as any actor in the public housing sector. One positive quality of the Darbishire-era housing is its robustness: Peabody, unlike many local authorities, is not faced with the need to rebuild worn out blocks. Peabody maintains its estate landscapes, and aims for the best amenity spaces it can create. My point is just that enthusiasm for historical models ought to carry with it an awareness of the shortcomings of historical models.

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