Category Archives: Interesting projects

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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UK self-build pioneers

Oliver Wainwright describes two group self-build schemes; one in Lancaster, another just outside Leeds. These two projects both emphasise building a sense of community, and have design features – such as a communal kitchen in Lancaster – to reinforce that. This might be a step too far for some, so it’s worth bearing in mind that you don’t have to sign up for everything good and holy just because you’re building as part of a baugruppe.

Vauban

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Compare and contrast. Chelsea Barracks, 5.2 ha. Sold for £959 million to a housing development consortium in 2007. Site remains empty. Woolwich Arsenal, 13 ha. Parcelled up and the best plots sold, from 2003 onwards, to housing developers such as Berkeley Homes and Barratt Homes. Large parts of the site remain undeveloped; enough for 5,000 (masterplanned) homes. Vauban, Freiburg, 38 ha. Sold, via an NGO, to a mix of private developers and baugruppen. Site is fully developed.

All of these sites were government sites (all were formerly defence sites). And while it’s arguable that the Chelsea site sale was ‘good value for the taxpayer’, there are good reasons for preferring the Vauban model over the Woolwich Arsenal model. With Vauban, the resulting development:

• Is democratic, and reflective of community needs and aspirations;
• Is socially well integrated;
• Has excellent energy performance;
• Conserves the best natural features, such as trees;
• Is interestingly diverse, being designed by or in close consultation with residents;
• Has safe, car-free residential streets (but with car ownership);
• Is popular: the entire site is now lived in.

Generally, the features of the Vauban Quarter were argued for, rather than imposed:

It was … meticulous liaison work with prospective residents that contributed to, and eventually built the necessary popular support for, some of Vauban’s most conspicuous innovations – such as the parking-free and carfree models of mobility management, the emergence of owner cooperatives (Baugruppen) as self-governed, non-profit developers and the instigation of building energy concepts far exceeding the already stringent legal requirements. Assisting people to translate their dreams and aspirations about sustainable living into feasible plans, and seeing them through a council planning department (that may be well-meaning in general terms but often sceptical in detail), became an invaluable role that Forum Vauban filled with verve, notwithstanding some inevitable conflict potential.

(Jan Scheuerer)

Of course if you look sympathetically at developments such as at Woolwich Arsenal, you can see some of the same planning ideas in play: there’s integrated public transport (the DLR extension) and developers are encouraged to create high quality public spaces, and to prioritise sustainability. But the dialogue between private for-profit developer and local authority, often antagonistic, is never going to much resemble the dialogue between future resident (and owner) and a non-profit development organisation like Forum Vauban. Developers have their own ideas about what appeals, and in Britain that often means a view of some water. In London, river front sites are strongly preferred, and are developed to very high densities. Meanwhile, other sites are neglected completely. Local authority planners struggle to give a humane shape to the outcome; often the result is very poor urban planning. Just try to take a walk along York Road, Wandsworth.

More about Vauban, Freiburg, here.