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Capita Architecture debates London

17 April 2008

"What does the future hold for a city that has a world-class financial district yet a poor emissions record, that is highly designed and developed in some areas yet decaying in others, a city that is thriving and stumbling all in the same heartbeat?"

Thus was the scene set by Head of Capita Architecture Robert  Firth for the Capita Architecture Debate, held at The Energy Centre, London on Wednesday 9 April, urging its 100-strong audience to determine whether London was still holding its own on the architectural world stage, or whether other Euro capitals were leaving it behind.

Three linked debates were to feature an esoteric mix of speakers that clearly held London’s built environment and urban spaces dear:

  • Peter Murray: Exhibitions Director for New London Architecture, which exists to promote public debate about the future of London.
  • James Hulme: Director of Public Affairs of the Princes Foundation, one of Prince Charles' education charities that promotes 'timeless' building design.
  • Michael Hodges: Time Out journalist and, until recently, a candidate for London's Mayoral elections in May.
  • Tom Barton: Deputy Regional Manager of London and South-East for Sir Robert McAlpine, one of the UK's leading construction companies.
  • Andrew Pryke: Director of Capita Architecture, London
  • Ed Burton: Director of Capita Architecture, Cambridge

First on the podium was Peter Murray (left), with his motion that London doesn’t deserve better public spaces until we learn to look after the one’s we’ve got’ (cue numerous slides of chewing gum-splattered streets, badly repaired paving and neglected public spaces).

What’s the point, he argued, of creating even more public spaces if the ones that already exist are badly managed and maintained. “Whatever happened to ‘Keep Britain Tidy’?” he asked (buried within a wider government ‘environmental’ quango, apparently).

Murray advocated a local tax for cleaning up streets and spaces and for more public initiatives – citing ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ as inspiration (where 1/3 of the total population take to the streets with rubber gloves and refuse sacks once a year).

Countering his motion was Andrew Pryke of Capita Architecture (right). Pryke argued that many existing public spaces are mistreated because they were poorly designed in the first place, and that there is a need to redress the balance by creating a new and improved public realm for London rather than ‘make do’ with what we already have and try to make it better.

Pryke drew parallels between the built environment and other areas of design and engineering.

Even though, for example, there are more than enough (26m to be exact) good quality cars in the UK, we still strive to research, develop and construct more, improved models in search of the ‘ultimate’. The same can be said of air travel; there are 170m air passengers per annum in the UK (there’s only 60m of us remember) and we continue to continuously develop new, and larger, aircraft – in spite of their environmental record - in search of the ultimate flying machine.

In the same vein, the architect and urban designer’s role was to continuously look to design better public spaces and create new identities for our cities and towns.

The ensuing debate saw widespread support for the assertion that saw litter (and vandalism etc) as a cultural issue and a decline in moral values as the main driver in the lack of respect and decay of our public spaces; that is isn’t simply a design issue.

Pryke won the ensuing straw poll – rather predictably perhaps in a room full of designers and construction clients…

 

James Hume (left) took the podium next for the second of the evening’s debates, with the motion ‘We need a poly-centric city, not a high-rise one’.

Hume’s assertion was that it wasn’t the car but suburbia that was the deadly weapon clogging up our city centres, launching ‘daily suburban mortar-fire against urban centres’. He viewed the suburbs as a parasite, feeding off a ‘mono-centric conurbation’ until the city loses its ‘centre’ and becomes in essence one huge suburb with no heart, just a place that people travel to, work at, and then leave until the next day, with the offices to accommodate them reaching higher and higher into the sky.

He advocated a poly-centric approach to urban design and masterplanning; creating a ‘poly-centric federation’ of urban clusters which gather around themselves those that rely on those areas for work, rest and play and where travel times are significantly reduced and ‘compulsive commuting’ is a thing of the past.

A telling graphic of how the UK capital had evolved from a 18th Century collection of towns and villages to its current built form where these old ‘poly-centres’ have merged into a single entity that we know as London.

Evolution is the crux however, argued Capita Architecture’s Ed Burton (right) in refuting this notion; urban spaces are a product of the society that inhabits them – they evolve over time and are themselves growing and adapting organisms.

They should be allowed to grow organically – just as today’s London has – and this shouldn’t be stymied by attempts to artificially recreate a cityscape perhaps now past.

The floor strongly supported the need for high-rise design – and Burton was always going to win this one (‘how could the financial capital of the world not have high-rise development?’) – but Hume scored valid points by countering the accusation that he was turning his back on progress with his assertion that developments such as London’s Gherkin ‘weren’t progress’ because of the way they ‘eat’ energy and throw sustainable design concepts out of the window. Many of the audience admitted he had a point...

 

“In order to avoid the disaster of Wandsworth-style riverfront blocks spreading any further along the riverside, this house believes that all land adjacent to the Thames should be designated a special zone where speculative building is banned and all new waterside construction work is subject to automatic public enquiry” proposed Michael Hodges (left) as he launched into the night’s final debate.

As a Londoner – and a one-time candidate for London Mayor - Hodges wanted his river back, and resented the number of residential developments along the Thames that were now denying people other than residents accessing ‘their’ river.

He pointed to other European cities and their rivers – the Seine in Paris for example – where the relationship between the two is a more cherished one than in present day London.

He questioned Ken Livingstone’s socialist convictions as Mayor of London, in his reluctance to open many riverside developments up to public scrutiny and democratic debate.

‘State control’ doesn’t guarantee good design however, argued Tom Barton (right). There are many examples along the Thames, he suggested, that have been through the public enquiry process but were still poorly designed and did nothing for the riverscape.

There are also developments that have been hindered or damaged by the public consultation process, he argued, such as Battersea Power Station – a powerful symbol of London that is ‘more likely to fall down’ before an agreement  was reached on its future.

There was strong support for Hodges motion – particularly from those who had tried to cycle or walk along the river recently – but his motion was ultimately defeated (if he hadn’t used the words ‘consultation’ rather than ‘automatic public enquiry’ one suspects his sentiments would have won over an industry audience that certainly shared Barton’s views on the pitfalls of the public enquiry system).

 

And so an hour of debate on architecture and urban design in London, and wider afield, ended with the notion that our architects and designers need to strive for new ways to create spaces and an identity for our towns and cities and that good design is as much about evolution as creativity.

Capita Architecture is considering making the debate an annual event, and if it can assemble a similar calibre of speakers and engaging industry topics – maybe in partnership with one of the professional institutions - then its sure to become a date in the industry calendar.