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
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
- 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,
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
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
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
Pryke won the ensuing straw poll –
rather predictably perhaps in a room full of designers and
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
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
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
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.