In nominating dRMM’s Elephant and Castle housing scheme for this year’s Stirling Prize, the RIBA excuses the casual erasure of a community
Typically, the RIBA’s Stirling Prize shortlist1 leavens starry spectacles with a socially minded gesture or two. In a thin year for the former, the list still obliged with the flawed spectacularity of Herzog & de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford. In contrast, the ‘housing crisis’ generated a lot of noise but few homes again, so a ‘flagship’ housing scheme designed by dRMM for the Elephant and Castle’s ‘regeneration’ ticked a misleading box.2
Trafalgar Place is the first phase of Lendlease’s Elephant Park development which is replacing the demolished Heygate Estate’s 1,200 units of public housing with 2,500 private units, masses of shops, offices and car spaces. This doubling of housing density is reducing 1,200 council homes to about 80 equivalents in terms of social rent. As a model of ‘regeneration’ its notoriety was assured by a lamentable agreement in 2010, based on the wizardry of secret financial viability assessments. Thereafter it exemplified a broader dash to socially cleanse valuable land in central London, banishing tenants from their communities and leaseholders from their city.3
Trafalgar Place is dRMM’s latest work in Southwark and its shortlisting met with surprising scepticism in the architectural press. dRMM is an establishment darling after all; heading up the RCA’s School of Architecture and the HS2 design panel, talented and untouchable threads in the professional fabric. However, the practice built an earlier totem for the local authority’s Elephant and Castle Opportunity Area and knew what to expect. Wansey Street (2006), their orange-fronted ‘early housing’ scheme, was also prized at birth while residents’ reports of leakiness and related major works on drainage were less well publicised. Its ‘community space’ remains boarded-up.
This stuff ticks austerity-Britain boxes while meeting few meaningful requirements for Londoners
Responses to the shortlisting of Trafalgar Place included complacency from broadsheet critics, who queried the brief but concluded that ‘the architects have done a fine job’.4 Neutrality has some justification in the architectural trades, where it proved devastating: ‘does its assortment of boxy … brick volumes really constitute the best housing scheme in the city, particularly when so much is being done elsewhere to develop a new London vernacular?’5 In Icon, Douglas Murphy critiqued ‘the inclusion of dRMM’s vulgarly titled “Trafalgar Place”: middle-of-the-road developer housing’ which displaced ‘social tenants … for the offence of not being rich’. This is not, he added, ‘the sort of project that should be winning awards’.6
I welcome this attention to dRMM’s scheme because it foreshortens judgement and underscores an urgent need for alternatives to its failed model. What could the RIBA find so compelling about this particular example of an Opportunity Area-look that is filling urban space within the M25 with near-identical schemes? Staggered-height-brick-boxes replete with mud-coloured balconies and drain details, with little or no social housing but assured access to artisanal pizza. This stuff ticks austerity-Britain boxes while meeting few if any meaningful requirements for Londoners.
Trafalgar Place is commended, specifically, for its ‘high-quality homes’, 25 per cent of which are misleadingly described as ‘affordable’. ‘It is,’ the panel continues, ‘a refreshing change from the gated or insular housing community.’ This simply misdescribes the actuality of a concrete-framed cluster of impenetrable blocks, detailed with security gates along the eastern face. The latter disguise a vast car park that generated a raised and gated area covering half of the one-hectare site. dRMM’s scheme also replaced a peculiarly porous site, of multiple at-grade and overhead public arteries, with a single passage. So it is gated and definitively inward-looking!
The judges alight on variant brick colours that reference ‘the historical fabric’ and ‘materiality of the neighbouring buildings’ to play on scales with ‘beautiful and playful’ effect. Accompanying images concentrate on coloured bricks from two sides of one tower, avoiding the remaining four blocks. Turn down the colour and what do we see? A classically greedy Notopian development that could have been built at any time since the 1950s, when James Stirling (with James Gowan) designed concrete and brick housing of lasting merit. Trafalgar Place feels abject in comparison with the satisfying innovations of Stirling and Gowan’s Ham Common flats, for example, marking a retreat across a 60-year-old high-water mark.
If dRMM’s emblem of compromise and social violence is ‘an example for future housing developments’ it is time to respond combatively
Finally, the panel commends the retention of trees for ‘giving a level of delight and settled permanence rarely achievable in new housing’. They go on ecstatically: ‘it is excellent to see landscape carried through to completion with such conviction’. In fact, a highly effective campaign forced recognition of the ‘public welfare’7 value of 500 maturing trees on the Heygate footprint, imposing their ‘tangible and intangible benefits’ on the developer. That protest received a Mayoral RE:LEAF Award in 2013 for its ‘innovative campaigning on behalf of London’s urban forest’. It established planning precedents relating to canopy value that are visible now at Trafalgar Place.
I should admit to a special intimacy with this ‘regeneration’. It was me that articulated the campaign to recognise the forest and radicalise the value of its canopy as a new urban commons. But you don’t need to know much more about the actual shapers of Trafalgar Place to form a clear judgement of it. Once you remove ‘errors of description’, any distinction it possesses is contingent upon the developers being unable to build out to their red lines on all faces because of the trees. Without such obstacles the scheme would come wholesale from Peter Cook’s biscuit aisle, along with more gated-off enclosures of ‘urban parsley’.
The banalising of the place is less significant than the prizing of what it represents. The failings of this ‘flagship’ become substantial in the relationship between what was rushed into the air and what and whom it replaced. Whereas in 2011 there were 105 council homes, 10 per cent of which were leaseholds, in 2016 there are 235 private units with just eight occupied at social rent levels. Density nearly two and a half times the original but with about 3 per cent public housing. This is what they call ‘building communities’?
Trafalgar Place Elephant and Castle PressImage Alex de Rijke 1
If the RIBA considers dRMM and Lendlease’s emblem of professional compromise and social violence to be ‘an example for future housing developments’, it is time to respond combatively. To fight back but also forwards. How much more evacuated of meaning – never mind justice – can such a model of ‘place-making’ be? It is astonishing that the architectural profession is happy to serve global corporate developers while ignoring their responsibility for what existed beforehand and the processes which delivered up a convenient tabula rasa.
Artists with serious or global reputations can no longer avoid engaging the systems within which they work. Instead of making art angled against some social, political, or cultural actuality and placing it in white space as a simple sign, the institutional space, new build or extension, systems of funding and exhibition sponsorship, have become part of the work’s material. Contrast this with architects for whom it is not only possible but normal to build a regressive scheme like dRMM’s in place of a 35-year-old council estate and not engage with those lives or homes and all that they signify. I suggest that such a profound disconnection is no longer tenable.
Trafalgar Place underscores a need to articulate robust supports for buildings and communities threatened with casual erasure. That requires principled planning based on longer-term rewards, which is formally responsive to the broadest common interest and ‘disadvantaged’ communities in particular. An ethical engagement with globalised systems of this kind would resemble the commons planning that Peter Marcuse advocates. Today it’s clear that the ecological costs of demolishing-building-demolishing in tick-boxed circles, are unsustainable. Our century will become one of adaptation, accretion, refurbishment and whole-scale enveloping of existing buildings in place, because we have no choice.
David Bowie was a Londoner, but Berlin was his city of reduction and renewal. From Low came a peculiar high in the form of ‘Sound And Vision’, the chorus of which anticipated dRMM’s distinguishing contribution to Trafalgar Place. Alex de Rijke, a student of James Gowan at the RCA, supplied the publicity images focusing on dRMM’s blue brickwork. These borrowings from Stirling and Gowan – think of the electric blue coursing at Preston and Stirling’s images or Gowan’s Schreiber House – reiterate their originality or rigour.
Stirling and Gowan’s demolished Preston buildings were far from perfect but they replaced private bylaw terraces with public housing. dRMM delivered the opposite for Lendlease; a (premature?) memorial to the death of public housing in Britain. One enabled by architects pretending that what they build has no place as such.
4 ‘Glass Wedding Cake or London’s Best Stairs?’, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
7 The phrase used in the CAVAT mechanism to value the existing canopy, which the LA had undervalued by twenty-fold before sale