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Outrage: pure developer's architecture too often forgets the value of truly public space

Public space, where communities flourish, is often the first casualty of housing renewal today

Riba54905

Riba54905

The Brandon Estate was built as part of a utopian vision, complete with generous green public spaces. Photograph by John Pantlin, courtesy of Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

Walking around the Brandon Estate in south London on a Sunday afternoon is one of the capital’s great pleasures. Look at it from a distance and it’s a cluster of eight towers, designed by Ted Hollamby for the LCC in the early ’60s: their repetition casually evokes the menace that looks so apt in Grime videos or Crimewatch. But this is deceptive. What a casual glance misses is the open space that flows through the estate. It’s not just the people hanging around in the wide green between the blocks, it’s the football games in the park, the families wandering about, the man selling a tupperware box of cakes to the football players. For sure, many here are poor, and uniform facades can contain both council flats and Right-to-Buy investment vehicles, but on its own terms, the estate ‘works’. For decades, all planning rules in the UK – and most European countries – have been based on a self-fulfilling prophecy that somewhere like it can’t happen.

What makes the Brandon Estate so pleasurable to be in is that abundant public space. This is also why it was once believed places like it can’t work. Not only did Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman proclaim that they encouraged crime because it wasn’t clear whether the spaces were private or public, and working-class people can’t be expected to contain ambiguity in their stunted minds. These spaces, in breaking with the 19th-century street structure, ‘are experienced by everyone’, in Robert Hughes’ words about the similarly verdant Tours Aillaud in Nanterre, ‘as social scar tissue’. Cities were about streets, density, asphalt, and anything else was not just sentimental (where ‘Christopher Robin goes hippety-hoppety’, in Jane Jacobs’ scathing words), but dangerous. In disrupting the cognitive habits that people had acquired over centuries, they were actively cruel. That this was nonsense is clear on a visit to the Brandon Estate and places like it. Yet, when estates are ‘regenerated’, one of the first things to go is the open space. ‘Space for communities to flourish’, says the Lendlease advert for its Elephant and Castle scheme, replacing the mature trees of the Heygate Estate with what appears on the visualisation to be some pot plants on a roof.

‘This is pure developer’s architecture, based on the imperative to extract as much capital from a plot while paying off local government as little as possible’

Today’s planning orthodoxy rejects the facile anti-Modernism of an Alice Coleman – who shared the Modernists’ dislike of the dense 19th-century city but who believed that the ultimate form of housing was the 1930s semi, a form created by ‘natural evolution’ – while retaining Jane Jacobs’ embrace of the teeming densities of Manhattan, Barcelona and Paris. On the face of it, this seems uncontroversial, such successes were the latter places – who could object to wanting to be like Paris? But looked at more closely, you can see just how ahistorical it actually is. By now, we’ve had two decades of what could casually be called the ‘Barcelona model’. What is its legacy?

The UK’s Urban Task Force inherited from Modernism a liking for height, although this time, towers would come with shops and cafés at ground floor, and without the green spaces that relieved the blocks in ’60s London, Sheffield or Birmingham. The result is miserable new spaces like the high-rise clusters of the Elephant and Castle and Stratford High Street, which lack (because of their newness and their high rents) the mix of exciting self-organised things that define a real historical area, and lack absolutely the possibility of people using the spaces in between, because there are none, aside from postage stamps of granite setts, saplings and homeless-proof benches. One of the major residential types of the last 20 years has been the staggered wall-like building that rises from, say, six storeys to 20, to both maximise lettable space and reassure worried council planning boards that they won’t dominate an area by ‘breaking up the massing’. It used to be in Trespa, now it’s in brick, little else has changed.

‘The question is whether the stark Lendlease mess of the Elephant and Castle could ever be as humane as the Brandon Estate’

This is pure developer’s architecture, based on the imperative to extract as much capital from a plot while paying off local government as little as possible. Curiously, much the same is true about dense historical areas that are the model for today’s Urban Task Forces. In a terrific recent article in CityMetric, Feargus O’Sullivan notes that many of what are now considered urban models share a common ancestry, all thrown up quick by developers in response to the mass urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution, high, dense and cheap. In 1918, their extreme density, coal fires, outside toilets, closeness to polluting industry, and so forth, would have been genuinely infernal. Then, to use Jane Jacobs’ phrase, they ‘unslummed’. What this meant in practice was that new, lower-density estates, suburbs and new towns absorbed lots of their population, local governments built parks, families got smaller, toilets were built, and industry was closed or moved elsewhere. This process wasn’t the invisible hand, nor was it entirely the product of local democracy  – it was the action of the social democratic state that made this free market model ‘liveable’. Their imitations only reinforce this. Once, planners looked at the likes of the Brandon Estate and wondered whether they could ever be as liveable as ‘unslummed’ Kennington; now, the question is whether the stark Lendlease mess of the Elephant and Castle could ever be as humane as the Brandon Estate.

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy