Masterplanning is not big architecture, as Terry Farrell’s winning proposal for the competition to redevelop London’s Earls Court illustrates
The entire area around London’s Earls Court Exhibition Centre is to be redeveloped by Capital & Counties Properties, with Farrells as masterplanner. The site is bounded by and connects with different aspects of London’surban and social texture.
High-value South Kensington is immediately to the east, gentrified Barons Court and West Kensington to the west. The north boundary is the elevated section of Cromwell Road, London’s primary artery in from the west. To the south is a pair of open tracts: Brompton Cemetery and an exhibition visitors’ car park.
This is a backland, effectively a hinterland of the exhibition building on its triangular plot to the east. The site behind this and to the north is owned by Transport for London with its complex configuration of Tube lines and overland rail line, and attendant rail depots above and below ground.
Beyond, on the west side of the site are two housing estates mostly owned by the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. There are no through routes, little connection to the surrounding urban fabric, no social focus and no physical focus except, perhaps, for the 31-storey Empress State Building at the bottom of the site.
Several years ago Capital & Counties decided to buy the site and join up with the two other major landowners, Transport for London and the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Capital & Counties believes the 28-hectare site could potentially accommodate as many as 8,000 dwellings, and three or so million square feet of commercial, cultural and retail space.
This is an immense project which over the next 10 to 15 years will create a major London residential district and, it is hoped, will absorb the high social, environmental and property values of adjacent South Kensington, effectively shifting the notional edge of central London a whole district’s width to the west.
The design is under the direction of project development director Richard Powell - formerly advisor on the Treasury Taskforce and more recently First Base. Six planning practices were invited to submit proposals: Benoy, Allies and Morrison, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), Studio Egret West, Make and Farrells.
The brief was to give an idea of how issues such as routes through the site and connections with the surrounding area might be resolved, and provide some sense of the grouping and form of urban blocks, as well as massing and height - but this was not to be worked up as an architectural proposal.
Practices had seven weeks to develop submissions and Powell was enthusiastic about the response: ‘We were extremely impressed. They were all great and really different, and one presentation at least was magical.’ Terry Farrell is, among other things, adviser to the Mayor of London and author of Shaping London: The Patterns and Forms that Make the Metropolis (2009).
In this, he makes the point that London is a series of villages that gradually joined up during the 19th and 20th centuries: it has been created without a ‘grand overarching, superimposed design hand or ordering geometry.’
Barcelona planning guru David Mackay also points out that no grand masterplan in history has ever been completely implemented. But because they look positive, are capable of being visualised and seem to offer comprehensive solutions, the temptations of finite masterplans are irresistible for both developers and architects.
Farrell doesn’t disagree with Mackay, but argues that masterplans rarely fail totally. However, he says, ‘I don’t think this masterplan is about the buildings. That’s starting at the wrong end of the process. Issues of height and density aren’t starting points. You have instead to talk about things like the street and its width and what makes a good city. Towns and places are not the result of design. Design ends up with products. Masterplanning ends up with processes. Masterplanning is not big architecture.’
The shorthand for the proposal that won Farrell the post of masterplanner is four villages and a high street. And it adopts a somewhat Mackay-esque incremental approach. It starts at the edges and focuses on four new London villages at important corners of the site named after their locations: West Kensington and North End Villages to the west, Warwick Green to the east and West Brompton to the south.
Happily there are Tube stations (providing centres for three of the four villages) ranged around the edge of the site, so the transport infrastructure already exists. That makes it possible to phase development from the outside in, eliminating the massive, long-term disruption occasioned by installing central services.
A big problem with the site is connectivity and the absence of through roads. So internal traffic and pedestrian routes pick up on streets from outside the site to enable passage across the site from east to west and north to south.
One option would be to create a new double-sided north-south high street serving as an urban and cultural magnet that would link a new commercial development to the north alongside the elevated Cromwell Road, with Lillie Road on the south boundary.
The new street layout is a loose grid with perimeter blocks surrounding green spaces which echo, at a tighter scale, the layout of adjacent Kensington. With a timeframe of up to 15 years there is a need for the proposals to cope organically with changing developments in finance, planning constraints, social change and sustainable technology.
Unlike masterplan-as-design, this is masterplan-as-process in which Farrells ‘acknowledge that [the] masterplan form will change over time… within a robust strategic framework following a set of agreed and consistent principles.’ No doubt Farrells architects will design some of the urban blocks and some of the buildings. But this is intended to be an architecturally diverse quarter of London, with many different architects designing schemes over time.
The site has been formally designated an Opportunity Area in the Mayor’s London Plan and the development collaborators have recently established a joint working group to create a Supplementary Planning Document. The working group involves the three planning authorities - the Greater London Authority, the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
It’s anticipated that a formal planning submission will be made in the summer of 2011. Work won’t start before the end of the Olympic Games in 2012, because the exhibition hall is to be the official volleyball venue.
The process between now and next summer’s formal planning submission is one of extensive workshop-based consultation with local authorities and communities whose input will help decide on a final masterplan. ‘We will set out a series of planning and organising principles,’ says Farrell. ‘The Capital & Counties team have already had early meetings with other landowners, tenants, local societies, everybody involved - lots of conversations. This sort of project will only succeed if you can find a way where there is something for everybody. It may seem like an exercise in compromise. But it’s a process one would recognise in politics or the development of, say, a new car. It’s extremely real.’