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London: Tired of Life? The Think Series 01

A collaboration between British practice ORMS and the AR, the Think Series promotes dialogue between different disciplines within architecture and construction. In this first edition we explore issues around the development of London

Introduction by ORMS

As a practice, ORMS is keen to understand the everyday issues and challenges faced by both the architectural profession and colleagues and clients in the wider construction industry. The Think Series supports our belief that the best way of doing this is through debate and research, the outcomes of which will ultimately inform our architectural approach.

What follows is the result of the first stage in the Think process − a frank, informal and fascinating dialogue between some of the people we most admire in the industry, drawn from a wide variety of disciplines and representing many different sides of the debate. Their lively insights are highly thought-provoking and, inevitably, raise more questions than they answer. But they successfully highlight the conflicting issues which will influence the future development of London − and identify many new avenues for debate and design exploration.

Both commercial and residential sectors will have to meet many challenges over the next few years − and it is in London that these challenges are most sharply focused. With an estimated one million new homes needed in the capital by 2030, and an increasing urgency for London to attract business away from its global competitors, now is the time for imaginative thinking about how the city should develop in the future. London’s rich grain and energy − the rubbing of shoulders, surprising contrasts and enormous diversity −have always been among its selling points, but could the current planning context and a simple lack of vision be holding London back and stifling the next phase in its growth?

JM: It’s projected that London will need a million new homes by 2030. Last year in the UK we delivered 118,000 new homes so we’re not even touching the problem.

MT: Where are all these people living who need the houses?

EY: I’ve often wondered that. I assume they’re living in poor, unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation, but obviously some of the figures are a result of population predictions, aren’t they?

AW: Yes, a lot of it’s just statistical projection.

JM: At the moment the population of the UK is just over 62 million and the projection is that it’ll be 70 million by 2031.

AW: And the figures for London are that it’s currently 7.2 million and by 2016 it’ll be 8.1 million. But that’s exactly the same number that was living in London in 1963.

BS: Within that demographic though there’s been a huge amount of change. If you think about the 1970s, everyone aspired to having their own little houses. Society was based around the nucleus of the family. But that’s changed − there are more divorcees, retired folk, young professionals who don’t have kids. The demographic profile is very different from 1963.

JAB: The main issue is that we’ve got an aging demographic, and we’re all going to have to work for an awful lot longer. We’re still going to have to travel to our workplaces because although we’ll be able to do more work at home we’ll still want to go and socialise. The divorce rate is going up too. We live longer, our children grow up and we might want to find someone else to spend the rest of our lives with. It’s happening. So there is a need for more housing for single people.

OR: I worry about the inflexibility of London to meet this change, and the fact that we’re strangling our opportunities. You’ve got to have quality of environment, but we shouldn’t be so protective about our older buildings.

AW: It’s ambition to build that we need. This discussion would never happen in Shanghai. It’s a city of 23 million. Ten years ago it was a city of 16 million. I live in Suzhou. No one’s ever heard of it, but it’s a city of six million people. We just don’t see the same problems in China. Whereas in the UK, the future is something we approach with trepidation. We worry about it. And that paralyses our ambition.

In contrast, several of our guests believed that rather than a lack of ambition and enthusiasm for building, London’s inflexibility was more a result of restrictive planning practices.

TM: If you just let what was going to happen happen, the demographics wouldn’t be what they are. Rents are continuing to skyrocket in London, and at the same time you want to introduce more affordable housing. But don’t you think that this affordable housing artificially restricts the supply of homes? I think when London’s current planning restrictions were put in place they were well intentioned, but they get in the way of the city’s organic growth.

NH: The way it’s structured at the moment, you’re required to put affordable housing on site. In Westminster, for example, they might want affordable housing as part of your 14 £5.5 million units. You have to put in one unit of affordable housing that would have equated to a £5.5 million home, but you could have invested the same money off site and delivered 20 affordable units in a perfectly good location. I think that’s a missed opportunity.

EY: But the actual point of mixing up the tenures is really valid. Council estates were much harder places to live before private ownership was introduced. They were really problematic, so getting that mixture is very important. There are unintended consequences to everything you do, but that’s no reason not to do it.

AW: We’re talking about two things here. One is housing like it’s some kind of global norm. And then there’s social housing because you’ve thought about social inequality, the fact that there are people who can’t afford a house. At the beginning of the last century there was no social housing − it was all privately given workhouses. Then the Second World War brought the idea that you can’t have a situation where you rely on individual capitalist enterprises to provide housing. The need was so great that they had to make it a national agenda. It wasn’t a profitable agenda – it was state funding based on taxation. If that’s the framework we had and we’re now reverting to private developers to build social housing, that’s wrong. I think ultimately that if we’re saying there’s a problem with a lack of housing, the government has to build some housing!

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Workers' cottages at Bournville, Birmingham, England, model village built by George Cadbury (1828-1922) partly for his workers. Chromolithograph 1892 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Bournville, near Birmingham: the model village set up by George Cadbury with the confectionery workers’ welfare in mind


The fact that in the past private individuals philanthropists, industrialists, moralists have taken responsibility for social provision in London and other major UK cities has profoundly influenced the way they have grown and developed. Our debate around the issue of why today’s private developers should themselves make social provision was fierce.

JM: I agree that there should be diversity in a city and that it should be allowed to grow organically. The contradiction is that in London some of the provision has been devolved to private investors, individuals and developers. But unless you have some moral reason to do so, why should you lose money? These guys aren’t incentivised in any way to give and add different uses.

OR: Whereas the Cadburys, for example, had a real reason for making their workforce happy. They had an industrial business and they wanted to keep their workforce happier, living longer and so on so they could continue to make money. They had religious reasons too, but they gained either way.

BS: I think the role of professionals and everyone involved is to inform developers of the consequences of what they’re doing. You don’t expect every individual member of a complex team to understand everybody else’s role. But if you don’t understand the way in which wellbeing can make you more money, you’ve got to do some more research. People who are happier with where they live and where they work make more money.

MT: But in terms of an entrepreneurial business decision, unless you’re very rich, it’s all about the money. If you’re very rich, it can be a relatively charitable decision. And if you’re super rich you can make a decision that will actually lose you money for the benefit of a cause you believe in. That’s fine. But when you’re not rich you do it to make profit.

BS: But I’m saying you can make more profit, over a greater length of time, if you look after people’s wellbeing.

NH: Mark’s view is one side of the equation − you develop one building, you’re in, you’re out, you make a profit. On the other side you’ve got the private sector working as Bob is suggesting. Look at the landed estates. They’re placemaking, and have been for the last 250 years. A classic example is the Cadogan Estate. They own 88 hectares in central London. In 2000 they bought the Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square, and it’s now the first venue for the Proms outside the Royal Albert Hall. The point is, it doesn’t make them any money but it’s all about placemaking. The building increases the attraction of the overall place. They own two and a half thousand houses around there which it will increase the value of.

MT: It’s a private city, then.

NH: There are very few examples of the private sector having that comprehensive view. But perhaps that’s the role of the boroughs. Because it’s only borough councils who, generally, can take that approach and take control on a civic footing.

MT: But I say let me develop property for the people I want to develop it for.

RH: It’s all about making money. And it’s about the quality of the product, ultimately. I’m fascinated by our discussion about the city and how it grows, but fundamentally we need to go back to where we started. London needs one million new homes by 2030. That’s tens of millions of square feet of commercial space that’s going to be needed to support that population growth. And I don’t see where it’s going to come from. Is it going to come from reuse or is it new build? That brings you back to the whole discussion of planning and what’s possible.

AW: What would be nice is a real, systematic, educational research programme so that we can get an understanding of how many new homes we really do need, and what that’s based on.

MT: And I want to develop property which has an infrastructure around it otherwise I won’t be able to sell my houses. Why would I want to build a load of houses in the middle of nowhere with no restaurants, no theatre and so on?

Adam Parker for Paul Davis + Partners architects

Cadogan Hall, London, refurbished by Paul Davis + Partners Architects. London’s Cadogan Estate bought the hall in 2000, since when it has become the first venue for the Proms outside the Royal Albert Hall. It was not a money-making venture but rather about placemaking, increasing the attraction of the neighbourhood


The view that residential development can be more viable if it is effectively integrated with social, cultural and commercial infrastructure presents further challenges when applied in practice. How exactly do you introduce a mixture of uses in a city as multi-layered as London – and with such stringent planning codes?

OR: Mixed-use schemes in London are absolutely inevitable − and have many implications in a town that used to forbid mixed use. If you compare it with Paris, which has always been a layered city − nice shops on the ground floor and a mixture of apartments and offices upstairs − you can see it’s much more distinctly divided. The inflexibility of Paris to adapt to bringing new businesses into the middle of town has been considerable, whereas in London there are fault lines, breathing spaces, which create really interesting sites for development.

TM: There are still really defined boundaries in London. It might just be a few hundred yards, but it still feels segregated for a city that’s so diverse.

OR: One of the issues we’re very concerned about now is the move towards residential, and whether this is going to stymie in the long term the flexibility of London. With commercial buildings you can turn them to many uses, but once a building’s in residential use, it’s in its final state. It’s locked in. And although it’s really good having people living in the middle of town, it’s quite restrictive once they’re there because they have rights − rights of light and so on − in the way that commercial users don’t.

MH: If the final development of a physical property is residential and you can’t change that use, won’t there be other areas which will become commercial perhaps? Land might be regenerated elsewhere.

With London’s residential planning laws requiring a mixture of affordable and private tenures, developers are increasingly feeling restricted. To them, building in the capital is beginning to make less business sense.

MH: Why should I as a developer choose to risk my own money when I’m being told by lots of people, including the law, that I should actually be building houses on site for people that aren’t in my market? It doesn’t even make economic sense for me to engage with them. It’s just not part of my business plan. I wouldn’t mind paying a tax …

AW: There are always going to be people who need free healthcare, free education, free housing, and so on. They are part of the equation.

MT: And I’ll pay a tax for them. I don’t want to build affordable homes on my site.

This restrictive system compares unfavourably with the flexibility of cities such as New York, where the planning context is much looser and allows a trade-off between developers.

TM: It’s a completely different system. If you own a site in New York it’ll be zoned as residential or commercial or whatever. And you’ll have a certain floor area ratio (FAR) which sets out how many times your footprint you can build up. But it’s possible to trade in and buy air rights from next door. You still have to get certain permissions for setbacks and other things, but at least you can build buildings.

Alongside frustration at the lack of freedom to build in London, there is concern that the alternative to make sweepingly ambitious policy decisions to ease planning restrictionswould be unacceptable to the general public. Under the current regime, simply finding new strategies to cope with the lack of new affordable housing has in itself led to widespread criticism. 

AW: The point is we’re not building anything in the UK. We’re having conferences about how and where we should build, and we think that excuses the fact that we’re not building. Ultimately it’s about having a mindset to build.
But instead [in places like Newham] we’re saying we’ll clear a few houses and by relieving these tenancies we’ll buy ourselves some time.

EY: And yet we did get to a certain point with the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and their top-down approach. In Milton Keynes, for example, they’d got to the point where people had grumblingly accepted that there were going to have to be 400 new houses in this village, and then the RDA and all their targets were abolished.

AW: If you look at India or China you can see the way they build − fantastically, dynamically, productively. But they’ve made policy decisions that we wouldn’t want to emulate.

British engineer Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819 - 1891), standing top right, views the Northern Outfall sewer being built below the Abbey Mills pumping station. He constructed London's drainage system and the Thames Embankment.

The 1,100-mile sewerage system implemented by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1870s is the mainstay of London’s 21st-century sewers. Today’s investment in infrastructure is lamentable


When viewed in the context of its overseas rivals, a braver, more dynamic approach to development could well provide an answer to London’s predicament. In the coming years, the city will need to attract investment in an increasingly competitive market.

JB: In the next decade the world will crystallise. It will become more extreme in an accelerated fashion. There’ll be megacities, which will be immune from what’s happening elsewhere. There’ll be fewer of them. And they’ll become like a global league table.

SH: What do you mean by that?

JB: These megacities will be where all the brands will want to play, where all the commerce will start to play. This past year has been the salient year, because for the first time, when that child was born in India taking the population to seven billion, the world became urban. It’s no longer rural. So now things will commoditise quicker than ever, technology will happen quicker than ever. If Apple computers were a country they’d be the ninth richest in the world. These are extraordinary changes and I think that, travelling round the world, you realise that London is extremely complacent and unsure of itself in that league table.

EY: Does it need to be in a league table?

JB: Yes, I think that Frankfurt, say, will steal all of the financial services from London in the next decade unless it starts to play properly as a global player.

EY: Well maybe not Frankfurt. Somewhere else!

JB: I agree with what Austin said earlier that there’s a nervousness about how we innovate in this country. If you look at all the grands projets happening in Paris and elsewhere, there’s a way that other countries go about creating cities that just isn’t present in London. I think we’re bogged down by bureaucracy and insecurity, and I think that things will eventually overtake us.

NH: I agree. You’ve got this problem that if you’re a major bank and you want to put 20,000 employees at Canary Wharf, you need to know that there’ll be 20,000 homes for them to live in. This is the crisis. If you’re a major player, you’re going to be looking globally at what’s affordable. And eventually, if we’re not building enough houses in London, it’s going to be too expensive even for the banks.

AW: Well is the Thames Gateway the answer to the problem? The Thames Gateway is two thirds the size of London. Build a new city there and you’ll solve the problem. But it isn’t happening. They’re just plugging any new development into the Bazalgette sewage system. They’re not even investing in decent infrastructure.

OR: You mentioned a very important word there, Austin, which is Bazalgette. When the Victorians had ‘great stinks’  outside Parliament, they decided to invest in whatever it took to make the sewage system work. But we just don’t understand now what infrastructure is in this country. We do it half-heartedly.

TM: I think you [in the UK] have a better understanding than most. Here you’re much more focused on it than in the Sates. Our infrastructure there is crumbling.

OR: The Germans have a much more interesting view on infrastructure. It’s properly funded, and whether that’s because the country was completely destroyed …

SH: It comes down to the national cultural psyche, how we choose to live. The beauty about London is that it’s always been a mongrel city. People want to live here because it’s culturally and liberally tolerant. People feel safe here, they mix. Whereas places like Frankfurt, while on a financial footing there might be benefits, are just not socially tolerant. That’s why I don’t think Frankfurt will ever take the financial services from London. It’s not culturally tolerant.

Beijing Cityscape --- Image by © George Hammerstein /Corbis

Beijing differs from London in that it just creates more space to build when it needs it, an option not open to London


It seems then that London’s future growth is subject to a series of conflicting issues on the one side a desire to retain the city’s energy, spontaneity and social tolerance (many of which characteristics define its global identity), and on the other the very real commercial pressure for it to remain competitive internationally, adaptable to changing work and life styles, and a good place to invest.

BS: We’ve got a long way to go before we really understand what a city is. We haven’t grasped the fact that it’s a complex system. We’re only just beginning to realise that it’s not just about living and working, it’s about a deeply complex system.

MT: If you go into the detail of what makes a great city, then that debate could last a lifetime. But actually, in terms of designing a flat pack city, a thing that you just unbolt, it’s not that complicated, is it? A bit of work, some leisure and some living, in certain proportions.

BS: I’d argue that it’s a lot more complex than that. It’s got to do with health, wellbeing, systems of living, culture. The way we’re living our lives is much more complex than it used to be.

TM: But do you think it needs to be planned or is it just organic? If you look back a thousand years, they were building these great cities, but I don’t think people were sitting there with a complicated matrix. People meet each other’s needs when they come together.

RH: I don’t think those kinds of cities exist any more. The stuff you learn about how cities grow around a central business district and so on. I don’t think lessons have been learned from that basic knowledge. Beijing grows because it just creates more space. It creates another ring of development and another, but London can’t do that.

AW: I don’t think you should over-fetishise complexity. I agree cities are complex, human beings are complex, life’s complex, but ultimately I think you should just make a start because otherwise you’re just falling into the precautionary principle of risk aversion, of not being able to know enough. I think you just have to jump in.

12 Nov 1989, Berlin, Germany --- Thousands of Germans gather to celebrate the demise of Communism with the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall. --- Image by © Regis Bossu/Sygma/Corbis

Jubilant Berliners. The vision of politicians led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, paving the way for German reunification, formally concluded on 3 October 1990


With London’s pressing residential and commercial needs in mind, who should hold the vision, then, for how the city develops in the future? The fact that the custodianship of the city’s future development is shared between a number of agencies and individuals could well be holding the capital back on the global stage. Our guests had strong views on the value of a single vision, and whether that could be truly effective in decision making about how the city will grow. And the discussion also turned once again to whether a more authoritarian approach is really acceptable.

SH: It’s about someone having a vision. Not only to think about what’s right for the city, but also with the confidence to bring people along with them.

JM: Paris wasn’t built on the basis of a shared vision. Apple definitely wasn’t a shared vision.

EY: So who’s the boss in London?

MT: And can the Mayor make a difference?

SH: President Mitterrand was a visionary in terms of what he wanted to do to Paris − albeit that it was probably more about his own legacy. And think about Berlin, how much that has changed since the Wall came down. They had a vision about how they wanted it to change, how they wanted to stitch two cultures together.

AW: I think you have to be very careful of the social implications of arguing for strong leadership. In Hong Kong, for example, there seems to be a sneaky regard for authoritarian decision making. Ultimately it’s not who leads as an individual, it’s how you tackle social and cultural malaise. It’s not just Boris [Johnson], or David Cameron, or whoever − we’ve all got a sense of what we want the world to be.

BS: One of the reasons for that might be that the function of a vision has changed. Traditionally you could literally visualise an image of the future and all gather round it and say ‘yes, that’s what we want.’ But we’re too smart now, so it isn’t happening. What we ought to be shifting towards is an understanding of the standards for how cities grow organically. And get that right, and then let it happen. Rather than trying to predict the future and then forcing that vision to happen.

AW: I slightly disagree with what you say about the past, in that we all had this vision and we’d gather round it, worshipping at the altar of Modernism. What really happened was that there was a big argument and some people didn’t agree. There was a robust discussion.

BS: I was going much further back than Modernism. It’s about the way that cities have been visualised. Maybe we should question driving the plan for a city through, and try much more to understand it as a system in itself,
a system that has certain rules.

MT: If you don’t understand it, you might make a mistake − but so what?

BS: I’m saying that rather than constantly trying to erase or adapt or force a vision that was never going to work in the first place, you approach the task in a way that’s truly organic, truly adaptable and flexible. You need to plan these things.

Demographically speaking, the challenges facing London are enormous. The requirements for affordable housing in particular are a disincentive to developers, who could perhaps be supporting the building of new social housing and infrastructure more favourably through taxation. While our guests were, by and large, in favour of a mix of uses across the city rather than a more formal zoning, all agreed that the current planning context is at best limiting and at worst a stranglehold on London’s future competitiveness on the world stage. Political and financial ambition, it seems, are stronger impulses to build in the 21st century than any philanthropic intention. The debate continues as to whether the best way for London to grow is by gaining a thorough understanding of it as a complex organic network or whether we should just allow things to happen according to the checks and balances of capitalism. There were wide-ranging views on whether strong even authoritarian leadership could effectively set out a vision for the city’s future. And how indeed that vision might look and function in contemporary London.


Recladding of Millennium Bridge House in London by ORMS for the Carlyle Group


Reuse of buildings at 1 and 2 Stephen Street, central London, by ORMS for Derwent London

The Hosts

Oliver Richards (OR) founded ORMS in 1984, and his skills in balancing the visionary qualities of design with practicality and cost consciousness are central to the philosophy of the practice

John McRae (JM) is an Equity Director of ORMS and chief instigator of the think initiative, which reflects his own passion for creating a built environment closely informed by the users’ wellbeing

Sean Hatcher (SH) is a Director at ORMS and has led work for the practice across Europe and India, as well as commercial schemes for high profile clients across central London

The Guests

Julian Baker  (JB) studied at the Royal College of Art and is European Creative Director at Imagination, an independent communications agency that transforms business through creativity

Jo-Anne Bichard (JAB) is the Academic Research Lead at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, where she looks at the challenges confronting workplace designers in the 21st-century knowledge economy

Neil Henderson (NH) is a Partner in Gerald Eve’s planning and development department, and provides planning and development advice for a wide range of landowners, developers and occupiers

Richard Hopper (RH) is a Construction Cost Advisor at Exigere, where he is a specialist in the reuse and reinvention of existing buildings for commercial clients

Taylor McWilliams (TM) is Director of UK Asset Management and Acquisitions for Atlas Capital Group, a real estate investment, development and management firm

Bob Sheil (BS) runs the diploma unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and is a founding partner of sixteen*(makers), a workshop-based architectural practice

Mark Ticktum (MT) is Director of Halcyon Property UK, which he founded in 2004 to focus on high end residential and serviced apartment led schemes in central London

Austin Williams (AW) is Director of the Future Cities Project, and is now resident in Suzhou, China, as a lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. He recently guest edited an AR special issue on China (September 2012)

Eleanor Young (EY) is Executive Editor of the RIBA Journal, having cut her teeth at The Architects’ Journal while studying at night for a Masters at the Bartlett

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