Bringing beauty back

Sometimes it seems like the government is determined to turn people like me against its planning reforms.

While it is still unclear how the new system will operate in London, planning reform should help with housing delivery. The idea of shifting from “development control” to “zoning” seems inherently reasonable. Too much time and money is spent by developers, consultants, councillors and planners thrashing out permissions for individual schemes, balancing housing targets with local campaigners’ concerns, design considerations, viability assessments and national policy.

Pushing those debates “upstream”, to properly involve local people in preparing local plans and design codes and then allowing councils, housing associations and developers to get on with building, should both empower citizens, and reduce red-tape and delays.

Furthermore, given the shoddiness of some recent housing, the government is right to underline the importance of design quality throughout. Good design will help secure community assent for urgently-needed new development and also create better places, improve everyday life, and ensure that we enhance our landscape with beautiful new buildings that can last, rather than despoiling it with crappy ones which will make future generations scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for Place, secretary of state Robert Jenrick underlined the importance attached by government to design, citing the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which threads “beauty” into policy, and a National Model Design Code, which sets the framework for local codes.

The Office for Place itself, which will initially be based in Jenrick’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith, who headed the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, will support communities and the development industry in creating “popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places”.

So far, so laudable. But Jenrick seemed unable to resist lunging for the big red button marked “culture war”, declaring that “Poll after poll suggests we prefer the homes built before planning really began with the 1947 Planning Act, not those that came after,” and decrying unspecified “post-war mistakes”.

This broad dismissal of post-war design and planning prompts questions and concerns about precisely how “beauty” will be defined, especially given extensive press briefing about “traditional architectural styles” and local materials. Is beauty to be defined as traditional, and vice-versa? There seems to be a tide of anti-modernist sentiment. In a recently article called ‘Why is the Modern World So Ugly?’, Alan de Botton asserted that “when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo”.

This seems sweeping to say the least. It is true that Adolf Loos rejected the highly decorated styles of the early 20th Century in his writings, which are often seen as a foundation stone of modernism, and Le Corbusier talked of homes as “machines for living”. But it was gratuitous ornament that they rejected, not the whole concept of beauty. For the early modernists, the beauty of structures resided in the honest and expressive use of good materials, not in applying “lipstick to the gorilla”.

London, like other UK cities, has some great examples of modernist housing, much of it designed by the huge teams of architects who worked for the post-war London County Council, for the Greater London Council and for boroughs such as Camden. Council estates like Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road, Churchill Gardens, Odhams Walk, Golden Lane and Balfron Tower are very different expressions of modernist style, but all were designed with an eye to beauty in their scale, in the interplay between materials and greenery, in the use of light and shadow.

These schemes are popular with residents too, as shown by recent controversies over redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill in Lambeth. And modernist private schemes such as the Barbican (pictured) and Blackheath’s Span Houses are also highly sought after. “Legions of international tourists normally flock to our market towns and cathedral cities,” Jenrick said. They increasingly flock to the Barbican and Blackheath too.

There are some poorly designed and built modernist housing developments in London –  idealistic vertical villages that now feel neglected and tired. But there are just as many recent horrors that have simply stuck on the coach lights, porticos and ionic columns of “traditional architecture” as lazy ornamentation or that have thoughtlessly and cheaply replicated the glossy glass panels, tiny rooms and appliquéd balconies of so many recent residential towers.

London has a rich modernist heritage of which it should be proud, and the city’s architects – many once again working for boroughs – are continuing to develop an architectural language that incorporates both tradition and innovation. It will be interesting to see how this can be reflected in city-wide and local design codes in coming years.

As Jenrick said, “there is wisdom to be drawn” from past experience. But this shouldn’t exclude modernism. As controversies over redevelopment rage, we need a broader debate to understand and criticise, but also value and learn from, what London’s architects and planners have built over the past 80 years.

First published by OnLondon.

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