Barry Munday, chairman of PRP Architects, explains why design codes are vital to restoring the public’s faith in the development industry
Anyone who has seen the recently released film about Louis Khan, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, will have been amused by the tirade launched at the work of the celebrated architect by retired Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon. As he explains why it was Khan was never invited to plan the redevelopment of his native city, we are shown nightmarish images from Khan’s sketchbook of huge edge-of-city car parks and a city centre populated by buildings of monumental scale sitting in acres of space. The film then cuts to modern Philadelphia, presumably conceived along the lines of Bacon’s own vision; it looks different, but every bit as unappealing.
The scene is a classic example of the way in which many of our own towns and cities have been scrapped over by “visionary” planners and architects for the past 50 or 60 years. Away from the city centre it is little better. The suburban sprawl of low-density housing built to formulaic design has become the equally unhappy legacy of private housebuilders and local authorities that have scant regard for a sense of place or history.
It is little wonder that the general public is largely anti-development, fearing that whatever is built will result in an overall loss of amenity rather than the creation of something wonderful.
Bearing in mind that we need many tens of thousands of extra homes each year, public faith in the housing development industry desperately needs to be restored. The current debate about design codes should, in my view, be about precisely this issue. Will such codes create better and more popular places than would otherwise occur? The answer has to be yes, but a qualified yes. We have after all, had such codes for centuries and to a large extent we are only just rediscovering the art of good townscaping. But the new paradigm needs to include all stakeholders and not just the local planning authority and the developer. We cannot ignore the sensitivities of communities to change.
It is little wonder the general public is anti-Development fearing that whatever is built will result in an overall loss of amenity rather than the creation of something wonderful
Design should start with analysis of the context and an exploration of the “pattern language” of familiar, well-loved and cared-for places. If we can build upon the familiar and the well-loved, we will begin to engender support and enthusiasm.
Each site is unique and no universal design code will do. Development must be based on a rationale that includes historic, geographic and cultural values as well as the purely practical. This evolution needs to occur through consensus and not through confrontation. “Enquiry by Design”, the essentially collaborative and inclusive method for resolving disputes conceived by the Prince of Wales’s architectural trust, The Prince’s Foundation, is a step forward. Turning such enquiries into a design code that all those with a vested interest can sign up to is potentially very powerful.
If we can work towards these goals with a little more humility and less professional hubris we might once again start to create popular developments where people can live and thrive.
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