I believe we spend so much time reading and trying to understand what we are meant to be doing that we are in danger of losing sight of the quality of our actual product, and the feel of the places we are creating.
Is there any evidence that more regulation provides better quality? I doubt it. Indeed, it is often the odd and the quirky that create the very qualities we admire about buildings and places. Good old-fashioned virtues such as flair, imagination and common sense are more likely to yield good design than rote and rulebooks.
The human spirit is dulled by the dead weight of bureaucracy and if we are not careful it begins to show.
Staff at PRP Architects have been fortunate enough to make several recent trips to Europe in the process of researching High Density Housing in Europe: Lessons for London, a study of excellence in high-density housing in northern Europe. Examples of flexible thinking and respect for human abilities abounded in the best examples.
In Copenhagen we were shown round an attractive – albeit simple – development of flats by a proud resident, who happened to be an employee of the housing association developer. The flats overlooked the harbour and the communal gardens went up to the water's edge, with a sheer drop into deep water. Children were happily playing close by. When we asked her whether parents were worried about this, she said: "Not at all – we all look out for them."
No child had fall into the water in her 20 years' residency.
Similarly, in Sweden we noticed that the common entrance areas and staircases to flats were delightfully open, without the plethora of fire doors and smoke lobbies that would have been required under current UK legislation. No doubt the Swedes had carefully considered the fire risks and had deemed the design acceptably safe. The result was that residents could see and be seen, adding to their sense of security and neighbourliness.
On another scheme in Sweden, we noticed that the spaces between adjacent blocks of flats were much tighter than we would expect under our own planning rules. But this added to the spatial quality of the development, and privacy was dealt with in more subtle ways, for example by angling the blocks and by careful window placement.
In Holland, staircases are noticeably steeper than in the UK, which allows homes to be planned more economically, and the space gained used for larger rooms or more storage.
Do more people have serious staircase falls in Holland? I do not know the answer, but would hazard a guess that they are simply more careful.
Those of us who work in the UK housing sector have for years railed against the deadening effect that a rigid application of highway rules and regulations has on urban design and detail. Fortunately there have been a few – just a few – notable successes in achieving more sophisticated approaches over recent years. And I suspect our roads are no less safe for it. We perhaps need to develop an equally innovative approach to building and planning regulation.
None of this is to say that we should abandon all rules and give free rein to poor technical design. But it might just be worth looking occasionally at how others treat these problems and the benefits that might accrue.
My toughest decisionPeople have many difficult decisions to make, but one of the toughest ones I’ve made, from a commercial point of view, was about a project in South Africa in the late 1980s, during apartheid. An existing client approached us with work for a huge development there. It was for a mixed-use leisure, shopping and residential development – 190,000 m2 in all. The contract was worth many millions of pounds. We were growing rapidly at the time and it would have been a very good project to do – it would have meant opening an office in the country. We had long discussions about it. People were extremely passionate. One of the directors – Gordon Watson – had been out there that Easter. We finally decided by a large majority that we would not take it on, and the client used someone else – a local firm in South Africa. Financially we lost out, but some senior people stayed with us who I think would have walked out if we’d taken the project on. The other bonus was that we all had a feelgood factor in the office that lasted for months. It was a good decision. Epilogue: we have just taken on an all-black theatre project in London, backed by Nelson Mandela – which is nice.
Barry Munday is chairman of PRP Architects.
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