As if dealing with planners for months on end wasn’t painful enough, we now have to calculate a last-minute intervention from a prince addicted to retro architecture
A chap rang me up last August to ask if I could get permission for him to put a lift in his hotel in the mainly Victorian west London district of Pimlico. I went to see him. The whole area around his building was pretty much a conservation area; there was a ridiculously tight site, hundreds of neighbours and so on. I told him we could probably get the application off to Westminster council before Christmas. “Does that mean I’ll be able to get the work done in February? It’s a slow month.”
This was a fair assumption, and I could follow his reasoning. It’s a tiny extension. It’s going to use secondhand London stock. It can barely be seen from anywhere. The neighbours are friendly. It’s very compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act. So I tried to break it to him as gently as I could. “We can get all the drawings done and make a submission before Christmas, but it may take the council three or four weeks before they even validate it … and put it at the end of the queue.”
What seemed to be on offer at chelsea barracks was what we used to call ‘progress’. And by all accounts the architects, clients, planners, consultants, funders, were nearly there
In the event it took them nearly 15 weeks to validate it; at least six weeks were spent persuading the environmental health officer that we did not need to do a 48-hour acoustic survey to demonstrate that the external duct would make less noise once it was enclosed in a 9in brick shaft rather than left on the outside of the building. Meanwhile, on another project, I stupidly left the words “existing roof terrace” on one of the drawings and three hours before a decision was due I was emailed the option of withdrawing it or having it refused. Before I made the re-submission I commissioned a planning consultant to prepare the design and access statement and make sure she wrote “PPG” in as many places as she could. My final document ended up with a 15-page design and access statement appended to it. “It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, surely, most of this,” said my client. “Don’t they know this already?”
Well, that story was about an itty-bitty little piece of building. Believe me, I’m not complaining, but a quarter of a million pound improvement is not likely to have the same environmental impact as the Candy brothers at work. This is what is so disheartening about the whole Chelsea Barracks saga. There was barely anything on the site in the first place and what was there wasn’t lovely. An imaginative developer, Qatari Diar, had commissioned what promised to be an interesting scheme from a practice with an international reputation for thoughtful and inspiring architecture. It wasn’t as if it were a government headquarters, it was an entirely private development. I saw some of the drawings and I thought it looked like a promising proposal. Quite lightweight. Lots of public space integrated into it. Serious green credentials. Bring it on.
Joe and Joanna public, who think new buildings ought to look Georgian already, had a whole hospital dressed up in a spanking new Georgian facade, bang opposite
We all know what happened next. Somebody knobbled the prince, who pulled the royal (flying) carpet. Now there’s a usual suspects proposal that seems to be heavier, duller, less green and with much less public realm. It’s not as if there had been such a terrible fuss in the first place. Rather than have to wait six months for the council to get on board, as I’ve been doing, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and their clients had been working with the planners on this project for years. Meetings, consultations, daylight angles, traffic impact assessments, biodiversity studies, ecological footprints, carbon footprints … it exhausts me just to write the words. And probably endless resubmissions. Lower, thinner, smaller … compromise, more compromise … and all the time a struggle to produce some seriously interesting architecture and make a serious contribution to the cultural debate. Britain has a remarkable tradition of urban housing, especially in London. What seemed to be on offer was what we used to call “progress”. And by all accounts the architects, clients, planners, consultants and funders were nearly there. What had been a bloody great slab of tarmac for 50 years promised to offer a really impressive housing development with something for everyone. That segment of Joe and Joanna Public that thinks new buildings ought to look Georgian already had a whole hospital dressed up in a spanking new Georgian facade, bang opposite.
The replacement for the Rogers scheme is not as shiny or as strident as the originals, but it also offers much less to those people who live in the surrounding area, and the “problem” of integrating affordable and unaffordable housing has been solved by … building the affordable housing somewhere else. So all that painstaking development work has been undone by HRH – not so as to encourage an alternative that most local residents might enjoy more but to pander to a rich, vociferous clique who now might be expected to object less.
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell