With the property boom over, London's planners urgently need to rethink their priorities. And that doesn't mean looking to Prince Charles for inspirationby Rowan Moore / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
This June, the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour were unceremoniously sacked from a job designing a multi-billion pound housing project on the site of the former Chelsea Barracks. The reasons were not fully explained, and there may have been more than one, but the most obvious was that Prince Charles had written privately to the site’s owners, the Qatari Royal Family, urging them to reject the Rogers design.
That Prince Charles acted shamefully should not be in doubt. He showed arrogance and contempt for others, and abused the prestige of his inherited position. Having intervened decisively in a public arena, he then refused all offers to debate or discuss his action. He showed little understanding of the issues in which he intervened. He was devious and disingenuous.
Yet his actions were greeted with whoops of joy from some of the general public, and from the Daily Mail, as well as from less predictable sources. Writers like Tom Stoppard and Andrew Roberts, who might in their own line of business oppose interference with creative freedom, declared themselves fans of Prince Charles. Why, at this moment, did libertarians start speaking up for censorship and democrats for royal privilege? Prince Charles has always been an avid scribbler of pained notes. Why did one of his letters suddenly have such an effect?
The answer is that he touched a nerve. He signalled, like a clumsy canary, that something is wrong with the way London is planned. He could not articulate a diagnosis or cure. But, if any good is to come of his intervention, it should be a change in how the destiny of important sites is decided.
The proposal for Chelsea Barracks was a product of the London Plan, the document produced under Ken Livingstone as mayor. One of Livingstone’s main advisers was Lord Rogers of Riverside, the founder and leader of Rogers Stirk Harbour. Planning authorities, such as Westminster, have to make their decisions within the framework of the London Plan.
The Plan put into practice the principles that Rogers had been urging at least since A New London, the book he wrote in 1992 with Mark Fisher. The aim was for what Rogers called “the compact city,” and the key principles were high density, good quality public space and transport, and good design. High density, it was argued, creates “vibrancy”—a critical mass of people who animate the city, enjoy each other’s company, and sustain public transport, shops and other businesses. Good public space and design ensures that density does not just become overcrowding, or the statistical stacking up of units.
There was evidence for Rogers’s thesis: popular cities such as Barcelona and Paris combine high densities with well-made public space. The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the most densely populated local authority in Britain, and one of the most desirable. Crucially, though, key elements of Rogers’s vision were left out of the Plan. Chief among these was public investment. The mayor, the Greater London Authority and the London boroughs did not have the resources to create the beautiful public spaces and enhanced transport the compact city required. Nor was there an infrastructure of skilled, knowledgeable planners—for which Rogers had also called—to direct the making of a well-ordered city.
Meanwhile, Livingstone enlisted the London Plan in pursuit of what was perhaps his biggest idea. The theory was that London was above all a financial services centre, and that everything should therefore be done to maximise its success and profit in this field. Some of the vast wealth created could then be diverted to social goals, such as the creation of affordable housing. It was, in the seemingly endless boom years, an appealing idea.
Density thus became a licence for developers to maximise their profits from expensive housing and office blocks. Towers were vigorously encouraged. At the same time developers were asked to contribute affordable housing and “public space”—usually highly monitored aprons of granite at the foot of their blocks—in return for their favourable consents. The private sector was being asked to provide the public benefits government was incapable of achieving.
Developers were handed the roles of urbanists and planners. It was up to them to propose what might make a desirable piece of city; planning authorities might then seek to modify these proposals. Naturally, developers’ view of desirability is coloured by their own interests. Like any good negotiator, they start high, going into discussions with schemes stacked up with profit-making space. The planning of large pieces of London became a series of punts and haggles: a matter of developers trying it on, to see what they could get away with.
In this environment, the nature of “good design” became a slippery one. Most planners and architects agree that good design includes an element of foresight and overview. If a building is too big for its site, that is a flaw in its design. And yet there was minimal provision in the Plan for establishing what “too big” might be. “Good design” came to apply disproportionately to the external styling of buildings, and was determined by panels of experts who tended themselves to be architects, or close to architects, leading to an unhealthy atmosphere of mutual back-scratching.
One of the main beneficiaries of all this was Rogers himself, whose practice designed a number of high-density, high-quality towers and blocks made possible by the Plan’s policies. These projects include One Hyde Park (right), for the developers Candy & Candy—two brothers who were creatures of the boom. As if named by a novelist of genius, they offered instant gratification to the sweet tooth of their now-ended era. Smooth, plausible, young and dynamic, they rose rapidly, helped by the miracle of Icelandic finance—from doing up flats in Earl’s Court to One Hyde Park itself, a huge development in Knightsbridge complete with penthouse flats. At a price of £100m, these flats were to be the most expensive in history.
Candy & Candy were also involved in Chelsea Barracks, working in partnership with Qatari Diar, the property arm of Qatar’s rulers, under the heading of Project Blue. Project Blue bought the site from the ministry of defence in April 2007 for £959m. Even at the top of the boom the price was high: the underbidder is believed to have offered less than £500m.
The site came with a planning brief drawn up by the City of Westminster, which went into a high level of detail about the benefits the developers should give to the community—affordable housing, a swimming pool and sports centre, open space, a community centre. It also gave guidance on the approaches that might be acceptable in relation to historic buildings. In keeping with the London Plan, it encouraged high density—but, as usual, it did not specify at what point density might be excessive.
As usual, then, Project Blue tried to squeeze as much as they could out of the site, and hired architects—Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners—who would tick the box marked “good design.” The planners objected to the scale of their first proposal, and a compromise was reached. The bulk was reduced, albeit leaving a project which to most eyes looked as if it would overload the site. Among those unconvinced were many local residents, who worried about overshadowing, traffic impact and the sheer overwhelming appearance of the blocks. Organised and vociferous, they commissioned a counter proposal to the Rogers scheme from the classicist Quinlan Terry, and started the process that got the Prince involved and Rogers ousted.
The Barracks proposals were a typical product of the London Plan. The principle of density was blurred with commercial interest. Public benefits were to be scooped off high property values. The developer was in the driving seat, with the role of the public sector largely reactive. Good design was interpreted as “hiring a famous architect” and was used, at least in part, to sugar the pill. As it happens, there was much to like about the Rogers scheme: it opened up a previously closed-off piece of land, creating new routes through it and new public space. The arrangement of the blocks allowed frequent views of greenery. It was almost outstanding. But Rogers Stirk Harbour, or any other architect, would do a better job with a scheme less loaded with development.
Crucially, the wind changed. Between Project Blue’s acquisition of the site and Prince Charles’s intervention, the expansionist culture of the boom years lost its authority. Boris replaced Ken. The concrete frame of One Hyde Park rose, looking overscaled, scaring many that Chelsea Barracks would look the same.
There is some tragedy here. The good principles for which Rogers had long fought became compromised. There is a great danger, on the Barracks site, that the good parts of the Rogers scheme will now be lost. More generally, there is the risk that the Prince’s reappearance in architecture and planning will lead only to a change of style and coterie: from modern to classical, and from the Lord’s friends to the Prince’s friends, without any change in fundamental issues. Big clumsy developments will still be built, but in different dress.
Yet there are steps that could be taken. It should not, in principle, be impossible for planning authorities to define more precisely the acceptable level of development on sites like Chelsea Barracks before they are sold. They could also study the ways that volumes might be arranged on the site. There could be reasoned discussion of the balance of benefits, such as swimming pools and open space, with any disadvantages of the development needed to pay for them.
In this way urbanism would not become part of a developer’s gamble, and the job of architects would be to make the development as good as possible, rather than making it as palatable as possible. The question of style, modern, classical or whatever, would then be treated separately from planning principles—as it should.