Chris Brown Blog

Architecture and Urban Design – The Future is Bright

The high points for me in this year’s webcast but un-televised Stirling Prize from an unutterably beautiful sunny Manchester were not the prize winners. Stanton Williams’ success for the Sainsbury Labs in Cambridge was greeted with mild surprise from a hard to separate but not particularly high powered shortlist of the big old beasts of the architecture world.

Wilkinson Eyre’s win in the international category was marked by them quite rightly bringing their Chinese clients on to the stage to share the plaudits. Clients may give architects a hard time but great buildings require great clients and the sooner these awards recognise that the better.

The client award was won by the Olympic Delivery Authority from a very competitive shortlist. The ODA is a short lived body that has produced some very poor buildings as well as some very good ones. It was clear that the travesty of the Velodrome not winning the Stirling last year had not been forgotten by the Stirling crowd and the Stadium, on this year’s shortlist of six, is possibly not even in the top six buildings on the Olympic Park. No doubt the Aquatics Centre will find its way on to the shortlist once its ugly over engineered temporary seating has been removed but the Village and the Broadcast Centre will compete for carbuncle awards.

Runners up Argent, Manhattan Loft and Living Architecture will surely be back on this shortlist in the future with Living Architecture a dead cert in future years.

The smaller projects competing for the Stephen Lawrence prize and the Manser Medal were, in many people’s eyes, of significantly higher quality than the Stirling Prize list. Duggan Morris added to their fast growing reputation with a second win in a row.

The first of my high points was to meet so many talented young designers on the night. I started working with Joe Duggan about 18 months ago, just before the practice started hoovering up awards, and the contracts to start that building were signed on Friday. We are also working with Nord whose former founding partner Robin Lee, who was on my table at dinner, looks set to recreate Nord’s reputation in his current practice. It was also great to chat to Alex Scott Whitby of Studio AR who we hope will be doing exciting things to one of our buildings in London shortly. And finally I was totally inspired by my Custom Build conversation with Alex Ely of Mae who started working on a project for us this week. With talent like this the UK’s architecture profession is in good hands.

In the north of England RIBA are working up some really interesting relationships with the schools of architecture that should help showcase the really young emerging talent and it was also interesting to hear that they intend to get into the Design Review business. Design Review is an interesting field. You need design criticism skills and a trusted brand and the NPPF is likely to mean that there will be demand from developers seeking to tick a box for their planning applications. It was interesting to hear a number of views that, wherever possible, the people with skills should be doing this pro bono at a local, possibly community/neighbourhood level,

Another highlight was Michael Manser’s public attack on the housebuilding industry. It would have made for interesting television. His point that only 20% of UK new housing is architect designed is not new and might sound like special pleading for the architecture profession but it is a much wider and more important point. New housing could be so much better as we can see from the shortlist for the Manser Medal as well as from any number of architect designed schemes like Mae’s brilliant scheme for Great Places (another top client) in New Islington in Manchester.

In this context it was sad to hear how little store some public sector clients put in housing design these days, particularly when selling land for development. The Homes and Communities Agency, who you might expect to be leading the way in this area, seem to have almost entirely given up the fight. I was hearing stories of how the net present value of the financial offer is the determining factor on their land sales. It all seems strange when there is so much consensus that the better we design our new houses and places the more likely are local communities to welcome them.

The National Conference in Urban Design held in Oxford and focussed on quantifying the value of urban design was full of inspiring speakers. There is some fascinating evidence out there but, as yet, no simple methodology for tying financial value to urban design quality on unbuilt schemes and little evidence on the non financial value of good urban design. This field will develop and hopefully public land owners will be driving it forward.

Design quality is emerging in some areas and HCA are moving forward with their Custom Build pilots as innovative local authorities like Cherwell lead the way. There are a growing number of very welcome Dutch visitors to these shores explaining to UK local authorities how they do it so successfully there. Ted Stevens of the National Self Build Association is playing a blinder in making all of this happen.

With this week’s housing construction figures down 20.3% for public housing and 14% for private housing year on year it is clear that there is considerable urgency required to turn round the house building decline.

If the new housing minister, Mark Prisk, succeeds in unleashing a Custom Build revolution in the UK we should see much more architect designed housing and a substantial improvement in design quality. Win win for the country.

  • Architecturelinked

    Sounds like a great experience! Sure wish I could’ve heard Manser’s attack on the housing industry!