glass magazine || 'public space - the value crisis'
'public space - the value crisis'
The case of Chelsea Barracks – Prince Charles and Richard Rogers
The financial services industry has come under growing criticism in the wake of the current financial crisis. This sector claimed to benefit society through spreading and reducing economic risk. However, according to certain critics – such as Paul Krugman of the NY Times – banks did the opposite by directing “vast sums of capital into the construction of unsellable homes and empty shopping malls. They increased risk rather than reducing it” (16 July 2009). These institutions operate in the abstract realm of finance but, differently, the real estate industries – that played a supporting role in generating the current crisis – build tangible objects with major spatial implications. Much has been written about the need to regulate our financial institutions; however, little has been mentioned about the need to regulate the development industry.
Rather than isolated voids, our streets and public spaces are set against a backdrop of the private territory, that of edifices, which simultaneously creates a stage and promotes activity or absence of it – depending on the case. The design of buildings is arguably the most important factor in making good urban spaces. Nowadays, the planning systems tend to assess buildings and development projects on an aesthetical basis, such as through view protection frameworks or through enforcing design codes, rather than their contribution to public life through the quality of the ground floor: porosity and diversity in terms of scale of programming.
Emblematic of this problem is the recent intervention by Prince Charles in Richard Rogers’ plan for the Chelsea Barracks site in London. The royal figure had already prevented a scheme from the architect for Paternoster Square in 1987. In both cases, the main argument revolves around modern buildings being, somehow, un-English and unsympathetic to their surroundings. The Prince’s preference for pastiche is evident in the Poundbury proposal as well as in the built Paternoster Square (2003). As his case is based on the way the building facades are experienced from the outside, his critique is centred on a belief that the detailing of buildings has an impact on the public realm. Though there are striking differences in the detail of historic and contemporary buildings, this likely has little impact on the success of public spaces. The Prince’s argument overlooks that often historic places function better than contemporary spaces not because of detail and decorative ornamentation, but because of their scale of programming and use.
Over the past few decades three principle factors have altered the way developments impact their surrounding space. Firstly, the scale of speed has changed. The rise of the automobile as the dominant mode of transport has altered the way we design our urban spaces, enabling land uses to be greater distances apart, losing the fine grain of programming of historic developments. Secondly, the scale of investment in construction has changed largely due to the financialisation of development through equity based ownership structures, allowing developers to build on a much larger scale than before. Developers are now an abstract group of shareholders whose interest is in their return on investment rather than the value a building generates for its neighbourhood. The third factor is a change in scale of programme. As developers tend to specialise, developments are generally single use. New developments also result in all new buildings across an area enforcing one price level. A few tired looking buildings can help make a public space better as they often provide lower rent spaces for small businesses or cheap housing for people otherwise excluded from a wholly new development. This range in age of buildings allows for a greater diversity of uses, and thus a greater range in users, important factors to achieve successful public spaces.
Chelsea Barracks is a typical example of new developments. It is owned by one land owner, and is being developed by one developer – Project Blue: an arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. The brief for the five hectare site calls for the designer to “maximise” residential use, while providing “ancillary” retail or commercial uses. The site was marketed to potential developers as a “blank canvas,” though there are a number of existing buildings on site dating from the 60s. Like the banking system, the design and development industry has entered a period of crisis. This is an opportunity to question our current paradigm of design and development which so often fails to compliment the public realm. This is a moment to move away from assessing aesthetics to regulating a development’s impact on urban public spaces: one way is through allowing small scale programme to happen within large developments; that is to say, to critically take into account the benefits of cultural diversity and the need of individuation. Differently from historical pastiche, historical analysis becomes instrumental.
Angus Laurie and Mariana Leguia / Co-Founders of LLAMA Urban Design
Image Credits: Fig.1 Image from Impressions of Hackney. Mander, Kirkland and Taylor. 2002 Fig.2 Photograph by Angus Laurie, 2009. Fig.3 Image from e-architect.co.uk Fig.4 Image from BD Online. Fig.5 Image from Treehugger.com Fig.6 Image from BD Online. Fig.7 Image by LLAMA Urban Design.