1. Built environment
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October 12, 2016updated 26 Apr 2022 10:38am

“A premature memorial to the death of public housing in Britain”: this year’s Stirling Prize is an embarrassment

By Guy Mannes-Abbott

The shortlist for the James Stirling Prize – the Royal Institute of British Architects’s prize for excellence – generally has to execute a difficult manoeuvre, to leaven starry spectacles with socially minded gestures.

This year is actually a thin one for the former, although the list does at least offer up the misfiring spectacularity of Herzog and De Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government.

By contrast, the noisy housing crisis has generated few homes once again, so a “flagship” housing scheme for the Elephant & Castle’s notorious “regeneration” performs a contorted gesture: championing  the usurping of publicly provided dwellings for market housing and global corporate profit.

The work of local architects dRMM, Trafalgar Place is the first phase of Lendlease’s Elephant Park development. It replaces the demolished Heygate Estate’s 1200 units of public housing with 2500 private units. The decision to reduce council homes to about 80 equivalents, even while doubling the estate’s density, was assured by a lamentable agreement in 2010. Since then, the scheme has exemplified a broader dash to socially cleanse valuable land in central London, pushing tenants many miles away, and lease-holders out to Margate or Slough.

The shortlisting of dRMM’s latest work in Southwark met with scepticism in the architectural press. This was a surprise: dRMM are establishment darlings after all, heading up the Royal College of Art’s Architectural School and the HS2 design panel, talented and untouchable threads in the professional fabric. However, they knew what they were doing, having built an earlier flagship for Southwark’s Elephant & Castle Opportunity Area. (Wansey Street (2006) was also a prize winner – but it proved leaky, and its community space was never occupied.)

Trafalgar Place. Image: Guy Mannes-Abbott.

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To have attracted the attention of RIBA’s judging panel, one might expect that Trafalgar Place embodied innovative responses to the city’s woes. The nomination states that this first phase of “regeneration” supplied 235 housing units on a demanding plot in central London. The judges included Paul Monaghan of AHMM, also employed by Lendlease at Elephant Park; the panel’s visit to Trafalgar Place generated the first use of its “community space”.

Press responses to the shortlisting of Trafalgar Place varied. The liberal press responded with a hackneyed complacency, working hard to separate and so insulate the architects from their compromising brief. The better-informed [typically more pragmatic] architectural trades were politely devastating about its boxy banality – “particularly when so much is being done elsewhere to develop a new London vernacular”, to quoteIke Ijeh at Building Design.

Elsewhere, Douglas Murphy critiqued the “inclusion of dRMM’s vulgarly-titled ‘Trafalgar Place’” for being “middle-of-the-road” and socially regressive. “Not”, he concluded, “the sort of project that should be winning awards.”

I welcome all this attention to dRMM’s scheme because it foreshortens judgement and underscores a need for combative responses. The question is – what exactly drew the RIBA to this example of an Opportunity Area-look which is filling urban space within the M25 with near-identical schemes, while meeting few if any requirements for Londoners?

The judges commend Trafalgar Place for “high-quality homes”, describing 25 per cent as “affordable”. In fact, of the 235 units which replaced 105 council homes, just eight – three per cent of the total – are at social rent levels. Judges also claim it represents “a refreshing change from the gated or insular housing community”, a willfully misleading description of its largely impenetrable blocks. Secured entrances on one side disguise a vast car park beneath a raised and gated area over half the previously porous one hectare site: gated and insular.

The judges also highlight colour variations that reference “the historical fabric” and “materiality of the neighbouring buildings” with a “clever use of brickwork” that “whimsically” plays on scales: this, they contend, is “both beautiful and playful”. Yet press releases use images of colourful brick-work from just one building, ignoring the timid uniformity of the rest of the development.

What do we see if we adjust to black and white? A classically greedy, concrete-frame with brick-paneled Notopia, which staggers the height of its blocks in a nod to planning guidance – as well as fiercely articulated objections. The scheme’s only distinction is the slightly higher spec balconies, drains and detailing. Altogether it might have appeared at any time since the mid-1950s, when James Stirling built concrete and brick housing in London that retains merit today.

Finally, the panel ascribes “a level of delight and settled permanence rarely achievable in new housing” to tree retention. It goes on: “It is excellent to see landscape carried through to completion with such conviction.”

In fact, a highly effective campaign forced recognition of the “public welfare” value of the existing 500 trees on the Heygate Estate, imposing these benefits on the developer and architects. This “innovative campaigning” on behalf of London’s urban forest received a Mayoral RE:LEAF Award in 2013. It established planning precedents relating to trees and canopy value, visible at Trafalgar Place and beyond.

I confess that it was me that instigated the campaign to recognise the forest, and radicalised the value of its canopy as urban commons. You don’t need to know about these and other actual shapers of Trafalgar Place to judge the scheme, however. Without trees preventing the developer from building out to red lines all around as planned, Trafalgar Place would come straight from Peter Cook’s biscuit aisle complete with gated enclosures of “urban parsley”.

Trafalgar Place. Image: Guy Mannes-Abbott.

Ultimately the banality of dRMM’s scheme is not that important. Yet it is insufficient simply to bemoan the way such schemes decant existing residents out, and disperse them to the winds, as despicable as the cycle of compulsory purchase orders and eviction, demolition, rebuild, followed by demolition in London can be.

There are broader issues to articulate about architecture in this decade of the 21st century, especially when the RIBA panel considers Trafalgar Place to be “an example for future housing developments”. It is astonishing that architects happily serve global corporations, while ignoring their role and responsibility in systems which generate convenient tabula rasa.

Artists of a serious or global level cannot avoid engaging how their work is shown or takes place. The recent and ongoing wave of new museum building and extensions – from Louvre Abu Dhabi, through the British Museum’s new wing and Tate Modern’s Switch House extension – as well as institutional funding and exhibition sponsorship, have become part of the work’s material.

Contrast this to architects; always determined to claim cultural significance, even artistry, while giving form to ideas and principles, aesthetic and otherwise. Yet schemes like Trafalgar Place can be built on the dust of a council estate without engaging those lives, homes and all that they signify. Such a profound disconnection deserves to be challenged.

Trafalgar Place underscores a need for a robust and principled planning system, which rewards longer term thinking, and is formally responsive to what communities need and wish for. It’s clear today that the ecological costs of demolishing-building-demolishing, in tick-boxed circles, are unsustainable. Our century will become one of adaptation, accretion, refurbishment and envelopment of existing buildings – because we have no choice.

Let’s revert to colour and look harder at Trafalgar Place in a specific context, a specific city, a specific world. In fact let’s return to Stirling, who would be astonished to see a scheme like Trafalgar Place being prized in his name in 2016.

Consider the James Stirling of the Ham Common flats, or the flawed but sincere public housing project in Preston – both in partnership with James Gowan. Trafalgar Place is weary in comparison with Ham Common’s modest innovations, marking a retreat over that 60 year-old high-water mark in architectural terms.

James Gowan’s Schreiber House. Image: Guy Mannes-Abbott.

dRMM indulged great excitement at their contribution of colour variation to the scheme, especially the blues. Even this feels like a paste from Stirling’s palette, his and Gowan’s Preston scheme with its electric blue courses, or Gowan’s later Schreiber House. Publicity shots focusing on the blue brickwork were supplied to the judges by dRMM’s Alex de Rijke (a student of Gowan’s) – another Stirling habit.

Ultimately, dRMM have delivered for Lendlease a premature memorial to the death of public housing in Britain – one enabled by architects who pretend that what they build has no place as such. Perhaps Trafalgar Place should win the Stirling to underscore its absurd disconnectedness, and break the model that enables such violence.

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