Introduction to Architectural competition, Brief and building of samples of entries focused on James Stirling’s proposals. 1965 to present.

“PREVI, Spanish initials for “experimental housing project”, was conceived in Lima in mid 60s. In 1965 Peru’s Architect president Fernando Belaunde Terry began consultations to explore the ways of controlling the flow of people seeking urban living and spread of self-build informal barriadas in urban Peru. The proposals were submitted to UNDP in 1966 and approved in 1967. The work started in 1968 with the intentions of carrying out three pilot schemes over three years.

Three original winning schemes could not be built in accordance with earlier intended scale or details. In the end jury decided that the best way forward was to build all 26 submitted proposals because of their high quality. Most of the competition invitation work and implementation of building of 24 out of 26 schemes was masterminded and overseen by the British Architect Peter Land.

The forty years that have lapsed in the interim and the ongoing transformation of the homes by their dwellers afford an opportunity to reflect on the suitability of the construction technologies proposed in the competition. Ongoing growth and the rationalization of construction methods were two of the basic premises underlying the competition. The remodeling that has taken place in the interim stands as proof of the success of the first premise, but the use of traditional techniques to build the additions calls some of the most sophisticated proposals for industrialization into question. At the time, the tendency was to rely on large-scale industrialization, as can be seen in the German, British and Polish architects’ proposals. Nonetheless, many of the PREVI proposals opted for rationalizing construction and precasting short series of small elements, rather than huge three-dimensional members. In the situation presently prevailing in Latin America, the viability of some of the technological proposals deployed in the PREVI might be profitably revisited.”

Abstracted from a paper by : Julián Salas and Patricia Lucas  (Italics additions by self)

The process of building in PREVI was originally intended for large scale provision of housing, which was to create a transformable core model with one room and provide basic utilities for the unit. The idea was that the new owners were free and encouraged to expand in accordance with the needs of their growing families and their own financial situation.  In these new projects the hope was that rather then using salvageable and recycled materials suitable and dependable construction would be used and paid for by the owner/occupants. This process allowed the owners tenants to control their own social, family and cultural needs making them more involved and motivated towards the project. It was also hoped that the ideas generated by the competition would introduce new methods of creating energy efficient, seismic resistant and cost effective building techniques.

The architects and project managers under the lead of Peter Land took a holistic approach in building the fruits of this rare International competition for social housing.

“If Weissenhof Siedlung is the natural childbirth of social housing in the First World, PREVI is the coitus interruptus of Third World housing”

I sincerely hope that success of this project (although far from pretty in comparison with seductively dressed social housing schemes on offer in better-off countries) hidden in a remote part of world will offer useful lessons of construction and design to professionals and students with strong social conscience. The lessons should be absorbed and filtered down to educational curricula throughout the globe to inspire future generations of architects in solving the international housing dilemma facing millions throughout the world.

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General notes.

The Government of Peru formulated an experimental project in housing which had an objective of developing new concepts of forming experimental neighbourhoods and techniques utilizing Peruvian and foreign experience. In 1965 its Architect president Fernando Belaunde Terry began consultations to explore the ways of controlling the flow of people seeking urban living and spread of self-build informal barriadas in urban Peru. The proposals were submitted to UNDP in 1966 and approved in1967. The work started in 1968 with the intentions of carrying out three pilot schemes over three years.

In PREVI, 13 internationally renowned architects were commissioned to develop prototypes of urban housing that would internalise programmes for any future transformation. Thus each unit contained the terms of its own growth, recognition of the value of the dynamic of growth adopted in the informal slums. In contrast to a growth model based on large, out of scale gestures – from megastructures to gigantic superblocks – the PREVI experiment fielded new dynamics based on a model of low-rise, high- density housing.

When in 1968 a military coup led to the overthrow of the president-architect who had promoted the PREVI project, the involvement of UN prevented the project’s cancellation.

The jury met in 1969 and having chosen 3 winning projects from 13 International architects ( Kikutake-Kurokawa-Maki 4; Atelier 5 and Herbert Ohl), resolved to initiate the construction of all but two of the proposals in 1974, the first phase of 500 units was finally built and left to its fate of growth and progressive oblivion.

The 13 invited International architects were; Toivo Korhonan 6; Charles Correa 1; Christopher Alexander 8; Iniguez de Ozono  & Vazquez de Castro 10; Georges Candilis; Alexis Josic; Shandrach Woods 13; James Stirling 7 ;  Esquerra & Samper 2; Aldo van Eyck 9; Kikutake, Kurokawa & Maki 4; Svenssons 3; Hanson & Hatloy 11; Herbert Ohl 12; Atelier 5 5. (Jose Antonio Coderch from Spain was one of the Jury members)

The numbers after the name refer to general layout marked with numbers. The brown areas on the layout indicate subsequent additions extending the original built forms.

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Summary of the brief.

Mandatory requirements were that each dwelling plot was to be between 80-150 m2, of which dwelling was to occupy between 60-120 including all floors.

The buildings initially were to be 1 or 2 storeys designed to support the third floor and were to be based on100 mm module. The ideas were to explore and develop techniques in architecture and construction within general area of low rise, fairly high density and compact housing in terraced, row and other formation. High rise developments were ruled out.

Detailed designs of dwellings were to be submitted with only a schematic general design for the community. All dwellings were to be flexibly planned for eventual accommodation of eight children of different ages, and one elderly couple, in addition to the owners.

Each dwelling had to provide living, dining, kitchen, bedroom(s), bathroom(s) and service patio. The relationships between rooms and external spaces were defined. Roof areas were required to be suitable for outdoor space.

The dwellings were to be conceived not as a fixed unit but as a structure with a cycle of evolution with appropriate construction technology to achieve this aim.

The initial basic unit was to be built by the main contractors and technical advice and assistance in building will be made to families completing their houses.

Car parking spaces were required to be on individual plots although at this time most of the families did not own cars.

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James Stirling’s Proposals.

After the ‘first build’ by the contractors it was intended that the house should be completed at ground level and above by house owners in self-building styles.

The growth plan drawing shows in stages of self-building a 4P house becoming a completed ‘one storey house’ (8P+) considered the most typical method of growth. Thereafter expansion takes place on the floor above, either as a separate dwelling or, in the case of a large family, as additional bedrooms and living spaces, in which instance part of the ground level accommodation could be used for other purposes (i.e. shop or garage etc.).

When the house was at its smallest (4P), the kitchen, dining and living area were shown combined. As the house increased in size to approximately 6P the dining and living areas were separated from the kitchen by a wall and doors. This wall (knock-down or moveable) appeared in a new position when the house becomes 8P and 8P+, increasing the living space of the house as the family size grows.

Each house had two front entrance doors. One door led directly into the living area (social/traditional), the second (functional) into the house circulation area leading via the staircase and garden patio through to the service patio.

All rooms were planned with through ventilation i.e. separate openings on opposed walls to create cross draughts.

The ‘first-build’ by the contractor takes advantage of the large-scale initial production (cost and speed of erection) and was an assemblage of precast concrete walls and floor units. Party walls and outside perimeter walls were of sandwich construction and were precast units rising from ground beams incorporating windows and door openings and also parapets – these were crane erected.

Roof/floor units were lightweight r.c.beams with hollow pot infill which could be man erected allowing self-help methods of construction t as expansion was required.

Just as the individual rooms of the house were grouped around the garden patio, similarly the various sizes of house groupings were linked with differing scales of social and community space.

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The hierarchy grew from the individual house to the immediate neighbours by making an initial group of four houses above common party walls (and common services) grouped around the service patios. These clusters of four house units were then grouped around a common entrance patio forming 20 or 21 houses. Thereafter this larger group becomes the basic cluster unit forming the neighbourhood (approximately 400 houses) and was related to access roads and car parking. There are four such neighbourhoods the allocated site area (1500 houses) and each is separated by a Public Park (planted, informal garden valleys) in which were to be sited the schools etc.

Flanking the approaches to the neighbourhood parks and enclosing the end of the housing areas were reserved for commercial buildings, shopping and community centres.

Stirling in 60s.

James Stirling was well informed as far as CIAM and its views on housing were concerned. He had already carried worked on proposals for a village scheme using vernacular and simple construction. At this time Europe was swamped with large concrete panel housing construction showing off their economy due to scale and rapid construction. Stirling had already seen this in action on his own Runcorn scheme, disliked by most users and demolished within few decades. Some of the wiser architects at this time were already aware the inflexibility these systems would left for future generations, the of a simple RC Frame skeleton for Park Hill is the sole reason for its re-use by Urban Splash at this very moment.

To be fair to him, the Brief originally intended to build huge chunks (up to 1500 dwellings) of neighbourhoods which were feasible to build using large precast panels but uncertainty of South American politics and the difficulty of calling a huge crane for modest additions to dwellings were unrealistic proposals which people like Van Eyck and Charles Correa avoided by using small scale self-build type constructional systems.

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Having made the comments above I have to point out that crafty ‘Jim’ came up with cracker of a type plan. It provided simple bases for natural growth in many combinations, providing four columns forming a permeable enclosure to the courtyard, itself a traditional feature in Peru and excellent source of natural ventilation, greenery and daylight. The originally built walls in large precast concrete panels were ideal to build against or to support any kind of future construction above these by residents. I understand a four storey structure has now been incorporated in and around Jim’s house forming a school. His signature porthole windows and rounded door heads have become a pointer to visiting architects to spot Jim’s contributions now almost buried in this DIY zoo/archaeological site this area now resembles. James Stirling would have laughed to see his original panel used in the same manner as beautifully crafted huge stone walls built by Inca civilizations were used to support later light weight structure for centuries after the original construction. This is what I would suggest a good example of history repeating itself.

“James Stirling interpreted the future behaviour of the families with certain amount of accuracy: Stirling houses were the most requested and those that display PREVI’s finest qualities of occupancy” Garcia-Huidobro, Torriti & Tugas.

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Summing up can be best by quoting from Justin McGuirk’s article in Domus, April 2011, ‘The metabolist utopia’.

“Some of the houses are extraordinary works of transformation whose occasionally surreal suburban grandeur belies their setting. Tinted windows and hacienda styling many not meet with architects’ approval but they speak volumes about owners’ pride and aspirations. Therein lies one of PREVI’s great successes. People didn’t move out as their financial situation improved. Residents stayed and turned a housing estate into what feels like a middle-class community.”

The details of original competition are from AD  April 1970;  abstracts, quotes, layouts and photographs from Domus of April 2011. Small aerial inset of Stirling’s housing is copyright of Peter Land. All with thanks.

Robert Mawell continues to consider the decisions architects took to produce these schemes which are poles apart, representing the opposite ideas of environmental quality.

Eaglestone in superficial sense is jumbled, seems to be representing rural individuality and dominance of of the parts over the whole and suggests that there are qualities of  megalomania. Perhaps betraying a loss of confidence in the capability of design to satisfy people. Maxwell says that a great many critics make a moral identification in favour of informality, spelling freedom.

Netherfield on other hand is considered  to be regimented and stands for urban regularity and dominance of the whole over the parts. Unlike Eaglestone we encounter qualities of accident. Formality is considered by most an imposition and ‘inhumane’.

Next few paragraphs are devoted to the observed behaviour of residents of both schemes by the community worker who looked after both schemes and noticed no sign of misery in one and happiness in the other estate. She only saw residents identifying with their estates and good community spirit. Please remember that article has been written while the schemes were still under construction and only partially occupied.

“It is more particularly to architects that Netherfield and Eaglestone appear utterly different. They perform very similar functions, but they do not mean the same things. To read their meanings, we have to know something of the specialised codes of the language used, of the images projected. Close examination suggests that both are intended to supply a map of social realm, to project an attitude towards life. Without some such intention it is hard to see how they could end up so physically different.”

EAGLESTONE

The decision was made to place houses in  compact groupings and the open space thus saved was spread among the housing, creating varying situations with individual character to each part.

The ring of housing was connected at various key points to the outside world for both pedestrians and cars. The peripheral feeder road served a series of square garage courts, walled and roofed like houses exploiting the hill top nature and irregularities of site. These tightly varied house groupings, consisting of rental and for sale units, located entirely on pedestrian network, and giving a nearly complete Radburn-type separation of vehicular traffic.

There has been a complete avoidance of repetition of standard houses. Partly by jumbling the mix, partly by variation of window and door positions, each little group is made in some way particular. The variations of building materials, their colours and textures,  size and proportions of openings, porches, dust bin enclosures; are all used to achieve lack of repetition which remains homogeneous despite regular rectangular house types.

It is a world of total design, and yet made up of  entirely banal and familiar elements, the construction kit of the spec builder.

From outside the estate gives impression of hill village or casbah, narrow passages with Newmanish sense of closely observed lanes frequently opening in play areas and greens. By boxing of the cars into a built form the mechanical appurtenance of New Town life is suppressed, and the quaintness is possible.

Two first schools, and the village centre  are located to give a social hierarchy a topographical basis. Starting with the individual family we progress through the shared play group space, the garage court, the first school, the second school  and the community centre.

If we can try to interpret the language of architecture, this architecture speaks of community, of social identity and cohesion, of the self-reliance and exclusivity of the tribe. Values such as these have a wide appeal today ( reminder: 1975 – I wish it was true for early 21st century) …. particularly for architect who are uneasy about the role of the self-conscious designer in mediating the expectations of the user through some filter of ideology. Eaglestone fulfils just this, combining a due modesty towards the user while projecting  an unmistakable belief in efficacy of good design. It comes plumb in the line of descent , through William Morris and Patrick Geddes, the moral mainstream of what was to be termed the garden city tradition. This line runs backwards through time to a romantic medievalism and the image of the city of God. It speaks of regeneration, of the retrieval of wholesomeness, of sharing of beliefs and habits. Garden city socialism is both genteel and pious. It is an escapism which questions consumerism but underlines the virtues of family and home. Escapism, nonetheless.

NETHERFIELD

Netherfield belongs to to a straight-line tradition which must appear anathema to jumble lovers, who no doubt are Eaglestone enthusiasts. Its evident formal precision and geometric purity indicates a direct interest in volumetric composition, independent of social symbolism. It bears the imprint of Corbusian purism rather than Miesian classicism_that is to say that it deals in tense dialectic between order and accident, a dialectic in which each quality is mutually intensified by the other.

While Eaglestone is carefully assembled in a irregular jumble of  box like houses, Netherfield has been assembled with the boxes carefully slotted into six parallel lines in three pairs. Varying contours on site have not been allowed to alter the roofline which remains constant but houses between one to four storey sit under this reference line, achieving a homogeneous building form, rather large in scale, yet also made up from modest elements.

Clues to location and identity is not achieved by jagged roofs or varied materials or fenestration but by use of  ground and topography, retained old hedgerows  and trees crashing through rows of houses; a constant dialogue between design and incident, not diffused like Eaglestone but celebrated here.

Ed Jones told David Maxwell that they were working within the tradition of English landscape design which contrasts formal precision of archetype and informal variation of nature. The contrast, in which both nature and art are juxtaposed, but not opposed, is conducive to a sense of life as a lived art, of life enhanced by art. The audacity consists in reviving this attitude, not for the setting of an aristocratic mansion but for people’s housing. The houses, as in the terraces of Nash, coagulate to form an image of civility and aspiration: the individual house  shares, not in a community, but in a life-style.

Each and every house has a car access to road frontage leading to the front door, enjoys similar conditions to each other, not unlike Georgian and Victorian terraces in towns and cities. Differences of furnishing and furbishing, which are muffled at Eaglestone by Erskine’s eagerness to have each house different, stand out here through the coolness  of the format as entirely individually  motivated gestures.

The houses are aligned for car access to road frontages, facing across the road to common parkland. Behind the houses are private gardens, back to back, occasionally interspersed with mews.    Every house enjoys exactly similar conditions   but completely open at either end to the outside world_ the world as it is, production, consumption and all. For this estate is not a model of a community , but of a class: the extended middle class made up of people who feel freer from penury and exploitation than did their grandparents: who feel that now they can look after themselves.

One can, I think, dismiss the idea that straight lines are harmful in themselves, that they must always mean regimentation. It seems more likely that if the houses are full of successful people, making their way in life, the image of the estate will be beneficent: if times get bad, if the consumer society breaks down, if deprivation sets in, things could be very different.**

But what New Town is aiming at such a future? .. it must.. promote the good life. Netherfield does not depict a scarcity economy, and so is politically defined on the side of choice and variety.

Is Netherfield an architectural conceit, an artifice, because it deploys a clear formal order? Or because it revives and recasts an eighteenth century aesthetic? Clearly it is no more and no less  artificial than Eaglestone, which deploys an expressionist language of nooks and crannies, and revives and recasts a medieval aesthetic.

Maxwell thinks given the exigencies of construction of large number of houses… Eaglestone ‘jumble approach’  has little to do with realpolitik of the package deal. Netherfield is closer to our time in a practical as well as ideological sense, its terraces absorb the industrialised construction smoothly and sweetly: indeed it is a pleasure to see industrial regularity  being civilised by a powerful aesthetic instead of being itself the content of the aesthetic, as with the modern movement.

If we are on the brink social revolution, the choice of an aesthetic will seem pretty irrelevant. Such a choice will only have a meaning if our society finds away of preventing exploitation and promoting welfare and justice through continuous evolution. A dialectic of ideas requires the generation of alternatives, not the imposition of dogma. If I were to live in Milton Keynes, I would choose Netherfield rather than Eaglestone: you might choose otherwise. In any case, to enjoy the experience we would both have to feel some identity of views with some of our neighbours.

To expect architectural design to contain the element of choice is to give architecture too important a role, for it elevates it to the level of state instrument for manipulation of the masses. Hannes Meyer tried to combine dogmatic functionalism with dogmatic socialism in 1929: it is synthesis which the modern movement never quite pulled off. Let alternatives flourish. Through free experiment we will invent new interesting extensions of traditions to which we belong.

PRESENT STUATION

Having finished quoting (and some poor summarising) this admirable article by Robert Maxwell originally published in Architectural Journal of 1975, and a time lapse of 35 years, I would attempt to bring you up to date.

These schemes were built in heydays of MKDC’s most creative period of existence. Every project was attempting something new and it was difficult to absorb the full scope and direction this work was taking, as there was a lot of work coming out of the office and I was a bit too close to it to be very objective. When I recently re-read the article and re-visited the schemes quoted above, my respect for author shot sky high for his clear historical grasp and  brilliant  observations  making sense of the town planning and detailed incisive analysis of the two housing schemes with such differing characteristics. To cap it all, his prediction about the ‘disaster **’ Netherfield could face made me jump and led me to form this ‘one man fan club’.

If you recall, the difficulties of building at this time lead to the choice of specific contractors and the chosen methods of construction. The housing within the adjoining grids at Beanhill (Norman Foster), Coffeehall (MKDC) had similarities both in construction and formality of layouts. It is no coincidence that this pressure to build up to 4000 homes a year, quickly started to lead to building failures in all these schemes soon after the completion. The leaking roofs, condensation, mould growth, sound transmission between houses, badly fitted and leaking windows created a nightmare situation on all these grids. It is also worth noting that the first sets of tenants for mostly rental housing came from some of the most socially deprived areas of London and Birmingham.

The first test waiting for these new communities was to react to this ‘hell’ they were provided to live in. As Maxwell predicted, the communities under a common threat reacted in unison despite their embryonic state. The first test of cohesive layouts and anticipated community spirit was passed with flying colours. The galvanised community sprung in action forming successful protest/pressure groups to demand quick and effective remedies for these problems. The social mix of tenants and failure of construction ensured that these estates started to look and feel deprived and failing in almost every sense very soon after their construction. The new tenants were refusing to move in, and only desperate, reluctantly accepted the offers to move in. Tenants had little opportunities and freedom of choice and they felt trapped in declining estates. This reputation still remains to this day and the tenants, particularly recent immigrants with little or no income are being housed in some of these schemes. I personally felt very uneasy when taking photographs in Netherfield and my subsequent visit to nearby Eaglestone was a relaxed walk in Newmanish surroundings with children playing everywhere.

Huge amount of pressure was exerted to put pitch roofs wherever possible; doors and windows replacement was extensive. The maintenance of these estates is proving a serious problem to Milton Keynes Council which inherited most of the socially rented housing and community buildings is unable to afford this onerous task. A sad and unfair distribution of responsibilities too complicated to explain here is making a bad situation worst.

Meanwhile, the tremendous force of Margaret Thatcher hit the country and the overwhelming flood of Thatcherism  brought Housing Act 1980 with ‘Right to buy’ legislation, where council tenants could buy the houses they rented at discounted prices. A hugely popular scheme which even the future Labour government was unable to repeal.

This was not quite the catastrophy Robert Maxwell had in mind**, nevertheless the fate of Netherfield was sealed. As the whole estate was built for renting, the random ‘ownership’ ensured that the cancer of ‘beautifying and personalising’ the newly bought pieces of real estate was  well spread and ensured the certain death of all laudable objectives architects stood for in its design.

It seemed that Eaglestone was designed to withstand this very ‘man/woman made’ disaster. The proportion of rental and private ownership was hardly going to make any difference: on the contrary  it was likely to improve the social homogeneity. The rest is history, the cries of  ‘Jumble Brigade’ shouting “We told you so!” have been loud and clear since those days ensuring that no quarter is given to these architects/ intellectuals trying to introduce these poisonous doctrines to the land of William Morris.


Having studied the Studio’s output, there is no doubt in my mind that these gifted architects are finely tuned to distilling the best of India in everything they do. I am certain that they choose the clients and projects carefully and work closely with their own craftsmen, with sufficient resources at hand, ensure that the finished products are a true synthesis of the best the country can offer.

This admiration did not rescue me from feeling slightly uneasy when confronted with their wonderful, intellectually teasing offering in V&A’s Cast Courts in among the Renaissance masterpieces.

The V&A’s brief to produce buildings representing refuge, shelter, contemplation and worship has been met and easily satisfied. Their miniaturised, compact, top lit world evokes visual images which can bring works of Bawa, Zumthor and Ando and many others within a touching distance.

What I found difficult to reconcile with was a direct comparison (as shown on  the video describing the exhibit) between the realities of this compact shack for eight souls made with found materials offering scant shelter from rain, cold and heat and the visual delights it exudes through the display. In this instance insertion of an extra word ‘survival’ could have made the brief more challenging and pertinent.

The placing of this ‘exhibit’ among the illustrious neighbours has to make you smile. Well framed views of David’s anatomy from within, give boost to Michelangelo’s efforts which he would have never dreamed of. Meanwhile, the frozen expressions on marble faces staring at this unexpected landing  look astounded after half a millennium of passive disdain.

I would love to travel back to 1465 on a ‘time machine’ to Florence Cathedral yard to rescue the huge Carrara marble block awaiting Michelangelo’s final conversion to David . I would then transport it to one of the passageways of Mumbai slums of early 21st Century and ask a needy family of eight people to do whatever they would like to do with this piece of marble to turn it into their home. The final results of their efforts (including working chisel marks) would than be exhibited in the Cast Courts of V&A Museum in the summer of 2010.

I am looking forward to a brilliant future for  Studio Mumbai and sincerely hope that some time in future they may also turn some of their energy and attention to living conditions of tradesmen working with them and the temporary dwellers  occupying tiny spaces around their studio in Mumbai.

See video made for the exhibition here;

http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/architecture/smallspaces/videos/Studio-Mumbai-Architects/index.html

Studio Mumbai Web Site

http://www.studiomumbai.com/

In February I jotted down the short history of this project which started its life as a brilliant contribution to the new built environment in this historical town, now an integral part of the new city of Milton Keynes.  I pointed out in some detail  many ‘retrogressive’ recent changes which seriously undermined the original strength and qualities. You are still able to see the frail patient walking about, an occasional smile still reveals some of the original attractive charm the patient possessed.

However, recently my attention was drawn to an exhibition in Stony Stratford and this web site http://www.cofferidgeclose.co.uk/ displaying proposals for developing and improving this site and seeking public participation and involvement before submitting formal planning applications.

This apparent democratic and inclusive method has now become an almost text book approach for testing the waters and finding the best and cheapest route for most of the  developers to do what they are there for; build big, cheap, and make an quick exit with a neat profit.

The proposal is so ill conceived and poor that in all seriousness you can not even appraise it apart from saying that far from  preserving and enhancing the character of the area (a pre-requisite for any  proposal within a Conservation Area), this scheme would destroy it in all major aspects.


One sentence can adequately summarise this proposal. An attempt to insert a grossly oversized building in a beautifully crafted space in the heart of a sensitively redeveloped area. The huge mass of building is moored in a sea of enlarged  car parking and service areas, proposing to destroy the trees in the orchard which provides  pleasant walking routes through this park like well landscaped site. The directness of short cuts linking the little ally ways would be destroyed and  and the walk through the car park can hardly be compensated by planting few trees in left over spaces.

The best way to describe this broad daylight attempt of this ‘grab and run venture’ is the following analogy;

  • Imagine a pretty little ornate cage in a nicely decorated front room of an old thatched cottage with a lovely little singing bird. The bird lost a few feathers after a confrontation with a house cat when it escaped the cage through an open door, but survived and continued with well rehearsed melodies and preening the colourful plumage in this handsome spacious cage.
  • Suddenly the old owner of this bird was taken ill and had to go to a Nursing Home and the bird was sent to another house with a large bird cage which it was able to share happily with other similar birds.
  • After a while a new owner, another bird lover, came to live in this cottage. The owner loved the lovely little bird cage in the front room, but unfortunately had a large barn owl to look after. The owl was far too large for the cage and indeed the door. It managed to get in but found it difficult to move within it. The children from the neighbourhood who knew the singing, colourful bird came and apart from the initial thrill of seeing a big bird with funny head and round eyes, they missed the colourful singing bird and wanted it back.
  • The kind new owner did not want to disappoint the children and said, ” I tell you what! Tell me your three favourite colours and I would be happy to colour owl’s feathers in your favourite colour. If you like I will even mix two or three of the colours to make it even more cheerful. I also have a CD of the loveliest bird songs you can think of, and I will play it when you visit me.”
  • Fortunately the children were far too intelligent to go along with this ploy. The owner also saw that the owl would never fit in the cage and thankfully gave it away to someone with proper owl accommodation. He also bought another small pretty singing bird and all was well in the old cottage.

I hope the local residents would strongly object to this outlandish proposal and ensure that this idea is killed before it is even considered as a worthwhile project for any planning permission.

Unless we learn to appreciate and protect all the best of old and recently built environments around us, opportunistic profiteers would do their best to sell us things under the guises of doing us favours. Hopefully we are now mature enough to recognize the merits of what we have and know who the real beneficiaries of these false promises are likely to be.

The Camberwell Borough Council architect’s department did some very innovative work on high density housing in early 60s, well  before the ideas of environmental design movement were established by Oscar Newman in his “Defensible Space” in 1972 and further researched by Alice Coleman in “Utopia on Trial” in 1985.

The Acorn Place development, later became known as Dene Wood, was one of the most significant high density project built in early 60s. It was highly influential and possibly anticipated different outcome from low and high rise units, avoided ‘putting all the eggs in the same basket’ by producing this mix of high and low density housing, which also respects the local surroundings. The plans and the old b&w  photo here are abstracted from an article published in AD in December 1963. Original photos taken by me in early60s and a recent revisit produced the latest photographs used here for comparison purposes and to trace the evolving progress of the social housing.

I was there like a shot looking at these new forms and magical spacestransforming deprived areas of London in early/mid 60s. The warmth of red clay tiles and stained timber joinery with silver birches in the courtyards have stayed with me all this time.

Recently I saw images of higher blocks of this scheme in bad state of repairs on Flickr, describing this project as ‘Dene Wood’ and talk of its possible demolition, which was confirmed soon after wards. The news of premature demolition of housing projects, particularly from 60s, is hardly a surprise these days. However, the possible loss of the courtyards which impressed me so much as a young student,  was a bit more difficult to swallow.

The Google Earth indicated that the old carpet pattern of low hosing formed around courtyards was still there and some of my Flickr contacts offered me further help, eventually a special visit to this area became too tempting for me to ignore.

As all camera pointing’ building spotters’ know, the act of pointing a camera these days is considered an aggressive act and the pictures you see here were taken in a great hurry and the game of ‘spot the difference’ took place in front of the computer screen at home.

The initial shock of seeing the bare site where the high rise housing once stood was followed by relief of seeing the ‘carpet’ courtyards still standing, more or less intact and still covered in red clay tiled vertical cladding.

The biggest and almost predictable change was reduction of shared/common spaces in the courtyards to the bare minimum, which is just a sufficiently wide footpath providing access to the front and back garden of the houses.  The second detectable change was the complete exposure of external staircases providing access to the upper units and denying hiding spaces to intruders. The growth of TV dish antennas  has become too common to even register.

The detailed comparison at home indicated wholesale changes to the timber screens and window design which have been replaced with less quirky and more traditional design carried out with some sensitivity.

The fate of this and other local authority housing schemes must be seen in context with gradual disintegration of architects and property services departments in these offices. Some of these offices with record of brilliant architectural out-put, suddenly found themselves with almost no architects. The close co-operation between teams preparing housing briefs, choosing suitable tenants,  normal maintenance  and making the necessary changes to meet the changing requirements, became disjointed and sometimes disappeared altogether. A continuous  inter-professional pride and involvement in looking after the building stock and the tenants, disappeared and resulting fragmentation started a ‘self-destruct chain reaction’ which is still going strong.

The lessons may well be obvious  for all to see. The repeated failure of high level communal corridors for social housing at these densities are well recorded. The avoidance of communal spaces, and provision of visually supervised defensible spaces,  in accordance Newman/Coleman have repeatedly improved the ailing estates.

However, I wonder the impact of this strict distribution of private gardens and minimal footpaths to get to these resulting in almost total elimination of communal spaces is likely to have on future generations. Future generations growing here would have been denied the experience of sharing and enjoying the spaces adjacent to their houses  and understand the responsibilities of taking care of these communal assets.

Wolverton, though only few miles away from Stony Stratford, is a very different town, almost in all respects. It is a historic Victorian Railway town, with a Milton Keynes like gridded housing core of terraces, surrounded by railway workshops.

The softness and rustic surroundings are nowhere to be seen and this shift in grain of the town was very sensitively picked up by the MKDC design team in designing this indoor market and Skating/Leisure Centre.

The shopping/leisure building had to be flexible in use and a large space framed covered area surrounded with two storey balcony/ circulation is housed in a robust engineering brick structure with references to Victorian brick decorations. The appearance and the architectural handling has been developed to provide a strong visual rhythm to accommodate ‘uncontrolled’ use and appearance, consequently the building is unlikely to win many beauty competitions but what a wonderful gift for a tough town this turned out to be.

It is refreshing and unusual to see the building taking everything on its chin like a seasoned street fighter, remain standing on its feet, and to shame the ‘abusers’ asks for knock out blows to be landed on it.

The only reference to its inception showing the linkage with the Miesian tradition is a beautifully designed glass box sitting at high level under the large roof to one side of the Market area, dissolving the space, looking down and reflecting the surrounding activities of this well crafted space.

The location of the large bulk of the building within the town is also brilliant.

It links various walking routes through and around it, addressing itself to a small town square, an open air market and car park and two main streets of the town.

Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without    playing second fiddle to anyone.

This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.

I would like to draw your attention to a fairly low key social housing scheme, designed in mid 60s by Fredrick MacManus & Partners for Westminster City Council. I consider it as an important and successful urban renewal scheme of its time, which was very cleverly slotted in existing 18th century pattern of streets and with out any ‘gimmicks’, got on with the job of providing high density practical housing with  ‘Rossi-like’ dignity.

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I feel intelligent hands of Michael Gold, a member of the design team, are evident in the design process. The underground car parking under the housing and commercial blocks slots in comfortably and appears to work well (although I have no direct proof of this) and fits in the street pattern successfully. To see enlarged plans see this link;

http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/3816822459/

The 6 storey housing rectangular block has a calm private defensible green space in the middle, reflecting other squares in this area. The adjacent triangular block consists of commercial accommodation responding to the street demands.

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It seems a pity that new windows and cladding has undermined the original simplicity of the residential block like umpteen other recent ‘improvements’.

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The diagrams and the following quotation are taken from AD of Sept 1967.

“The building reflects an awareness of its context in its scale and in the way the accommodation has been organized to make a place particular to the dwellings around it. It also contains the implication that it is possible to revalidate areas within the existing street framework, with new buildings which generate active relationship with what exists.”

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