Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Architects. Love 'em or loathe them, we still need them.

Wetherby Gardens is a very smart prime Kensington address.

Large lateral* apartments sell for millions, the community is ultra cosmopolitan and the street is regularly blocked with Boffi trucks delivering yet another wildly expensive new kitchen.

It was also my first address in London.

A £3.5m 'lateral' flat today.
Not exactly how my bedsit looked. 
When I lived there, however, the street's grand buildings were somewhat less grand inside. Most were subdivided into minuscule ugly rented bedsits with paper-thin walls.

I shared one of these disgusting rooms with two macro-biotic eating mates from Cambridge (the A-level college not the university, sadly). It was very cosy, as an estate agent might put it!

This was at the tail end of the Swinging 60s and into the beginning of the Economically Challenged '70s. We still wore 'loons' from Kensington Market along with with velvet jackets and long hair. Faux French bistros and US styled burger joints were newly hot. Many pints were downed in The Drayton Arms between watching movies at a legendary local flea pit called the Paris Pullman. And the only imperative in life was to obtain sufficient drugs to not sleep each weekend.

Yes, it was as horrible as it sounds.

The old Paris Pullman. Now demolished and replaced with some rather ugly flats.

Why am I dragging you down this one way memory lane? No reason really, other than the fact that it was during this period I got to know an architect for the first time.

Back then, Britain had little use for 'architecture'. Buildings, yes. Great buildings, definitely not.

The country had other priorities. Quantity was more important than quality. Ugly, inhuman tower block estates replaced terraced streets, NCP turned bomb sites into muddy car parks, appalling planning decisions destroyed town centres and many people outside London still lived in what looked like magnolia painted portakabins (prefabs, as they were known).

The social structure in terms of property was much simpler than today. The so-called upper classes merely 'maintained' the property they'd owned for generations (they didn't build subterranean swimming pools or glass extensions). The middle classes were happy taking out 25 year mortgages on suburban semis. And the working classes were still waiting for Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party to show them how to become aspirational.

In the 70s us working classes learned how to become 'middle class'.
Well, sort of.

The architect I got to know at that time was in fact still a student, but Jez proved to be just like most architects I've since met.

He was deeply committed to and passionate about his chosen career but terribly sensitive to any perceived criticism or even mildly negative comment. In temperament, he was far more an artist than a professional.

At that time, the human context of a building seemed to be of little importance. Making some kind of a statement was the ambition ( if rarely the reality in such straightened economic times). For many, the pared down concrete inhumanity of Frank Lloyd Wright was that ambition made real.

Jez's great 'influence', however, was Antonio Gaudi, the eccentric Barcelona architect whose work can be seen all over that city and includes the extraordinary Sagrada Familia which is still unfinished many decades after the great man's death.

The Sagrada Familia. Started in 1882. And still not completed.

Jez and his passion for Gaudi was my first introduction to architects, and in some ways to architecture itself (we didn't go in for high-falutin' concept buildings where I came from in the flatlands of rural Cambridgeshire).

A few years later I went to live in the Catalan capital, and grew to love Gaudi's work at least as much as my Wetherby Gardens 'friend'. In what was then a country still blighted by Franco's oppressive fascist sensibility, Gaudi's playful, colourful (Parc Guell), non-linear structures were refreshing and almost revolutionary.

Returning to the UK, we all became richer through the late 80s and 90s and so too, it seemed to me, did the level of architecture. We could afford to indulge ourselves, creativity became prized.

At the end of the 90s, I was fortunate enough to meet Richard Rogers (now Lord Rogers).  His work shares little, of course, with that of Gaudi. But he is just as much an artist. I could look at his Pompidou Centre or Lloyds Building all day. Even One Hyde Park looks powerful and defines a certain London when seen from my dog walks round the Serpentine. And glimpses into his Chelsea house are tantalisingly exciting.
The home of Lord Rogers. Hidden behind a classic Chelsea facade.

My lifelong love of architecture hasn't, though, always extended to those in the profession. Over the years I've had some very difficult 'relationships' with architects.

One young (moonlighting) architect and I ended up in court battling over money when I refused to pay for designs I didn't like and didn't use. He won, by the way.

Another bunch took me to the cleaners on my Fulham house, wasting both time and money and delivering very little that was ultimately useful.

More recently I lost a very good friend who is also an architect (we'll call him Nick, because that's his name) when I questioned his interior design skills and jokingly alluded to his inability to keep to a schedule (he had spent 10 years NOT finishing his own house). Nick hasn't spoken to me since and as a result a multi-million €uro project in Saint Tropez fell apart.

It isn't surprising that a flawed control freak like myself, who also happens to have the odd spark of creativity, sometimes finds it difficult to work with architects.

Architects can seem challenged or threatened by a client who wants a partner rather than a dictator; all too often they will fall back on their 'artistic temperament' rather than adopt a more professional attitude.

For this reason, even after a career managing 'creative' people, I'm still very nervous about managing architects.

It's an issue that worried me as we came close to appointing one for our second project - the little terraced house in W8.

We shortlisted three, which might seem a little excessive for such a modest house.

I chose one firm - a thriving, super cool Notting Hill outfit. My business partner (and stepson) nominated another  - a small trendy Mayfair firm, where an old school friend of his now works. And our project manager suggested one that looked so fashionable it was positively Arctic.

I was already intimidated just thinking about them. I imagined they'd laugh when we asked if they'd consider working with us. Especially when we mentioned, very quietly, the budget.

Things must be very tough out there, however, because all three of these fashionable London firms with international reputations and experience across numerous sectors seemed positively keen to work on such a modest house renovation.

I almost began to feel sorry for them.

Having now met two of them face to face, I really am feeling sorry for them. Frankly, they seem to be the ones who are now intimidated, cowed and defeated.

Their problem doesn't seem to be clients so much as the ever changing, unpredictable and claustrophobic planning environment.

The government may boast of relaxing planning regulation, but London's planning process has actually become even more stiflingly conservative, grindingly slow and depressingly negative.

I am all for curtailing the vanity projects of hedge funders overburdened with cash; especially when their subterranean plans cause long term local disruption and potentially undermine the integrity of surrounding properties.

However, I am not in favour of emasculating our architects to such an extent they become little more than replicants of Quinlan Terry.

For all my qualms about architects and their egos, we stifle their creativity at our peril. This is a profession (art?) in which we are world leaders, but without a strong and supportive home market this leadership will, like so many others in the past, wither and die.

Palladio. London's latest hot architect. (One of these buildings is new, would you believe.)

Of course a small house renovation might seem irrelevant in this grander context, but it's on these small projects that young and radical architects often get their first opportunity to shine.

At our little W8 terrace, we will faithfully (and happily) restore the original pretty facade, the charming low fence and the cute front garden. But why shouldn't we be able to shock and surprise and delight with how we tackle the rest of the building?

Why shouldn't we be able to extend, inconspicuously, into the apparently 'protected' V-shaped roof?

Why shouldn't we be able to remove a tree so big it's more suited to Richmond Park than a 10'x10' garden?

Why shouldn't we be able to create something thrilling and dynamic, allowing the architects freedom to inject much needed vitality into the area?

Perhaps we could if we were prepared to do battle with council paper-pushers for a year or two, but that process would be so negative and so dispiriting it would compromise the very nature of what we want to achieve.

And here is the point...architecture at a residential level in London is in danger of becoming predictable, and little more than an antique restoration business. Planning departments are smothering creativity, ingenuity and modernity in the name of misguided conservation.

In all our conversations with architects I sensed a resigned attitude; resigned to having to do something unexciting, unchallenging that they knew would get past 'jobsworth' planners

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for preserving the best aspects of London life, its wonderful stucco fronted streets, elegant garden squares and beautifully proportioned houses. But not all of it, and not at the expense of stopping all progress, all modernity.

Plantation shutters. The first sign that the 'middle class' has arrived in an area.

I've just read that the 'Royal Borough' is thinking of turning Lots Road and the nearby terraced streets into a Conservation Area. What the hell are they trying to conserve? Some very boring houses in a few dreary streets. Very soon every house in the area will boast plantation shutters, side extensions, a mean little loft conversion and a big price - but no architectural merit whatsoever.

When I walk down Wetherby Gardens today, I sometimes wish it had been knocked down and replaced with something more interesting and much taller by Foster or Rogers (or any number of great London architects).

Or, at the very least, had something interesting created behind its facade instead of the set of predictable bourgeois apartments the planners push architects to create today.

* Lateral. A description once confined to flats extended laterally across more than one building, now used liberally by Estate Agents to hype any property in which you can swing a modest sized cat. 

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