Government guidance on how to build new housing is failing, but not because of poor design. We still expect new buildings to solve social problems, and it is creating a housing time bomb in London

I predict that in 2040 (or thereabouts) the government will pump vast sums of money into yet another regeneration scheme for the Marquess Estate, Islington. I came to this conclusion at 3.00am last Sunday when I woke to a room full of noxious smoke. My flat was not on fire; the smoke was coming from a car that had been torched outside my bedroom window, the tenth since I moved in three years ago. The wreck made an ignoble partner to what’s left of a car joy ridden into my front garden wall two days earlier. The Marquess Estate was recently re-modelled to reflect current best practice guidance.

Current urban design guidance is all about continuous urban blocks, active frontages, and interconnected streets. We’ve got all that in the brand spanking new Marquess Estate. Such principles form around 70% of the criteria for the design of all sites being released by government for housing development. These criteria make no reference to the design of the houses themselves, to space standards, or to sustainability; the things that help make cohabiting tolerable and the running of the home just about affordable.

Design’s ability to combat social ills is often overstated and has led to an environmental determinism that assumes a one-size-fits-all approach to the design of new neighbourhoods. It happened previously with the Garden City movement, a benign model for social wellbeing that spawned numerous banal post-war suburbs. My architecture practice’s current work on the 1930s suburb of North Prospect in Plymouth, modelled on Garden City principles, attests to the fact that even a model of semi-rural utopia isn’t immune to social problems.

Architects aren’t policemen, if there were more of the latter there may be less need to dictate a new set of rules of engagement to the former. Communal space will not in itself lead to a sense of community. Is it really fair to say, as Winston Churchill once did, that ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’?

Temperance and eugenics might have been replaced with systems theory as a method for dealing with social ills, but perhaps only raw Darwinism can deal with our problem estates - eventually joy-riders will kill themselves off as a species.

What is my point exactly? Well, I suppose I’m an architectural pluralist, and with the huge housing programme taking place in London and its borders I want to see more than the few models for urban form currently being advocated. Every masterplan I’ve seen recently looks the same, urban blocks with a formulaic hierarchy of streets and public spaces.

The urban block model creates a certain type of city, a model derived from the bourgeoisie and epitomised in Hausmann’s Paris of the 1850s. It can result in attractive and sustainable neighbourhoods but so too can the architecture of the original Marquess Estate of the 70s. The pre-eminent housing architects of the day, Darbourne and Dark, designed the Marquess as a pedestrian friendly neighbourhood of interconnected courtyards, double fronted terraces, private outdoor spaces and communal gardens. Its sister development in Pimlico ‘Lillington Gardens’ endures as evidence of a humane and socially democratic architecture popular with its residents.

The changing fortunes of developments such as Trellick Tower (Notting Hill) or the Brunswick Centre (Bloomsbury) demonstrate that very different models of housing to those advocated by Government guidance can be successful if well managed, well maintained and populated by civilised people.

Left unchecked the antisocial behaviour that makes the Marquess feel more akin to Derry than its neighbour Canonbury will sound the death knell for current urban design thinking.




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