Letter from London
Paul Finch, 30 May 2019
‘What is going on?’ is the sympathetic question we are asked by visiting architects, baffled by the ongoing farce we know as Brexit. The short answer is that few understand exactly what is happening, and those that do are in no position to predict the final outcome. All is uncertainty.
Under the circumstances, things could be much worse. We have record UK employment levels, and the predicted exodus of EU citizens from our shores has yet to happen. Inflation shows little sign of unbalancing the economy and architects are not sitting about with begging bowls.
If you look at office development as one measure of economic confidence, then London looks in good shape. The latest regular survey by consultants Deloitte suggest that the construction of new offices in the capital is at its highest level since the 2016 Brexit referendum (they measure this based on crane activity then check the projects they relate to, which obviously are actually being built). Nearly 40 new projects have broke ground in the last six months, totalling some 13 million square feet. Half of this is pre-leased, and half (not the same half) is in the City of London business zone.
Housing is still in hugely short supply here, which means that almost anything that gets built will find a buyer or leaser. The exception is real high-end development aimed at investor or absentee occupiers. The market for such properties has been off the boil for two years now, mainly the result of some ill-considered stamp duty changes brought in by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. It is this, rather than uncertainty over Brexit, which has caused the problem.
Transatlantic visitors have been much in evidence this month. Diller and Scofidio came over to give a Royal Academy lecture and to receive this years RA Architecture Medal for their contribution to architecture. The practice continues to surprise, with projects which turn conventional thinking on its head and which refuse to confine art, architecture, graphics and lighting into rigid silos. As their lecture made clear, play with ideas about form, flow and connection has been part of their thinking from the early days, when building commissions were in short supply, to today when the building commissions, often won in competition, keep flooding in.
Their latest work, the Shed project next to the High-Line in Manhattan, is a brilliant conception that partly took inspiration from Cedric Price’s Fun Palace project. But it has actually been built, and now offers a truly inspirational venue for any form of display or performance, with possibilities of varying areas and volumes, with technology to match, which would have delighted CP. The matchbox-like secondary enclosure, which emerges from the ‘host’ box, only requires the power of a modest car engine to make it all happen.
The lecture could have been twice the length, and we only caught glimpses of the practice’s major London project, the Centre for Music, being developed as an additional part of the Barbican Estate in the City of London. The Barbican already has a concert hall, but it is generally accepted that it is not world-class. That is what the City, and conductor Sir Simon Rattle who campaigned for the project, want delivered.
Hot on Diller & Scofidio’s heels came a visitation from New York’s Van Alen Institute, which for a century has been promoting the virtues of high-quality architecture and design. The London visit was part of a programme promoted by the organization’s International Council, which runs several workshops in different cities each year (16 countries were represented in London).
The event was co-organized with New London Architecture, which has similar interests, and involved two days of visits before a charrette where four teams presented ideas emerging from what they had experienced. This was a stimulating final session, which I had the pleasure of chairing, focussed on the two main projects the participants had studied: King’s Cross and the Olympic Park.
One of the themes of the event was the increasing trend towards privatisation in regeneration projects, though as it turned out this idea is more black and white than the situation on the ground. On the face of it, the 67-acre King’s Cross regeneration , carried out by Argent, is an example of the private sector writ large. But in reality, the developer was chosen as a result of a public sector initiative, after previous efforts to produce a successful masterplan had failed.
In the case of the Olympic Park, it is true that the work done for the Games was all publicly funded. However, the masterplan was developed under the umbrella of a previous successful planning application for a huge mixed-use development . . . by a private development consortium. Chunks of the park are now in private sector hands, for example the Olympic Village housing and the Westfield shopping immediately adjacent to the park. University College London is occupying space at both ends of the park.
We await development of the cultural quarter, formerly known as ‘Olympicopolis’ where tenants will include the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Sadler’s Wells ballet company, and the London School of Fashion. Funding for this partly came from that former chancellor, George Osborne, responding to a request from former mayor, Boris Johnson. It’s a small world.