Paul Hyett, 15 March 2021
William Paul is one of a new generation of talented architects negotiating the complexities of the UK planning system, writes Paul Hyett.
Paul’s bold and interesting new-build work generally takes the form of commercial and studio space, mixed-use development and housing in and around Shoreditch, Hoxton, Bethnal Green and Hackney in East London. They often occupy infill sites in urban but fringe districts, small in scale because the financiers and managers for larger projects are usually too cautious to support younger designers. But such carefully considered projects slipped in on this corner, or that back street, or tucked snugly into a hitherto vacant plot, are nevertheless very interesting. Frequently complex, and of necessity inventive as steeply rising land values afford the opportunity of dense plot ratios, they represent some real architectural adventure.
But WP Architecture –Paul’s firm – took on a very different kind of challenge recently in accepting a commission to design a new house in open Yorkshire countryside, bordering the edge of Burley. Listed as a ‘village’ of 7,000 people, it falls within the planning jurisdiction of Bradford, 11 miles to the south.
The site, slightly to the west of Burley, enjoys spectacular views, especially west towards Ilkley Moor, that rugged landscape immortalised through Yorkshire dialect song On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at (On Ilkley Moor without a hat) which tells of a lover courting the object of his affections. A far cry from the challenges associated with office or apartment development in East London, but Paul started an extraordinary design journey that has yet to reach its conclusion.
The local planning department’s presumption was predictably against this sort of one-off development in countryside. The only chink of light came thanks to the initiative by John Gummer, a past Secretary of State for the Environment, which promoted occasional exceptions to a presumption against development. This was in circumstances where, as currently set out in the UK’s National Planning Policy Framework, a proposal is of ‘truly’ outstanding quality, ‘reflecting the highest standards in architecture’, and where such a proposal would if built, ‘help to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas’ and ‘significantly enhance its immediate setting and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area’.
Paul approached the Yorkshire Design Review Panel and engaged (prior to his planning application to Bradford) in an extended review process. I have had sight of the respective submissions of WPA and the written responses of the review panel. They tell a fascinating story in terms of bravery and ambition, tempered by sensitivity and intelligence, on both the part of the architect and the panel.
The process commenced in December 2018 when the firm submitted a first proposal in the form of a report containing site analysis, concept explanation, plans and a range of three-dimensional interior images. Essentially, it could be described as a very transparent (lots of floor-to-ceiling glass), single-storey scheme that wrapped around a courtyard. Good plan, beautiful renderings and all very persuasive, but not good enough said the Panel.
So, a series of polite, heavily coded, and very direct messages were sent: ‘The Panel compliment the design team in a thorough and sensitive etc. . . (BUT) . . . the case is not yet well argued for the principle of development’. And: ‘The landscape benefits offered are highly appropriate . . . but the contextual study work is not yet in place to make (the) case for this site’.
Clearly, as far as the design review panel was concerned, if Paul were to secure its support for a house on such a site, he would have to improve his game.
He went back to the drawing board. The second design was delivered in May 2019. The enclosed courtyard had been abandoned, the plan effectively opened out into a (very) long, single-storey rectilinear form with an annex comprising the garaging breaking its simplicity and purity. Another beautifully illustrated, long, and detailed design report from the architect received another polite commentary and further encouragement: ‘The Panel thank the project team for returning to design review with this scheme . . . It is encouraging to see the project team have responded creatively to the panel’s advice and guidance . . .and undoubtedly raised the design quality of the proposal . . .The Panel commend the project team for making difficult decisions and ultimately rethinking. . . The result is a truly exciting proposal that has an outstanding relationship with the landscape’.
I relate this story in detail for two reasons:
First, it shows a planning process at its very best: the Yorkshire Design Review Panel engaged in a manner that informed a process that resulted in the upgrading of a very decent scheme into a project of outstanding quality. (Predictably, however, it was rejected by the local authority planning committee, so we now await the outcome of an appeal.)
Second, it demonstrates the value of design reviews even for the best architects, for example Foster, Cox, Rogers and 3XN – all distinguished design architects with whom I have had the privilege of working closely at various times. They all engage in routine but rigorous internal design reviews, a very formal process which at Foster’s involves a full pin-up, with the lead designer presenting (crit -tyle just like at college) to a panel made up of leaders from other teams, independent of the project. All in front of the staff working on the project. Share the pain, share the glory!
Some of London’s leading firms have involved external critics in that process. The late lamented Francis Golding, who ‘lodged’ in my office for 10 years, would regularly offer his sensitive, intelligent, albeit occasionally acerbic commentaries to our design stars. ‘Why would you put one of your worst next to one of Wren’s best?’ he once asked of one of our leading architects. The design was changed.
Even the best designers are nourished by constructive criticism, so long may bodies like the Yorkshire Design Review Panel continue their invaluable work.