Sunday, 16 May 2010

Angry men: Crap housing, our cash, VAT, communities, rubbish architecture, urban renewal and all that jazz.

Diddy boxes

Of, if only things had improved since Pete Seeger sang that, so many years ago!

It's been an interesting weekend in the press, architecturally speaking.

First, we have the magnificently eloquent Scottish architect and writer  Malcolm Fraser (Republic passim, including the very recent post on the Madelvic Factory demolition )

on gobons and government payouts for crappy housing, VAT iniquities, empty homes and stuff in the Herald, expanding what he said recently in Building Design, as reported on Archibollocks,

and I hope he'll not make a fuss if I repeat it all here :

Scotland should aim higher than clusters of urban lumps, complete with useless ‘gob ons’

Malcolm Fraser

May 16th

Little fanfare greeted the recent announcement that Scotland’s beleaguered volume housebuilders were to receive a £130 million boost from the Scottish Government’s new “National Housing Trust”.

Given the transformative potential of the scheme, this lack of attention is baffling.

The move follows plans in England to boost the housing sector through the “Kickstart” programme, and First Minister Alex Salmond’s own promises to business leaders to fund “shovel-ready” development in Scotland.

These are the same housebuilders that mass-produce homes that are, according to architecture writer Jonathan Glancey “… a blight on the landscape, a stain on our collective soul, a national disgrace”.

Even Gordon Brown, in the final election debate, admitted that volume housebuilders “… have really not served us well in this country”.

In that final leaders’ debate Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg uttered the unfashionable words: “council houses”. From sub-prime to credit-bubble, the banking and housebuilding industries were intertwined, and went down the pan together. The Brown Government borrowed hugely to bail out the banks without requiring them to improve their service. Skating over their own part in encouraging the hubris that led to massive failure the Government simply begged the banks to take our money and go back to business-as-usual.

The Scottish Government appears to be following Westminster, in doing a similar back-to-business-as-usual, no-strings-attached bailout for our housebuilding industry.

It is worth pondering what, exactly is the state of the house-building industry that is to be bailed out – and what sort of development will the volume housebuilders be expected to have “shovel-ready”?

Their new homes tend to fall into one of two categories: suburban diddy-boxes, car-dependent and decorated by the sort of pediments, half-timbering and carriage lamps that the industry itself, revealing their contempt for the public, refers to as “gob-ons”.

Their other type is always branded “stylish urban living”, meaning lumpen flats with bolted-on, sticky-out “Juliet” balconies jutting into our bitter winds and car fumes.

Alex Neil, the Scottish Government’s housing minister, responded to my concerns over quality, published in the architectural press, by assuring doubters that, to qualify for a bail-out, the Government “…are likely to require that all proposed homes meet, at the very least, the 2007 Scottish Building Regulations”

Big deal! So the only requirement for those diddy boxes and urban lumps is that they are “likely” to meet the bare, lowest minimum technical standard. The bar could hardly be lower, and my heart sinks at the dismal poverty of our aspirations.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, while the housing minister’s civil servants channel our money to such unworthy recipients, whole other armies of civil servants – in the Planning Directorate, the Architecture & Place Policy Unit and our built environment design quango, Architecture + Design Scotland – have no powers to do more than look on aghast. Established and paid for out of the public purse to raise the woeful quality of new housing in Scotland, this bailout bypasses them.

In their own initiatives they have, however, aimed very low. The planning regime in Scotland follows the “New Urbanist” orthodoxy that starts as a laudable concern for the values of traditional urban settlements. But I fear that under this banner the Scottish Government merely collaborates with housebuilders to devise better “gob-ons”, and make the roads through housing estates a bit more wiggly.

What might we better achieve with all this public mone

Well, in that final leaders’ debate Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg uttered the unfashionable words: “council houses”. Perhaps if we set-aside our prejudiced stereotyped idea of grimy estates, decent quality council houses are exactly what we should be spending public money on.

Clegg also raised the issue of VAT. Newbuild is zero-rated, but repair and renewal attracts the full 17.5%. This hugely tips the balance towards greenfield building sites, and away from refurbishing our existing stock. There are hundreds of thousands of empty properties lying vacant in our towns and cities

Readjusting VAT to encourage the repair of these would deliver more homes for every pound invested, fortify existing communities, reduce car-dependency, and create more jobs (repair being more labour-intensive).

And when we do build new homes we should be talking about what actually creates communities – not pediments and wiggly streets, but awareness of sunshine, south-facing living rooms that open into gardens, public places for our kids to play and places to meet, and engage with, our neighbours.

Why is it that we can’t we build communities based on these simple, humane priorities?

Malcolm Fraser is founder of Edinburgh’s Malcolm Fraser Architects a former deputy chairman of Architecture + Design Scotlandand

Then yesterday a terrific Jonathan Glancey article in the Guardian on the late and greatly lamented Ian Nairn, and good that he mentioned the writers who are behind:

Bad British Architecture @Ghostof Nairn

and @tragedyhatherle of Urban Trawl in Building Design  and Zero Books various (including Militant Modernism) amongst other writing:

Here it is:

Ian Nairn's voice of outrage...

His attacks on the banality of Britain's postwar buildings made Ian Nairn an inspiration for a generation of architectural critics. Jonathan Glancey celebrates the scourge of 'subtopia'...

look forward to the video articles mentioned....

and Gavin Stamp, Private Eye's Piloti

a review of his Britain's Lost Cities by Nicholas Lezard:

It may be a truism that this country lost more buildings to town planners than to the Luftwaffe, but it is still worth mentioning. Here are 180 pages, each illustrated with one or more photographs, which document what can only be a fraction of the buildings and vistas we have lost.

Stamp quotes a recent conclusion, regarding Hull, but it applies everywhere:

 "What has gone are the accents of the cityscape, the varied shapes, textures and materials, the undoubted wealth of craftsmanship, the unexpected or bizarre incident; items that there is now no way of matching, for neither money nor skills are forthcoming."

This is, in short, a very depressing book – but one that is wholly necessary...

Which ,basically, brings me back to Malcolm Fraser:

Leith, Edinburgh, Western Harbour Development

and of course the splendid Blogger Dave Thompson, @auchterness:

I'm deeply privileged today to write a review of one of Scotland's greatest success stories of visionary planning and property development. It's a veritable dripping roast of invention and superlatives, truly the eastern equivalent of Glasgow Harbour in every way. The team that did the astonishing breakthrough thinking on this one are Forth Ports (who kindly donated the land), Turkey Associates and RMJM, they of the recent heroic failure at Custom House Quay in Glasgow. One word - wow!

You know, it's sometimes hard to take in the sheer comprehensive brilliance of some projects - the diamond sharp intellectual endeavour, the world class parametric design work not to mention the streetwise nous that can turn a derelict area into a thriving community of beautiful houses, shops and parks all wrapped up into one of the finest urban development frameworks you will see around Edinburgh since Wester Hailes was but a twinkle in a planner's eye. Recently a member of the Prince's Foundation described it as being, 'as good as Sierra Leone'. That's praise indeed coming from a world traveller and member of the Royal Family - a total pat on the back for Forth Ports and for Turkey Associates, a real feather in their cap....

Read on:

Oh yes, Brave New World:

Watch the movie and weep. 

Nem (angry but female).

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