This is a collection of some of the things which I find it helpful to think about when I’m trying to design our urban housing projects. There are numerous ways to approach the design of housing……. lots of hats that we can and should wear, abstract and analytical, political, sensual, social, artistic, pragmatic even. We need to be sociologist, geographer, architect and urbanist…..old style masterplanner and situationist both.
These ideas and observations are offered as a counterblast to the functionalist checklists, the bullet point codes and design standards with which Government tries to control what we do and which I feel inhibit the design of magical housing and beautiful cities… No tick boxes here… this is more pick and mix
GATES TO THE CITY
Written by Peter Barber. The Architect's Journal, Better Housing, pg 34, March 2013
“… The passion for improvisation which demands that space and opportunity be at any price preserved. Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes.” Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, 1924
In this passage from his 1924 book ‘One way Street’, the Marxist cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the culture and form of a street in Naples. In it he captures fleetingly but beautifully the idea of a city and architecture animated and activated by the business and activity of its occupants… and of space as inert without people and culture… the colour and frantic activity made possible by a spatiality that is permeable - which invites occupation.
He gives us an intimation of the fragile and complex reciprocal relationship which exists between people and space, between culture and architecture.
I always find it helpful to try to visualise how people might inhabit the spaces that we create and I love revisiting our built housing projects to see how people’s lives are played out inside their homes and in the courtyards and on the streets which we have made.
Michel de Certeau has said that “Space is practised place… everyday narrative, a word caught in the ambiguity of actualisation …. .on streets, in apartments… in the most intimate of domestic habits”
….pretty spot on I think.
70% of all the buildings in London are houses or housing. Housing is what our city is made of. It is what creates a hard edge to our streets, it’s what surrounds our squares.
We can say therefore that when we design urban housing we design cities. Housing schemes should not begin as housing schemes but as urban designs. Designs for housing should be driven to begin with by our vision of a beautiful city. We should design streets and public space first – domestic layouts should follow.
Projects like Donnybrook Quarter and Hannibal Gardens contain housing but more fundamentally they are a celebration of the public social life of the city.
I’m for street based neighbourhoods – streets work, they are an ingenious and effective means of organising public space. In my view they are essential to the social life of cities.
Ilike to try and arrange our projects as a network of streets often interspersed with little public squares and gardens. I aim to align streets so that they create handy short cuts and strong spatial and visual connections with adjacent and sometimes socially and functionally diverse neighbourhoods.
I like to imagine narrow streets which concentrate public world into quite limited space, bringing lots of different types of people in to one place. And its nice to think of narrow building frontages and numerous front doors creating visual diversity and the potential for people to personalise the space outside their home.
I am interested in lower rise higher density housing and I often try to explore the possibility of achieving this with houses instead of flats.
I often experiment with unconventional and sometimes obscure housing typologies ….some of them quite archaic and belonging to a premodern vernacular….the Tyneside or cottage flat, back-to-back houses, courtyard house types and the terrace/courtyard hybrid notched terrace with which we are associated and which I nicked from Adolf Loos and Jose Luis Sert.
Sergei Eisenstein said that Greek urbanists were the first great cinematographers.
While I’m designing I sometimes try to imagine our schemes as a screenplay, a sequence of views, picturesque, filmic even… long lyrical ’following shots’, a shocking‘ jump cut’, Serge Leone style scale shifts from detail or foreground to wide screen panorama… silhouette, close up, perspective shifting, space unfolding, picturesque, sensual….. a shadowy street with a little kick, tapering and narrowing suddenly before opening through an archway into the corner of a sunny square…..mm nice!