Accommodating Change Innovation in Housing - Edited by Hilary French Published by Circle 33 Housing Group - First published 2002 p18 - 29
The essay looks at three of our recent projects: a small on, a medium sized one and a large one. They were commissioned as housing projects, but each in its way has developed a strongly urban agenda.
The first project is the Haggerston West and Kingsland Masterplan, which is a design for a new dense city quarter, just North of Shoreditch. The second, our Competition winning entry for the Circle 33 'Innovation in Housing' competition and the third is Doris' Place, an ultra dense, mixed use regeneration project on a 4.5metre wide site in Hackney. The first two are in design development and remain paper projects. The final one is built and offered as hard evidence of what ultra high density (700hrh) looks like.
Before describing the projects, I have set out four short preambles, which aim to propose an ideological and political context and capture the ethos and atmosphere of the projects.
'…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 his 1924 book 'One Way Street' the Marxist cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the culture and form of the city of Naples. In it he captures fleetingly but beautifully the idea of a city and of architecture animated and activated by the business and activity of its occupants and of space as inert without people and culture. He sketches for us the colour and frantic activity made possible by spatiality that is 'permeable'-which invites occupation. He gives an intimation of the fragile and complex reciprocal relationship that exists between people and spaces, between culture and architecture.
All three of the projects described below work with the idea that space conditions, and is in turn conditioned by, society and culture and that architecture can create the potential for social action and activity. (By the same token it can also limit and constrain people's behaviour in a devastating way.)
In 1997 Lord Rogers' Urban Taskforce produced recommendations, which through the government's urban white paper make a new kind of project possible. The Taskforce recommended a radical rethinking of zoning policy that for generations has given us boring and inconvenient mono functional neighbourhoods. It recommended the introduction of tax breaks for the development of sites and perhaps most significantly, it recommended the introduction of new planning guidelines allowing construction and 'estate renewal' on a scale unseen since the immediate post-war period. This programme is delivering the refurbishment of hundreds of thousands of new dwellings as well as offering opportunities for us to create whole new city quarters.
None of the projects described here would have been possible without these major shifts in government policy.
Seventy percent of the buildings that make up London are housing. Housing is what creates the very fabric of the city. It is what is all around us; it forms the boundaries of public space. We can say, therefore that when we design urban housing we design cities. Housing schemes should never begin as housing schemes but as urban designs. Designs for housing should be driven in the first instance by an idea about the city. We should design streets and public spaces first - domestic layouts should follow.
Streets work: they are ingenious and effective means of organizing public space. They are essential to the social life of cities. The following examples are used to compare the experience of a stroll along a street with the experience of a 'typical' London housing estate. The examples illustrated are in Brighton and Hoxton.
The Laine, Brighton
This is an unremarkable but successful street in Brighton with characteristics from which we can learn:
- It is well integrated into the spatial fabric of the city. It is directly connected into a network of streets that make the city permeable and provide an easy and unambiguous means of getting across town.
- It is part of a network of street that provides strong visual and spatial connections between the inhabitants of adjacent yet socially diverse neighborhoods.
- The Street is narrow. It is concentrating the public social life of the area into a very limited space. It brings people of diverse social, economic and cultural groups into close proximity and creates the potential for a colourful and intense social scene.
- The buildings that bound the street house a vibrant combination of uses, retail, leisure, business and residential. This mixture of uses creates a richly diverse local culture and a 24-hour day occupancy.
- There is a strong visual connection between the buildings themselves and the street. This means that every inch of public space is overlooked or naturally policed. It is hard to image that a mugging or robbery could take place here.
- Narrow buildings frontages and numerous front doors into buildings create visual diversity and the potential for occupiers to personalize their street fronts.
Pitfield Street, Hoxton
Like the Brighton Street it works reasonably effectively in providing a route across the city, easy access into buildings and a space for socializing. Walk 50 metres up the street and turn right through a gap between the buildings and you enter a very different, concealed world, which is the vast hinterland of inter and post-war housing estates that stretches across Hoxton. The designers of these estates eschewed the streets in favour of a spatiality that has blighted the lives of thousands of residents for three generations and impinged upon the easy functioning of the surrounding area, for example:
_ The spaces between the buildings create no useful or usable routes across this part of the city. This means that people crossing this part of London have to make lengthy and inconvenient detours around them.
- Dead ends, blind alleyways, burnt-out garages, paladin stores block off any views into, or routes, across the estates. This means that one of London's most socially disadvantaged areas has become highly segregated from the rest of the city. It is concealed from view. It has become a ghetto.
- The estates are laid out as a series of objects dotted around in acres of unprogrammes and unused space - a patch of concrete here; some tarmac there and again some grass here. These large and dispersed spaces tend to dissipate public social activity. They limit the potential for people to socialize, to meet, even to see fellow residents. Worse still they very quickly become deserted, resulting in a public environment which tends to isolate people and increase their vulnerability to crime.
In combination the spatial problems of the estate are so extreme that many residents are afraid to leave their apartments. Most effected are the most vulnerable - the elderly, racial minorities, women.
The designs described below are all street based and are configured to promote vibrant and busy public space, securely bounded by a hard edge of buildings. Streets are overlooked by balconies, bay windows and roof terraces and there are places where people might enjoy sitting out and kids can play; people go to and from their dwelling or are just passing through.
One: Haggerston & Kingsland Masterplan
Haggerston and Kingsland Masterplan is a design for a new, dense, street based city quarter, to be constructed either side of Grand Union Canal, just north of Shoreditch on the East End of London. The scheme is a celebration of the public social life of the city. Every design decision aims to promote buzzing, thriving, colourful public space. To this end the scheme is designed around a tight network of streets which creates strong visual and spatial connections with adjacent neighbourhoods and provides a direct and handy network of routes criss-crossing the area.
At the heart of the scheme is a mile long linear park which runs from Hackney Road in the south across a canal foot bridge towards the north of the Borough. The park connects a number of pre-existing public gardens and leisure spaces and will bring back into the city a series of, up till now highly segregated estate roads. It is envisaged that the park will have a basketball court, a paddling pool, a skateboarding rink, and leafy spots for people to sit. At the north-east edge of the project, streets converge at a small public square alongside the existing community centre. The square has a local feel to it, while at the same time being strongly integrated into the broader city. It is to have park benches, trees and a notice board. it seems likely that on sunny days activities might spill out into it from the community centre. At the north end of the site a double crescent street has an interesting dual identity; it fulfils a 'global' function by connecting the Victorian grid to the east with Kingsland Road and the proposed East London Line tube station to the west. At the same time its geometry gives it an intimacy and gentle introversion, which suggests that it belongs to the people who live on it.
Elsewhere urban moves are made on a larger scale. Whiston Road is an existing main road running east west through the area. The buildings on its north side are turned into a dramatic 200 metre long south facing crescent sweeping across the site.
We envisage a vibrant mixture of uses within the new quarter including social and private housing, employment generating business use, together with shops, 'community' and leisure buildings.
A variety of housing types are provided to reflect the diversity of peoples' needs and desires ('high up, ground floor, maisonette, house, flat'). In all cases a terrace typology is adopted with dwellings accessed at regular intervals along the street. Dwellings are orientated so that all public space is overlooked. Every dwelling has a garden, roof garden, courtyard or balcony.
The heights and massing of the buildings varies according to the streets on which they are located, with a five and six storey 'terrace/tenement hybrid' in the busier perimeter locations and a two and four storey 'terrace/courtyard' hybrid in the narrower more intimate streets.
Two: Innovation in Housing Competition
Again this is an ultra high density, low rise, mixed-use scheme. It is on a prominent corner site, in the East End of London. Like the Haggerston quarter this scheme aims to provide vibrant and colourful public space, bounded by a hard edge of buildings. Like Haggerston its starting point is urban.
At the heart of the scheme the new street runs north south across the site giving access to the dwellings on either side and offering a pedestrian route connecting adjacent streets. It has an intimate scale, seven metres wide and bordered on either side by two and a half storey high buildings. Balconies, terraces, bay windows and numerous front doors animate the facades of the buildings, creating private spaces that overhang and overlap the street. Deckchairs, some chat, colourful plants, maybe even the chance for people to meet.
Where they meet Old Ford Road, the buildings rise to four storeys and non-residential uses are introduced - a shop, a community centre, a café. On the east side of the site an elegant residential terrace follows the slow sweeping curve of Parnell Road.
The typical double unit comprises a two-bedroomed masionette at upper ground and first floor and a two-bedroom flat at lower ground floor. The configuration as a 'notched terrace, enables us to achieve ultra-high densities of 520 habitable rooms per hectare whilst maintaining high levels of privacy and amenity to every dwelling.
Each dwelling has its own front door on the street and every dwelling has a four metre by eight metre courtyard. The upper maisonette is entered from the street through a courtyard garden. The living area has a fully glazed sliding screen, which faces south, over the courtyard. Upstairs there is a double bedroom, another bedroom or study, a bathroom and a balcony that overlooks the street.
The lower maisonette has a street entrance door leading down a staircase into an open plan living area. The room is flooded with light from a fully glazed sliding screen, which gives access into a large courtyard garden. The living area leads to a double bedroom, a single bedroom or study and a bathroom. The courtyard in each dwelling is an unprogrammed or ''slack' space which we hope might, in time, be used by residents needing a 'lean to' a shed, a greenhouses, or plant supports.
Three: Doris' Place
Doris' Place is an ultra dense, mixed use, urban regeneration project located on a difficult 4.5m wide slot site in a run down market street in Hackney. The scheme comprises two two bedroom duplexes at first and second floor level, an employment generating live/work unit with double height space at ground floor and basement, and a gallery space behind a fully glazed shopfront, to give colour and activity to the street. This was a speculative project, which needed single regeneration budget support and very high densities to be viable financially. Despite high densities there are unusually large interior volumes, a high level of privacy and amenity, and a private external space for each unit
An important element is the courtyard at first floor level which provides a shared space for access into individual dwellings, while allowing daylight down into the heart of the building and through pavement lights into the basement. The courtyard measuring only 4.5m x 4.5m which has become the social heart of the project, has been heavily planted and is the central place where residents can congregate in good weather. The rear duplex has a tilting parabolic roof, which creates a spacious top floor living room and has a popular local landmark.
This project has confirmed for us our commitment to high density developments and strategies such as wrapping different occupancies around one another, overlapping sectional arrangements and the meticulous placing of windows to provide interesting views and maximize daylight.
The projects described here are all based on the idea of the 'street' as central to successful urban design; designed to bring people into close proximity, where residents are highly visible to one another and where there is a strong likelihood that they will meet. They are projects designed to promote a high level of interdependence between individuals, and in the long term it is hoped that they might help to empower groups of people who are strongly self determined.
All three projects are driven by an optimistic, but we think realistic, view of society and of an architecture that can help shape cities that are economically and socially sustainable.