America’s best critic weighs in…
Getting it right (maybe a little too right) in well-behaved England
By Robert Campbell, FAIA
Think of this column as a letter to a friend about a recent trip to England.
I was tagging along with the Seaside Pienza Institute, which is an informal gang of mostly American architects, educators, and developers all of whom subscribe, more or less, to the principles of the so-called New Urbanism. They agree, at least, that they prefer walkable towns to car-culture sprawl.
Sprawl is something you certainly don't see much of in rural England. It's amazing to an American: no roadside Dairy Queens, motels, billboards, used- car dealerships, suburban malls, or scattered single-family houses. Beautiful as it is, it's possible to get bored. The endless green countryside, unviolated by trade or commerce, bespeaks the heavy hand of a ruling bureaucracy, as it once spoke of a ruling aristocracy. Where, you ask yourself, is the insurgent who breaks the rules? Where is the bubbling up of private initiative that makes life irrational and interesting? Can I buy some fireworks, please?
They don't let sprawl happen. We talked to several government officials who told us there is a greenbelt around every city, town, and village. You can't develop anything in that belt unless you can prove to government planners that (a) there's a need and (b) there's no capacity for growth on existing sites inside the town limits. The "thrill of walking from the town into the country," as one speaker put it, is preserved by government fiat.
I'm certainly in favor of a sharp line between town and country. But with this same group, I toured Tuscany last year. There we discovered that the equally bucolic Italian farm landscape is uneconomic and survives only because it's considered historic and is subsidized by the European Union [RECORD, October 2003, page 67]. England has similar problems, its agriculture now threatened by cheaper overseas imports. One group is addressing that problem with the pleasingly named "Eat the View" initiative, trying to get town dwellers to buy fresh produce grown in the immediate scenic surroundings.
Logical there; heretical in U.S.
Planning happens on a big scale, too. We learned that the government has identified four national corridors where growth will be encouraged. The major one lies along the new rail link to mainland Europe. It's a proposal as logical there as it would be heretical in the U.S.
We visited Poundbury, the new town sponsored by the Prince of Wales and planned by New Urbanist guru Leon Krier, who met us there. He said architects should imitate rather than invent, and noted that "nobody has proposed an anticlassical Chianti." He also said, in a sentence worth thinking about, that "architecture should be divorced from art history."
Sponsored by Prince Charles, Poundbury follows New Urbanist planning rules.
Poundbury obeys the principles of Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanism. It's mixed-use and dense. The houses don't float on wasteful green lawns; they butt up against one another in traditional rows. Streets wander around as unpredictably as in a medieval village, in a way that's maybe too self-consciously picturesque. Parks are banished to the perimenter, so that the town itself can remain compact and walkable. Cars are tucked semi-visibly in parking courts. It's a real town, not just a bedroom burb, with commerce and light manufacturing.
I have to admit I was amused to learn that although Poundbury is only one-fifth built, the serpent of Nimbyism has already raised its hissing head. A group has been formed that calls itself PROD: Poundbury Residents Opposed to Density. At the time of our visit, PROD had just succeeded in getting planning authorities to deny permission for a modest new apartment building. These are guys who chose to live in a traditionally dense, compact settlement, and who paid a premium to do so (Poundbury has been a marketing success). They then turn around to protest the very qualities that, presumably, attracted them in the first place. Although I think PROD is selfish and absurd, it's somehow reassuring to know that contrariness can still flourish in a model community. Krier, as usual, gets it right. When you do a new development, he says, "You must build the noxious uses first or the residents will prevent them." They love to talk about architecture in England. George Ferguson, the current president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, has proposed an X rating for works of architecture. He hasn't explained the details, but the idea is that really terrible buildings would be given the X in the hope that, labeled with such a stigma, they might be demolished. Perhaps the government could subsidize the demolition, or perhaps it could refuse needed permissions or benefits. One delights in imagining the star-chamber gathering of taste police who would meet to award the X listing. Alas, it probably won't happen.
The hottest argument at the moment is over a government policy that says, or seems to say—the wording is the usual bureaucratic fog—that traditional styles of architecture are now banned in the British countryside. The law formerly banned any large new house in open countryside, since the government policy, as noted above, is to keep development in towns. But it was modified—with backstage pressure, everyone thinks but can't prove, from Norman Foster— to permit houses that are "truly outstanding and groundbreaking" and reflect "the highest standards in contemporary architecture."
Architects who practice in traditional modes believe this is a deliberate prohibition of historic styles, and they're up in arms, as are Americans like Andres Duany. A member of Prince Charles's staff suggested to me that if you were to ban architecture that imitates the architecture of some previous era, you'd have to demolish half of London. Gothic Revival? Palladian? Even a landmark like Tower Bridge is merely thick clothes of traditional stone over a modern steel frame.
Speaking of Foster, his office courteously arranged a private tour of the master's new office tower in the financial district of London, the so-called Gherkin. (Taciturn Americans lack the gift for nick- names that come so easily in the
more verbal culture of the Brits.) A gherkin is a pickled cucumber, and Foster's tower does indeed look like a pickle or a fat cigar standing on end [RECORD, May 2004, page 2181. I loved and hated it. From an urban point of view, it's remarkably unsocial. It wraps itself haughtily in its glass cloak, like an operatic diva, ignoring everything around it. The architecture tells you this is a generic building that could be sited anywhere. It offers nothing to the life of the street. The ground floor, which is tiny, as befits the end of a gherkin, contains only an elevator lobby.
A vertical cul-de-sac
Upstairs, though, if you're privileged to go there (the whole building is occupied by a single Swiss insurance company), the place is remarkable. Glass atriums spiral up the exterior, offering fresh air to every occupant. At the top are a restaurant and bar with spectacular views over the city, at least until the next tower blocks them. In a talk at Poundbury, the ever-quotable Krier fulminated about skyscrapers. They are, he said, "network disrupters" and "catastrophic social isolators." A skyscraper is a "vertical cul-de-sac" - cul-de-sac being, probably, the most vicious insult a New Urbanist can utter.
And indeed, the Gherkin functions more like an elitist club than a connected piece of the city. But it's an elegant work of architecture. Four days after my visit, when the Gherkin opened briefly to the public, the queue went around the block. Television crews were present to record the event. It's hard to imagine that kind of interest in a work of commercial architecture in the U.S.
Incidentally, architectural techies should check out the window-washing system at the Gherkin. Cleaning a building of this shape is a challenge, to say the least. Foster and consultants had to invent an elaborate crane and boom that climbs around the exterior like a giant spider. Let's hope it works. As every architect knows, in architecture you don't get to build, test, and improve a prototype before going on to the production model. You have to get it right the first time.