Several visitors dropping in to see me have said that they quite like Kensington Town Hall but I’m not sure that I’m really in their camp. Designed by Sir Basil Spence, I suppose that it is a comfortable and efficient building, not too out of scale with its surroundings. And it has proven itself capable of adapting to changing needs. But you can see that it has a certain brutal potential and that mellowing with age is not likely to be part of its charm. Left unswept for a few days say, or unrepaired for a few months, perhaps with a bit of graffiti and bill stickers here and there, it would soon take on an intimidating aspect. We would never let that happen of course. Barring wars and great depressions, the town hall will always be well maintained and if not quite attractive, at least not neglected, even if I do have to walk over to the narrow windows of my office to see what the weather is doing and keep the lights on the sunniest of summer days.
Unfortunately the brutal potential of some of Sir Basil’s other work hasn’t been so well masked. I’m thinking in particular of the infamous Queen Elizabeth flats, which scarred the Glasgow skyline for miles around until their demolition in the 1990s. The Queen Elizabeth flats were just one of the more prominent of a whole set of disastrous developments that took place in Glasgow in the post-war era. It was all done with the best of intentions of course: to rescue working class people from the notorious tenements, but places like the Queen Elizabeth and the Red Road estate were soon bywords for ugliness, social exclusion and despair.
Robert Bruce, the City Corporation engineer, actually planned to demolish much of the Victorian centre of Glasgow and, at least to start with, had the blessing of the City Council. Such thinking was common in many British cities as the post-war push for more housing coincided with architects deciding that comprehensive redevelopment held much more promise of “a new age” than the notion that new developments should blend in with their existing surroundings. Like so much from that era, radical challenges to what had gone before seemed to matter more than creating a beautiful, liveable environment.
How did that happen? Well, one school of thought is that people were too influenced by Le Corbusier and his followers. He was that French modernist who thought that houses should be ‘machines for living’ with purist rules that stripped buildings of all ornamentation. His defenders say he gets a bad press and that his ideas were actually humane and concerned with ensuring that efficient new homes came set in natural landscaping and with all the key facilities close by. The blame for the disasters of post-war housing estates they say actually belong with city architecture departments who tried to do Le Corbusier on the cheap and without any sensitivity to the needs of their own residents.
Me, I’m only entitled to an armchair opinion, but being a conservative I’m instinctively suspicious of iconoclasts, movements and master plans.
When it comes to city planning, my own preference is for Richard Rogers, an old leftie maybe and still a modernist I suppose, but his vision strikes me as more humble, humane and realistic. His quickly neglected 1999 Urban Task Force report for Tony Blair pointed to a much more promising way forward for the effective and sustainable development of cities, and his ideas were marked by a significant exhibition ‘Inside Out’ at the Royal Academy last year.
For Rogers, cities fail because of poor use of space, a lack of human scale and a sometimes soulless emptiness in their most important public spaces. They succeed when they are high-density, open and user-friendly. And there is quite a bit of historical evidence that Lord Rogers is on the right track here. I’m thinking in particular of a place with some of the highest population densities in the world, with some of the densest development and yet it is one of the best looking and most desirable places to live on the planet. That’s right, I’m talking about Kensington and Chelsea. Of course in the sixties and seventies we had our own estate building programme and I’m not going to pretend that was an architectural triumph either, but happily estates never came to dominate our townscape in the way that they did in other parts of the country.
This is a place where space really counts and where schools, parks, sports centres and shops, both local and high street, are all walkable. It is a place that evolves, keeping the best and reshaping or removing the worst.
But with development pressure at an all time high, keeping it that way in future is going to be very challenging. If we are going to meet that challenge, the starting place is to remember the history of city development, to look at what has worked, and what hasn’t.
Would you agree with me that Rogers was on the right track or do you lean to Le Corbusier and would want to see a more radical approach to urban design?