Thursday, April 23, 2009

How do we debate urban design today?

A while ago, M. sent me an article from the New York Times: Rethinking Postwar Design in London. Reflected through the Robin Hood Gardens (1), a post-war social housing estate built in the early 1970's, the article analyses the successes and failures (but rather failures) of post-war design in the rush to build amidst a housing crisis. It then tries to bring contemporary solutions, by means of various design interventions, to tackle the issue without hurting too much an important part of a London identity created around the plethora of this new typology (the post-war housing) and taking into consideration sustainability and environmental issues: "Construction is one of the largest single producers of carbon dioxide. In the age of global warming, deciding to tear down and rebuild rather than think through whether a project can be salvaged has obvious ethical implications".

F. is working on her final project at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design and has taken a large social housing estate in the northeastern part of London, near Manor House: Woodberry Down Estate (2). The estate is beautifully located aroud the East and West Reservoir water basins but the fate of the estate has never been so poor. The area has an interesting story of becoming from one of the wealthier neighbourhoods of the area occupied by Jewish families, and then being compulsorily purchased by the London County Council for this quite large post-war housing development, completed in 1962. I have once been to the estate, now going through major regeneration led by Hackney Homes association. Some of the larger white houses to the south of the estate are in appalling conditions, some flats with no proper windows and the walls and the doors falling apart, revealing the interiors of the houses, probably freezing in the cold harsh winter breeze.

Yesterday afternoon we had a team meeting over a new study we wish to carry out in the office. Without going into too much detail, I can say that it is mainly to do with energy efficiency and building typologies. During consideration of what samples to examine from London's architectural heritage, we came to speak about post-war typology as a prominent one, discussing the failures of poor design and construction methods, that fail to satisfy neither the quality of life the tenants deserve today, nor the visual attractiveness the city deserves. However, in their own senses, social housing estates are realities of today's London. Living in one of them, I could not be closer to this reality than any other.

We usually make comparisons of different surroundings in big cities like London. They help us compare and contrast various projects in terms of urban form, city identity, connectivity, social assets, visual appeal, standards of living and more. The street layouts of Georgian housing communities may be greener, and more sustainable in the long-term but definitely appeal to a more individualistic and wealthier lifestyle that cease to exist in a city of today's deep global crisis, in which is now embedded are the hundreds of communities of different social backgrounds. A housing block behind a major road can give you the convenience of sociability and easy access to communal amenities but they usually are located in the impoverished and distant areas of towns.

One particular point I come across that we sometimes fail to realise in our discussions is to make fair judgments of developments in the recent urban heritage in their respective contemporary environments. A high-school friend, E., was here last summer for a few months to do an internship with a design-led sustainable small enterprise, through which he published some writings and presented a witty presentation that included a critic of single-dimension state-led design in the immediate post-war Britain (in Turkish). One of the points he eventually touched upon that relates to my point here was the desperation of the state in a financial wreck, trying to overcome a major housing shortage in a very short time. However, are we giving a fair account of the deals when looking at the appaling states of some of the day's housing solutions given the necessities of its time? Or, rather, is there a good range of discussion carried out over both the good and the bad (and eventually the ugly) examples of what was built in the post-war era, to understand whether some of the solutions did actually work its way until today?

One of today's major discussion points is the 'green' future. We have recently seen that some of the recent ambitious proposals by today's construction and developers pioneers have gone to the waste. A year has passed since Arup had to leak the news that the Dongtan project was to be halted, and today it seems like it is lost forever. Coincidentially, states are in line to boost their 'green' ambitions in the wake of the global financial crisis. However, here in Britain, there is a new urban 'crisis' that seems to set a new discussion has gone the wrong way again.

Analysing different qualities of different forms built over centuries, without taking into account the span of time and different motives behind each era is the biggest tyranny of an urban historian. Studying an historical era, I believe the historian's main to be to understand the all dynamics of the day in order to syringe out which strategies were carried out to come up with the best solution for the existing circumstances of the day. Only, this way, can we reflect on today's problems and propose potentially succesful interventions.


Robin Hood Gardens


Woodberry Down Estate

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