Jun 15, 2014

Guest Blog: Elizabeth Wells-Thulin takes a Journey on the Bus of Buildings


The vintage Routemaster that would be “BOB” – the Bus of Buildings – pulled up outside the Walthamstow Town Hall at 10am sharp in the gleaming sun of Sunday morning, and I and several dozen other architecturally-curious folk piled on in order to take part in the inaugural BOB tour.


“BOB” was an initiative by ArchitectsE17, a local group of architects who have formed to advance the discussion of urban design in Waltham Forest. They note that “Walthamstow has a good representation of creative people but urban architectural design is not highly promoted” and this is something that they are working to change. They'd like, among other things, for the Council create a Design Review Panel to comment on all major applications. “BOB” was a way of growing this general conversation.

BOB was not an architectural tour for architecture's sake. The morning tour had a specific focus—affordable and high density housing—and clear question in mind: how can the design of buildings improve the quality of life of those who live in them?

The morning tour included seven properties, the first two of which, Hammond Court and a flat from a Warner Estate were, and the finale, Wenlock Mews, were in Walthamstow, while the intervening four, Vaudeville Court, Church Walk, Anthony House and Donnybrook were examples from Hackney and Tower Hamlets. (There was also an afternoon BOB which I wasn't able to join because it had already sold out, so it would be great to hear in the comments section from anyone who was on that later tour.)

The content was almost academic but not dry; the buildings viewed were 'case studies' that spoke to larger themes: How can we achieve density while maintaining sufficient space and light? How can we create the right relationship between public and private space? How can housing help to integrate and strengthen diverse communities? And, how do we build sustainably and durably? What would happen if we aimed to create houses that people would still want to live in one hundred years' time?

In between stops, the members of ArchitectsE17 and other special guests who had been involved in the projects in question spoke about the buildings and design process, the aspirations and the challenges, the successful aspects of the projects, as well as aspects that were not as successful. In particular, I was struck by the candidness with which the client for Hammond Court (Trevor from East Thames Groupspoke about elements that had not been as successful, mostly related to the shared courtyard, and their ongoing attempts to resolve them. I imagine that this is not always popular to publicly speak about things that didn't work out, so I felt that this was courageous as well as instructive.

It is always fun to get to pick the brains of someone who is deeply knowledgeable about something that affects our every day life, and the tour was peppered with the type of enlightenment that only experts in the field can provide. Who knew that, apparently, housing density is measured in “habitable rooms per hectare” or HRPH and that housing developments in London are supposed to hit certain HRPH standards based on availability of public transport which is in turn measured by the Public Transport Level or PTAL? (You can look up PTLs on Tfl's interactive map: http://www.webptals.org.uk/). Or that London has historically had quite a unique relationship between public and private space that is useful to consider when designing housing? You can read more about that in London: The Unique City, a history of London / urban planning classic from the 1930s, which I had never heard of but hope to acquire in the near future.

This unique relationship between public and private space came up during our visit to Donnybrook, which was for me the most striking of the sites we visited. Walking into Donnybrook, which was partially inspired by the work of Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza on a sunny day is stumbling into a Mediterranean village in the middle of Tower Hamlets. The cubist buildings are a striking Cycladean white and look out onto cobbled streets. But where were the people? As we were only there a short time, it may have been a fluke, but for a project intended to be “celebration of the public social life of the street” it was oddly deserted. One of the ArchitectsE17 members, pointed out that traditionally British homes have a buffer zone between the public and the private, usually a front garden. In Donnybrook, the public space, the street, runs all the way up to the front door. This, he hinted, as well as the fact, that British streets traditionally have not been used as extensions of the home as they are in some Mediterranean cultures, might be undermining the aspiration for the street as a vibrant public space.

Donnybrook and its deserted streets made me think more widely about the types of competing and sometimes conflicting aspirations that architects working on housing schemes—particularly in London—must resolve. We want community but not at expense of our privacy. Perhaps some of us want a Mediterranean life style but within the M25. We all want to live in London, but not on top of each other. We want green spaces, so we need density, but we want it achieved without building too high. We may want to be a community that strives to provide for good quality housing for all, but are we willing to advocate and commit resources to making this happen?

If I were to choose one key take away from the tour, it was the reminder that the built environment doesn't just happen. It is not a foregone conclusion, and while there are extensive challenges surrounding the provision of housing, we have a choice in how we respond. Even with limited resources, good design can work within constraints to help us live better.

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