Venetia Thompson says that the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment does work that nobody else can and constructs homes that buck current property market trends
Robin Hood famously robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but I am certain that he never suggested that the poor should then be crammed into tower blocks like battery chickens in the name of Modernist architecture until they were finally stabbed to death in a deserted stairwell. There is nothing truly egalitarian about the ironically named Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London — except the equality of squalor. It is no surprise that most of its 400 residents want the 1972 monstrosity torn down and replaced with something vaguely inhabitable.
However — wouldn’t you know it? — Modernist architects are campaigning to save it. Zaha Hadid describes it as ‘a seminal project of socially responsible architecture from the era of Utopian thinking’. Maybe she should go and live there herself. This is a prime example of the desire for impractical ‘modernity’ getting in the way of common sense and human well-being. The structure deserves to be torn to the ground. As Quinlan Terry warned in 1987, ‘such is the fate of any art that places technique before beauty, and means before ends’.
As a social housing estate Robin Hood Gardens has failed; it is a perfect example of the type of rotten-walled, antisocial developments that the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hopes will not define the architectural future of this country. Thankfully, the Prince of Wales has yet to be ‘felled in the prime of life by a piece of rotting concrete descending from a post-modernist building’, as he feared he might be in his 1989 book A Vision of Britain. In the intervening period, he has been devoting himself to a series of sustainable developments that represent value in every sense of the word: not only aesthetic, but also financial. What makes the work of the Foundation so pertinent in the current economic climate is that the sorts of homes that the Prince favours seem to be bucking the property market and keeping their value more tenaciously than others.
Where builders are having to down tools in other financially threatened developments, the Foundation continues to build and sell properties. To an extent that is not fully appreciated, it has proven expert at building or contributing to large-scale projects in ways and locations that others would not: it reaches the parts other architectural forces cannot. The Prince’s aim in Poundbury, Dorset, was to create a town that he would be no less happy to live next to than he would be to live in. Leon Krier’s creation is much more than the toy town of some ill-informed media caricature. Buildings here simply make sense. There is no wandering around trying to find entrances or exits among perspex walls and steel tubing, or bewilderment at reverse cantilevers; just traditional houses built from local materials in keeping with the surrounding area, and local shops stocking local produce, staffed by residents. It is impossible to get lost or find oneself stranded in the middle of a deserted bit of violence-prone ‘dead space’.
The architect Andrés Duany has remarked that the problem of the modern era is still the problem of large numbers. The Modernists always fall back on population growth to defend their incorrigible love of high-rise monstrosities. They are wrong, according to Hank Dittmar, the CEO of the Prince’s Foundation: high density, he says, does not have to mean high-rise. To use Poundbury and the Foundation’s Crown Street development in Glasgow as examples, both exceed the national average of 14.3 dwellings per hectare, with 28.5 and 66.8 respectively, without resorting to building ever upwards.
Yet the Foundation still faces opposition. Dittmar attributes this to a variety of factors. The housing industry is still built on a model of ‘rapid turnaround’ and economic short-termism. Many developers are still focused on making money from the immediate uplift in land value upon gaining planning permission — as opposed to the additional value that has been proven to accrue from building something that actually has long-term value. Second, planners are still trained to apply standards that are derived from the 1950s model of the segregated cul-de-sac housing estate. While John Prescott proposed a strategy that would get away from this outdated model, and was theoretically in line with the Foundation’s aims, Dittmar insists that words alone are not enough; it is not until something is actually drawn that you can see people’s intentions. Dittmar says that he and the Modernist Richard Rogers would probably reach the same broad conclusions about what a community should be: mixed use, ‘walkable’, and with a high quality of design. However, what they would actually build would be entirely different.
Where Rogers and much of the Modern movement sets architecture in a rigorously ideological context, the Prince’s Foundation approaches its work from a practical perspective, derived from common sense and a respect for basic human needs and values. The Foundation is ultimately an educational charity and believes in learning by doing, and by studying past techniques.
Dittmar is concerned that property, whether private or public, has become increasingly commodified and that, in the process, its value in the broadest sense has been stripped away. He believes that property should be looked at in terms of 100- or 200-year spans; we should be trying to create buildings that are adaptable and generate value over long periods of time; value, in other words, which is economic, social and environmental.
And there is no contradiction. The kinds of properties that the Foundation builds — precisely because they are designed for human beings rather than to satisfy left-wing ideologues — retain their commercial value. Homes in Poundbury are weathering the property downturn more robustly than those in neighbouring areas, with building continuing as planned due to high demand. A recent report showed that Poundbury achieved 17 per cent higher value (£ per square foot) than the ‘standard’ comparator (a nearby development completed in 2004) and 44 per cent higher than the ‘old’ comparator (an area of predominantly Victorian terraces in Dorchester).
However, the Foundation sees commercial worth as only one of many ways of judging the value of a building. Citing the Guildhall in Totnes, Devon, Dittmar explains that it was originally built on the ruins of a priory in 1080. Since then it has been a guildhall, a magistrates’ court, a prison and a museum. It has been taken care of by the local community for centuries and, in this sense, its open market value would give only a hint of its true significance and worth. Dittmar believes that we need to start thinking about our island and its land in much the same way. His idea of ‘sustainability’ is not simply confined to trendy greenery but is part of a much more profound sense of the built environment that we bequeath from one generation to the next.
To return to Quinlan Terry’s 1987 speech: ‘let us build smaller and gentler buildings… make walls of solid brick or stone… and take inspiration from the wisdom of our forefathers so that our buildings will be signs and heralds of a more natural, more stable and more beautiful world...’ The Prince’s Foundation is our best hope of putting this philosophy into practice and ensuring that structures like Robin Hood Gardens soon become a nasty memory of a misguided time.