Saturday, 29 June 2013

Unbuilding Britain

"There's a revolution going on in our cities."

By now, I would expect that you’ve all seen ‘On the Brandwagon’, a programme by Jonathan Meades from 2007. In it, he decries the ‘pseudomodern’ architecture that took over our inner cities in the 00s boom, both on the level of its pandering jollity, and also on the basically more dangerous level of what he described as “the soufflé economy”. The film is curmudgeonly negative about pretty much all the developments in built environment culture over the whole of that decade, which is perhaps why so many of us like it so much.

But I’ve dug out perhaps an even more damning document from the boom, one which is more incriminating because of the obliviousness of some of the protagonists. It’s a television programme called ‘Building Britain’. Also broadcast in 2007 (so presumably made before the first cracks appeared in the subsequently shattered world economy), it is an investigation into the differing fortunes of the neighbouring cities of Leeds and Bradford. At this point in time, Leeds was in the middle of a high rise building frenzy, with luxury flats popping up all over town, while Bradford was only just getting used to the gigantic hole that Westfield had left after demolishing a large patch of the city centre, and before building a new shopping centre for the city.

Building Britain was a vehicle for Linda Barker, herself a Bradfordian, who at that time was best known for her work on the BBC’s long running ‘home makeover’ show Changing Rooms, which did much to open the doors to the flood of ‘property porn’ programmes that would clog up the schedules for most of the 00s. Indeed, Building Britain is at least partially interesting for being a reminder of a certain mood in pre-crash television, with shots of her purposefully striding down streets accompanied by obnoxious shuffle-y 90s trip hop music, which even by that stage hadn’t been properly killed off. Thankfully she’s not asking us to “join me on a journey”, and actually, over the course of the show she comes off rather well in the hindsight stakes, being rather more critical than you might expect from a presenter of fluffy daytime television.

On the Brandwagon concludes with footage of the Paris Banlieu riots of 2005, expressing the belief (partially borne out) that the regeneration industry and its massive investment in inner cities would lead to a similarly disastrous neglect of the peripherique. Building Britain, on the other hand, begins with footage of the 2001 Bradford riots, suggesting that a nadir had already been reached, and that upward was about the only direction it could go. As a further sign of things not being able to get much worse, Barker passes the Westfield site, which, half-way through 2013, is still a gigantic hole in the ground. From here on in, the pathos just gets heavier.

"From a ruin to a regeneration icon"

Barker’s next port of call is Lister Mills, perhaps one of the most significant landmarks in the history of Britain’s 21st century regeneration. It’s the project that made the name of Urban Splash, the ultimate Blairite property developer, rescuers of post-industrial and -in Park Hill’s case- post-social housing structures, reconstructors of relics of bygone social organisations as chic design conscious yuppie flats. Unlike some, I’m not sure you can consider them MORE insidious than so many other property types, but there’s something about their modus operandi, their rise from the 1980s Manchester scene, their gentrifying panache and closeness to ‘cool Britannia’ that just does it for some people. In the shadow of Lister Mills, Barker meets Amjad Pervez, of Asian Trade Link, who, with a shit-eating grin on his face dishes out some choice nuggets of regeneration patter:
“You go to Paris, and you’ve got the Eiffel Tower, you go to Egypt and you’ve got the pyramids, and if you go to London it’s the clock, but in Bradford... it’s Lister Mills!”.
This particular trope was actually quite common back then - it reminds me of being in Dubai before the crash, where we visited the show flat for the Burj Dubai as it was then called, wherein upon a wall we found a sequence of panels depicting the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, then Neil Armstrong on the moon, before a rendered image of the tower. Sheer hubris.

Oh, and by the way, Amjad Pervez is currently opening a Michael Gove endorsed free school in Bradford.

SuperCity | Picture A City: Bradford from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

"We really do think we got value out of it"

Next stop is the masterplan, the VISION. We’re off to see the wizard, although in this case the invisible wizard is Will Alsop, and all that he’s left for us is a big perspex model and a video made by his son, Ollie. Alsop senior came in for quite a lot of flack for his Bradford masterplan (which we are reliably told cost £500,000 - my GOD how fees have plummeted since 2008), for its flimsiness, its triteness and its general implausibility. It proposed demolishing as much 1960s architecture as possible (a suggestion which hopefully now, thanks to the efforts of various critical voices, looks as clearly odious and obnoxious as it was) and replacing it with parks and new wobbly Alsop-style buildings, all accompanied by music from Icarus, one of the archetypes of mid-00’s folktronica, whose glitched up acoustic futurism is actually going through a bit of a revival. There’s obviously an irony to Alsop’s proposal to dig a giant hole in the middle of the city, but overall however it’s clear that the masterplan was intended as a massive confidence booster, not necessarily to be implemented literally but as a certain kick up the arse of the animal spirits of those who might potentially invest in Bradford.

Barker meets Maude Marshall, head of Bradford Centre Regeneration, a private company taking fees to do a job that should really have been the local authority’s. As the camera pans lovingly over the masterplan model as if it were an M&S oven-ready meal, Marshall does her very best to sound convinced that she has a chance of making it all work, spinning out deliriously naff strands of cant and gibberish: “People think Alsop’s wacky, and sure, some of the images you see are a bit organic, they are a bit mushroomy, but what they’re really saying is ‘think out the box, think what Bradford could be.’” when pushed by Barker, we get the following exquisite dribble: “It’s already going for it [...] urban village, residential market, tipping point, it’s happening.”

Oh, and by the way, Bradford Centre Regeneration was wound up in 2009 and the Alsop masterplan was dropped.

"Does that mean smaller apartments, and more of them?"

Soon, we’re in Leeds, where Barker notes, “controlling development is the problem, not encouraging it.” Barker hangs around underneath City Island, shockingly bad lumps of cynical regeneration tat, and it’s good to see that even before the crash mainstream voices were making alarmed noises about this kind of thing. But even that’s nothing compared to Bridgewater Place, a residential tower around the same height as the Barbican, a shockingly ugly building designed by everyone’s least favourite architectural hacks, Aedas. There’s a great scene though, when Michael Gardner, the project architect, is asked about the increase in units from Aedas’ initial design of 156 residential units to the developer’s in-house layout of 201. Mumbling and obviously uncomfortable at Barker’s implications of penny pinching, Gardner euphemises that “they’re able to deliver a … a more refined product to the market.” This of course was the story about the boom - developers were so unchecked, so cynical, that so many of these inner city developments are spatially far, far worse than the detested social housing of old. Sure, the construction is generally better, they don’t tend to rain on the inside, but let’s just wait till their cladding needs replaced in a few decades and we’ll see how much love people still have for them. In Bridgewater Place’s case, it’s not gone well. Nominated for the carbuncle cup, apparently nicknamed ‘The Dalek’, it also apparently killed someone when high winds at the foot of the tower lifted a lorry up and crushed a pedestrian - an accident for which liability has still not been settled.

The depressing peak of the programme has to be the next scene, a visit to the property developer Kevin Linfoot, whose firm were the ones who managed to shoe-horn 30% more flats into the Bridgewater Place development. In a scene of almost poetic quality, with shades of The Fountainhead, William Golding’s The Spire or perhaps Bigas Lunas’ Goldenballs, we meet Linfoot in a penthouse office, dominated by a 1:100 model of his dream project, The Lumiere, 170m tall, over 50 storeys high, nearly 1000 apartments, but absolutely NOT to be referred to as a ‘tower block’. Agonisingly uncomfortable on the camera, Linfoot comes across as very different to what you think property developers are supposed to be like - dominant, brash, testosterone-sodden minotaurs. He barely speaks in fact, being basically drowned out by Barker, but when he does it’s amazing: “the profit levels on this building are about half of what we usually work on” he admits, before confessing “I just think somebody’s got to do it, I know how difficult these things are to do, and I want to do it [...] I suppose really it’s something that I wanted to do for myself.”

Oh, and by the way, the Lumiere never got built, and Linfoot’s property company went into liquidation in 2009.

"It's gonna make the Gherkin look normal"

After that pathos there’s a brief lull where Barker talks to John Thorpe, literally the last civic architect in the UK, who recently retired. However, we’re nowhere near the bottom yet, as we are about to encounter the full idiocy of Ken Shuttleworth. “If the economy suddenly fails, Leeds will have a LOT of empty flats.” says Barker, before instantly spoiling her insight by adding, “but one way to be recession proof, is to get the best in design.” Barker introduces Shuttleworth as “the top architect in the world”, a statement almost criminally false, when it describes the architect of the ASPIRE sculpture, the Nottingham Jubilee Campus, the forthcoming UBS behemoth at Broadgate, the Cube in Birmingham, and arguably of course the Gherkin. In the years since leaving Foster, Shuttleworth has been doing his best to make even the most boring buildings by his old boss look accomplished, as he sets out to have a firm whose usp is that they can design buildings which are both vacuously commercial and inanely flamboyant at the same time. He’s known for making some utterly ridiculous statements too (recently claiming that the Gherkin required viewing corridors of its own, the silly bollock), and in this programme I think I’ve found the motherlode. Barker interviews him in the company of some unnamed black-clad minion from the MAKE studio, stood on a bridge over the motorway looking over at the Leeds International Pool, which is to be demolished to make way for the - wait for it - ‘Spiracle’. Now, apparently a spiracle is a vestigal gill opening behind the eye of a cartilaginous fish, and admittedly it is a respiratory opening, which is ever so slightly appropriate, considering the development is one of those ones from around that time which had wind turbines stuck on the top as an oh-so-bloody-green sop, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a worse name for a development in my life, and there are a lot of offensively stupid and obnoxious developments out there. Spiracle. Spiracle. SPIRACLE. SPI-RA-CLE. It’s a spire + a miracle. A miraculous spire! ARGH WHAT’S THE POINT?

But I think what’s best here is if we just let Shuttleworth use his own rope to hang himself, for what he gives us is perhaps the worst possible justification for silly architecture that I’ve ever heard:
“The idea is to try and make a building which actually stands out from any other building that’s ever been built, so it’s like a circular building, but all the floor plates are expressed as wavy lines, so you get this series of poppadoms on top of the other. I think now with the Spiracle we can make a new ICONIC architecture, and people then rise to the challenge of that on other buildings - I think that’ll be great. In a way the Gherkin London is a marker that says the next building has to be better than the Gherkin, it puts its mark down, it pushes everybody up to the next level. And hopefully the Spiracle will do the same in Leeds, that’d be the challenge.”
My god, so architecture is basically just an excuse for each architect to wave their dick (or occasionally, tits) around in ever more flamboyant loops and shapes, in the hope that that somehow lifts the tide of all design? When people like that are described as the best architects in the world then no wonder the field is in so much trouble. (it should be noted that Shuttleworth, since the crash, has been keen to suggest that he’s against the whole ‘iconic’ building method, but this little clip is just too damning.)

As if to add insult to idiocy, as Barker waves over at the Pool building, saying “I don’t think I’ll be sorry to see it go, you obviously won’t feel sorry for it.” Shuttleworth laughs: “The sooner the better!”

Oh, and by the way, the Leeds International Pool, an excellent if -shall we say- tainted building, was soon afterwards demolished. The Spiracle never occurred, and the site is now a surface car park.

"I think it's the renaissance of Bradford"

A visit to Irena Bauman is included as an example of a practitioner offering sustainable (in the social sense) development. Not particularly interesting, it at least gives us the following interesting fence-sitting: “I think that it’s largely to do with human vanity, and greed. I don’t really want to knock developers, because they are extraordinary people, they are risk takers, they fuel the economy, they are exciting, they create possibilities, but at the moment nobody is actually looking - I can’t hear the voice of the city.” Bauman’s model is that of a responsible capitalism, which is of course fair enough, it’s a very mittel-european attitude to have, that social democratic sense of ‘diverting’ the processes of the markets and doing your best to feed them back into something like a civic sphere. It’s certainly not a very British idea though.

Commercial firm Carey Jones get a visit too, to discuss their plans for the redevelopment of the Bradford Odeon, a project that many felt was utterly necessary for the regeneration of the city, as a sort of kickstarting project. As commercial architects go, there’s not actually so much to complain about - they’re office specialists, and everything is as boring as you’d expect in that world, but at least it’s not MAKE, if you know what I mean. One choice morsel of bullshit is when partner Gordon Carey shares his spiel with Barker, trying to sell her the replacement scheme, which at that stage looks like your typically generic yawn-worthy bollocks. As far as he’s concerned, “These louvres which will be multicoloured, are reflecting the multicultural nature of Bradford”. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Carey Jones got hammered in the crash, but are still active, although at a staff level of perhaps just over half what was shown in the project. In 2012 George Galloway managed to take the Bradford West seat in a by-election, with one of his main election pledges to support a local campaign to retain and renovate the Bradford Odeon, which still sits derelict.

"I think we need to ensure you are wowed and surprised."

It’s all rather sad really, this story, at least in terms of how the crash has stretched Bradford’s low point into a plateau of destitution, with really no end in sight. There’s also the temptation to feel a little schadenfreude at the just deserts dished out to the clueless regeneration hack, the property developer brought low, the second-rate architect spinning rubbish about a project that would never happen. But gloating is simply not appropriate when over five years later everything is still getting worse for almost everyone. In fact, since the crash the housing market has become even more desperate than it ever was before, with rental misery increasing, and a swiftly rising drawbridge separating those who can afford/inherit property and those who can’t. Significantly, one theme that runs through the whole programme is a total disdain for the architecture of the 1960s/70s, with everyone remarking how pleased they are to be removing the concrete buildings, and Barker at one point commenting on how new buildings really need to be ‘iconic’ and avoid the ugliness of the post war developments. But actually what everyone seems to be missing is the civic purpose and social aims that fed much of the development at that time, and despite all the failures, what we genuinely need now is a programme of quality mass housing, otherwise this island will continue to strangle itself, will continue to allow the rentier class to dominate, extracting wealth without investing it back in at all. If Britain’s ever going to recover properly it needs to realise that housing does not work as a free market, and never ever will.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most depressing aspect of watching this programme today is the fact that it was obvious even back then that this way of building cities wasn’t working, but 30 years of neoliberalism had removed almost all of the ways to fight back against the ‘property owning democracy’ model, and anyway, it was all too easy to just take the money that was sloshing around and go along with everything. Now what though?

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