Monday, 26 December 2016

No Christmas cheer at Wornington Green

This is the dream residents were promised.
They will be young, thin, and laughing as they move.
Yes I was a bit late delivering Christmas cards to local members on Christmas Eve. I'd had a cold, but I did get them out before the day. So I raced round the easy bits, Ladbroke Grove, St Lawrence Terrace, Portobello Road etc without too much trouble. But Wornington Green was somewhat problematic.  

I have visited quite a few old and vulnerable people there who are being unwillingly decanted to somewhere they don’t wish to live. The anxiety and insecurity takes a terrible toll on their health, and I've just heard that yet another old dear has succumbed to illness before experiencing her 'lovely new home'. I am heartbroken for her family, who have been a bedrock of the community for decades.

It’s been a while since I walked around the whole estate.

I was shocked. The estate is filthy. Security doors are broken. Entryphones are out of order. Lifts aren’t working, and the stairs are full of rubbish and steeped in urine. No wonder that crime and anti-social behaviour are on the rise; Catalyst Housing just don't care.

It reminds me of the old days. So before I head out again next week with my proper camera to record the filth they expect people to live in, while they wait for the 'glorious new era' they have been promised, here’s a reminder of what they’ve had to put up with over the past six years:

2010, a view from Thompson House, rubbish thrown out of windows as paladins were hardly ever emptied. Disgusting, and it attracted rats and other vermin.

Unbelievably, an entire bird's nest was constructed, and eggs laid, in a staircase that should have been swept daily. Residents called in Environmental Health, who had to get in a specialist team to deal with it as the eggs had hatched when they arrived. Health hazard.

Just one of many instances of truly appalling black mould, in a child's bedroom in one of the 'old' blocks (just 40 years old). The damp came through because the gutters had NEVER been cleared. NEVER. This was in Pepler House, a building that was commissioned to last for 200 years but they never bothered with cyclical maintenance.

A small sample of the residents' protests as the dark shadow of the planning application drew near, in March 2010. This family lived in a perfectly lovely 1970s house, beautifully designed and compact, neat back garden overlooking the now demolished park. They loved it.

To add to the campaign of endless (subtle) harassment of residents, one day Catalyst Housing Group decided to change the locks on the Residents' Room. This was their oh so diplomatic way of disbanding the Residents' Association, who had been supporting the campaign against development of the estate.

This is the reality residents faced.

Catalyst Housing's actions grew less 'diplomatic' as they came to the point of sending eviction notices to families, some of whom had no idea where they would be sent. This three-generation family were distraught.

To counteract some of the bad press Catalyst Housing were attracting, they very publicly wrote the infamous SIX PLEDGES. Click to read.

None have been honoured. 

Here is the Catalyst Housing director of the time, Manpreet Dillon (now at Notting Hill Housing Group). See how he smiles as he signs the pledges. He even went on BBC tv to make his point that the development would tackle overcrowding. It hasn't. They are still moving families out of the borough.

Despite all the pledges made, the new homes have been constructed with frankly appalling construction quality. I could do better than this with my toy saw and glue gun.

Windows have been fitted poorly. 
This is one of the worst examples,
in the show home!

This is the craftmanship behind
the new traders' lock-ups.
 They leak. Little wonder. 
Oh no, the new buildings
now have damp,
just like the 'old' ones. 

And more than one ceiling collapsed. Oops.

So the accommodation at Wornington Green has turned full circle, in just three years, with leaks and damp. Catalyst Housing are treating residents with utter contempt. 

You can be sure that I will be onto this in 2017. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

DARK MATTERS: light means life in Kensington & Chelsea

The gorgeous Trellick Tower at night. Classic
'socialometer' with at least one-third of lights
on, evidence of social or long-term occupants
I still write periodically for the professional magazines I used to work for some years ago. And I have posted in the blog below an article which is being published in Building Design, K&C News and the Docomomo Newsletter.

We are currently engaged in a review of parts of the Local Plan, which is the bible for Planning and development in the borough. So before you dive into the article on ‘Balance and Sacrifice at the Design Museum’ I’d like to make some general points that highlight where I believe we are going very wrong in RBKC.

  • The obsession with ‘landmark’ (tall) buildings could eventually ruin forever the very human scale of K&C, where for the most part buildings are no higher than our magnificent plane trees. Trellick Tower is exempt as quite properly it was designed to be surrounded by green space and long views. These may now be built upon, which would be a huge mistake.
  • The pernicious habit of seeing buildings as precious objects placed 'just so', not genuinely knitting them into the area they land in. Instead developers use their highly- paid and deceitful marketing teams to create a false environment and false optimism, which has a negative impact on the neighbourhood.
  • The sheer insanity of imposing floor to ceiling windows (is this recommended in some design guide?) on people whose lives do not resemble a page in Architectural Digest, is an architect’s conceit. There is no consideration that simply affording decent window-coverings for massive windows is beyond the purse of many tenants, who end up with cheap curtains drawn 24/7. 
  •  The neighbourhoods, places and buildings that people most appreciate have arrived organically, and it is very hard to create from scratch a neighbourhood or centre that functions, and feels authentic and not synthetic. Which is why you have to start with what is there and not erase it all. Though this hasn't really worked at the Design Museum due to its poor planning history.
  • People recognise the blatant dishonesty when their neighbourhoods are being marketed as an area of affluence and creativity, while the creativity being publicised has been imported and subsidised, and there are no plans whatever to increase the income of locally based artists or to subsidise their creative output.
  • You cannot contrive spontaneity, officially sponsored 'pop-up' markets will ultimately fail, because they are imposed rather than building on what is genuinely needed there.
  • The visuals of some proposals to ‘improve’ areas appear so contrived it is like a stage set. A stage set in which local ‘actors’ are expected to roam to add colour and diversity (while they search for shops and services that have been priced out of the area). For some reason I don't wish to name this 'diversity rule' applies to Afro-Caribbeans, but not to our Muslim community.
Some of our 20th century Kensington estates have been designed as modern versions of the essential garden square, with homes leading out into communal gardens. Where these have been well cared for and properly managed, they can be precious community commodities. Instead they are being ‘re-imagined’ with streets running through them 'to reinstate the original Victorian street pattern', with perfectly awful kitsch neo-classical inspired housing blocks that are simply modern slab blocks with twiddles attached, which they have the impertinence to describe as ‘mansion blocks’. They are not.

Alternatively we are to be decanted into the ultimate fakery of urban ‘model villages’, that resemble Noddy’s Toy Town with all the associations I do not intend to repeat here.

In essence, you must start with what you have and not impose what you would like to have, or how (still mostly male) architects would like people to live. 

Some people do not wish to be on show day and night. Some people value their privacy.

Finally, a word on dark buildings.

Kensington and Chelsea has suffered its share of high-end new residential buildings bought as safety deposit boxes rather than homes. And the most recent of these are currently blighting Kensington High Street, which is being run down to the extent that only the phone shops and brothels are prospering.

Trellick Tower above is an example of an occupied building. So is this, flats above shops in the 300s of Ken High Street.

Now look at this, one of the new blocks squeezed into the square in front of the Design Museum. The entire block has been bought by one family. 

It is entirely unoccupied. Dark.

Just down the road is 'One Kensington'. It was marketed as having lovely views over Kensington Gardens towards Kensington Palace, and indeed it does. But no lives in the flats overlooking the park. Out of 90 flats, just two ever have lights on. 

'One Kensington', just two occupied flats, looking east

'One Kensington', facade looking west, no lights and no one at home

Dark matters. These dark buildings are destroying our high streets, our shops, and our communities. 

Our Planning system and regulations were woefully ill prepared for the last round of development, and the effect has been stultifying. Now is the time to reassess who we allow to do what and where. 

Let's find a way to put the lights back on in K&C.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Design Museum: are we sacrificing our legacy to Mammon?

Photo of EDC at the Design Museum, by Dave Mullen Jnr
It is very difficult to write about a building that feels like a family friend.  I have visited the Commonwealth Institute throughout my life, starting with regular primary school trips. We would traipse up Earl’s Court Road in twos, to the inspiring building where our very international mix of pupils felt entirely at home. We even used the theatre for school plays. Later I took my children there, we giggled at the cow milking exhibit and admired beautiful and strange artefacts from around the globe. Later still I campaigned with the Docomomo-UK Working Group to save the building from dereliction and demolition. Finally as a Councillor I sat on the Planning Committee that approved the application to accommodate the Design Museum (though I voted against), and there could hardly be a more worthy tenant. But how would I cope with the ‘re-purposing’ of this icon?

The best approach to the building is through the park. The beautiful sweep of the roof, and the renewed exterior cladding, is tastily updated without being compromised. The courtyard when entered from the park is pretty and welcoming. And then you enter, and it all changes. In place of the processional route past the flag court via the famous loggia and lobby, into the exhibition hall with its sweeping stairs and galleries, you are smacked in the face by the awesome wood-cladded atrium rising far above you. There are few clues as to its purpose. The first impression is more of a prestigious hotel cum conference centre. In Dubai.

Legibility has been sacrificed on the altar of architecture. Circulation space is generous, if not excessive, but it is also very confusing. Some visitors quickly got lost. ‘There’s a lovely library, where IS the library?’, ‘Is this the way to a basement car park, or another gallery?’. Anonymous  doors may lead to a private office, meeting space, gallery, auditorium or – eventually – a library, but the building keeps its secrets and some found this annoying.  If this is deliberate, a public building is not the place to mess with people’s minds.

Spaces such as course rooms, the library I eventually managed to find,  and most other public spaces are generously located on the outside of the building with lovely views of Kensington.  There are cafes where we will all feel blessed and privileged to be seen, if we can afford it. There will be a lot of sponsored exhibitions, for which the justification, to some, may be questionable. But that is the sad and inevitable path taken by many modern cultural institutions. Students will of course flock to the exhibitions, which needless to say will be intelligent and inspiring, and they will love it.
Others more qualified than I have written at length about the building itself, so I will turn to how it works within its physical location, and how it might change the dynamics of the neighbourhood. As a Planning  Councillor  I have been involved from the ‘game-keeping’ end of this story, which began in 2011. I was unsure then about the placement of the three OMA blocks – and I was right. In essence the original courtyard has been sacrificed to Mammon. The housing blocks completely obscure the view from the street of the well-loved Commonwealth Institute building, infuriating local people who have to look at them every day. The blocks are heavy on architecture and light on sensitivity in relation to the street, more like funky battery chargers keeping the old building  going, than any kind of urban improvement. Paving stones carved with the names of Commonwealth countries – a tribute to the former flag court – are a graveyard to our imperial ambitions.

From the street it is, frankly, joyless.

I left the building and walked down Kensington High Street with visitors who hadn’t been in the area for a while. They were truly shocked at the state of the formerly vibrant High Street, barely clinging onto life with its empty, charity and pop-up shops, looking more and more like Edgware Road, but without the buzz. I explained to the visitors that the Council is gambling the entire future of the High Street on the success of the Design Museum. This reactive rather than proactive position is a frustration to those of us who have seen Ken High Street decline over the past decade. School or uni students will be looking for McDonalds not The Ivy, and I’m unconvinced that the better heeled evening and weekend visitors will spend enough to sustain a bright new future for central Kensington. A  Planning ‘fail’ in my opinion; time will tell.

Right across the road from this hothouse of education and design idolatry sits another casualty of Mammon, our beautiful Art Deco Kensington Odeon, boarded up and awaiting its outcome. On the table is an execrable Ritblat/Minerva plan to wrap a mere vestige of the fa├žade in luxury flats. This application was so unsympathetic that it was thrown out by a usually developer-friendly Planning committee, but sadly it won on Appeal. An alternative scheme preserves the current building and its gorgeous marbled lobby and stairs, and turns it into a mixed-use arts centre, which has the support of 20,000 residents and a shed-load of money. In another Planning ‘fail’ however, the Council has controversially refused applications to designate the building as an Asset of Community Value so the alternative plans can be drawn up. The good people of Kensington are enraged.

The irony is that the OMA flats that have supposedly saved the Commonwealth Institute building from demolition have made the area so insanely expensive that positive and trip-generating ventures, such as reinvigorating the High Street with independent shops and the proposed arts centre, could lose out to yet more luxuriously empty flats.

All this brings us to the attitude of Kensington and Chelsea Council to the conservation of the borough. We are currently undergoing a Review of our Local Plan, and I am charged with coordinating the response from the Labour Group of Councillors (numbering 11, for you disbelievers). 

So we have Policy CF 7 on Arts and Cultural Uses, and we have Strategic Objective CO5 on Renewing the Legacy. Their relationship is somewhat tortured. CO5 reads thus, and is pretty encouraging: ‘Our strategic objective to renew the legacy is not simply to ensure no diminution in the excellence we have inherited, but to pass to the next generation a borough that is better than today, of the highest quality and inclusive for all. This will be achieved by taking great care to maintain, conserve and enhance the glorious built heritage we have inherited and to ensure that where new development takes place, it enhances the borough.’

This is all very reassuring as an objective, but the actual policy, on which Planning Councillors have to base their determinations,  is antithetical, and sets up a conflict around the lurking gremlin of ‘enabling development’.  There have been more hotly contested debates on this issue at committee than any other, and unless we get this right, now, it will continue to allow vested interests to triumph while our built legacy is sacrificed on the altar of developers’ 20% profit margins. 

Versions of this article have appeared in Building Design, K&C News, and will be published in Docomomo-UK Newsletter. Copyright EDC