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.

1 comment:

  1. Not to mention 'Catalyst' were proud (and mentioned it in their newsletter!) of the fact that they got a paid business trip to Hong Kong to sell all the new flats that were being made before they even put them up for sale locally. A lot of locals won't be able to afford them of course but there are a few affluent folk in the area who would have invested AND lived in them!


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