The Arts: Space, the Final Frontier ; A Revolution Is Needed in Planning and Architecture If London Is to Solve Its Housing Crisis. Jay Merrick Thinks Peter Barber's High- Density Design in Hackney Shows the Way Forward
Merrick, Jay, The Independent (London, England)
London's need for hundreds of thousands of new houses and flats within the next 15 years will require a seismic revolution in policy- making, planning and architecture that, in most places, will take years to play out. In Hackney, east London, almost opposite the century-old facade of F Cooke's Live Eel Importer in Broadway Market, that revolution has already begun.
Ten years ago, this slice of E8 could boast a densely thriving glut of stalls, but little else of note. To a young architect called Peter Barber, the area seemed to be populated mostly by old people and those suffering from "problem" social or mental-health conditions. "This was where people came if they couldn't escape to Essex," he says. "And it was the place that others came to after being driven out of Shoreditch when they couldn't afford to live there any more. I came here because I couldn't afford anywhere else." It was grungy but without cachet.
Broadway Market and the streets around it are still pretty run down. Ada Street, Andrews Road and Cambridge Heath Road deliver a certain pikey diversity. Car showrooms; panel-beating shops; the obdurately Victorian J Hoyle & Sons Beehive Foundry; the tattered, security- screened Mug of Tea Cafe, next to the startlingly chic, burgundy-painted Sibel Floral Design; the well-smart Rude Mercs showroom, featuring Rude Acoustics. In short, a mulch of furious, hard-knuckled enterprise.
But what will Broadway Market and the neighbourhoods around be like in 20 years' time? How will people be living? And where? Peter Barber can't answer that question; nobody can. But it's possible that his radical housing unit - two duplexes, a live-work unit and a gallery in a single skinny but beautifully designed building in Doris's Place, Broadway Market - may have kick-started changes in the local area that will have repercussions in other parts of London riddled with equally difficult sites, where, normally, new housing would not be attempted.
The infill building, on a site only 4.5m wide, owes a great deal to the modernist bravura of Brasilia's architect, Oscar Niemeyer. And "bravura" is quite the right word for this wonderfully arranged collage of open and enclosed spaces that delivers, in spite of its small size, a highly charged experience of carefully weighted and scaled architecture as sculpture, function and, most important of all, a sense of decently shared space. It is no surprise that Barber's prospective projects have just won the Accommodating Change competition, sponsored by the Architecture Foundation and the Circle 33 housing group.
The Doris's Place building is small and on what many architects would dismiss as a no-win site, a site like tens of thousands of others in London: the kind that most passers-by would barely register, and that many planners wouldn't be interested in developing unusually. But the truly radical thing about the Doris's Place building is its density - the number of habitable rooms it contains; rooms that would have been beyond the imagination of most architects and developers.
Density is a key issue in the development of new housing stock in London. How many bods can be safely, comfortably and co-operatively accommodated within given site and floor areas? It's a factor that did not escape the notice of Lord Rogers during his tenure as leader of the Government's urban task force, whose White Paper recommended the introduction of tax breaks for the development of sites and called for new planning guidelines allowing construction at substantially higher urban densities. …