Magazine article The Spectator

Architecture in Defence of Developers

Magazine article The Spectator

Architecture in Defence of Developers

Article excerpt

When architectural preservationists meet at the tedious conferences and grim councils of despair that feed oxygen to their nihilistic and unventilated 'heritage' world-view, the word 'developer' is spat out with contempt.

It is as though they are speaking of Satan and his diabolical agents, who used to appear in the horror novels of Dennis Wheatley that I so enjoyed in my youth.

To hear Simon Jenkins, for example, refer to a 'developer' is to appreciate the impressive range over which the human voice can express contempt. To Jenkins, a 'developer' is a loathsome thing bent on profaning all that is sacred. 'Developers' despoil the countryside and debauch the city. They are cruel and ignorant exploitationists whose motivation is greed and whose business is corrupt and corrupting. They are merchants whose trade is ugliness.

I wonder if this is altogether true. Surely there is a more generous view of what a developer might be? The Town and Country Planning Act of 1990 offers a forensic definition: 'the carrying out of building . . . or the making of any material change to a building'. These seem admirable and inoffensive objectives. True, keeping the company of Alfred Taubman, Harry Helmsley and Harry Hyams might have brought even Mother Teresa into disrepute, but are there not other more positive examples?

The Ideal City, the optimum design for an agglomeration of buildings, has been a preoccupation of civilised life since Plato.

It was best realised, perhaps, in the Italian Renaissance. The rustic Tuscan town of Corsignano, near Montepulciano, was rebuilt according to this vision by Pope Pius II. It became known as La Citta del Pio and is now called Pienza. With its elegant spaces and fine architecture inspired by Alberti, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most beautiful man-made environments on earth.

Wasn't this property development?

In London, a persuasive champion of high-density new-build was Nicholas Barbon. The author of A Discourse of Trade (1690) made his fortune from rebuilding London after the Great Fire. It was a speculative and daring property development and most of us who admire Red Lion Square are grateful for his efforts. Barbon, confident rather than afraid of change, wrote that new buildings are 'the most proper and visible distinction of Riches and Greatness because the expenses are too great for Mean Persons to follow'.

Of course, too many 'Mean Persons' have been snared by the profitable lure of specbuilding. Whether it is a builder-boyfriend knocking through a shabby late-Victorian two-up two-down with lots of plasterboard and Ikea cupboards or a gross plc putting degrading features on stupid boxes to lure credulous rubes with architectural crapola, without question some of the nastiest, most artless and heartless kitsch, some of the most inhuman and cynical travesties of architecture have been made by developers. …

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