REGULATION AND IRREGULARITY

In the second of a new series of columns written by Architecture Foundation Supporters, Bob Allies (Allies and Morrison) questions whether the design of new development in London is suffering from over-regulation.

 

At the beginning of the last century, one of the aspirations of the pioneers of the Modern Movement was to develop an architecture focused - if not exclusively then at least primarily - on the satisfaction of society’s needs.

What this required – as well as a certain humility on the part of the architect - was real economy in the use of resources. Plans had to be more efficient. Construction materials had to go further. The design process had to become more rational, more scientific.

It was also imperative that the resultant improvements to people’s living conditions should be fairly distributed: everybody should enjoy the same standard of living space, the same daylight, the same sanitary provision, the same access to the natural environment. These standards were universal, and they should not be compromised.

 As somebody who trained at the end of this era, I’m aware how much this principle continues to colour the way I think about design. In looking at a plan, or an elevation, I still want to be sure that its internal logic benefits all areas of the building in equal measure; I am nervous about the casual, or the pragmatic.

 At the same time, I do now appreciate that there are dangers in this approach. What it tends to encourage is an architecture which is inward-looking and self-absorbed, an architecture which attends to its own internal issues but takes insufficient account of external factors. This is a weakness: architecture always succeeds best when it grows from a dialogue between the dictates of the internal brief and the specifics of the context in which it is located.

This desire for universal standards also finds its way into our regulatory system, from national building regulations and codes to the Mayor’s Housing Design Guide.

Now it seems churlish to object to anything which raises quality in the built environment. But it is important, occasionally, to stand back and question whether the outcome of the standards is necessarily producing the kind of environment we want.

One of my current irritations, for example, is the universal requirement for flats in London to have balconies of a certain minimum (and therefore almost inevitably maximum) size, whether at the front of a building or at the back, in the sun or in the shade, on the tenth floor or on the ground floor, or indeed the thirtieth floor. The result are buildings that appear insensitive and unresponsive, buildings that struggle to engage with the realities of their context. In this case, and I’d argue in other situations too, my solution would be to introduce a percentage compliance clause, giving the architect a degree of discretion without sacrificing the standard: the obligation to have balconies might apply to, sat 90% or 95%, of the dwellings only.

And I feel even more strongly at the moment about the need to introduce a similar escape clause in relation to the specification of glass in the ground floors of buildings in London. The argument in favour of active frontages on city streets has now largely been won. But because the glazing to the ground floor of a building - whether it encloses shops, restaurants, workspace or public facilities - has to comply with the same regulations regarding protection from solar gain as all the rest of the building’s glass, it is now invariably dark, making it impossible to see into the interior and removing any sense of being overlooked. 

I think this is hugely damaging to the ground floor environment of our towns and cities. At a time when we need more than anything else to be promoting walkability, it is essential that the street environment should feel as friendly, as open and as safe as possible.

My view is that, notwithstanding the energy arguments, the use of dark glass on the ground floors of buildings should be prohibited altogether.

Bob Allies (Allies and Morrison)