Building design is broken – but what to do about it?

TL:DR – Can architects and building professionals work with local communities to come up with new designs that don’r resemble identikit minimal cost could-be-built-anywhere architecture?

The former leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, these days no longer on this side of town, echoed comments of others on the proposals for the now defunct Pemberton Arms.

The pub it replaces – the Pemberton Arms – is old but not particularly striking as an old building. It certainly is familiar for anyone who has driven past it on a regular basis, as I often did on my way to my aunt and uncle when they lived in North Hertfordshire. (See second tweet below.)

The image from G-Maps gives you a view from the A10 heading towards Cambridge – essentially it’s in full view of the road.

Personally I’d have gone with something far more iconic and eye-catching – something that would make me want to stop off there, if I was the firm stumping up the cash or even paying for the long term lease.

The original planned replacement was even more bland than what has since been proposed.

You can see more detailed views of the above at this link, or searching for the ref: S/3708/19/FL in the Greater Cambridge Planning Portal. All too often to local communities it feels like developers and their financiers commission architects to come up with the least cost and blandest design they think they can get away with, before seeing what council planners insist on changing, then bludgeoning local communities into submission to get their planning permission. Unfortunately that does not mean building work begins immediately. Again all too often it results in the developer pocketing the land value uplift by selling the site on with planning permission to another developer who then uses a very well known loophole to get out of any affordable housing requirement. Despite furious appeals to the Housing Secretary – a man who I believe was shown to be utterly compromised by the Desmond scandal, there has been no movement on penalising developers who are sitting on a million unbuilt planning permissions already granted. This isn’t the fault of underfunded local councils or their under-resourced planning teams.

Building design has been contested for a very long time

Kenneth Robinson’s video of Cambridge in 1964 is an example of how people in a different time had very different views of what we might think are nice buildings and what are horrible ones. Some of the Victorian clearances were just as controversial as the post-war clearances in Cambridge. And let’s not forget that the most controversial building in Cambridge in terms of the time it took to get from the first proposals to rebuild it through to completion was probably The Guildhall in Market Square. And was in my view the only major decision Florence Ada Keynes got wrong – and the people of the town made sure she knew about it at the time. (She got her way – the building was completed and still stands today).

Is there a way to bring architects, the familiar faces from the local professional firms, and community groups together with councillors and those working in research in the field to come up with some new, alternative and more inspiring designs that also prepare the city for the changing climate?

In the grand scheme of things I’m pessimistic. Ministers are not interested, the financiers are not interested because let’s face it, there’s too much money to be made from land speculation, and local government is so fragmented that there is little they can do but roll over and approve applications that as individual ward councillors they’d rather decline. Is it possible to have a system of planning and development control that ensures everyone who needs a home has one, that protects the environment (looking at water stress in particular), that maximises quality and design, while also maximising the profits for the people putting money behind the developments? Part of the problem here is that globally there are no safe havens for people to invest in outside of property and government bonds. Dealing with that involves the Chancellor co-operating with his counterparts across Europe and the world. Unfortunately there seems little sign of that happening.

Finally, lovely as meetings and workshops sound – especially having seen the first experiments with citizens assemblies, we are also in a world where the restrictions on meetings and meetups will remain in place for at least the next year while the pandemic remains at large. We’ll have to find something else.



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