Teenagers have a way of making advice sound moronic. Tell them to remember to take their lunch, bus fare, sick note or whatever to school and they’ll reply, ‘well, durrr’ in that tone of voice reserved for imbeciles, before exiting the house leaving it behind.
Advising Britain’s development industry about design is similar. Build using sustainable materials and incorporate energy efficiency? Well, durrr. Create public spaces where people feel safe and included? Well, durrr. Off we go.
As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this week’s essays from the great and the good of Cabe on the consequences of poor design rank with the finest. Sadly, sometimes the obvious must be repeated long after you’d imagine the lesson had been learned.
We’ve all seen the soulless dormitory developments of the 1980s and 90s, the bleak and threatening council estates of the 60s, and the uninspired office blocks that dominate every city centre. Nobody’s going to make those mistakes again, surely?
Take a walk around any city in the UK that’s trumpeting its renaissance. Instead of wetting ourselves about the number of cranes on the skyline and the development boom they represent, examine the buildings taking shape below.
Some are, to use the current buzzword, iconic. The rest are pretty much identical. Iconic, occasionally, means something spectacular, beautiful, a landmark that will be appreciated and valued for generations. The Gherkin in the City of London, or City Hall at London Bridge may spring to mind. Birmingham’s Fort Dunlop or Bradford’s Lister Mills could qualify. But all too often, ‘iconic’ is little more than a hackneyed marketing label for something that’s big, brash, in-your-face and has no respect for its context.
As for the others, we’ve seen them before and will do so again. There’s an ugly slab of offices being demolished near where I work. Will its replacement be the same, but with a bit more glass? Maybe an architect will be really daring and stick a wavy roof on top. Across town the apartment blocks continue to rise, straight out of the pile ’em high and sell ’em not-so-cheap school of marketing. Cash in now and let the future look after itself.
Our capacity for learning lessons that we don’t actually put into practice is, it seems, limitless. The message that careful, thoughtful and sensitive design can benefit generations to come may be bleedin’ obvious, but the evidence is all around us that if Cabe didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it pronto.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine