Over the past few years I have collaborated a number of times with Create Streets, an organization which aims to promote street based and human centred architecture. I had been introduced to the founder of Create Streets, Nicholas Boys Smith, via a mutual friend from Cambridge, and I first met him in Waterstone’s cafe in Piccadilly. He arrived brandishing various pamphlets filled with hard-nosed research backing up ideas of which I agreed. Though I had an instinct that traditional urbanism with its terraced streets and town squares was a better way to build than high rise towers with indeterminate space between, I was unaware that the vast data which backed up this prejudice.
Worthy as this data undoubtedly is, I felt that it probably did not make a connection with many people apart from a few academically inclined specialists in the field. So I suggested doing a counter proposal for a live site to demonstrate these important ideas and so attract a larger audience, with the aim to influence architecture for the better.
After much reflection Nicholas chose the site at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. This was ideal because it was a large central London site which was being developed in a way which was unsympathetic to the thoughts and requirements of the local residents. They had contacted Nicholas at the time to see if Create Streets could help.
Nicholas and I met the local campaigners, walked the site and then sat down with them to draw a proposal. I always enjoy sitting with people and designing a proposal in front of them, apart from being a fun experience it is also the best way to make the most of the combined wisdom of everyone in the room. Residents will always know far more about the site than an architect who only visits for a short while. Following this design day we then presented options to a broader group of local residents at a small exhibition, we followed their advice and used this to develop a more detailed design.
Nicholas and I have worked on a variety of projects in this way. Our aim is to put people, and most particularly local residents, at the heart of planning decisions. All too often other concerns like traffic, zoning and even well intentioned regulations conspire against those that are most affected by a new development. By giving people a voice, our work is much more popular than a scheme which is developed without consultation.
Designing popular architecture is one of our key aims and an aspect of building which has been largely ignored in recent years. Despite the egalitarian pretence of many architects, they all too often wilfully imposed their work on an unwilling audience with disastrous results. Through extensive consultation we aim to design schemes which are genuinely loved and thereby easing the path of new development which is much needed with the current shortage in housing.
What I have most enjoyed while working with Create Streets is using my talents to help people in a very direct way. Though our collaborations started as counter proposals with no realistic chance of being built, as time goes by, we are increasingly asked to design schemes which do have a real chance of coming to fruition. I look forward to seeing these proposals being built and I hope that our shared ideas will be seen to have a very positive affect on the architecture of our towns and cities.
Copies of the book, Designing Well-Tempered Towns, can be purchased from Francis Terry and Associates.