While Britain slept, The Deputy Prime Minister was awake, and it is very kind of The Deputy Prime Minister to come here when he's in the middle of playing an exhausting game of ping-pong with a lot of unelected sportsmen…
It is extremely heartening to see in this exhibition such a great variety of new projects from around the world. They show us what visionary and dedicated people can accomplish when they challenge the status quo, and when they insist that we can again build more human places. They also show that new projects do not have to be homogenous, but can respond to their own local context, allowing diversity across the globe – instead of what's happening all too often all over the world with the dreary march of introduced alien building types in the shape of the genetically cloned “international style”.
You may have noticed that one of the projects shown is my own urban extension to Dorchester. When I embarked on the Poundbury project fifteen years ago, my main aim was simply to provide a place that might improve the quality of life of the people who would eventually live there. I was also, strange as it may seem, determined not to build anything that I would not be prepared to live in, or near, myself. The obvious starting point was to analyse the successful places and buildings that people have enjoyed living in for centuries, and to draw out the lessons of why they were still so popular today. Then I wanted to know how these lessons could be developed to make them better-suited to contemporary needs. I hope, ten years on, that Poundbury has proved the point that it is in fact possible to break the conventional mould of zoned development and create a mixed use community. But it is only one example of the range of diversity that can be achieved.
What Poundbury does demonstrate is a straightforward response to a basic set of principles outlined in my book, written in the late 1980s, A Vision of Britain. These principles embody the timeless solutions to the intricate needs of human beings in the built environment and, above all, demonstrate the ultimate value of placing the pedestrian, and not the car, at the centre of the design process to create more liveable, human communities. Incidentally, the Guinness Trust, of which I am Patron and which has worked with us at Poundbury from the start, is providing the affordable housing element of sixty units, now tell us that Poundbury is their most successful and trouble-free site. Why? Because of a far higher satisfaction level than anywhere else – and this is due to an integrated, mixed approach to housing and work places.
Today, the exhibition shows us that there is a worldwide groundswell of new interest in this kind of compact, mixed-use, walk-able settlement as a means of addressing the challenges of the future. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is at the forefront here in the UK, with the recently-published sustainable communities agenda. The Deputy Prime Minister, who I am delighted is with us today, has made the inescapable connection between sustainable communities and the enduring qualities of the best, people-centred places. He has also recognised the great need to bring some of our finest existing buildings back to life with his heritage agenda.
I like to think it may just be possible that his visit to Poundbury, exactly five years ago today at my invitation, and the example of urban regeneration provided by my Phoenix Trust, may have ignited a small spark in the Deputy Prime Ministerial mind!
The Congress for the New Urbanism, based in the United States, but with members around the world, continues to play an important role in uniting urban design professionals with politicians and land-owners. The International Network for Traditional Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU), of which I am proud to be Patron, has also succeeded in connecting thousands of professionals world-wide and has already organised a number of international urban planning collaborations to help communities in danger of losing their local cultural identity.
Within this exhibition, and in the catalogue, it is extremely interesting to see both the commonality and the differences in the way the universal principles of good urbanism are formulated in the USA, the UK and continental Europe. We can all learn a lot from each other – and that's what I believe this exhibition and conference is all about.
In order to improve our ability to make such successful places, I believe it is important that urban design professionals should develop a common language with which to communicate about the built environment. This would enable a better level of understanding when analysing and applying the principles evident in places that have stood the test of time.
The tour of this exhibition provides the perfect opportunity for my Foundation to demonstrate how these principles have recently been delivered in practice internationally and how they can be applied to new projects in this country. I believe this educative process is fundamental if we are to make sure that, under the current pressure of building so many new houses in this tiny island in the coming years, we can rise to the challenge and build liveable and beautiful towns and cities that subsequent generations will treasure as their heritage, rather than resent bitterly as a depressingly ugly legacy of short-term, fashionable thinking.
To achieve the delivery of these principles, an essential factor is, if at all possible, to allow those who will live in the community an opportunity to participate in this planning process. With strong leadership, “many hands” can enrich rather than muddle the design. In the exhibition and catalogue you will find information about Enquiry by Design, which is a process my Foundation pioneered in the design of the extension to Northampton, to ensure that there is active and constructive community participation.
As we seek to meet the sustainable communities agenda, both the Government and its Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment have recognised the current skills shortage for urban design professionals. There is also the widespread recognition of the need to unite fragmented professions within the building industry and concentrate efforts on the “skilling-up” of generalists in the field to provide the strong leadership so desperately needed if we are to return the art of town planning to a proactive role. Over the years I have been attempting to make a contribution in this respect, and intend to increase my efforts through the educational work of my Foundation in the coming year.
As part of this education programme, perhaps we could possibly also offer the Deputy Prime Minister some guidance about the design of successful tall buildings in an urban context! I alluded to this subject in a speech after the tragic events on September 11th 2001, and drew attention to the need to maintain a coherent streetscape and, hopefully, to enhance the skyline of the city. If we are going to “do” tall buildings, then for God's sake let us do them so that they add to the life of the city around them – in a proper context - and let's do them sustainably! At the moment it looks as though London seems to be turning into an Absurdist picnic table – we already have a giant gherkin in the City, now it looks as if we are going to have an enormous salt cellar as well…
Although individual buildings are important, this exhibition reminds us that we must not neglect the larger urban area, and that we need to think about the kinds of tools that will be needed to ensure that our urban neighbourhoods are coherent and that public and civic spaces work successfully together. An important lesson we can learn from the projects shown here today is about delivery and process. I know from my experiences at Poundbury that the complexity of uniting the parts to a coherent whole requires a great deal of thought. There aren't many examples in this country from the last fifty years to draw upon for guidance. However, in the exhibition, we have shown examples from around the world of how the making of mixed-use, layered towns can be achieved today.
Essential tools in this respect are urban codes and architectural pattern books. Urban codes, when used properly, do not stifle creative freedom and diversity, as many of the projects in this exhibition will demonstrate. It is instructive, I think, that our towns and cities built before 1920 used codes to establish an overall coherence within each town and city, but enormous diversity around the globe; paradoxically, in the last fifty years, while individuality and personal expression have been to the fore, the actual places created often demonstrate a large degree of uniformity and monotony. I believe there's an important lesson in all this for us today...
It is very heartening to me that the urban future is looking considerably brighter. But I thought that I had better, ladies and gentlemen, sound one note of caution. It has to do with some lingering, and I believe erroneous, notions of “modernity”.
After the end of the Second World War there was a tremendous feeling of optimism about the future. Quite understandably, there was a rejection of past values that had seemingly contributed to such a sequence of world catastrophes, in favour of a compelling vision of a new order. It was a world where people would live in buildings on stilts with plenty of fresh air and parkland around them and, when the weekend came, would take off to the countryside in their beautiful automobiles, to enjoy a freedom of travel and choice of destination their predecessors might only have dreamt of.
One cannot necessarily fault the vision of this machine-age, as I suppose it was a natural response to conditions at the time. What we can do now, however, with the benefit of hindsight, is take stock and assess the last 60 years of experimentation in the built environment. We can learn from what has been achieved, and bravely face up to what has not.
A number of new visions for city plans are beginning to come out of the woodwork and I have been amazed to see that a 60s' revival seems to be suggested. The architecture often has new features, but the overall plan is for the same old, big buildings up on stilts with large areas of space in between. Now it is sometimes said that my ideas are rather old fashioned, but I am delighted to say that looking at this type of plan they seem rather progressive! If people carry on replicating the boring glass and steel buildings of the last 50 years, then I might even move into the avant-garde category!
Seriously, I do believe that we must ask ourselves: what is it that is really modern in 2003? Is it the metallic and crystalline geometries of a century ago? Or is it the organic complexity of today's biological sciences? Is it the linear notion of a single architect imposing his grand vision of a new utopian world? Or the complex notion of collective intelligence embodied in centuries of tradition? Is it the standardization and mass-production methods of a century ago? Or the customization and one-off production methods of the latest computer-based technology?
Incidentally, I came across a classic example of “collective intelligence embodied in centuries of tradition” when I visited a shanty town slum in Bombay recently. When entering what looks from the outside like a gigantic conglomeration of piles of flotsam and jetsam, you find what to all intents and purposes is a miniature traditional urban quarter, complete with tiny alleyways, tiny shops, workshops and box-like houses – even with lilliputian upper storeys. I was completely fascinated by the way in which human beings – almost like ants coming together intuitively to create a nest – instinctively coalesce when brought together in large numbers into an “urban form” which enhances that vital sense of community. And it is communities we must create.
Perhaps Modernity to-day does, or should, now mean taming the machine to make it work for us as human beings, rather than imprint on us its cold aesthetic? We know that only one per cent of the population wish to live in glass and steel buildings, let alone in the their immediate vicinity. So why do we insist that they suffer for such an obsolete art? (Maybe you have noticed how many architects live in traditional buildings?!).
Today's new sciences are pointing us in a very different direction – making us more aware of the richness of life and tradition. With better insight into the natural world than ever before, the opportunities to find and exploit the wonderful complexities of natural structures are at our finger-tips. I would suggest to you that this is the true basis of modernity, and a truly “modern” architecture.
As we seem to be required to embark on a massive house-building programme, where off-site production is seen as the way forward, we should not allow human expression and differentiation to be excluded. The opportunity with prefabrication is for the internal elements to be made, which tend to be replaced frequently as different residents move in, and for the external elements of the building to be built by craftspeople who invest time and effort into ‘the art of building'. In this way, the part of the building that has to adapt to new uses and to resist the elements will do so in as durable a form as possible.
It is important that we continue these living traditions. Not, as Goethe said, as the worship of the ashes, but as the tending of the fire. I must stress, in light of so much misunderstanding of the word, that tradition is not a style! It is simply the collective intelligence of centuries of refined knowledge that offers us the blueprint from which to build places that can endure and surpass the fashion of the moment.
We are also learning more today about the effects of the built environment upon us. It is now more widely acknowledged, I think, that many of the root causes of ill-health may lie with factors that are as much to do with our emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being as they are with our physical condition. I believe we must recognise the central role that the built environment plays in our
well-being, and alter our approach to building accordingly. Likewise, I believe we should also recognise the role played by the actual process of construction in the well-being of those who are carrying out the building. There is no doubt that skill, pride and quality of work contribute to psychological well-being and motivation. Again, we can learn from the genius of centuries of adaptation of built environments by and for human beings, and apply these rich and hard-won lessons to our own time.
Let me close, if I may, with a note about sustainable development. We all hear that buzzword quite a lot nowadays and we need to ask what it really means. To me it means something very simple: ending a
throw-away world, by building a world that does not deserve to be thrown away. It means learning the lessons of the most enduring places that have proven themselves over centuries, to make, in our own age, places that can endure over the centuries to come. Economists, bankers, financial experts, land agents and, most particularly, the Treasury, tried their damnedness to stop Poundbury from happening because they said it wouldn't work. In fact, Poundbury has shown that if you invest a bit more in quality, and attention to detail it pays dividends in the long term in respect of greatly enhanced values, both financial and social.
I was astonished to learn of a panellist at the recent ODPM Better Building Summit, which some of my Foundation staff attended, who commented that he was in the process of knocking down a building built in 1985. Whatever definition of “sustainable” we want to use, ladies and gentlemen, that is surely an example of what it is not.
A gentleman from the Building Research Establishment told my Foundation that building failures were on the increase. A mortgage consultant warned us not to forget the last period of ‘innovation' (the 1960s and 70s) and pointing out that so many of those products are un-mortgageable today.
There is a place for novelty and sensation in the built environment. But we must not forget that the best buildings appeal to an enduring sense of beauty; and by definition, “sustainable building” and civic spaces need to endure for a very long time. If we are able to bequeath a manageable legacy to our descendants, then we can't compromise their opportunities in what is ultimately left of “this blessed plot”. We must do better – and as the project in the exhibition shows us, we can do better. That is the encouraging lesson that I hope we will take home today.