The Old Post Office
What is good architecture design and are the St George proposals good architecture?
A house is a machine for living in. You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: "This is beautiful." That is Architecture. Art enters in. (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret [Le Corbusier] Vers une architecture 1923)
Good architecture is seemingly difficult to define, and leads to much debate amongst architects. But those of us, which is to say all of us, who experience architecture everyday are already fully qualified to recognise it. Most of us will have been to places which we describe as ‘Wonderful’ or ‘Full of character’. Art enters in… And even if we cannot define our responses we know that we feel at one within the place we stand. Connected to it by a thousand subtle cues that reflect our needs and our delights. Scale, proportion, use of materials, visual delight, context and a respect for our humanity. These are just some of the measures by which good architecture can be assessed. Measures lacking in the St George scheme.
But if we were to try for a definition one of the best, and oldest definitions comes from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, who is famously quoted as saying:
“Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight.”
That 17th century Latin translation may be better understood as: strength, function and beauty. What this describes are the fundamental standards we should aim to meet when we build. Let us look at each of these concepts in turn and see how St George measures up.
Strength (and durability)
I am sure that St George could have the necessary competences, to create the ideals of firmness but it does not have the aspiration.
The problem I have is that everything is built down to a price not up to a standard of excellence.
Resources are scarce and expensive, wouldn’t it be nice to have a builder who wanted the best for the planet. Wouldn’t it be a fine thing to believe that a developer had the short and long term interests of the community as its key motivation to do business. It is perfectly possible to have an ethical business stance. To recognise that business doesn’t somehow stand outside the interests of the community from which they take their profits. Instead I have to ask: Where are the innovative energy saving building methods, where is the sustainability? Where is the connection with the building materials and styles of an historic market town? Where is the relationship to existing scale? Where is the respect for treasured views and the well being of the residents of Wheatfield Way in particular and many other residents who will be forever blighted by the over-sized and looming multiple towers?
Let’s talk function (and utility)
The proposal is to squeeze 360 apartments into a 1.1 hectare and thus contribute to the illusory and preposterous idea that 30,000 people MUST come to Kingston in the not too far away future. Perhaps it is true, I doubt it. But if it is then this planning application will contribute nothing to the town’s real housing needs.
The needs it will serve are the needs of those unfortunate wealth refugees from Russia and the Middle East who consider London property a lucrative safe haven and are far more likely to be the target market of St George than ordinary townsfolk. You don’t think so? According to the sales figures of Knight Frank foreign purchasers have bought 80% of the homes in a series of major new Thameside housing developments. Boris Johnson said that “London homes aren’t some kind of new global asset class. They aren’t just blocks of bullion in the sky.”
Oh, but they are, that is exactly what St George wants: golden towers glistening with inflated prices for overseas investors.
But surely we are not talking prime real estate on college roundabout, its not Vauxhall or Chelsea? Clearly not but a two bed apartment for a million pounds is what St George wants from this. If Riverside at Canbury Gardens can get this then Kingston’s, in their words, Landmark building isn’t for the likes of you and me nor families and especially not those with children. Have we learned nothing from the high rise building social disasters of the 60’s and 70’s? Does anyone seriously believe that just because Waitrose will deliver to the 15th floor all is well with this way of living?
And what of Beauty?
We are trained to believe that beauty is subjective, that it rests in the eye of the beholder. Vitruvius held a very different idea. He believed that architectural beauty was quantifiable. Beauty, he considered, is the ultimate test of good architecture. Without beauty a building is merely utilitarian without rising to the realm of architecture.
I am not certain that beauty is measurable, or if it is then it is a shifting measure. One that changes over time as the subtle and irresistible forces of culture remodel our perceptions.
A few years ago, Ruth Reed, the then president of the RIBA, said that ‘good architecture has its price but bad architecture – or no architecture at all – will cost you more’.
Lucien Kroll is a Belgian architect well known for his projects involving participation by the future users of the buildings: he argues for a human approach to architecture, ‘grounded in respect for the planet … for an architecture that empathises with human needs, is open to resident participation’ and succeeds in restoring the ‘balance between form, human values and a sustainable approach to the environment’.
Fine words and fine concepts. But you know, in the end, recognizing good architecture is a matter of experience and emotional response. Ever been to Bath, or a Cotswold Village, or Paris or Richmond? Ever sat and had a coffee in the Apple Market? Those places are built to a scale that enable each of us to fit in with, to relax into. To understand the scale and the intention. It’s all very simple - we already know how to live well and design in scale to those needs. We have already made the design decisions that work the best for us and most of Kingston is a shrine to it. The genteel art of suburban life.
Of course ideals change over time, no one wants an outside toilet anymore of course, needs too change over time, my children long ago abandoned the idea of a dining room. But St George neither acknowledges our architectural heritage nor is qualified to advocate new ideals or define current needs. Unless it is to sleep in a room barely large enough for the bed it contains, or to create so-called public realm spaces that are windy and sunless.
Designing tall buildings that are beautiful is very difficult. How many are there of the thousands that exist in London that we admire? The Shard, The Gherkin perhaps the GPO tower. There aren’t many.
St George have aspired, and catastrophically failed to design a landmark tower. I am not the first to call it The Fag Packet – a building so devoid of merit and design qualities that I am appalled and saddened that this hackneyed and architectural pound shop offering is before this council.
It is not a landmark, gateway iconic building. Unless we want a landmark that is a land mark, a stain on our town, a ‘Kingstain’ Tower nor is it a gateway. A gateway to where? West Croydon? The only iconic thing about this building is the middle finger salute it will offer to us all.
But it is not just one tower there are many. Clustered around the restored Telephone Exchange will be multiple towers. Councillor Cunningham said the proposals will rescue the night-time town from the ‘yobbos’. Instead we will have the new yobbos of Kingston kicking sand in the face of a dwarfed and diminished heritage building. The whole development with its facile and clichéd design motifs is far outside the scale we are happy in. It will become an impenetrable citadel, blocky and lumpen and lifeless. It is not by any measure good architecture. It is the ruthless exploitation of the town’s scare resources with the sole aim of feeding the coffers of a developer with no heart and no moral compass.
If the council can refuse permission for the KU Town House design on the grounds of height and mass and this despite it being a community supported, socially appropriate genuine landmark design from award winning architects then logic must dictate a dismissal of this planning application.
Here is what Kevin Davies has to say in his open letter on these proposals. (To be fair these pre-date the amended proposals)
“…what is also striking is that what is proposed is not yet a ‘landmark’ building that signals a gateway or grand entrance into our wonderful town. For me, height would be less of an issue if this building was something we could look at and marvel at as a signature mark of the boldness of our town; a town where we preserve the cultural and historic aspects of Kingston and yet mark this exciting point in our history by bringing striking architecture to those parts that are in need of regeneration…. So, I have met with St. George and I told them that I wanted them to be Kings not Vikings, to come and build a new town with us but not to come like the Vikings to destroy.”
Time was when St George was the good guy slaying the dragon, now St George has turned into the dragon and must be prevented from paving the way for a terrible future for this fine old town.
No one opposing this development are anti St George or anti-development. We do oppose the over-development, the tired design and the disrespect offered to the people of Kingston and their wishes.
And by the way over 2400 of the townsfolk feel the same way.
They could have made a wonderful contribution, I want them to make a wonderful contribution but they have not and for that I am truly disappointed. I want to ask them to withdraw this application and instead truly work with the town to deliver a solution that works for us all. Please St George do the right thing, find your moral compass and lets make this a town we can all enjoy to live in.
Vous savez, c'est la vie qui a raison, l'architecte qui a tort. You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong. (Le Corbusier)
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