Our editor-at-large announces a new Channel 4 series, praises a forward-thinking design collective and laments planning cuts.
Should you happen to find yourself in Singapore between 4 and 6 November, you could pop along to this year’s World Architecture Festival. Billed as the globe’s largest architectural event, it’s also taking place in one of the most interesting cities. Closer to home, though, you can follow the UK’s own architectural awards this autumn, including the Stirling Prize; the shortlist can be viewed at architecture.com and the winner will be announced on 15 October.
More importantly for you and me, it’s also time for the younger, prettier Manser Medal, given to the UK’s best new house. Now known as the RIBA House of the Year, the award has its own four-part mini series on Channel 4 this year – which has been an absolute peach to film. Not only the shortlist, but also the extensive long list, is extremely strong, and I’ve enjoyed being whisked from one delightful building to another. It’s as dreamy a job as that of a pudding inspector in Provence. We’ll be announcing the winner in the final programme of the series, and while I can’t even reveal the shortlist now, I can assure you that the victor will be breaking new architectural ground. The programmes cover themes such as the latest approaches to building in open countryside, and how a new vernacular is emerging from raw materials. Let’s call that one geological contextualism – although I promise I won’t be using too many terms like that.
Liverpool’s urban regeneration project by design collective Assemble – which transformed an area of Granby, revitalising streets where previous council and government schemes had failed – isn’t nominated for the Stirling Prize. Not because the scheme is ineligible, but because none of the architects in Assemble’s 18-strong team is fully qualified, despite the firm’s prolific output in east London and Croydon. It has designed a cinema, built barns and installations under flyovers, and its Brutalist children’s playground went down a storm at RIBA HQ in Portland Place. So if you’re after brilliance, energy and social change from your architect, call Assemble (020 8221 2221; assemblestudio.co.uk). And don’t worry about the lack of plaudits: the Granby project has, unusually for a housing scheme, been shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, to be announced on 7 December.
The state of building conservation – and, indeed, planning – in Britain continues to be parlous, thanks to local authorities cutting planning departments by half in the recession. I wrote recently about how Birmingham’s conservation department was reduced to a payroll of one for the entire city. Now, there’s a report from consultants Green Balance, produced for the Kenwood House Group – passionate souls dedicated to saving the distinctiveness of market towns and cities, led by Lord March. It examines how many boroughs have design guidance that enshrines local distinctiveness and heritage, and the news is mixed. Of 20 towns surveyed, 15 had landscape character assessments, 15 had appraisals of conservation areas and nine had extensive urban surveys, but only six had proper urban design guidance. This reflects the common problem that planning has become reactive – not the creative, proactive process it should be.
As in any school class, there were stars and under-achievers. Berkhamsted, Winchester, Wymondham, Leek and Whitehaven come top for policy and decision making. Hastings, meanwhile, is the school dunce (an extensive urban survey of the town, prepared in 2010, isn’t even mentioned in any planning document). Newbury has lost the plot: the last appraisals of its conservation areas date from 1971. And some of the under-performing, scruffy members of the class could do better. Folkestone doesn’t even recognise the value of its historic assets: the report argues that more of its buildings need listing, and that it could do with more conservation areas.
Image: Charles Hosea