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Turrets and towers are certainly distinctive, but have disappeared from modern house design due to cost and fire regulations.

Does the loss of local distinctiveness through pursuit of congruity also lead to loss of our local history?

Design consultant Ken Davis completes his series on distinctiveness in local architectural style taking the comments on his previous article as starting-points for further reflection. He also took the photographs.

In my last article I dealt with one of the paradoxes we face here in Hastings: that Fine Arts, some of which are very contemporary and indeed challenging, are valued, yet not so the ‘different’ art to be seen in some local architecture. Why is that? Perhaps because so many of the planning submissions that come before the establishment are not contemporary, but are so conventional, so ‘traditional’, that such becomes the expected standard? Perhaps, chicken and egg, because local developers will tend toward what they know will be approved and so a cycle of dumbing down becomes endemic? Again, perhaps, because there is so much public opposition to buildings that visually challenge what people are used to seeing?

Certainly, there is plenty of history in the town of what I call ‘pattern book architecture’ to support the creation of familiarity. It has long been easier and cheaper for developers to use standard designs rather than work from first principles and establish what works with the client’s brief and site constraints (good architecture must embrace compromise). From areas such as Warrior Square, condemned by Pevsner as ‘of architecture nought’ (pattern book) to the many post war suburban estates around the town, which could be anywhere when it comes to not reinforcing local difference.

And while paradox (see first article) remains an un-constant constant in my mind, we can surely now see how much more over the last 50 years or so we have learnt to recognise, value, and in many cases, celebrate difference, especially in cultural endeavours. But with regard to the cultural value that ‘different’ buildings can deliver, we seem to be going backwards.

Let me try to address this issue with regard to the public comments received to my first article.

Turrets and towers

Bea clearly appreciates the importance of features such as turrets and towers in Hastings architecture, so here are a couple more:

A couple of the many towers and turrets to be seen around town.

There are plenty more, of course, and they act, no doubt sometimes subconsciously, as reference points in the urban scene or simply to provide interest away from the norm, the repetitive. What has largely killed them off is both cost and, if they contain habitable space, fire regulations.

Heather Grief clearly loves the area she lives in and knows it well, it has much about it that can be found in the highly valued jumble of the old town. It is not called Bohemia for nothing! Indeed, the council loves the term so much that it has, in its proposals, extended its application from the present area into the domain of White Rock. Perhaps, rather than the very ‘modern’ plan they have at the moment, there is an intention to copy the eclecticism of the narrow streets, twittens and different styles and heights of buildings into Hastings’ own Bohemia? A sort of modern old town!

(A Bohemian is a socially unconventional person, especially one who is involved in the arts. But do watch Jonathan Meades on YouTube: In Search of Bohemia, and you may see value in supporting difference over replication.)

Vitruvius (who are you?) hits it almost right with ‘firmness, commodity and delight’. Buildings must withstand the elements (especially not fall over or let the rain in!), also they must function efficiently (meet the clients’ operational needs), and much of that is met by compliance with the Building Regulations. However, when it comes to delight (much interpreted as looking good), then different things appeal to different people.

Assessing design quality

And this is our, society’s, difficulty in assessing design quality. It is true to say that planners have little or no design training and tend, through established precedent, to pass design assessment to conservation officers on the basis presumably that they know what old buildings look ‘good/right’. Such an approach is clearly at odds with assessing contemporary design because they will always be looking back rather than forward. I have no doubt too that the general public also prefer the old (the familiar) to the aesthetic challenges presented by some contemporary buildings. The shock of the new sometimes demands that you give what you are looking at more thought, which can be stressful.

Modern in-fill building on Gillsmans Hill out of character?

Now I am going to jump over Michael Madden to Bolshie who furnishes me with the opportunity to suggest why we should accept difference and perhaps embrace it. He does not like the modern infill house on Gillsmans Hill because it is ‘out of character’.

It’s a frequent refrain of the public and the planners, and yet along this section of road the question arises as usual of defining what that character is and, if it can be defined, does such character work on that specific site and in this modern age? Now, I am not suggesting that that particular building is a piece of architecture but its very existence tells us development took place at different times, i.e it follows on from what happened further along the road, but it may also meet the modern client’s requirements better than ever the other buildings could. Do go and have a look because even modern buildings are still changing the context and so the congruity.

Bolshie goes on to state that the planning case officer described the design as ‘quirky’ i.e different, but here he embraces the change from what has gone before, or maybe he could not stretch as far as calling it ‘architecture’ without fully understanding the design development behind it. And that goes to the heart of how the present planning system cannot accommodate a proper means of assessing design, so both the planners and the public are left using their personal preferences.

Politics and education

We now come to the points that Michael Madden makes about politics (values) and education. I do not think politicians are necessarily only interested in budgets and deals but they are interested, especially in a town that has a small economy, in development either on the one hand because more housing is needed, or in local developers who need to keep busy to make a profit (of course!) so they can go on employing people.

They do also have the democratic prerogative and so have the right to exercise such power but then we might ask if they have the appropriate knowledge to make such decisions? That leads us to education and on that point can we ever really know as much as we should? Of course not, we employ experts, except that actually it is easier to express a personal view than really try to understand what good design is, and in any case our planning system does not allow that!

Political decisions: jobs and housing.

So, these days the planners are very concerned with context (it used to be called being ‘in or out of character’, or ‘not in keeping’), but congruity is now the thing. Congruity is about sameness, and in particular geometrical similarity, but varies in degree of course, and thus is subject to personal assessment. And context is even harder to pin down because it must surely not only take in the three visual dimensions of congruity but also the fourth of time.

As above, with the quirky Gillsmans Hill building, if we copy a nearby house, be it Edwardian or even 1980s, is that same design approach appropriate today? In any case, if congruity is now a measure of design quality, then why were these recent contradictions allowed?

Not much congruity to be seen between the new St Leonards Medical Centre and the house opposite.

Finally, while it is tempting to avoid the final non-committal comment of ‘interesting’, just where do the preservationists sit when it comes to the notion of congruity being a design yardstick when it corrupts their all important historic narrative?

 

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Posted 09:43 Tuesday, Feb 9, 2021 In: Architecture and Design

9 Comments

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  1. ken davis

    Bea, I can agree with you on scale but only so far, certainly 8-10 storeys behind and above 2 or 3 is not good. On colour control by planners definitely not! People must be allowed to personalise their buildings even in conservation areas.
    …and Michael, too much to respond to as usual but I cannot agree that form should or ever does follow function, that would unreasonably limit the flexibility of buildings and mean that function would have to be tightly defined which is pretty much impossible from my experience of clients. Many clients actually like a set form, look at the ridiculous popularity of shipping containers, so their functions are constrained! Bizarre but true.

    Comment by ken davis — Wednesday, Feb 24, 2021 @ 09:38

  2. ken davis

    Bolshie, somewhat unfortunately in terms of being able to demonstrate the historic development of architectural styles there is a general misunderstanding of what conservation area status is all about. And it is definitely not about copying existing historic styles, but rather about enhancing existing quality. Trouble is, that quality is rarely described at all by planning authorities due to lack of resources and so we are left with individual officers, unfamiliar with analysis of historic assets, making personal judgements. I have not been able as yet to access the back of this quirky house but will try to do so, but there is no over-riding right to privacy or overlooking in urban areas just some rather vague guidelines.

    Comment by ken davis — Wednesday, Feb 24, 2021 @ 09:26

  3. ken davis

    Cameron, good points and I entirely agree where the usual, poor quality, developers we have in Hastings are concerned. But, and not a lot of people know this (!), there are actually more houses by self builders in the UK than by the largest spec builders, and they do not have to play by the same rules. They are not profit motivated so much as end result motivated. Trouble is the planning system is weighted against the individual and in favour of the spec developer so planning authorities see self builders as an easy target so either driving them to bland unexceptional designs or away from Hastings. Rother for example are much more receptive to difference.

    Comment by ken davis — Wednesday, Feb 24, 2021 @ 09:16

  4. ken davis

    Attempting a reply to the replies!
    Alison, how can anyone miss out on Jonathan Meades? He epitomises, as far as Hastings is concerned, and especially the Bohemia area, that we need weirdness, oddity and incongruity. The planners are trying to tell me that my part of Bohemia Road has some sort of architectural congruity but are unable to point out what that is; funny that. The congruity of course is that unlike the pattern book blandness of much of Hastings, especially more recent developments allowed under planning control, is that the place is eclectic and even in places vernacular. It’s missed joy is that there is very little congruity and so more difference will only add to that existing character.

    Comment by ken davis — Wednesday, Feb 24, 2021 @ 09:09

  5. Alison Cooper

    Ken- Thanks for introducing me to Jonathon Meades! He’s HILARIOUS! Real physical theatre….much of it made me laugh….and he loved Hastings! Who wouldn’t!

    Comment by Alison Cooper — Thursday, Feb 11, 2021 @ 18:10

  6. Cameron Foye

    I think this is a truly interesting and positively provocative article: thank you. However I believe there may be another pressure leading to repetitive and underwhelming design as well as planners and planning committees. Most developers require finance in the form of bank or other borrowing. In order to raise this sort of finance they will require a valuation of the development site and of the finished product e.g. houses. The understandable nature of the valuation profession is to be conservative and to base valuations on evidence of sales carried out. Valuers will approach estate agents and examine sales and will find very few examples of interesting or challenging design sold in quantity. So between agent and valuer they will strongly tend to undervalue creative and exciting design as compared to the safe and always saleable…… Georgian pastiche Blenheim design book version 3 particularly on larger housing estates. This circle can only be broken by imaginative and very well funded developers who are prepared to take a risk on achieving at least as good return from building to great designs in numbers as opposed to one-offs. The above is less applicable to London and other progressive cities where the homebuying public has a far wider range of funding and aspiration. For more rural areas, the search for a new vernacular applicable to an area is exciting, challenging but also frustrating.

    As an aside, I would mind Georgian etc pastiche less if the detail of materials, proportion et cetera were more forcefully and sensitively imposed and monitored by planning departments

    Comment by Cameron Foye — Thursday, Feb 11, 2021 @ 12:30

  7. Bolshie

    Further to Ken Davis’s comments referring to my view concerning the “Quirky”(the key word used for the planning permission) house on Gillsmans Hill. This particular area has been labelled a “Conservation Area,” therefore one would think if there is to be any new build it should reflect some continuity to what exists in the area.
    Not some bizarre looking thing as this. And while he uses an image of the front of it, he should see what the back of it is like. Far too imposing on the rear houses facing it. Have a look at the rear of this building Ken.
    If you want to build some futuristic building like this that’s all very well but choose the right environment to do it.

    Comment by Bolshie — Thursday, Feb 11, 2021 @ 11:17

  8. Bea

    Thanks for the namecheck! Can I suggest 2 principles to apply if proper architecture is to respect what is there already:
    1) Scale: those horrible pics of towers looming over low-rise buildings… oppressive. And block out the sun and sky. Often they don’t use the land they have, and are surrounded by windblown empty space. A mix of heights with smaller greens in between would be so much more user-friendly. And could they allow people to have small allotments or gardens? Nobody touches those empty lawns, or waters the poor trees there.
    2) Colour: if that new building on Gillsmans Hill were a similar colour to the red brick, it would be so much more acceptable. Though I can’t imagine the planners even asking about the colour.

    Comment by Bea — Thursday, Feb 11, 2021 @ 11:08

  9. Michael Madden

    Another interesting article Ken. Good you’re tackling it.
    I agree about ‘congruity’ (sameness) and how council planners/conservation officers decide to settle for old safeness rather than risking innovative design. Bad pastiches don’t deserve the name ‘architecture’, and are one of the main reasons why Modernism began. I love good contemporary design and the Modern Movement’s design credo was “Form to Function”. I agree with it, but ‘Modern’ council estates produced an even worse sameness. Also, architectural students are not taught about architecture prior to the ‘Modern’ era anyway.
    I also agree with Berthold Lubetkin (a ‘Modernist’) who said something like: “There is no such thing as this Modern Movement. An architect’s job is to make a contemporary building, to design it for the people who will use it and to use materials available at the time.” When asked to design the Peterlee Housing Development for a mining community in 1948, he gave up because there was so much bureaucratic infighting and took up pig-farming.
    Isn’t the problem the same here? It’s not so much about design as about box-ticking and committees. In Hastings key decisions are taken in council chambers, where the baton of responsibility is passed along. But also consider the fact that most buildings today have a predicted lifespan of 35 years, then it’s easy to see why local people might tend to believe that what was built in the past is probably worth restoring or preserving.
    I mean, look at the the mess made of London since WW2 – total chaos. To quote Lubetkin again (loosely) (who was quoting Dostoevsky) “This chaotic nature of the city of London is actually the order of the bourgeois.”
    The question is – who makes decisions? The answer is – neither the expert, nor the community. The best situation would be if an expert architect worked directly with the community, but bureaucracy still seems to prevent that – look at what happened to the Broomgrove Power Station site.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Tuesday, Feb 9, 2021 @ 12:39

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