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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 28th May 2010
Ripon may not have many Grand Designs, but developers and planners can learn something from Kevin McCloud, says David Winpenny

Whether you watch Channel 4’s ‘Grand Designs’ programme or not, you’ve probably heard of Kevin McCloud, its personable presenter and a gentle critic of the more delusionary flights and financial unrealities of the people he watches put together their new homes.

When he’s freed from the shackles of television, which, inevitably, rather blunts his acerbity, he can be a trenchant critic, not just of ambitious owners but also of architects and planners. In a lecture on 18 May at the Royal Institute of British Architects he was in full flight.

He criticised the desire of some designers both to replace the necessity of original design by mere reproduction of what’s already around them, and to make all their developments beautifully tidy. Also in his sights were other developers whose taste might be seen as the polar opposite. They will ignore any historical context for their buildings, replacing whole sections of our cities with glittering slabs of glass and concrete, or gravity-defying structures that prove how clever they and their structural engineers may be, but have little relevance to the people or the history of the area.

This has always been a complicated matter. No doubt people in Athens complained, when Iktinus and Kallikrates produced their plans for the Parthenon in the 430s BC, that it was a monstrosity that had no relevance to their way of life and necessitated moving perfectly good houses to build it. Much the same was probably said when Ripon’s Market Square was laid out.

And even when there was the chance to build on a new and grand scale on a devastated site, there were objections. After the Great Fire of London Christopher Wren produced a master plan for the city that would have given it majestic boulevards and avenues leading to the main buildings, including his new St Paul’s. It was not to be; landowners and churches insisted on rebuilding on the plan of the old city, so the higgledy-piggledy street plan of the city to a large extent remains to this day. At least in Paris Baron Haussmann managed his grand routes – as did Mussolini in barging a way through Rome’s slums to create a proper processional route into St Peter’s Square.

McCloud is interested in slums – he has recently visited the Mumbai slums – and how they can be improved. He does not believe that the great slum clearances of the past were successful, because they imposed completely new plans and townscapes on people whose living patterns were too badly disrupted. 20th-century slum clearances in Britain too often cleared whole sites and then put in new forms – think of the now-demolished Quarry Hill flats in Leeds, where the West Yorkshire Playhouse now stands, or the tower blocks that you can see in almost all big cities.

In his lecture, McCloud argues that such an approach goes too far. ‘What I want to propose,’ he said, ‘is that it is the layering and the complexity of our built environment that provides depth, interest and relief, like a moist and flavoursome layer cake of reference. We are creatures who demand complexity: our eyes are accustomed to texture and grain.’

Developers who make a virtue of tidiness, or who provide dead copies of what has gone before, or who sweep everything away without a backward glance are missing the point, he says. Such ways of working miss out the essential ingredients – how people actually live and what they want from their local area. We need, he says, ‘to curb our enthusiasm for status, acquiring stuff and materialism, while developing a keener, richer, more elaborate set of connections with the people that live around us and the place we inhabit. And we need architecture and design to help us do it, because that is what architecture and design are for.’

In Ripon, too, we have suffered. There are some who will argue that we have new developments that fall into all the categories Kevin McCloud censures. The new houses on the college site have a regimentation that is too tidy. There are lots of pseudo-Georgian houses, in the city - they are still going up even in this recession. And it could be argued that the imposition of the new supermarket building and its enabling road cut across the historic fabric of the city.

McCloud rightly says that ‘true sustainability is achieved when architects get together with residents to make the best of what is already there’ – it’s what he calls both the ‘fuzzy’ aspects of planning and the ‘jam and knitting’ of an area – people pooling their ideas and convincing developers of their value.

But there is another group just as important as the developers and their architects. It is the planners. Until they have the vision to insist on consulting local people properly about developments, and the courage to insist on good modern design rather than the timid pastiche they currently insist on, there will be no improvement.

As purse-strings and belts tighten even further, and development perhaps slows even more, this might be exactly the right time for everyone to have a complete rethink about our priorities.

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