...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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March 29, 2006 || 6:38 pm
Flying Egg competition

Adnams have announced this years Flying Egg competition for Artistic Inventors and Creative Geniuses: The Alternative Clock.

"At Adnams we care about the environment and take pride in encouraging artistic endevour and a strong sense of community. We hold unusual al fresco competitions to explore the link between imagination and functionality and promote the use of recycled materials.

Our challenge is to find exciting and bizarre alternatives to mundance practical objects that no-one ever notices."

It all culminates in a wild town party in Southwold which the Telegraph (not that they would know) said 'rivals the Tate' and involves stilt walkers, lots of food and drink and all sorts of bands. You can also win quite serious prize money - there's £2,750 up for grabs altogether. They even make eggcups with wings that you can buy.

Previous competitions have included the alternative deckchair and weathervane, among others. It all started with a mad scarecrow competition a few years ago and has mushroomed ever since. You get some absolutely wild entries from all over the country and the event certainly deserves to become a much-loved part of a new British folk culture.


6:04 pm
Adnams the cow

Cow saved by beer - no really, Adnams beer (of which I am so proud to be associated by family) was responsible for saving the life of a cow, who has now given birth to a healthy calf named Adnams in honour of the occasion.

Tony Baskett and his wife Lavender, who are both in their seventies and live in Theberton, Suffolk, feared that their cow, Lottie, would die after she developed a stomach problem.

But a vet suggested treating Lottie with yeast - so Mr Baskett fed her Adnams beer from a bottle. "She was very ill and wouldn't eat or drink", said Mrs Baskett today. "The vet who was treating her said she thought that brewers yeast might help cure the problem. She said she had heard of it being used in other countries and in England many years ago. So Tony approached the local pub and they gave him a barrel of Adnams which just had the dregs of the beer in the bottom. We put it in a bottle and pushed the bottle into Lottie's mouth and got it down her that way. After a few months she made a full recovery and now to show how healthy she is she has given birth to a calf, which we have of course named Adnams.

"We've been farming for 48 years here and I have never heard of beer being used like this before. But apparently it was in the old days."

Fantastic. And how very nice of the pub to give away the beer for free. We always knew that Adnams was good stuff - no additives, the very best malt and yeast and Suffolk water - but now we've got proof for sure.


2:55 pm
Miliband a gooner?

Not sure about this revelation here that David Miliband shares my Arsenal faith. I know what the non-gooners will say: typical Arsenal, all establishment and wimpy middle class types. Well, whatever...

But on the same theme, what a result last night! And how frustrating was it for me to be stuck on a delayed plane circling London in one of those dreaded holding patterns, rather than in the pub watching the glorious rout. There was thick cloud and I kept trying to peer through it, knowing that normally you can see Highbury stadium from the sky and hoping that I might be able to glimpse a few coloured shirts on the pitch. No such chance.


March 27, 2006 || 9:15 pm

I'm in Bucharest with the British Council doing a regeneration seminar and workshop. We arrived this afternoon and had a fascinating tour around much of the central areas of the city. So many extraordinary and bizarre things, of which Ceaucescu's Palace of the People is perhaps the most grandiose and crazy but by no means the only one. The Palace is the largest buliding in the world after the Pentagon and is situated, alongside its park and associated housing projects designed to shield the older neighbourhoods from sight of a new ceremonial boulevard, on the site of what once housed 40,000 people and 26 churches, alongside two monasteries. The monasteries and a handful of the churches were moved elsewhere, but everything else was razed to the ground, including a football stadium whose remains are visible as the underground ruins of part of the park. The neo-classical Palace was never finished and still is in a state of derelict semi-construction, alongside the Academy building behind it that is also a strange unfinished ruin. Soane might have loved it.

Then there's the plans for the new cathedral, that have changed site five times over the last twenty years without anything having been started; the 'famine circuses' - massive domed food production and sale buildings that were also never finished, intended to placate the starving masses; beautiful tiny churches and delicately ornate Classical apartment buildings and houses; a super-ornate Neoclassical 1930's multi-storey car repair garage complete with moving ar-lifts; and some outstanding (to my eye) early modernist cinemas and apartment blocks. Not to mention what happens when after fifty years of Communist ownership, all sorts of major buildings get 'reclaimed' by their former 'legal' owner.

And much much more. But its now late in this time zone and I've got to be super-fresh for the day's work tomorrow, so I'll have to write more later.


March 26, 2006 || 5:26 pm
Seen and heard

Last night, walking home at around 11pm through Spitalfields, I felt particularly detached from the hordes of party-goers at that stage of leaving restuarants and pubs on their way to clubs and the next phase of the night. Turning down Hanbury street, I passed Rossi's cafe - a typical Italian greasy spoon, an institution locally, and normally full of builders from the nearby sites of new skyscrapers.

But last night it was magically lit up, and inside was a scene that could have been from New York or Naples in the 1930s. It must have been Mr Rossi's granddaughter, or niece's birthday - for there she was, aged perhaps thirteen, dressed in a timeless pale pink satin dress with flowered clips in her long dark hair and patent slippers, jumping up and down, playing with several white balloons that floated around her. Around her sat the family - men in jackets, women in colourful fitted dresses, and the children in miniature versions of their parents clothes, joining in their sister or cousin's game. The inside of the cafe glittered - the inlaid panelling and mirrors reflecting the light - and for a minute I certainly wasn't in Saturday-night Spitalfields.

Overheard today, walking down the market, a random yet strangely obvious new cry from the hawkers: 'Kember's home! Norman Kember's home! Anyone seen 'im? Come right along!'


March 23, 2006 || 5:30 pm
The Man From Below

Check out the insanely funny (and slightly worrying) new blog The Man from Below. Longer post on the subject over at the new blog here.


March 15, 2006 || 9:42 pm
Walking over London Bridge

Every day I walk down Bishopsgate and over London Bridge to work, against the tide of people walking the other way into the City. Especially this time of year, I think almost every day of TS Eliot:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

It is strange to see so many faces every day and not know any of them - it really is a tide, "so many" - eyes not just on the ground but also staring straight ahead, through me. The bowler hats of Eliot's time are replaced with iPod headphones. People are not so much suited and booted as they used to be - there is a variety in dress even of these City folks, even of the men who do not all have identical overcoats or shoes. Not everyone is going to a bank or legal office any more - I see bodies that betray other professions by their trainers, or jeans, or flower-print dresses.

I try to walk right by the balustrade of the bridge, making my own little left-hand lane against the flow. Everyone has their morning faces on - unspeaking, set yet slack, a state which allows you to see them exactly as they might have been at five years old, or thirteen, or how they may be at seventy-five. Behind the careful, too-fresh make-up and hair, the presentation of an outward face that can allow the person behind to sleep on the train, or battle a hangover or marital row, there is something quite extraordinary in these morning faces, eyes open yet not needing to look at anything along the familiar route. Sometimes someone's mind will be far away, still at home or already at the office, and they will practically walk into me as though I wasn't there.

I can understand why Eliot saw these people as ghosts - this habit of walking over or through me is very like the practice of a ghost, as are the set, motionless faces blank with the residue of sleep and the resignation of going to work.


March 11, 2006 || 11:38 am
Return to Akenfield?

Our Poet Laureate writes "The faulty connection between town imperatives and country living remains one of the great national issues of our time." He is reviewing Return to Akenfield, the revisiting of the location of Ronald Blythe's seminal book published 35 years ago and documenting, in a precise and unemotional way, the massive changes brought upon the landscape and community of a pair of rural Suffolk villages by the post-war era.

Some of the new book, by the Canadian Craig Taylor, was reproduced in a recent issue of Granta entitled Country Life. I found it less affecting and stringently powerful than the original but to me, the interest was more in the fact that Granta was themed around the countryside, and it seems to me that these issues around the 'faulty connection' are becoming more and more evidently the national issue of our time. Yet the question of our countryside remains the elephant in the room in every discussion about, for example, planning policy, or immigration, or tax, or the aging population. We pretend that if we meet the aim of continuing much as we are, preserving hedgerows and allowing new housing estates to spring up in abandoned quarries where they are unseen and therefore almost do not exist, English life will be as arcadian as our national myths. 'Concreting over the countryside' - the much misused and misleading phrase - sums up all our worst national fears, equivalent to selling the family silver.

Yet as we all know, the arcadia does not exist, and possibly never did; and maybe never should. In rural Norfolk, social services are provided in English and Portuguese because of the number of migrant farm workers living there. The tragedy of the Morecambe cockle pickers was interpreted in the press as not a symptom of a countryside dystopia but in relation to global human trafficking and our immigration laws. No-one really stopped to ask why thirty Chinese were brought to a beautiful English county and asked to harvest our crops.

These issues are sort-of recognised, and mentioned, and made vague reference to in our metropolitan-centred press, but without real rigor or radicalism or the asking of visionary questions. At work, our proposal for the British Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale was subtitled simply 'What is the countryside for?' - and we came down to the last two, but lost out to a proposal about Sheffield. Architecture schools stick to safe territory of the gritty inner-cities, not the architecture of villages or fields. One issue of Granta and an article by Andrew Motion do not make a national debate. It is almost as though it is too much to actually contemplate that this might be the big issue, that the national psyche-probing that might result would open up an abyss at our collective feet.

I was surprised, in the State of the Cities report that came out this week, to read that only 58% of our population live in cities, after years of reading that around 90% of us live in 'urban areas' - which are defined in a somewhat meaningless way that takes in almost every decent market town. I had thought that one of the justifications used by politicians and the media to dismiss 'rural issues' as irrelevant was this statistic that hardly anyone lived there, that these areas should by rights bow down to the needs of the urban majority. But actually it seems that the balance of rural to urban population is much more equal.

I doubt that this small statistic will suddenly make our political masters sit up and think about the 42% who live in rural areas - a sizeable part of the country, and the proportion would be even greater if the report included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But I continue to hope that the elephant in the room will eventually get the notice that it deserves; that the urbanites discover the real radicalism that is present in rural areas, and are forced to question their assumptions about the countryside.


March 10, 2006 || 9:26 am
King's Cross approved!

After a total of nine hours of committee meetings, Argent's Kings Cross development (on which we have been involved) gained outline planning permission last night with no hitches. Of course this is the first hurdle crossed in the long process before actual buildings start getting built. It's now got to get the nod from Ken and all the section 106 (planning gain) agreements have to be finalised. But huge congratulations to Argent and Roger Madelin, who will now definitely be the hot stars at the MIPIM schmoozefest next week, and we're excited to see what happens next!

(Previous post on this are here and here)


March 07, 2006 || 5:31 pm
New blog experiment

Those of you who aren't interested in planning or regeneration may be happy. I've started a new and experimental blog which aims to fill a gap in British web resources - bringing together all the latest news and comment from all sorts of sources on what's going on in the big bad world of urban (and rural) development. And so I'll stop posting here so much about all that. The new blog's here and very much a work in progress so expect many design changes and updates over the next few weeks. It's meant to be a useful resource for those who do work in the sector but find it hard keeping up with all the news so please leave me a comment to tell me how it could be improved! It may also become a group blog soon so if anyone feels like contributing, let me know. And if no-one finds it useful...well, I'll just stop.


March 06, 2006 || 9:34 pm
Lucy's on the road

My good friend Lucy Begg has started an amazing year, funded by a travel grant from Berkeley, travelling all over the world to investigate the methods and strategies used by young and fringe architectural practices who work in participatory, activist and socially engaged ways. Check out her website Spaces for Action and her blog here. It's an amazing project and much to my own heart - and I was glad to be able to help a tiny bit during the formulation of her plans. I really have Lucy to thank for encouraging me to go to the Rural Studio after she spent a fantastic year - and our many conversations always make me question my own work and raise the bar for what you can do. She's got great energy and is a fantastic designer too...so I'm excited to follow her over this year!

Hopefully, Lucy, you'll make it to London at some point during your travels and I can hear it all from the horse's mouth!


March 05, 2006 || 10:17 pm
The future of community?

Spent my Saturday at the Future of Communities 'festival' at Central St Martins. Why a 'festival', I'm not sure - perhaps to make the idea of a conference on a Saturday more appealing. The event was organised by the Future Cities Project in collaboration with the MA in Creative Design for Narrative Environments at CSM (why a name so begging for a piss-take? what the heck is a 'narrative environment'?) and boasted a mixture of the usual suspects (Geoff Mulgan, last seen giving almost an identical spiel at last week's conference before shrugging me off when I tried to talk to him with more than necessary rudeness), interesting pillars of the academic establishment (Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen), un-rigorous media types (Jonathan Meades, Jules ) and the kind of male, bolshy, posturing types that unfortunately hang around with a project of the optimistic name of Future Cities. Of whom I have strong opinions (and could write many paragraphs) but I'm not sure how helpful it really is to share these with you.

Anyway, this conference was supposed to be about the future of communities. What 'community' is, whether it's a 'good' thing, if so how to 'create' or 'sustain' it, and how to engage the 'public' themselves in this debate and process of change. Sadly, not much new stuff. Sennett and Saskia Sassen were perceptive, subtle and interesting as always - and the subtlety of what they were trying to say got lost on many of the other panellists and much of the audience, at least those who stuck their hands up to enter the debate. And the debate was almost all hypothetical, lacking real case studies of real places and people that could be analysed, evaluated, discussed and learnt from. What are the models out there that seem to be working on both a conceptual and a practical level?

The elephant in the room, as far as I was concerned, was a point that Sennett, and other critical commentators, make time and again: that of choice. Engagement is all very well if you want to engage, or if you have the time; but who advocates for those who won't or can't? Isn't a lot of this 'double devolution' and 'power to the people' talk actually hugely disenfranchising to those who don't get involved, for whatever reason? And shouldn't, in an ideal world, there be a place - whether within the democratic system of local representatives, or other perceptive and articulate advocates amongst whom I would count artists and other creative critics - for these disparate voices to be heard, and their views to be respected and addressed?

Part of the joy of (certainly urban) living is the choice between anonymity and presence. On a personal level, I care hugely about my local area but I don't want (and don't have the time to) become a local busy-body. I like to be able to be anonymous and to choose where I become more actively engaged, without feeling like through a more passive, spectatorial role my needs will be discounted. I would like to feel that I can express my views more easily (techniques of consultation/engagement that are more thorough and wide-reaching), but also that simply because I don't turn up to the meeting in the town hall, it doesn't mean that those making the decisions discount the fact that there are people like me within their constituency who share a commonality of interest.

Some of this is about better research, and making it count: more thorough local surveying and more active local surveying - literally knocking on doors, rather than waiting for us to pick up our pens or log onto a website. But some is about choosing in whom power lies. I would like to see our elected representatives take seriously the issue of representation and I'm not sure that undermining their power by devolving to largely self-selecting local groups actually makes our governance and public services any more just or inclusive. We should have the right to engage actively - to protest, petition, attend meetings and question our leaders - but I'm not sure that we should have the duty to engage, or risk disenfranchisement. After all, whether I vote or not, I still pay my taxes; whether I have time or not to trek down to the town hall, I still have needs; and many of those who have the greatest needs and strongest local knowledge and views are those who certainly do not have the time to voluntarily spend as activists, in between being a single mother, holding down several jobs, cleaning the house and making time for friends and family.

I might suggest that one way to avoid this, certainly in the field of planning, regeneration and development, is to take a vastly more sensitized approach to what the local means. Do really good research - not just quantitative but qualitative and perceptual, subjective and fine-grain. We do this through not only talking to real people - kids excluded from school, shopkeepers, youth workers - on proper field investigations, but also by commissioning those with the skills and authority to articulate and communicate - artists and writers - to make tangible the aspects of local quality and distinctiveness that don't come up on surveys and statistics. Live in the area - walk the streets and enter its life - and, as I was told on arriving at the Rural Studio, watch and listen carefully - become sensitized to the unsaid and the multiplicity of readings and relationships that exist in a place.

This sounds fluffy, but it means a real and deliverable shift of emphasis. You can pick up on things that have resonance with local people and give them spaces and voice, meaning they are less likely to contest your planning application. You can make sure that new public spaces and buildings don't stand empty after the opening fanfares. You can demonstrably make places safer, more popular, and more valuable in both economic and social terms. And above all, it allows places to be distinctive and characterful, the antidote to the 'anyplace' that everyone from the policy wonks to the man on the street says they hate.


March 03, 2006 || 1:50 pm
Kings Cross countdown

The planning decision on the major development at Kings Cross Central, on which my firm worked, comes this time next week. In advance, we are cheered that the planners report from Camden Council recommends it for approval. In particular, we are very pleased by one comment. They said that it would deliver 'a real step change in the quality of the public realm at King's Cross with high quality and genuinely public new streets and open spaces'. Well, folks, not to beat our own drum too much, but that's all our work. We did the entire public realm strategy, for open spaces, streetscape, play, schools, event spaces, and most crucially, the links and integration with the surrounding areas.

This is the re-submission of the planning application, after the initial submission attracted a lot of criticism. The biggest difference between the first and second versions? I have to say: our work. From the Camden planners website:

"Major changes to the application include:

- more public open space
- new designs for streets and squares
- new health, education, sports and other community facilities
- changes to the road layout and introduction of home zones

All our work. If this gets through (as we hope) next week, I think it proves something: that caring about the public realm is not only a 'nice' thing to do, but actually, is essential for getting planning permission. (And, of course, that we are the people who can do this for you!)


1:50 pm
Density (again)

More news today in the trade press about the housing density debate. CABE has said, in its response to the PPG3 consultation, that it thinks the national minimum density of 30 dwellings per hectare should be scrapped as it is leading to the development of crap edge-of-settlement housing and too many flats, which doesn't help create a socially mixed community as it attracts too many young couples who move on as soon as they want kids.

I wrote earlier this week about how misguided it is to measure density of occupation in dwellings per hectare as opposed to habitable rooms per hectare, and if we change this, how it would effectively get rid of precisely this problem. But the answer is not to scrap minimum densities, with the return to ecologically unsustainable, sprawling development that this would generally entail.

I would, however, make an exception. If a carbon-neutral development was proposed at less that 100hrh (about the equivalent of 30 dph), it should be allowed through. The reason for this is that I'm currently looking at models of carbon-neutral development for rural areas where energy is generated locally and potentially through means such as biomass rather than wind or solar. This starts to imply interesting new forms of lower density development.

The other point is that we should be much more serious about linking non-city development to public transport. A fundamental justification for density guidelines is to make people drive less. Well, a high-density development miles from a bus stop or train station isn't really going to make people drive less. In the very rural area that I'm looking at for my hypothetical study, there are only six railway stations but the entire new housing quota for the local authority over the next ten years could be accommodated within ten minutes walk of these stations at a density of only around ten homes per hectare. So, in this case, low-density development is highly sustainable.

What's my conclusion? The primary requirement should be a link to public transport. Edge-of-settlement development should not be allowed, even at high density, unless all sites near public transport are used up elsewhere. (This is more radical that it sounds, when you consider that may rural stations are in the middle of nowhere, not in the centre of towns.) Secondly, in rural areas, be carbon-neutral. Thirdly, go to hrh, not dph, to take away the excuses that developers currently have for poor quality design and ethic-less planning. Then lets see where that gets us.


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