What exactly is “architecture for the common good”? The new MacEwen Award just found out

The upcycled building as it appears in Stockwell today. Image: Hugh Pearman.

We all know what one of the problems is, when it comes to buildings. Naked speculation. Greed.

In other words, the erection of buildings – often involving the destruction of other, perfectly good, perhaps even historic, buildings – for the sole purpose of enriching their developers and overseas investors. This, rather than, say, providing genuinely affordable housing, excellent schools, good places to live and work, hospitals that might make you feel a bit better, and so on – you know the kind of thing.

Hence the new MacEwen Award. It’s subtitled: “Architecture for the Common Good”.  

I launched the award as a zero-budget affair that was more of a journalistic investigation than anything. I edit an architecture magazine, the RIBA Journal.  Malcolm MacEwen had been an activist ex-Communist predecessor in my chair in the 1960s and early 1970s, campaigning successfully to reform what had become a mistrusted profession. His wife Anni, no less politically engaged, was a leading conservation-based town planner, who had doubts about the rule of the motor car way before anyone else in her line of business. 


I’d noticed that there was once again increasing unease in the architecture profession – especially at its younger end – about some of the sometimes regrettable things architects were getting associated with.  What about the good stuff, though? The ethical stuff?

There’s nothing wrong with commerce, you understand – great cities have always been all about commerce, and the homes and offices and resorts of the wealthy are part of that. But I also knew that there was another kind of architecture going on in the UK – often unsung, often small-scale, low budget.

Sometimes it involves new buildings; sometimes doing clever things with existing ones, and sometimes it’s not really buildings at all, more open space, or the streets. 

So we launched the MacEwen Award as a way to winkle these out.  We grandly said that whatever was entered should be of demonstrable benefit across society – whatever that meant.

Vague though all this was, it worked.  We got more than 80 entries, made a longlist of 39, and our judges whittled it down to a final dozen or so. Finally, we ended up with a winner, a couple of commendations and a special mention.

People sent us community-aware schools, properly affordable housing projects, imaginative youth centres, sundry social enterprises, welcoming healthcare buildings, streetscape improvements, and rural access schemes. Ultimately, though, the winner was a second-hand wooden hut in South London.

 

A squad of volunteers helps to reassemble the reborn building on its minimal foundations. Image: Jessica Thom/author provided.

Inside the building. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided. 

But a noble one. The Oasis Children’s Venture in Stockwell is an inheritor of the post-war bombsite adventure playground movement, making good things happen in what can be a tough area.  The group needed a building kids could use in bad weather, but couldn’t afford to build a new one. 

Then it transpired that a very different organisation, Coin Street Community Builders on the South Bank – the group behind a lot of good co-op housing there, plus the OXO building and much else – actually had a 1988 building to give away.

 

The beautiful delicate timber system was designed by Walter Segal. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided.

The building in question was built to an ultra-simple bolt-together timber construction method by an architect called Walter Segal. He had invented the system in the 1970s so people could build their own homes easily and cheaply.

Coin Street had adapted his system for their HQ building – but 25 years later, they no longer needed it. You can have it, they said to Oasis – so long as you take it to bits and take it away.

So – thanks to two determined architecture students, Matt Atkins and Benjamin Marks – they did so. Oasis recruited squads of volunteers; Atkins and Marks designed a new configuration for Segal’s kit of parts and led the way with spanners themselves. And so the building was taken in hundreds of bits to Stockwell and re-assembled in a different shape which suited its new use. And for the past three years it has been well used.

Inside the building. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided. 

How could the MacEwen Award judges not love this? Not just the use it was put to; not just the dedication of volunteers or the design skills of Marks and Atkins; but the fact that a whole building could be moved and upcycled – boiler and radiators included – in this nifty medieval way. It’s an elegant post-and-beam system, too: it looks good. It has no obvious style you can readily date it by. It works. Clever old Walter Segal.

And bear this in mind: it started its new life at 25 years old. That’s the age when plenty of seemingly permanent heavyweight buildings costing untold millions in the City of London, say, get demolished and replaced – and that’s the end of them. Just a bit wasteful. 

Our inaugural MacEwen Award winner, in contrast, is the very antidote to waste.  And here’s the clincher. It’s a great thing, loads of people made it happen – and nobody made any money out of it. 

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and the former architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at RIBAJ.com.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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