From Hodge to Hooverville

The madness of Margaret Hodge

Could Margaret Hodge be our very own Sub-prime Minister?

There are more insane ramblings from UK architecture minister Margaret Hodge in this weeks Building Design (20,03.2008). Cleverly giving herself enough rope to hang herself, BD invites Margaret Hodge to show them around her consistuency of Barking, East London, and see what kind of architecture she likes - "Now that’s what Margaret Hodge calls architecture".

She starts off well enough, criticising a spec housing development by Bellway homes, (albeit for reasons that should be within the council and planning departments ability to enforce):

"It's horrible, cheap housing with no facilities: no schools, no transport infrastructure, no buses, no shops. This is just want you don't want."

Then she starts to show a little of her own design 'vision', for the Barking Riverside masterplan:

"I don't think it works," she says. "There are enormous pedestrianised areas. They haven't integrated the housing properly. New communities only work if people have their own gardens, fenced off."

Now it's possible that Margeret Hodge has been feverishly reading nutters like Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman et al, or channeling the spirit of Jane Jacobs through a kind of New Urbanist distortion field, since landing in the poisoned chair at the DCMS in June 200. However, it's more likely that she has made this gross, sweeping statement off the top of her head. Margaret Hodge has nailed her colours to the mast of environmental determinism.

Barking Learning Centre

But the killer comes when Hodges takes BD to Barking Learning Centre:

Among her high points is Barking Learning Centre, formerly the central library, designed by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris. This mixed-use building, which is the centrepiece of Barking Town Square’s redevelopment, is an example of the government’s vision for integrated public spaces, with council services, a lending library, educational facilities and residential apartments all on the same site. Hodge is very proud of it.

"Look, a buggy park!" she exclaims, as we view the children's library, a book club meeting in progress. Hodge points out the "welcoming entrance", which she sees as friendly and inclusive, and insists there ought to be a coffee shop here too. Her only disappointment is that the flats have been sold to a buy-to-let investor. "There’s nothing you can do about that." [My italics].

There's the money quote. With one throwaway comment the UK's architecture minister washes her hands of the parlous state of the UK's housing.

Buy-to-let, where investors buy properties as a business venture and enjoy tax breaks, has completely altered the UK housing landscape over the last 10 years. Fed a diet of 'you can do it' property investment programmes such as Relocation, Relocation, Property Ladder and How to be a Property Developer, the middle-classes of England have been steadily sinking themselves in debt taking out multiple mortages and riding the milktrain.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Writing in the Guardian, Sympathy for the buy-to-let devil?, (22.03.2008), Patrick Collinson states:

Lenders keep telling us Britain doesn't have a "sub-prime" problem like the US. Yes we do - in the shape of a million buy-to-let mortgages.

Collinson then details some of the scams and sharp practices that have dominated the buy-to-let feeding frenzy:

"On paper, you couldn't obtain a 100% mortgage for a buy-to-let. But developers offered fake 15% "discounts"; credulous surveyors gave fanciful valuations; lenders skimmed over loan applications. Hey presto, wannabe landlords were able to obtain an "85%" loan which was really 100% of the purchase price, and start building a "portfolio" without spending a penny upfront. And they didn't even have to pay tax on the income.

It wasn't much of a worry to the lenders that the whole thing might later go wrong. They could "package" or "securitise" the buy-to-let loan, mark it down as a profit and take it off their books. Only in the coming few months will we see where in the financial system the losses turn up.

Compare this with first-time buyers. They have to stump up a deposit. They have to prove their income. They have to make monthly mortgage payments from a taxed salary. There could only be one winner in such a one-sided game. With access to easy finance, the buy-to-letter could outbid the first-timer and push prices up to ever more ludicrous levels."

Now the bubble has inevitably burst, not only are tens of thousands of get rich quick investors stuggling to make interest payments on mortgages, but overstretched owner-occupiers are faced with large mortgage hikes, while the banks and financial institutions who have been ridden by this loa of greed and exploitation get bailed out by the Bank of England. As a nation we are overextended on credit per capita to a much greater extent than the US.

Barking Learning Centre, held up by Hodge as the shining example of urban regeneration in Britain, is actually just the mirror to the failed state of housing in the UK. Who will maintain the properties at Barking Learning Centre? What can motivate investors, who are losing millions of pounds on the empty promise of buy-to-let, to look after their properties and ensure that they are good places to live?

To bring it back round to Robin Hood Gardens, and it's recent threat of demolition, Amanda Bailieu states in her recent BD editorial:

As one would expect from this government, Margaret Hodge believes the newly built Barking town centre in her constituency offers a more hopeful model for the future of British housing than the rugged, generous and light-filled flats at Robin Hood Gardens.

And yet Hodge cannot find any housing in Barking that actually works.

Tent City, Ontario California


In the US, the credit crunch and the fallout from the subprime mortgage farrago is refiguring communities and the suburban landscape, creating new housing archetypes - subprime shanty towns and exurban slums. The death of the buy-to-let market in the UK could do the same in this country. Margaret Hodge could find herself with a Hooverville in the midst of her constituency.

What is needed, now more than ever, is a richer mix of housing types and typologies. This needs to encompass social housing, letted accommodation, housing associations and cooperative living, as well as owner occupied dwellings.

Instead of hanging round Barking, Hodge should try visiting Rotterdam.

Brutal Virtuality

Robin Hood Gardens

Margaret Hodge, UK architecture minister, on modernist architecture:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

Hodges comments come a few weeks before English Heritage will make its recommendation to Hodge whether to list Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate in the Brutalist style, completed in 1972.

So what would Robin Hood Gardens look like in digital form?

Much of what makes brutalist architecture so polarising is that it is so uncompromising - its brooding physicality is almost the antithesis of the pure superficiality of the digital simulacra . Brutalist buildings don't ask to be liked, and as Amanda Baillieu says in her BD editorial, the Robin Hood Gardens estate "is not an esay place to love". Much of their appeal (or 'monstrosity') comes from the raw qualities of concrete, what Le Corbusier called the béton brut, with the patina given by years of staining, weathering and abuse. Can this uncompromising materiality ever be represented in cyberspace?

As can be seen from many recent computer games, virtual environments are getting better at representing the dirt in the cracks of the real world, creating imperfect alternate futures. There's no reason why digital architectural models cannot move beyond the shiny plasticity of most of todays walk-throughs and fly-bys to show something more visceral and down at heel, representing the ravages of time, weathering and unsocial behaviour.

In some ways, a digital simulation of a project may be a more accurate representation of it's original aims. Robin Hood Gardens was never used or inhabited the way that the Smithsons intended. Inevitably it became filled with low-income families, as previously mentioned about Park Hill: "sink social housing for the dispossessed, the rootless and the shiftless".

Simon Smithson, the son of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, recalls the early days of Robin Hood Gardens in an interview at BD online:

I think it became obvious soon after the families moved in, and we went to see it. They moved in problem families from the outset, and when we talked to the warden and he showed us that the old peoples' centre that had been smashed up and had to be locked, it shook my father to the core.

But what I remember as a child is how modern the flats were. They were big, light and had central heating, which we didn't have at home. The flats were well built and the detailing was of a quality you simply don't see today. The way the acoustic problems were dealt with was a tour de force.

Given that RHG, if saved from demolition, will never to be restored to it's pristine original state, and will need to be remodelled and adapted to new uses, there is a strong case that a digital archive may be a more accurate preservation of the original building. Imagine a comprehensive digital archive of Robin Hood Gardens, available online with access for all, with drawings and documentation, photographs of the building tracing it's troubled history. Combine this with a collection of state-of-the-art 3D models, available for download under a Creative Commons licence, and including models capable of being experienced, navigated and inhabited with the latest immersive technologies, would be a fine legacy for the Smithson's endeavour.

Inevitably, the more people learn about Robin Hood Gardens the more keen they will be to visit it, to experience it in real life, which is why I support the listing and revitalisation of RHG. But it cannot be preserved as a monument, a shrine to Brutalism - it must be made to work as a building, a place.

Margaret Hodge has backed herself into a corner with her comments. She cannot now do nothing. She must either agree to list Robin Hood Gardens, or commit to a National Digital Architecture Archive. It is my passionate hope that she does both.


The Island: London Series

Stephen Walter

Stephen Walter

Stephen Walter

Stephen Walter

On show in the atmospheric Crypt of St. Pancras church at the moment (until 2nd March) is an exhibition of the remarkable drawings of Stephen Walter. Called The Island: London Series, it presents a dense layered symbolic map of London, represented as an island.

While geographically accurate, it replaces the austere, regimented symbolism of an Ordnance Survey map with a rich semiotic cartography, tracing Walter's personal pre-occupations as well as historical references, landmarks, and scattered throughout with the symbols and logos that infest the urban landscape.

It's a kind of proto Google Maps, rendered in crude pencil rather than crisp pixels. But it's a heroic attempt at a individual reading of the city, overlaying much more than the simple geography of roads and buildings. It's an exploration that has obvious touchpoints with the writings of Iain Sinclair, and also Phyllis Pearsall's A-Z of London.

You can see all of The Island here.

Introducing Superspatial

Zaha Hadid parametric urbanism

Just a quick note to mention the launch of a new collaborative weblog, called Superspatial, that I am involved in.

Superspatial will focus on architecture, urbanism and architectural speculation, while Kosmograd will hopefully become more refined in tackling issues of disurbanism, urban representation and virtual space.

Currently the only other author on Superspatial is Lewis Martin, from the excellent Helsinki-focussed archi-blog lewism. If you are interested in joining in, get in touch.

Some recent posts on Superspatial:

004. The urban futures of rising tides

003. A bridge too far?

002. Parametric Urbanism on the Thames Estuary

001. Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park

Wireframe London

Wireframe London

Wireframe London

Wireframe London

I picked up a CD at Tate Modern recently, featuring a wireframe representation of central London, animated by Cian Plumbe, with various landmarks highlighted, the river the only solid. By rendering the wireframe lines as 3-dimensional tubes, it turns the crude wireframe into a stylised graphic representation, whilst still symbolising something nascent, not yet fully formed.

These kind of wireframe animations offer a powerful antidote to the bland, polished photo-realistic computer graphics that abound in most architectural representation, caught in a fallacious trap of trying to mimic reality. A wireframe makes no such claims, and as such, allows us to project our own realities onto it.

Wireframe London

Wireframe London

Wireframe London

Flood London

Flood London

Flood London

Flood London

A new film, The Flood, offers an apocalyptic vision of Britain's capital city under a huge surge of water coming along the Thames.

In what appears, from the trailer, to be a fairly typical example of the British disaster movie genre, the surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, and causes mass flooding to central London. Westminister is turned into a huge lake, the Millennium Eye becomes a giant water wheel.

All good hokum, of course, and according to this BBC article, with little truth to it. A storm surge, tsunami or tidal wave big enough to overtop the Thames Barrier, as the film sugggests, would also be enough to flood large parts of Kent and Essex, and go around the barrier.

Indeed, it is the Thames Estuary, further downstream from the Thames Barrier (at Woolwich Reach), to the east of Central London, that would be the most likely victim of any rising water levels or flood events. The real devastation would not be around the City of London, but the towns of Gillingham and Chatham, Dartford, Gravesend, Canvey Island, Southend, the Isle of Sheppey, and the proposed Thames Gateway development.

It was the floods of 1953, which cost the lives of 300 people, with extensive flooding to the east of London, such as Canvey Island, that was the impetus for building of the Thames Barrier, though ironically the Thames Barrier is only designed to save central London. Now, plans are being made to construct a flood defence mechanism that might serve the whole of the Thames Estuary.

More, inevitably, to follow.