Pick up any newspaper or built environment related publication. The topic of “housing crisis” is splayed across pages with opinions, statistics, new visions, hacking solutions. They say it is the biggest ever since WWII.
In the post-war era, the solution was simple: build new, build tall, build dense. To obliterate the housing crisis, the messiahs of the modernist movement had a utopian vision: to build bright high-rise flats set on concrete columns, over lush green landscapes, as the ‘living machines’ of tomorrow. Whilst this undoubtedly gifted the 20th Century with some architectural masterpieces, it was primarily a top-down approach. Decision-makers often sought to impose solutions based on ambitious theories, rather than engaging with their potential residents. The once heralded architectural innovation of ‘self-sustained’ housing with pedestrianised ‘streets in the sky’ ended up being seen as segregating communities, limiting social cohesion, and leading to ghettoization of its residents.
As we face similar pressures in the 21st Century, we are dealing with an unprecedented number of densification programmes alongside new planned urban extensions. ‘Opportunity areas’ are being identified introducing new urban typologies and characters alongside the already established neighbourhoods, often taking little reference from its context. Air brushed CGIs and bird’s eye views paint a beautiful picture for architects as well as planning committees, convincing viewers that high-density mixed-use development with landscaping and squares are the new 21st Century utopian vision. However, this repeated top-down approach has sometimes resulted in developments with generic designs and an inactive public realm; without a traceable hint that their host neighbourhood has a ‘flavour’ of its own.
Advocated by Historic England, a character-based approach has been a successful and pro-active way of identifying growth areas; by reflecting and respecting the delicate patchwork of new buildings within the established terraces, warehouses and tightly knit urban grain. But does this truly capture the essence of a neighbourhood? Can this approach build sustainable communities? Does this truly reflect what the community needs or desires?
As we move towards new ways of living, working and communicating, we mustn’t forget that our neighbourhood’s user experience and user interface has been created over time with layers of historical events and social movements, ultimately shaping the communities. Our best contribution would be to add another layer, setting a 21st Century character for generations to come. This cannot be achieved by the sum total of the use classes, iconic glass structures or parking provision. Instead, our 21st Century response should go beyond architectural principles and urban design theories, and understand the community’s history and aspirations, their lifestyle, and collective memories; thus creating those animated and functional urban forms in order to reinforce the continuity of the neighbourhood’s character and ‘flavour’.