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Saturday, May 02, 2009

More damage than Goering

Last night's "Romancing The Stone" on BBC Two confirmed my prejudice about major architectural projects: they're run by people in interesting spectacles, people who are keen on having things that look good on their company website but no intention whatsoever of living in anything they build. This episode was about Park Hill flats in Sheffield, one of those Le Corbusier-inspired abominations thrown up everywhere during the 50s. It's fallen into disrepair. The council wanted to knock it down but English Heritage decided it had special architectural merit and should be preserved. A trendy developer called Urban Splash was brought in and they hacked it back to its skeleton. Then came the credit crunch, the decline in property prices meant Urban Splash couldn't raise the money and work stopped. The skeleton was left, waiting for the wind to make it unsafe.

Everybody who appeared in the film, from the posh bloke from English Heritage to the Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber (there's a job that needed creating) was encouraged by a laughing voice off-camera to ascend the ladder and knot their own noose. The most telling thing about the whole film was what it omitted. Apart from an archive clip at the beginning where a toothless old lady born in the 19th-century described Park Hill as "heaven", there was no mention of who had lived there in the past and, more importantly, who might live there in the future and how. I thought Le Corbusier's theory was that form followed function. If so, why didn't they start with some idea of who the customers were going to be? Further reading tells me that it's the usual plan: upmarket apartments and business units. I think one of the planners in the film mentioned an organic supermarket, surely the mark of a man who has a First Class return ticket in his waistcoat pocket.

I learn from a friend in the property game that Britain is now full of redeveloped old buildings turned into sun-kissed City Living spaces for young professionals. They were having difficulty moving them long before the recession and so the council use them for their problem clients. The more the council do this the less desirable these places become for the young professionals. It's brutal but it's the truth. Do the men in interesting glasses ever have these kind of discussions?