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Is better design the solution to NIMBYism?

Alexis Self has an opinion piece in today’s Monocle Minute (email newsletter) that deals with development in London and NIMBYism. Here’s an excerpt:

Affluent, socially liberal city dwellers can be the most extreme Nimbys. But perhaps their ire wouldn’t be so fierce if what was being built weren’t so aesthetically offensive. In the postwar era, London’s councils teemed with ambitious urban planners. The result: design classics such as Trellick Tower in Kensal Green, the Barbican Estate and Camden’s Alexandra Road Estate. While it’s true that these were labelled ugly at the time, they were undeniably the work of Europe’s best architects. Few, if any, of the city’s 21st-century edifices will enjoy a similar reappraisal.

Alexis raises two interesting points: 1) Could better architecture and design actually help to quash NIMBY sentiment and 2) are we really not designing and building like we used to?

I’ll start with number two.

I am not that familiar with the “design classics” that Alexis mentions above, but it just so happens then when I was watching Never Too Small over the weekend I came across this studio apartment in the Barbican Estate.

Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in the 1960s, the Barbican is a residential complex with somewhere around 2,000 apartments. It’s considered a prominent example of British brutalist architecture and so most of it is listed.

While certainly noteworthy, it strikes me that it is likely one of those pieces of architecture that designers and architects love (I like it), but that the general public dislikes. In fact, architect Witold Rybczynski once argued that, “if people don’t hate it, it can’t be Brutalist.”

Brutalism is having a bit of a renaissance. Kind of. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near universal appreciation. So I wonder if the general public really views these “design classics” as being some sort of golden era of British architecture and development.

I also think, and I have argued this before on the blog, that buildings sometimes take time to settle in. From Montreal to Stockholm, our perceptions have been shown to change. The things we disliked before suddenly become desirable.

Which means it can be hard to tell if we objectively dislike something (we’re not building like we used to) or if it’s simply not old enough for us to starting appreciating it. Beauty also happens to be a kind of subjective thing when it comes to buildings. Turns out we’re better at assessing whether people are good looking.

This is probably a good time to come back to point number one: Could better architecture help quash NIMBYism?

Not quite. I would argue that it certainly helps but it won’t completely quash it. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of great design. I want everything to be beautiful and considered. But the cynical developer in me knows that it will sadly only go so far.

Béton brut (raw concrete) isn’t for everyone, I guess.

3 Comments

  1. Tim Gray

    We have lots of room in Toronto to test out whether better design would help with NIMBYism as most of what goes up is duller than dishwater

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  2. Judith Martin

    I haven’t read the Monocle article but I suspect Alexis Self is referring to the UK government’s recent snappily-titled Building Better Building Beautiful campaign, which was met with derision in the profession but whose report wasn’t actually as bad as was feared. The idea was precisely to prevent Nimbyism by designing stuff people actually like. The problem is that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and one person’s Grade 1 Barbican is another person’s abomination. Similarly, one person’s Poundbury (that person being the Prince of Wales) is most architects’ ghastly pastiche. Not that it matters much anyway, as the report seems to have sunk beneath the pandemic waves. Besides, the FT has revealed that the Conservative Party gets 25% of its considerable donations from developers, so they’ll go on building banal business as usual.

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