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.