Thursday, 27 November 2008

Academy, Le Corbusier, Liverpool

To Liverpool, for the Academy of Urbanism’s international symposium. Any rail journey to Liverpool from the north requires a change of trains, usually at Wigan, where the hapless traveller boards a dirty, smelly and grossly overcrowded two-car train operated by Northern Rail. According to their website, Northern was voted Public Transport Operator of the Year at the 2007 National Transport Awards, which proves that someone has a sense of humour.

More excitement on arrival. The symposium was supposed to take place at Rick Mather’s new Design Academy, but the building wasn’t ready on time – not even close, to judge by the state of the building and the number of builders on site. So the Academicians were forced to decamp to the legendary Adelphi Hotel, every bit as shabby and chaotic as I remembered it. There was something rather gratifying about the conjunction between the cream of British urbanism and the Adelphi’s daily round of old folks’ parties, Weight Watchers' meetings and the rest.

Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture

The event was co-hosted by the RIBA Trust, which is currently staging the excellent
Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture exhibition in the magnificent Lutyens’ crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral, and a Corb theme ran through the event, which culminated in a session (heroically facilitated by Kevin Murray) which attempted to scope out a Liverpool Protocol on Urbanism, 85 years after the publication of Vers une architecture. Predictably enough, we ended up with umpteen principles, many of them mutually contradictory, but it was an interesting and stimulating exercise, not least because the session chairs, to their great credit, stuck to their brief of drawing out themes and issues.

There was a debate – which I missed – about the Le Corbusier legacy, which concluded (by a 2:1 margin) that he is still a hero, but the tenor of much of the discussion at the main session suggested that a “great architect/terrible urbanist” consensus was emerging. Murray and Sarah Chaplin contrasted the ideological severity of Le Corbusier’s rhetoric (rationalist, orderly, top down) with today’s more reflective and responsive approach.


The other theme of the event was, of course, Liverpool itself. I’m still haunted by the powerful, beautiful and terrible images of the city in the 1960s and 70s in Terence Davies’ extraordinary film,
Of Time and the City. Davies describes his childhood and teenage years in Liverpool, at a time when the city was slipping into its long post-industrial decline. The best account of the architecture and townscape of the city at this time is Quentin Hughes’ book Seaport, first published in 1964, with fabulous black and white photos by Graham Smith and David Wrightson recording the gloomy, sublime romance of a tired old city.

For decades, Liverpool was typecast as Britain’s urban basket case: dysfunctional, angry, self-pitying and sentimental. The stereotypes were not fair and only half true, but they stuck, and Liverpool drifted into a long economic decline, reflected in deep and enduring social deprivation. The quality of development in this dark period was predictably awful: the St John’s Centre and its banal neighbours trashed a large area at the heart of the city, and Liverpool’s Georgian heritage was neglected and abused. After Toxteth, Michael Heseltine’s mission to rescue Liverpool rediscovered the waterfront, saved the Albert Dock and restored pride in the city’s remarkable history and heritage. But economic regeneration continued to prove elusive, and Liverpool has had to live in the shadow of its resurgent neighbour Manchester. Manchester is now a successful regional capital, with a core of high-level jobs in business and finance, and a strong creative economy, but Liverpool is typically performing lower-order functions and is still heavily dependent on the public sector.

Capturing the crown of European Capital of Culture 2008 was therefore an important breakthrough. It was a chance to mobilise yet more public money and, critically, to persuade the private sector that Liverpool’s time had, finally, come. Buoyed up by a 10-year long-boom, the market has responded with a welter of schemes, most (to quote the
Architectural Review) “a triumph of commercial vigour over civic and architectural subtlety”. The fact that many of these projects are coming to market just as the economy dips into recession is further evidence that Liverpool – at least in modern times – has not been a lucky city. (Although the city’s botched relationship with its architects - Alsop’s “Fourth Grace” was dropped, to be replaced by a new Museum of Liverpool whose architects 3XN were also sacked - is a reminder that successful places do the right thing and make their own luck). Much of the action has been on the waterfront and while it would be premature to judge it a success or a failure at this stage, there are worrying signs that, while Liverpool will get lots of “iconic” object buildings (few of them very distinguished) the serious business of place making has been largely neglected.

Liverpool One

There was much talk about Grosvenor’s vast £1bn Liverpool One development, parts of which opened early this year. The masterplan by BDP aims to integrate this retail-led scheme into the existing grain of the city and to establish a better connection to the waterfront. Working within this framework, a roster of big name architects has designed the 30 buildings contained in the development, which opens out onto the new Chavasse Park. Liverpool needed this development: its city centre retail offer was a disgrace, with expenditure leaking to out-of-town retail parks, Manchester and Chester. Liverpool One will stem the flow, and help to attract shoppers from the wider region; it will form part of the package for the lucrative short-break tourism market.

The masterplan is a brave attempt to reconcile the demands of high street retailers for large floorplate stores, with some proper city-making. Some elements of the scheme appear problematic: the buildings are huge; the upper level of the park was deserted on a sunny day, even though the shops were busy; and it will be interesting to see how shops trade on the upper tier of the South John Street “canyon”. Liverpool One is much better than most of its kind and it is important for Liverpool that it should be a success. However, listening to the celebratory tone of the Liverpool PR machine, we should remember that, important though it is, Liverpool One is a site of consumption: it’s only a shopping centre. The real challenge for Liverpool continues to be wealth creation, which the city has not been good at in recent decades, but which is essential to encourage high achievers to stay and talented people to move to the city.

Back to the symposium

I’ve just accepted (gratefully) an invitation to join the Academy, and it would be humiliating to be asked to leave within the first month for rubbishing the symposium. So I am happy to report that Day 2 was genuinely interesting and encouraging. I particularly enjoyed David Rudlin’s contribution, which was a model of clarity, and Anne Power’s reflections on the experience of seven post-industrial cities in Europe which offered grounds for optimism – and an agenda for practical action - but were also a useful corrective to the civic boosterism which is inevitably part of the package on these occasions. The stories from Copenhagen and Berlin were familiar but still worth hearing, and a reminder of the value of long-term (20-year+) strategic thinking. Running through all of this were important threads about governance, economic renewal, community engagement and the role of experts.

I spent much of the day thinking about the North Laines in Brighton, one of the nominees for the Academy’s Great Place award. It
is a great place, and John Thompson spoke about his visit there with evident passion. But it also presents a challenge for designers and regeneration practitioners, because the North Laines has evolved slowly over a long period of time, and because it was created by the urban pioneers, entrepreneurs and mavericks who saw the possibilities of a run-down quarter of Brighton. In truth, it is probably already past its best: money has moved in; the shops have become smarter; and some of the bohemian quality of the place has been lost, but it is still charming, surprising and really good fun. You can’t make places like this: for policy makers the trick is to leave them alone, and not to worry about the rough edges. Places like the North Laines thrive on spontaneity, serendipity and diversity: in other words, they are the antithesis of Liverpool One.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Trump not so rich after all?

An encouraging story, courtesy of Kevin Brass of the International Herald Tribune Online:

A few days after Donald Trump said he has “a lot of cash” and wouldn’t have a problem financing a development in Scotland, the Trumpster filed a lawsuit against the lenders of his Chicago project (Bloomberg News/Landov).
Trump wants more time to repay the $640 million construction loan on the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, according to
the Wall Street Journal. Due to the “unprecedented financial crisis,” Trump wants to trigger a clause in the deal normally reserved for “acts of war and natural disasters,” the article says.
Sales in the partially-completed tower, which will be the second-tallest in the U.S., “have come in below original estimates and the project’s current projected revenue remains short by nearly $100 million,” the WSJ reports.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


This blog will offer an occasional commentary on the world of regeneration and economic development. It's written by a practitioner and it aims to highlight some of the good things that are happening and some of the interesting ideas that are shaping regeneration practice. First up, though, is the Trump Organization's plan to build a golf course on a precious dune system in north east Scotland...

John Lord

Bad day at Balmedie

The Scottish Government’s decision to approve Donald Trump’s proposals for a £1bn development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire is entirely predictable, but none the less depressing for that.

If nothing else, the decision has given a powerful boost to the Scottish cliché and platitude industry. The SCDI announces that “it sends a signal around the world that Scotland is open for business and investment”, just in case we thought the country was closed. In similar vein, the chief executive of the council confirms that “we are in business in Aberdeenshire”, while the Scottish Chambers of Commerce brays that this is “great news for Aberdeenshire, great news for Scotland and great news for the UK”. Of course, this drivel is turned out by bored press officers but it is still embarrassing stuff which will come back to haunt the business and civic leaders who allow it to be issued in their names.

The Scottish Government’s economic strategy states that “the challenge is to improve Scotland's environment today and for future generations, while significantly reducing Scotland's negative impact on the global environment”. It notes that “countries around the world are wrestling with how to break the link between economic growth and environmental impact” and concludes sternly that “securing sustainable economic growth needs new thinking and new approaches”. This week’s decision – which puts short-term gain before the long-term interests of the environment and the community – suggests that these noble sentiments are no more than cynical window-dressing. We are being invited to celebrate a project which – in its contemptuous disregard for a habitat and a landscape of outstanding value – is a throwback to discredited old thinking and old approaches.

The issues raised by this disastrous decision go far beyond Trump and his army of self-serving advisers (I am railing against clichés, but it is hard to avoid mentioning the happy band who have boarded the gravy train). Admittedly, the man’s ego has been placed centre stage. An article on which describes Trump as “the ultimate American success story” is, rather sweetly, signed by the man himself, and visitors entering the new resort from the A90 will drive along Trump Boulevard. Every Trump scheme is a vanity project and there is something disarming about this unabashed self-celebration, and something remarkable about the way Trump has transformed himself from a figure of fun into a national saviour.

It is not easy to get past the personality but we should try. The real significance of this deeply depressing episode is that fits in precisely with a pattern of seduction, credulousness and intimidation which are the defining features of dozens of failed large-scale regeneration projects. In his brilliant book, Megaprojects and Risk, Bent Flyvbjerg analyses the reasons why major infrastructure projects fail to deliver the promised benefits: costs and risks are routinely under-estimated while outputs are consistently overstated. The Menie project, though big, is not a true megaproject, but the principles are the same. There is, as the Treasury continues to point out, an endemic optimism bias in the regeneration game.

How does it happen? Seduction is the first stage. The promoter (which may be a public sector body, a major corporation or a wealthy individual like Trump) seeks to position the project by talking up its most attractive features, and ignoring or discounting everything that is less palatable. In this case, Trump and his mouthpieces talk endlessly about the golf course and the resort – which have the potential to attract high-spending visitors to the area – but never mention the fact that in financial terms the project only works because it includes 500 luxury homes. Try finding any mention of them on the website or in the press releases. At the same time, the benefits are ruthlessly hyped: £1bn of investment, the greatest golf course in the world, 6000 jobs. Those of us who have worked in this field for a long time know that such numbers are, at best, speculative and, at worst, made up. Project promoters always trade in gross figures, not the much smaller net numbers that are the true measure of a scheme’s value, and they are always predicated on a “perfect calm” of benign conditions and good fortune.

It is understandable that promoters want to present their projects in the best possible light, and I do not want to malign their motives, even if some are guilty of mendacity and cynicism. But the role of the public sector – when asked to grant planning consents or to contribute taxpayer’s money – should be to subject these claims to a robust and dispassionate appraisal. This does not mean being anti-development or hostile to business, but the community is entitled to know that the full range of economic, social and environmental factors has been taken into account before a decision is made. Too often, this simply doesn’t happen: the seductive power of the project outweighs every other consideration and the promoter’s rhetoric – and his untested claims – are accepted uncritically.

The credulousness of politicians, officers and naïve local media makes them easy prey for a professional PR machine. These days, the most mundane development proposals (for shopping centres, office developments and housing schemes) are routinely described as “unique” – a claim which is then relayed back in press releases from development agencies and local councils. Not the least of the ironies in this case is that while there is nothing remotely unique about the Trump proposals (golf course, hotel, lots of houses) the dune system that will be destroyed is genuinely unique and absolutely irreplaceable.

The relentless barrage of lavish claims boxes officers and politicians into a corner and discourages them from asking awkward and unwelcome questions. Alliances are forged with landowners and local businesses who are likely to profit directly from the scheme; over time, challenging it becomes an act of disloyalty: the Aberdeenshire councillors who voted against Trump were branded “traitors” by a local paper. A successful campaign enlists the media: all the Scottish papers have slavishly followed the Trump line that this is a golf resort: how many people know that 500 luxury houses form the ballast of the scheme? Despite occasional bum notes (Trump should really try to stop calling the Balmedie dunes “the product”) the shock and awe of Trump’s media assault has succeeded brilliantly.

Sometimes unwittingly, promoters, politicians and officers collude to ease the passage of projects which would wither away under the light of proper scrutiny. But despite this dissenting voices still emerge. Local residents who can see beyond the (often illusory) promise of financial gain and realise that something precious may be lost; concerned environmental and community groups; and even local politicians who are brave enough to carry out their responsibilities. In Aberdeenshire, Councillor Martin Ford has been a brilliant and courageous advocate for the objectors: cool, knowledgeable and unemotional, but he has had abuse heaped on him from all quarters – a spectacle that will surely deter other potential refuseniks. Low level opposition can be tolerated, but if it threatens to gain momentum the promoter may decide to deploy some old-fashioned intimidation. There is nothing subtle about most of these techniques: objectors are derided or demonised, the community is threatened with the loss of benefits – which will almost certainly have been grossly overstated – and, as a last resort, the promoter (a picture of injured innocence) threatens to take his project somewhere else where it will be appreciated – in this case, Northern Ireland. Enter the Reverend Paisley in plus fours, brandishing a sand wedge.

The effects would be comical if they weren’t so serious. Aberdeenshire is one of the most prosperous communities in Britain, and this part of the shire is a suburb of Aberdeen, one of our wealthiest cities; unemployment levels are vanishingly small. Servicing the requirements of the Trump project for construction workers and low wage catering and housekeeping staff will put the local labour market under strain: local businesses will find their best people being poached, but a project of this scale will also require an influx of migrant labour to overcome shortages and skills gaps. There is nothing to suggest that Aberdeenshire needs the Trump scheme, but the prospect of losing it suddenly appears catastrophic. Trump is a pantomime villain but the history of this scheme is a morality tale which highlights the systemic failure of the political process – and the planning system in particular - to protect what is most valuable in the built and natural environment, or to promote excellence in architecture and design.

We do need to build – to make new places to live, work, learn, create and relax – but we need to ask why for the most part we do that so badly and why the quality of most new development is mind-numbingly poor. We also need to ask how a scheme that no one except the developer needs, and that will trash a precious ecological and landscape resource to make way for a development of unrelieved banality has become a national priority. It is a scheme for a country with low aspirations and lacking in confidence, and we should all be ashamed that it is happening here.