The history of the underground makes us think that the history of Shoreditch Underground Station is one of balancing mobility, housing and infrastructure. Could the architecture of the railway arches be used to support housing: sustainable conservation is in the balance. A re-think is always useful.
Over the past weekend, a major capital-wide crackdown by the Metropolitan Police on crimes relating to licensing issues resulted in 173 arrests and 44 warrants. Operation Condor, or ’saturation policing’, was a co-ordinated operation across London from 8am Friday 7 December through to 8am Sunday 9 December, and was run to combat those who flout licensing rules and involved nearly 3,000 officers carrying out 800 activities. One of largest individual operations involved 175 officers, including TSG, the Met helicopter and dog units, carrying out a raid on one of east London’s most popular clubs, 93 Feet East, in Brick Lane… Given the chronic housing shortage that the LBTH Strategic Development Framework has identified, would it not make sense to dilute the saturation of licensed premises by providing more housing stock?
Despite an unprecedented flurry of government initiatives the housing crisis remains grim, with the gap between supply and demand slowly widening. Christine Whitehead (professor of housing economics at the LSE) explains in the RIBA Journal.
The housing situation is pretty depressing – prices are down by perhaps 30% in real terms; additions to the existing stock are running at perhaps half the level required if projected household growth is to be accommodated; and most commentators feel that little of what is being built meets the standards necessary for the next generation. Just as concerning are the likely scenarios were the economy to show signs of significant improvement. If incomes rise then demand for housing will increase against a very limited supply, pushing up prices long before supply can respond; if however credit remains tight, as it has since 2008, then those that can borrow will still put pressure on house prices but first time buyers in particular will find it extremely difficult to enter the market and will be forced to remain in private renting – and pay higher rates.
The fundamentals behind this inbuilt volatility are relatively straightforward. Unlike some other European countries often held up as exemplars, we have an expanding population with both healthy indigenous growth and continuing net immigration. As a result we need perhaps 230,000 additional dwellings per annum just to accommodate that increase. If fewer units are available young people will have to spend longer at home; more households will have to share or live in overcrowded conditions, especially in London and other areas of economic growth; and both international competitiveness and the quality of life will be undermined. On the other hand, net additions were above 200,000 only at the height of the investment boom in 2007/ 8, and even then new housebuilding output was running at below 170,000. So there has been a continuing shortfall over the economic cycle.
Moreover, what is being produced tends to be smaller than in the past. In 2009, 60% of completions were of one or two bed units, while 50% were flats – most in the market sector. And we do not keep detailed records of the size of units – everything is thought about in terms of the number of rooms, forgetting that the square metres per dwelling have been falling for decades. As households and their needs change, perhaps the innovation which would most influence behaviour might be to ensure that information on square meterage – and cost per metre – was available as a matter of course to all potential purchasers, as it is in every other country in Europe.
Looking to the future, the biggest problems in the short term are the lack of funds for developers and purchasers both for owner-occupation and private renting; and continued uncertainty about the future economy and housing market, which is reducing demand and supply while leaving the fundamental tensions unaffected. In the longer term there are concerns about loss of capacity in the development industry; the extent to which land prices and expectations are still out of line with underlying equilibrium; and particularly about the extent to which the planning system can ensure adequate land availability.
The government has put forward over 100 initiatives, including: contracts with housing associations and other providers for 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015; public land to be made available for 100,000 homes to be provided on a build now pay later principle; a back stop guarantee system by which 100,000 95% mortgages can be supported; and a further 100,000 additional homes funded from right to buy sales on a one for one basis. Most of these initiatives are relatively short term. The most important longer term initiative is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published at the end of March and implemented on the same day.
The principles behind the NPPF are clear and potentially game changing. Local authorities with an up to date plan must agree to all proposals that accord with it. Those without a plan must make decisions in line with the framework which gives a presumption in favour of development.
However, one reason for the generally positive response to the NPPF is that the new framework maintains many of the strongest constraints on development, including brownfield first, the emphasis on town centres, constraints on the use of urban public space, the greenbelt and an even greater emphasis on good design. No planning department will have difficulty turning down a development it does not like. It may go through on appeal, but the delays and costs will be high.
The problem is not so much the framework but the fact that 44 documents that supported the existing planning system have been replaced or revoked. Doing away with a thousand pages of detailed guidance leaves stakeholders to work everything out for themselves, and core concepts are generally not defined clearly enough to stop those who dislike the outcomes appealing against planning decisions.
Any large changes in the planning system take a long while to work through – for instance Section 106 was not really fully operational for at least a decade. Even if the pro development agenda does eventually become embedded in the planning system, resulting in higher output, there are sure to be long delays and high costs associated with the new regime.
The Torre Valesca by BBPR is part of the first generation of Italian modern architecture, while still being part of the Milanese context in which it was born, to which also belongs the Milan cathedral and the Sforzesco Castle. The tower, approximately 100 metres tall, has a peculiar and characteristic mushroom-like shape. The tower recalls the Lombard tradition of medieval fortresses and towers. In such fortresses, the lower parts were always narrower, while the higher parts propped up by wooden boards or stone beams. Planning laws required that the various programmes within the tower – mixed functions of residential and commercial use - be expressed volumetrically.
A by-product of the mushroom morphology is the urban panorama which an enlarged top floor plate allows. The tower / signal box as an urban periscope? What expanded views might be afforded over Shoreditch? The overlooking of the adjacent park (Allen Gardens) could be enhanced as unnatural surveillance. Or a view to Christ Church framed by a window of steepled proportions?
If form follows function, what happens when the use of a building is no longer required, when the intended purpose of a space becomes obsolete? Does form follow function out the door? But does it have: or can somehow we manage change? The Tate Modern, as we know it today, was once Bankside Power Station. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (who also designed the iconic red London telephone box), this former coal-fired power station closed after just 29 years of its original use. And 29 years is poignant, as it also represents the amount of time in 2012 that has elapsed since Scott’s other London landmark, the Battersea Power Station, closed in 1983. Unlike Bankside, Battersea has remained vacant for that entire period: the past and the future, heritage and development, being locked in an urban wrestling match much to London’s malign. Battersea could at the very least eased a local housing problem with river-side residences. The Tate Modern opened in 2000 to much acclaim and is today being further reconfigured with a new brick extension that is much taller than the original industrial building.
When a building loses it use, it becomes as the social theorist Baudrillard would describe, a signifier. A hollow space yet with all the signs of its former existence: a signal box. A loss of original use does not however have to signal a loss of value. As the Tate has shown, new uses can emerge. In the case of the Tate, reputedly the world’s largest gallery, a power station has ceded to the power of art.
For Shoreditch Station, the proposal to elevate the station to a higher ground is made meaningful when we realise that the ground beneath the station’s feet has already been swept away. The railway tracks and double-height vaulted walls were demolished to make way for the East London extension. The UCL Institute of Archeology has suggested that the station was never a building after all, as it is without foundations (the station structure sits on 6 steel beams spanning over non-existent platforms and tracks: the station’s purpose was derailed some time ago by TfL. So today the station sits above hollow ground, as a signifier of a time when it was once a station. A ghost building for ghost trains.
The story of Shoreditch Station is not only one of recession but also optimism. It needs to have a use that, like the neighbourhood it is situated in, is diurnal. Yet unlike the current scenario in Brick Lane, the station’s future use requires a diurnality that is not a fast-speed schizophrenia between daytime-shopping and nighttime-drinking, a slower space that embraces art and housing. Housing normalises a neighbourhood saturated with entertainment licences. And art , as evident in the streets and on the station, can provide new signs of tomorrow. Shoreditch Station already has an accidental new use as a focal point along street art tours. Whether the heritage vs art house strategy is manifest as old crowning the new, or it’s polar opposite, new bearing down on the old, it doesn’t really matter as long as there are both signs of the past and future omnipresent.
The former Shoreditch Station is not a building but a ‘chattel’. This seemingly perverse claim is rendered plausible when one recognises that the former Shoreditch Station is a building without foundations: it is a structure that straddles a series of steel beams that span what was once the now non-existent railway tracks. English Heritage recognise this when rejecting a listing of the station in 2002. So whilst the former station has little heritage, aesthetic or scientific merit, the Statement of Significance submitted with our Planning Application does appreciate that the station holds a social significance in the collective consciousness. A nostalgia for the railways and Britain’s industrialisation of transport is alive – Railway Magazine will hold their annual dinner in the former station! So whilst the building has lost use and effectively become a ghost train, it’s elevation to crown to the proposed development demands an inspired new use .
So what next? It is often said that East London is home to the greatest concentration of artists in Europe. Whilst the urine alleyway that is ‘piddley street’ mighty require the normalisation that housing allows, the WHAT_development proposal offers three floors of artspace. In some way the transformation of the building from an infrastructural use to the arts maps that of the Tate Modern and many other obsolete spaces that the creative mediums now invigorate. Of course, the penthouse ought not be for private use – a banker’s bachelor pad – but for the community. With this in mind consultations have begun with the arts charity Spitalfields Music. Their remit of education through music would be a perfect head tenant for the elevated station. Spitalfield Music’s privileging of the analogous over the digital, of man over the machine, can also be seen Shlomo’s The Vocal Orchestra